Politics & Policy

The Ghost of Theodore Roosevelt

President Theodore Roosevelt, c. 1902 (Library of Congress)
He defied GOP orthodoxy, favored constant action, and made his persona a party brand. Sound familiar?

‘Get action!” said Teddy Roosevelt. “Do things,” “create,” “act.” This impatient bundle of short syllables comes as close as anything to articulating the personal philosophy of the 26th president. He believed that naked willpower exercised with iron discipline could vanquish all of the mental and mortal enemies of man — that, by renouncing idleness and hesitation and by simply doing, human beings could bound up the steps of Jacob’s ladder to newer, more-elevated worlds.

Roosevelt’s life reflected the advice he gave to others. He was, as his friend Henry Adams said, “pure act,” filling his days and his years with relentless activity until adversity fell by the wayside, unable to keep up with him. Unsurprisingly, many Americans have been inspired by his example and have taken to heart his gospel of the will.

But Roosevelt’s commitment to sleepless, unceasing action wasn’t just his personal code. It was also his political program. He was a pioneer of the progressive movement and the leading advocate for an expansive and interventionist vision of the federal government. He had about as much time for the Constitution as the freezing cold and power-deprived people of Texas currently have for their junior senator.

According to TR, the Founders were “ultra individualists, for at that time what was demanded by our people was the largest liberty for the individual.” But, like most progressives, Roosevelt thought that the tides of time had washed away the conditions to which the wisdom of ages past had been amenable: “During the century that had elapsed since Jefferson became president the need had exactly reversed. There had been a riot of individualistic materialism, under which complete freedom for the individual . . . turned out in practice to mean perfect freedom for the strong to wrong the weak.” The idea of government as a framework for ordered liberty in which virtue can be exercised under the least possible coercion was retrograde and passé in Roosevelt’s eyes. As he saw it, the country needed government itself to be muscle by which the virtue of the people was exercised. His was a vision of government as a moral crusade.

In light of all this, it’s hardly surprising that the populist-nationalist wing of the Republican Party has picked Teddy Roosevelt to be their mascot. If you were to line Republican presidents up on an ideological spectrum, Roosevelt would sit at the opposite pole to limited-government icons such as Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan. For conservatives who want to pivot away from the libertarian-inflected fusionism that has dominated the GOP since 1964, TR’s presidency will always be a touchstone.

In fact, the attempt to found a viable alternative tradition in the GOP on Roosevelt’s legacy is not new. John McCain branded himself as a “Roosevelt Republican” in both of his presidential runs. If I recall correctly, McCain spoke about TR’s influence on his own brand of “national-greatness conservatism” so often that Glenn Beck was about ready to set himself on fire in the manner of a Tibetan monk.

The politician who has thought the most about how and why the Republican Party should become a thoroughly populist, national-conservative movement is Senator Josh Hawley, of the coiffed hair and the raised fist. A decade before he ran for the Senate, Hawley authored Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness, an intellectual biography in which he analyzed TR’s political and social thought. Much like Boris Johnson’s biography of Churchill, the book is as much about the author as it is about the subject, with the former attempting to fasten his own reputation to the legacy of the latter. Hawley’s treatment of his beau idéal statesman is revealing of how national conservatives might take a neo-Rooseveltian agenda forward during the Republican civil war of the post-Trump era.

The most attractive thing about Roosevelt’s politics that Hawley picks up on is the tone of moral elevation he brought to political questions. Conservatives in the Reaganite tradition are inclined to speak about government in a fairly prosaic, negative, and ultimately pessimistic way. According to that conception, the job of the statesman is mainly to stop government action from crowding out the activities of civil society, where the real moral drama of life takes place. But if you’re inclined to see politics as the stage for this moral drama — the stage on which issues of good and evil are ultimately hashed out — then Roosevelt is a much more suitable lodestar than someone like James Madison.

Roosevelt’s belief that the federal government could and should legislate and regulate the good life into existence for the citizenry was driven largely by the fact that, for him, the line between the state and civil society, so prized by conventional conservatives, simply did not exist. The erasure of this line is undoubtedly one of the most controversial aspects of Roosevelt’s politics, right up there with his views on race and empire.

Roosevelt, as Hawley writes,

recognized no consequential distinction between government and civil society, as if the people of the nation arrived at their common, civic identity apart from the apparatus of the state. Instead, individuals came to know themselves as a unified body politic — they became a people, an ethnos, in the full political sense of the term — when they participated in the joint exercise of political power.

In other words, American society and the American government are, for TR, coextensive — they’re one and the same. We can see this idea coming through in what Roosevelt said after the Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. E. C. Knight, which limited the reach of the Sherman Antitrust Act. He thought that the decision had “left the National Government, that is, the people of the Nation, practically helpless to deal with the large combinations of modern business.” This equivocation in the move from “the National Government” to “the people of the Nation” is the kind of rhetorical sleight of hand that would have conservatives of a libertarian bent flipping the safety on their rifles, but it’s instructive as to where the Right could be headed.

Most of today’s post-liberal conservatives likely wouldn’t endorse Roosevelt’s conviction that the nation and the state are strictly identical, but the line dividing the two is blurry on the nationalist Right. It’s not always easy to see where the boundaries lie between community and government. Even so, the demolition of the conceptual wall between the state — which is nothing other than a geographic monopoly on violence — and the voluntary associations that make up community has led to a shift in how the idea of power is conceived on the right.

Traditional conservatives have tended to emphasize the qualitative difference between state power, which is always and everywhere coercive, and market power, which is persuasive and, as a result, much more humane. The national conservatives think about power along much different lines. Not long ago I spoke with Zachary Miller, a student at Baylor University and president of what used to be Baylor’s chapter of the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative student group. Earlier this year, Miller and his fellow members decided to formally disassociate themselves from YAF. Looking to take the group in a more nationalist direction, they renamed themselves the Baylor Bull Moose Society, after Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party.

When I asked Mr. Miller about the viability of the traditional distinction that conservatives make between state power and market power, he was unequivocal. “Corporations have come to rival the government in terms of political power,” he said. It is now they, not the state, that pose “the greatest threat to the liberty of the people.” He said that “private power is now more coercive than public power,” summing up the animating spirit of the national-conservative movement. The truth or falsehood of the proposition is, in a nutshell, what the two main factions on the right are arguing over today.

Teddy Roosevelt’s crusade against the robber barons has a lot of analogical appeal for people who agree with Miller about the coercive nature of private corporations. But it also has to be said that TR’s trustbusting remains one of the most ill-begotten and poorly understood policies in American history. Nevertheless, it’s conceivable that what was the wrong tool a hundred years ago could be the right tool today. It’s certainly the case that the kind of power that big tech companies hold over the United States citizenry today defies easy categorization.

We can’t close our discussion of Roosevelt’s relevance to practical politics today without talking about the election of 1912. Unsatisfied with William Howard Taft, whom we would now recognize as a traditional conservative, running on the Republican ticket, Roosevelt formed a new party, ran on his own ticket, and split the GOP vote. As a result, Woodrow Wilson, the most depraved man ever to occupy the White House, was elected. If the two wings of the Republican Party today can’t come together over a single candidate and a single platform, they will suffer the same fate, of watching a Democratic candidate capitalize on an internally riven GOP. If Roosevelt had one trait that Republicans cannot afford to emulate in the future, it’s the sheer megalomania that got him into that 1912 race. But then, I wonder whether megalomania and demagoguery are at least to some small extent inevitable when populism is on the table.

Populism, as we learn from Shakespeare, is a mutually reinforcing dialectic that takes place between Caesar and the masses. It requires a charismatic leader to channel and champion the desires of the people. This relationship, when successful, tends to enervate mediating institutions that thwart the immediate desires of both the populist leader and the public. No successful populist movement in political history has ever had more than one leader at its head. That isn’t an accident. Introduce plurality into the leadership and you would introduce a potential establishment: a group distinctively other than the group — the People. The powerful sense that the leader belongs only to the crowd would be weakened. Populism therefore tends toward a cult of personality. Roosevelt’s personality, for what it’s worth, certainly fit this profile. “My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening,” his daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth said.

The politics of personality are therefore particularly potent when it comes to populism. On both the left and the right, populist political thinking tends to proceed like this:

There is no real distinction between the state and the people.

Only [insert populist party here] speaks for “the people.”

[Insert populist leader here] best represents “the people,” so he should lead the party.

The leader is the party; the party is the people; the people are the state.

The leader is the state.

This is the logic of populism in its purest form. It can, of course, be mitigated, by context, contingencies, and circumstances, as I imagine it will be in the United States. Even so, the extent to which Donald Trump has turned the GOP into his own cult of personality is indicative of how powerful this logic of populism is, even in a country as politically civilized as the U.S. Something similar could be said for TR’s Bull Moose Party, which had no real life after him because it was first and foremost about him. In countries with fewer established traditions of constitutional liberty — Italy, Russia, Germany, Cuba — the above syllogism has been followed through to conclusion. We’re all familiar with its results.

Again, America’s attachment to freedom will likely take the roughest edges off populism, but dangers will remain. This is because populism, whether of the nationalist or of the socialist variety, isn’t about policy in any fundamental sense. It’s about who rules. Put simply, many Republicans felt that Donald Trump represented them not just in a political sense but almost in a sacramental one. He established an affinity with his supporters so intense that his rule felt like their rule, his power felt like their power. What he did with this power didn’t really matter as much — note that he could hardly have been more of a “dead consensus,” “zombie Reaganite” president in policy terms if he had tried.

Once the populists have chosen their champion for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, they will accept no one else. Populists, whose allegiance to institutions is nonexistent, turn out only for their chosen one. For evidence, look no further than the Georgia Senate runoffs: Traditional suburban Republicans came out in force for Loeffler and Perdue, and a critical mass of Trump devotees stayed home. Something similar happened to the Democrats in 2016. Sanders supporters were so wounded at their candidate’s loss in the Democratic primaries that many didn’t bother to come out and vote for Hillary Clinton on Election Day. To get a sense of the sway that populist leaders hold over their followers, one only has to read the journalist William Allen White on his first meeting with Teddy Roosevelt:

Roosevelt bit me, and I went mad. . . . He sounded in my heart the first trumpet call of the new time that was to be. . . . He poured into my heart such visions, such ideals, such hopes, such a new attitude toward life and patriotism and the meaning of things, as I had never dreamed men had.

This gushing fixation on individual strongmen is everywhere evident on the populist right today. The American Conservative, for example, recently ran two articles, “Waiting for a Bull Moose,” and “Waiting for Our Salazar,” that are essentially about the impending arrival of the One True King. In a contest to decide which individual leads the GOP into the next general election, the national-conservatives are bound to win simply because they behave toward their preferred candidate as a vassal would to his suzerain. Conservatives who are more moderate and mainstream will shop and shift between one candidate or another while the 30-odd percent of the Republican primary electorate who are populists will surround their man like a praetorian guard and see him all the way through Super Tuesday and beyond. If the traditional conservatives successfully rally behind a single candidate (as they did not in 2016), we can expect something like 1912: cries of betrayal from the populists, reckless disregard for the interests of the party, and a splinter movement. There’s nothing in the populist character or in the history of populist movements to suggest that a defeated national-conservative wing of the GOP would acquiesce and put their shoulders to the wheel during a general election. It’s populism or 1912 for the Republican Party from here on in. Poor old Taft.

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