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Is Trump the New Teddy Roosevelt?

Forget Reagan [1], Nixon [2], and Jackson [3]. Trump’s real presidential forbearer is Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt—a career politician who sought military service, an avid outdoorsman who hunted elephants and explored the Amazon, and an intellectually curious historian who dabbled in anthropology and zoology—might seem an unlikely model for Trump.

But in terms of policy, the parallels are legion.  

On trade, Roosevelt was—like most Republicans then and Trump now—a proud protectionist. “Thank God I am not a free-trader. In this country pernicious indulgence in the doctrine of free trade seems inevitably to produce a fatty degeneration of the moral fibre,” Roosevelt wrote in an 1895 letter to his friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

Roosevelt was also a committed immigration restrictionist. In 1903, after radical socialists had bombed Haymarket Square in Chicago and assassinated his predecessor, Roosevelt signed into law a ban [4] on anarchists—including those who professed radical political views, even if they didn’t have any actual terrorist affiliation. Four years later, another law [5] excluded “idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons,” prostitutes, those with certain medical conditions, such as epileptics, and polygamists, or even those who believed in polygamy. Notably this last provision was wielded against [6] Muslim immigrants.  

Roosevelt famously railed against [7] “hyphenated Americanism” and declared [8] that America was not a “mosaic of nationalities.” In language that rings as distinctly Trumpian today, Roosevelt demanded [8] total allegiance and nothing else from American citizens, native and naturalized alike: “A square deal for all Americans means relentless attack on all men in this country who are not straight-out Americans and nothing else.”

Roosevelt built up the military, specifically the Navy, which he showed off to the world as the “Great White Fleet.” Both presidents have a defining public works project. For Trump, it’s the border wall. For Roosevelt, it was the Panama Canal. As with Trump, Roosevelt ruffled international feathers with his proposal, even sparking the secession of Panama from Colombia.

As an undergraduate student at Harvard, Roosevelt had fallen under the influence of Hegelian philosophy, which holds to an evolutionary view of history. He came to believe [9] that the old view of a limited government entrusted with the protection of natural rights was outmoded. Instead, Roosevelt championed an exalted view of executive power that was limited only by what the Constitution explicitly said it could not do. As he put it in his autobiography [10]:

I declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the Nation could not be done by the President unless he could find some specific authorization to do it. My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws. Under this interpretation of executive power I did and caused to be done many things not previously done by the President and the heads of departments.

More than anyone since Lincoln, Roosevelt expanded executive power, laying the foundations for the modern presidency. He sought to govern by executive order as much as possible, issuing a whopping 1,081 orders—nearly six times as many as his predecessor and still the fourth highest [11] overall in the history of the U.S. presidency. (His cousin FDR holds the record at 3,721. Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge rank second and third at 1,803, and 1,203, respectively.)

Under Roosevelt, the modern federal bureaucracy took shape. The FDA [12], FBI [13], the Department of Labor and Commerce, the precursor to what later became the INS, and an early version of the Department of Health and Human Services were established during his tenure. Roosevelt brought millions of acres of Western land under federal jurisdiction, reinvigorated a dormant federal antitrust law to fight railroad magnate J.P. Morgan, and threatened to temporarily nationalize coal mines in Pennsylvania when their workers went on strike.

He was aware of the charge that he had made the presidency too powerful. Roosevelt brushed off the criticism in his autobiography:

I did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power. In other words, I acted for the public welfare, I acted for the common well-being of our people, whenever and in whatever manner was necessary, unless prevented by direct constitutional or legislative prohibition.

Trump’s instincts clearly run in this direction. In a 1999 interview [14], he proclaimed his support for universal health care and—despite his pledge to repeal Obamacare—Trump’s public statements have continued to tilt this way even as president [15]. Trump has praised [16] the U.S. Supreme Court’s pro-eminent domain decision in Kelo, embraced mandatory paid family leave, and called for a half a trillion infrastructure spending spree—double [17] what Clinton wanted.

Trump’s recently released budget plan does little to change this. It shaves down discretionary federal spending—which, by the way, is just about a third of the total—by 1.2 percent [18]. It cuts only to make room for more, including $2.6 billion for the border wall, $1.4 billion for various school choice programs, and $54 billion for defense. His infrastructure plan—doubled again, to $1 trillion [19]—has simply been postponed [19].

When Field and Stream magazine asked Trump [20] if he believed the federal government should relinquish control over the sprawling public lands it manages, Trump rejected the idea in terms reminiscent of Roosevelt:

I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land. And we have to be great stewards of this land.

Trump’s big government agenda is inspired—either consciously or not—by a nationalist ideology that prioritizes the perceived needs of the national collective over individual rights.

Compare his inaugural speech [21] to Reagan’s [22]. Predictably, both addresses are peppered with references to the nation, America and Americans, and “the people.” But Reagan’s also alluded to individuals five times and freedom and liberty a combined 11 times. Trump had no mention of individuals or liberty and his speech contained just one instance of the word freedom—which was quickly followed by language about flag-saluting. (Remember, this is the guy who called for [23] a year in jail or even loss of citizenship for flag burning—far beyond what any other conservative has ever suggested.)

Many of the themes of Trump’s inauguration speech [21]—his insistence on national solidarity, rejection of globalism, and demand for total patriotism—channel Roosevelt. For example, in his 1916 book, Fear God and Take Your Own Part [24], Roosevelt stressed the need for national “solidarity,” ridiculed “flabby cosmopolitanism,” and declared that “patriotism must be the very fiber of our being.”

It is tempting to see Trump’s nationalism as a foreign import that is of a recent vintage, but the reality is that his ideology—good, bad, ugly, or some combination of all three—is more deeply rooted in the American experience than many would care to admit.

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, RI.

49 Comments (Open | Close)

49 Comments To "Is Trump the New Teddy Roosevelt?"

#1 Comment By Larry Wade On March 19, 2017 @ 11:20 pm

Uh, no. Teddy wrote 40 books. Trump has never read one.

#2 Comment By ReallyTAC On March 19, 2017 @ 11:55 pm

In the barest of wikipedia research that this writer apparently did about Roosevelt, did he just decide to gloss over Teddy’s actual history and context so that he could somehow find the overlap on military spending?

Roosevelt would have smacked, and I mean literally smacked Trump, as the worst of the trust funded corrupt individuals who he fought against. Roosevelt fought for the common man by making policies that helped them, not the rich. He made the environment better. And he worked with other nations and built alliances. The 1905 Nobel Peace Prize was given to Teddy for his work in negotiating the treaty for the Russo-Japanese war. Trump can barely spell out a tweet that further strains our international alliances.

Not even getting into the vast personal character difference between the two. Lets just point out that Roosevelt was shot while giving a speech, then finished it before seeing a doctor. Trump cannot even give an interview to critical media before whining that it is unfair.

#3 Comment By Balconesfault On March 20, 2017 @ 4:48 am

Teddy was the founder of the environmental movement within the Republican Party. Trump looks to be the mortician.

He can say whatever he wants to Field and Stream … his appointments and budget speak much louder.

#4 Comment By Al Strickland On March 20, 2017 @ 9:21 am

Is Trump the New Teddy Roosevelt? The answer is ‘No.’ Not even close. Teddy did not have Donald’s propensity to say outrageous things. Don’t forget ‘saying’ implies believing. Donald takes every opportunity to use the Presidency for profit. Donald is charging the Secret Service to travel on his private jet. Did Teddy ever call the press ‘fake news’?

#5 Comment By American Liberal On March 20, 2017 @ 9:34 am

TR is rolling on his grave right now.

#6 Comment By victory over eurasia On March 20, 2017 @ 10:15 am

bi-pedal humanoid – check
owns home in NY – check

OK, that’s about the end of the similarities……

#7 Comment By John Gruskos On March 20, 2017 @ 10:51 am

If Trump fulfills his campaign promises, he will be a much better president than TR.

TR talked about immigration restriction, but it wasn’t seriously implemented until the time of Harding and Coolidge.

TR talked like an American nationalism, but his actions were imperialist. From the perspective of American ethno-nationalism, the Spanish-American war and TR’s various interventions in Latin America and Asia were pointless, and the annexation of Hawaii, Samoa, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines was pernicious.

TR’s true greatness was as a historian, especially The Winning of the West.

#8 Comment By grumpy realist On March 20, 2017 @ 11:40 am

No, Trump is not the new Teddy Roosevelt. Unless you think that Teddy Roosevelt is an adulterous, fast-talking con man marinated in corruption and a constant liar.

#9 Comment By Nicholas Needlefoot On March 20, 2017 @ 12:01 pm

I love TAC but this is one of those articles that needs to have a “mercy rule” for critical comments. Trump is not fit to shine the shoes of TR.

#10 Comment By cdugga On March 20, 2017 @ 12:09 pm

Speak softly and carry a big stick. Ah, yeah. The don is just like that.

#11 Comment By Mark Thomason On March 20, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

TR was concerned for the environment, and created the national parks system.

TR was concerned for promoting competition by breaking up monopolies and limiting abuses by huge corporations.

TR was active in diplomacy, for example he brokered the peace in the Russo-Japanese War instead of getting involved in any way.

TR was the original Progressive, and the very opposite of what now passes as Populist.

TR and Trump are opposites.

#12 Comment By steve in ohio On March 20, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

An interesting article, but as a hyper interventionist (he thought WW I was a wonderful idea), Teddy seems to have much in common with the neo conservatives. I remember John McCain being compared to TR in 2008. Hopefully, Trump meant what he said about no more ME wars and improving relations with the other super powers. He isn’t much for talking softly, but that’s better than using the Big Stick everywhere like we’ve been doing in recent years.

#13 Comment By Marianna Landrum On March 20, 2017 @ 2:26 pm

Not unless Roosevelt was a pawn of the Russians. I always knew we had a liar for a POTUS. Now I find he is a traitor, as well.

#14 Comment By penalcolony On March 20, 2017 @ 2:28 pm

TR wrote 42 books, four of them in 1910 alone.

Trump brags — brags! — that he has read none.

#15 Comment By Peter On March 20, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

The author has valid points.
The comments – so far – are pathetic and childishly partisan…
TR had a few years to make his points and a hundred years to be evaluated. Donald Trump has been judged unfit before he started his term.
Let’s wait at least a year and make comments based on Trump’s actions, not on his speeches.

#16 Comment By Bill Wild On March 20, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

Certainly not when it comes to the environment.
TR would be appalled by the modern Republican contempt for the stewardship of our natural wonders and resources.
I wonder what he would make of Trump’s obscene jest that avoiding STD’s was his equivalent to serving in Vietnam.
My guess is he would have righteously horsewhipped him.

#17 Comment By Fred Marsico On March 20, 2017 @ 3:29 pm

The problem in this way of thinking is that prior to Lincoln, we were a union of independent nation states, in union only by the limitations set forth in the body of the Constitution of the united States of America.

Roosevelt exceeded the constitutional limits of executive power just as Lincoln did when he denied States rights and by executive fiat, declared martial law and war against the People of America who were not willing to succumb to the dictatorial mandates of his presidency.

Trump has not (yet) demonstrated that his authority is supreme, and nationalism is not necessarily anti- free markets, nor protectionism.

#18 Comment By Mike D’Virgilio On March 20, 2017 @ 3:43 pm

Actually, Roosevelt is no Trump. The latter, in fact, respects the constitution, and his nominee for the Supreme Court up on Capitol Hill right now proves it. I know this is a NeverTump site, but why don’t you try a little honesty instead of finding yet another way to dump on Trump. I know I’m spitting into the wind, but spit I will! MAGA!!!

#19 Comment By Hominid On March 20, 2017 @ 3:56 pm

Teddy was a huge intellect and a man 0f great courage – the opposite is true of Trump.

#20 Comment By Youngha Koh On March 20, 2017 @ 4:06 pm

Trump is like TR and Andrew Jackson. He loves his country and willing to give up much like the two men. The American people dodged a bullet with the loss of Hillary Clinton.

#21 Comment By A Hick On March 20, 2017 @ 4:14 pm

The only interesting thing in this article is the author’s mention of Hegel, natural rights, and how Hegelian ideas might have influenced TR’s Progressivism. He left out John Dewey, which is the American intellectual link to Hegel here.

Otherwise the analogy between TR and Trump is preposterous. Trump is a postmodern opportunist, thoroughly corrupt. There is nothing consciously intellectual about him. He understands with the almost primal native wit of the con artist how to manipulate a “demassified” media for his own gain.

#22 Comment By William Livingston On March 20, 2017 @ 4:56 pm

Larry Wade is mistaken by saying that Trump never read a book; it’s difficult for me to accept the notion that the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance hasn’t required that those who graduate from it to have read a book or two. In addition, Trump’s book Art of the Deal is famous among people who work for a living in sales & in real estate development. Don’t know if Larry has ever worked at all, but evidently he doesn’t in either of those two fields.

#23 Comment By John Hawk On March 20, 2017 @ 5:52 pm

No more like the next Benedict Arnold.

#24 Comment By SkippingDog On March 20, 2017 @ 5:53 pm

TR would have slapped Trump silly for playing footsie with our Russian enemy.

#25 Comment By Dan Phillips On March 20, 2017 @ 6:18 pm

My thoughts on this article, with which I largely agree.


#26 Comment By Lanfranco Cantagalli On March 20, 2017 @ 6:20 pm

Is Donald a new Teddy? It is too early to say it, but the previous comments are clearly biased…

#27 Comment By Tim D. On March 20, 2017 @ 6:21 pm

Teddy was a progressive conservative. Trump, on the other hand, is not, as he is a reactionary. Teddy was familiar with domestic and foreign policy. Trump routinely proves himself clueless on those fronts. They’re polar opposites in terms of masculinity too. Teddy was comfortable with who he was while Trump’s insecurities literally ooze out of him.

#28 Comment By DP On March 20, 2017 @ 6:32 pm

The problem: T.R. and Trump are separated by the vast gulf of Virtue. We’re comparing Mr. Knightley to Fyodor Karamazov. Interesting article, but all the comparisons ring superficial because of this.

#29 Comment By Dee-lighted On March 20, 2017 @ 6:39 pm

Absolutely on point. Trump is the new TR. 100% correct. A TR for the 21st century.

#30 Comment By kalendjay On March 20, 2017 @ 8:32 pm

Well, Teddy was an avid hunter and meat eater (denizens of 1900 ate proportionally more meat than today) to counter his unhealthy childhood incapacitation due to rheumatic fever. Donald too has had something to prove since childhood, being like Teddy, a rich kid. But Donald is fond of Mickey D’s.

A great analogy however can be drawn over the Panama Canal. TR deliberately bought American steel that was previously dumped abroad, knowing that it was considerably cheaper than any steel that was “fairly” bought within US boundaries under federal contract. He knew something about the crafty deceit of internationalized business, and so would Donald.

About the Treaty of Portsmouth, which was hailed as a coup of diplomacy. TR actually believed in the Yellow Peril which included Japan, but he respected the strength of the Emperor, and apparently took to the view that Russia was a pitiable giant. Two views arguably within Trump today, given his apparently careful and time biding diplomacy with Chairman Shi.

I still keep open the possibility that he will hoist China by the petards and force them to rectify matters in North Korea and Iran. He has said neithe rChina nor Iran were any help over North Korea. That should make diplomats shudder, as the view foisted on us for 15 years has fairly been the opposite.

#31 Comment By M. Draskovich On March 20, 2017 @ 9:05 pm

Insulting to Roosevelt. Teddy would be ashamed.

#32 Comment By Bob Kay On March 20, 2017 @ 9:18 pm

These insults directed at President Donald Trump should be censored. Of course President Donald Trump is superior to a second-rater like that Theodore Roosevelt. President Donald Trump won a huge electoral mandate while Roosevelt had to sneak in by an act of assassination. Roosevelt opposed concentration of wealth and called himself a trustbuster while President Donald Trump will concentrate wealth and help create more trusts. Roosevelt was Police Commissioner of New York City and rooted out bribery while President Donald Trump knows the right palms in New York City to grease. President Donald Trump, first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countryman. Soon all those second-raters’ heads on Mount Rushmore will be blasted away for the new monument to President Donald Trump.

#33 Comment By John Viall On March 20, 2017 @ 9:50 pm

Good lord, Noooooooooooooooo. Teddy Roosevelt cared about the environment. He was intellectual and interested in science.

Plus, he volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War.

Trump is a draft-dodging piece of poop.

#34 Comment By Ben Stone On March 20, 2017 @ 11:03 pm

This is utterly disgusting and unbelievable.

#35 Comment By sad On March 20, 2017 @ 11:39 pm

great article. the left wing now cowers in fear

#36 Comment By Leon On March 21, 2017 @ 4:35 am

Colombia, Colombia (not Columbia).

#37 Comment By PAXNOW On March 21, 2017 @ 4:41 am

Teddy R and Trump in the same sentence. I do not think so.

#38 Comment By Steve in Ohio On March 21, 2017 @ 11:22 am

@John Gruskos–You are spot on as usual.

“I know this is a Never Trump site.”

Actually TAC is better to Trump than most other conservative sites (NRO, Weekly Standard). After all, TAC was founded by Pat Buchanan who still posts his articles here. I’m not sure where all these liberal posters come from. They act outraged that that a site called TAC and founded by Buchanan has posts defending Trump (the closest thing to Pat in the last 20 years)>

#39 Comment By brimble On March 21, 2017 @ 12:51 pm

Judging from all the triggered anti-trump snowflakes I’d say you hit the nail on the head. Trump does remind me of a mixture of Jackson and Teddy.

#40 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 21, 2017 @ 9:30 pm

I am not going to shirk my support for the current executive. But I am having a hard time with the comparative analysis here.

Unlike either man Pres Trump has never served a day in sacrifice in service. Th fact that he supports a robust military may be akin to Pres Roosevelt, but the environment and circumstances suggest a less aggressive military posture that provokes conflicts as oppose to settling them. I am not sure the US Navy sitting off the coast of China was worth the expense of military posturing.

Pres Jackson was by all accounts just short of being a complete alcoholic, much to Pres Trump’s credit, not a drop.

It’s to early to tell what this executive enure will b or the impact on the country. For the present, if we could get all of this russia nonsense aside. Maybe we can get a cean look. But for the time being through the haze of outrages accusations, its a mixed view.

The following the foreign policies of those he beat in the election, in the middle east makes no sense to me.

Expanding the budget of the military with an accounting of every current penny spent seems imprudent and butts against his admonition for a more efficient use of tax dollars.

It remains too early to tell.

#41 Comment By Dan Phillips On March 22, 2017 @ 10:20 am

Teddy was a progressive conservative. Trump, on the other hand, is not, as he is a reactionary.

Tim D., yesterday’s progressive is today’s reactionary.

“Not unless Roosevelt was a pawn of the Russians. I always knew we had a liar for a POTUS. Now I find he is a traitor, as well.”

Marianna Landrum, this is not the Democrat fever swamps. I seriously doubt that you even believe that nonsense yourself, but it’s not going to play here.

#42 Comment By Dan Phillips On March 22, 2017 @ 10:24 am

People are getting hung up on the personal comparisons. The point is that Trump’s agenda is really not all that different than what the pre-WWII Republican Party stood for – opposed to free trade, restrictionist on immigration, nationalistic. Read the article I linked above.

#43 Comment By peanut On March 22, 2017 @ 12:46 pm

“Larry Wade is mistaken by saying that Trump never read a book; it’s difficult for me to accept the notion that the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance hasn’t required that those who graduate from it to have read a book or two. In addition, Trump’s book Art of the Deal is famous among people who work for a living in sales & in real estate development”

The Art of the Deal was ghostwritten. And as for the notion that the Wharton School of Finance demands its students to be well-read, well, I don’t know if William had attended school at all, but evidently he didn’t attend Wharton.

#44 Comment By David Naas On March 23, 2017 @ 6:33 pm

It is a fair criticism to say it is unfair to compare the two, since TR had a full Presidency and a hundred years for evaluation, whereas DT is still in the shakedown cruise of his.

It is, however, “fair” to look at what the two men were like before they were sitting in the Oval Office. Any valid comparison there? No?

Within two years, when DT becomes so frustrated with achieving nothing of substance, ‘declares victory and goes home’, he will blame it all on everyone else.

He will say it is not his fault, and will badmouth those supporting him now, including his minions and ephemeral Republican allies. He will especially blame the American people for not doing what he, the National CEO, told then to do.

TR went off to shoot lions in Africa after his term.

There’s your difference.

#45 Comment By Keith On March 24, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

We don’t know who threw the bomb in Haymarket Square (in 1886); it could have been a policeman or a “Pinkerton” agent.

#46 Comment By Ammy On April 9, 2017 @ 1:51 pm

Roosevelt: “It is unwise to depart from the old American tradition and discriminate for or against any man who desires to come here and become a citizen, save on the ground of that man’s fitness for citizenship… We cannot afford to consider whether he is Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Gentile; whether he is Englishman or Irishman, Frenchman or German, Japanese, Italian, or Scandinavian or Magyar. What we should desire to find out is the individual quality of the individual man.”

#47 Comment By Lyndon On April 15, 2017 @ 5:14 pm

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
― Theodore Roosevelt

“I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”
― Theodore Roosevelt

“The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased; and not impaired in value.”
― Theodore Roosevelt

Sound like Don to you?

#48 Comment By Steve On May 28, 2017 @ 9:47 pm

Oh come on…

Teddy was a man of courage… ole general bone spurs was busy dodging STD’s when it was his time to serve his country. Please stop… just stop.

#49 Comment By Ashley On June 15, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

This article is a joke. You’re trying to compare apples to moldy old oranges here. Trump is a disgrace to America – he is right now having Zinke look into repealing and rolling back 28 national monuments, so you’re whole segment about him wanting to protect public lands is just false. If you’re going to believe everything Trump has espoused you’re in for some major disappointment and you’re lying to yourself and your readers.

As I’m sure you’ve read “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
― Theodore Roosevelt

Try to reconcile that with your above statements.