Politics & Policy

Trump Isn’t Teddy

Theodore Roosevelt, c. 1910 (Library of Congress)
The GOP nominee may have a rough demeanor, but he is no Rough Rider.

Rough in his manners he might occasionally be, but Donald Trump is nothing like the original Rough Rider, despite the wishful thinking of some commenters recently. At first glance, Theodore Roosevelt and Trump seem comparable because of TR’s 1912 presidential campaign, which, like Trump’s run for the White House this year, was a political insurgency against the Republican party’s “establishment.” A brash New Yorker with an extraordinary talent for self-promotion that makes one think of Trump, TR also tapped into the public’s anger at politics-as-usual, declaring war on an “invisible government” of special interests. But while it’s true that both men can accurately be described as populists and nationalists, a gigantic gulf separates them beyond these labels.

Theodore Roosevelt was a brilliant intellectual. He entered the White House in 1901 as arguably the most prepared man ever to assume the presidency; his understanding of public affairs was as deep as a bottomless trench. His knowledge came from two decades of voracious reading (he devoured a book a day), incessant writing (he authored 20 books), and bruising political combat at all levels of government (when he coined the phrase “man in the arena,” he was describing himself). In contrast, Trump has spent his life accumulating personal wealth and has no record of public service to the nation. Measured against TR, the ultimate policy wonk and uber-patriot, Trump stands out as a Lilliputian opportunist, woefully shallow and ignorant.

Despising “mollycoddles,” “milksops,” and every other variety of weakling, Roosevelt might smile at the clownish strength Trump projects with his persona and rhetoric, but there is virtually no chance he would support Trump’s outlandish proposals, particularly in foreign policy. TR was the first president who thought globally, the first who intentionally thrust the United States into world affairs. He would disapprove of a leader who wanted to take the nation in the opposite direction and withdraw from the world at a time when America had a responsibility to use its power to help end global conflicts.

On a personal level, Roosevelt — a straitlaced Victorian moralist — would probably despise Trump. Entirely faithful to his own wife, he would blanch at Trump’s infidelity and multiple divorces, and see their celebration in the tabloid press as a sign of national degradation. TR was an “old money” Knickerbocker aristocrat with simple tastes, and Trump’s gaudy displays of wealth would strike him as the boorish conduct of a cad. In TR’s view, cowboys, poets, historians, explorers, soldiers, and hunters were better company than millionaires; he would rather go camping in Yosemite National Park with his friend the naturalist John Muir than spend a weekend drinking champagne at Mar-a-Lago with the snobs of Palm Beach.  

In recent years, libertarian critics have attacked Theodore Roosevelt as a sinister “progressive” and “liberal fascist” hell-bent on ripping up the Constitution in order to create a “big government” despotism. This is a grotesque distortion of the truth. Unlike Trump, TR was a conservative with a long track record of aggressively fighting against radical leftists. While Trump has a long history of providing financial support to Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and other “progressives,” TR never in his life gave money to or supported a Democrat, not even a conservative Democrat such as Grover Cleveland, a man he admired. 

No one who remembers how and why Roosevelt destroyed the political career of William Randolph Hearst can see Teddy as anything but a conservative gladiator. In TR’s mind, Hearst was “the most potent single influence for evil in national life,” an American Robespierre who, for personal gain, would gladly trigger a revolution akin to the catastrophe that befell France in 1789 and then preside over a “Reign of Terror” against the wealthy. When Hearst stood poised to win the governorship of New York in 1906, TR acted with vigor to strangle a dangerous demagogue while he was still in the political cradle — he publicly blamed Hearst’s newspapers for inciting the anarchist who had assassinated William McKinley in 1901. As a consequence, Hearst was narrowly defeated in a year when every other Democrat on the New York ballot won.

#related#While Donald Trump is running for president on a platform that includes proposals TR would undoubtedly support (such as sealing the border with Mexico), it’s absurd to imagine that our Rough Rider president would welcome a Trump presidency. Of all the values that American conservatives hold dear, Theodore Roosevelt never lost sight of the most important one: the safety of the state created by George Washington and saved by Abraham Lincoln. When utopians of his day floated crazy policy proposals that could never be implemented, TR famously condemned them as the dreams of the “lunatic fringe.” Sensible reform movements led by reliable statesmen were his preferred route to change. William Randolph Hearst was an affront to this praiseworthy approach to governing the nation, and so is Donald Trump.

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