The Right’s New Godfather
“It is not the Tweeter who counts. It is not the columnist who points out how the politician stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.” It is thus that I imagine, a bit sardonically, the 26th president’s speech at Sorbonne would begin if it were rewritten today. Perhaps because Theodore Roosevelt just doesn’t strike me as the Very Online type, or perhaps because, like so many others on the right, I have found Roosevelt’s historical presence enduringly relevant to our late political age, in regards to technology and otherwise. Either way, an image of the Rough Riders is often enough to make me want to chuck my iPhone out the fourth-floor window.
There’s something delightful about Roosevelt himself, which his famous words only just capture. “The man in the arena,” the man who gets his hands dirty, is to be preferred to the distant and clean fingers that type his critique. It’s this disdain for the manicured and the tongue-clicking that many on the right resonate with, and rightly so, whatever Roosevelt’s politics. It’s the same disdain we feel for the New Yorker columnist who visits the countryside only to write about how racist people are out there; the same solidarity we feel with the mother tyrannized for not keeping her son in a mask on an airplane, by the flight attendant who went above and beyond the job description to enforce The Rules. Roosevelt’s legacy is full of a strength and spirit that seem to bellow in the faces of timorous Republicans, Forget the policy proposal and do something real.
His symbol is ripe for the picking by a movement that grows less amorphous by the day. Who we choose for our myths and our heroes says much about how we on the right move forward; perhaps more than anything else. Trust-busting and conservation efforts are just the surface of a man whose unapologetic masculinity alone makes him a good candidate to resurrect in our hyper-feminized moment. To small “r” republicans, Roosevelt—his ethos of strength and his love of beauty for its own sake—has much to offer.
Not least because his own story is one of overcoming. No natural Hercules, the sickly and asthmatic child Roosevelt fought for years to conquer his physical weakness by adopting what he called “the strenuous life,” which included rigorous exercise of all sorts, winter skinny-dipping excursions in the Potomac, and various forms of martial arts. After this first victory over self and body, Roosevelt never seems to have stopped fighting, in war as well as politics. In fact, to Roosevelt, the two looked almost indistinguishable. Politics was war, which meant the only man who came out spotless was the coward.
As governor of New York, Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for the strenuous life led him to remove corrupt government officials and to regulate corporations, despite party opposition. As president, he developed this reputation as trust-buster-in-chief further. Importantly, the move to use federal power to break apart monopolies was almost as controversial on the right then as it would be today, seen by many as an unnecessary expansion of government power. For Roosevelt, however, large corporations were wielding government-like power over the American people, through special interest lobbying and regulatory barriers to entry, and the duty belonged to the representative government, not merely the courts, to protect the people from private actors wielding such influence over public life.
He approached the issue as one fundamentally about community, which should always be protected before commerce. In his “New Nationalism” speech, he argued:
The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being.
His youthful vigor and warlike brawn had their downsides, particularly in foreign policy. Roosevelt’s global involvement included a disturbing lot of foreign conflict that, more likely than not, had little to do with true American national security. Whether this stemmed from some kind of physical necessity in him, a thirst for turmoil, more than a Bushite global-democratic determinism, I will leave to historians to answer, because godfathers aren’t for career advice—and it is in the role of godfather, rather than mentor or hero, that I propose the right adopt him.
Godfathers are for instructing you in the rules of life. And while Roosevelt’s politics were a mixed bag, his personal ethos was excellent. No Hollywood finocchio, Roosevelt’s masculinity reads like a Western novel of around the same era. We could write this off as mere historical context; what was special about Roosevelt, a man among men? Maybe he only seems strong by comparison with the effeminate offerings of the 21st century. Perhaps this is true. And still, if we are the type that seeks advice from older generations, it is because we believe that older generations have wisdom to share—wisdom that may be vital to the life of younger ones, no matter how main street it may have been in their heyday.
One rule of life Roosevelt got just right was his love of nature. An avid hunter and outdoorsman, Roosevelt’s appreciation for the American wilderness is as commendable as it is a far cry from the bean-sprout eating, yoga-practicing conservationists that fill the Pacific Northwest today. His was a preservation that stemmed from true love of the incomparable geography of North America, a love which only follows deep knowledge. It is here, too, we can glimpse the heart of Roosevelt’s ethos, one which was not merely emotional or intellectual but also incredibly physical. Physically fashioned by the hand of nature through his engagement with the wild, he demonstrates an embodied grit we have shamefully abandoned in generations hence, raised by a technopoly which always draws us away from the tangible and the tactile.
The American frontier was not just something to be conquered—though Roosevelt’s other expeditions were certainly journeys of conquest—but something that should shape men. Indeed, it was in visiting the West that biographers say Roosevelt became the booming man of his later years that contrasts so strikingly with the gangly, squeaky-voiced youth. The wildness of the American frontier was an essential aspect of its benefit to Americans; Roosevelt argued that if the land was trounced, it would no longer produce the same character in its people: “From its very nature, the life of the hunter is in most places evanescent; and when it has vanished there can be no real substitute in old settled countries.” Thus his efforts through the National Park System to preserve not mere nature, but its wildness, the crux of its beauty.
Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into a fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride or slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be cynic, or fop, or voluptuary.
The man in the arena’s face is “marred with sweat”—not just for dramatic flair, but because dirt is essential to real work. Both the hunter and the warrior bear the face-paint of toil with which Roosevelt seemed enamored. The beauty of doing is in the filth you acquire, as a requisite badge of courage. This is another quality the new right ought to appropriate, a willingness to get soil under its nails to get things done.
So, in the words of another godfather, it’s time to go to the mattresses.