Is Trump the New 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 on anarchists—including those who professed radical political views, even if they didn’t have any actual terrorist affiliation. Four years later, another law 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 Muslim immigrants.
Roosevelt famously railed against “hyphenated Americanism” and declared that America was not a “mosaic of nationalities.” In language that rings as distinctly Trumpian today, Roosevelt demanded 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 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:
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 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, FBI, 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, 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. Trump has praised 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 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. 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—has simply been postponed.
When Field and Stream magazine asked Trump 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 to Reagan’s. 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 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—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, 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.