The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump venerates Teddy Roosevelt, but Roosevelt would have hated Trump

The left may be criticizing him in 2020, but Roosevelt defied modern labels.

Left: Donald Trump. Right: Theodore Roosevelt. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post; Brown Brothers/AP) (Jabin Botsford/Brown Brothers/The Washington Post; Associated Press)

Donald Trump sees a bit of one of America’s greatest presidents — Theodore Roosevelt — in himself. And it’s true that there are some similarities between the two men. Like Roosevelt, Trump loves the spotlight. As Roosevelt’s daughter Alice famously said: “He wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.”

Roosevelt would undoubtedly be pleased at how often he has been in the news during 2020. His name has graced the headlines in recent months from the fate of the covid-ravaged USS Theodore Roosevelt to his statue coming down in front of the American Museum of Natural History. Trump even wants to join him on Mount Rushmore, singing the praises of “Yo-Semite” while claiming to be, in the wake of signing the Great American Outdoors Act, “the same or almost as good” a conservationist as Roosevelt.

Yet, despite Roosevelt’s continued relevance, our popular memory of him is a kind of vibrant simplistic cartoon. In reality, Roosevelt was a far more complex figure — with something for everyone in our politically fractured times to like and loathe — and a guiding sense of the world that could help us take on many of America’s problems in 2020.

Roosevelt once described the route he navigated through the political world as being like walking along a high ridge. On either side of this metaphoric ridge were two things he disliked equally. On the one side he despised the merely successful. He would be disturbed to see the way we have continued to glorify results whatever the means in the intermixed worlds of government and business. Mere commercialism for its own sake was despicable to him, and the “predatory wealth” of corporations and the rich appalled him. He reviled what he called, in a phrase that may again be fitting, “the elite criminal class.”

But the other side of the ridge was equally unappealing. This was the domain of the dogmatists. It was here that he encountered extreme do-gooders and pushers of causes that ultimately harmed those causes because their minds would not open to any vision but their own. His dislike of the first side was idealistic, his dislike of the second practical. The one pushed him toward supporting issues such as economic justice. The other helped him get things done. Efficiency for its own sake was if not evil at least amoral. Efficiency toward a greater good was admirable.

He laid this vision out in an essay “Longitude and Latitude Among Reformers” in 1900. Roosevelt’s critique of reformers could easily apply to those who classify themselves as “woke” today. Yet, another word applies to them — and to Roosevelt himself: “progressive.”

Perhaps because of the tension in his thinking, Roosevelt defied the easy characterizations of today. While he was racist, sexist and imperialist, as his modern critics charge, Roosevelt not only rode the progressive tide, but practically created it.

Throughout his career he became increasingly vehement in his efforts to tame the power of corporations, to provide support for the poor and to equalize wealth. He broke the ground for many of the programs his distant cousin enacted, his Square Deal making the way for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. As president, he battled monopolies and fought for a living wage, and as a Bull Moose candidate in 1912, he advocated for universal suffrage and a social safety net that included workmen’s compensation, protection for the unemployed and pensions for the elderly. Compassion for those less fortunate than himself became a guiding force. “People came first, property second,” Kathleen Dalton wrote in her 2002 biography, “The Strenuous Life.”

Roosevelt deserves to be criticized when it comes to race. The Brownsville Affair, in which he dishonorably discharged Black soldiers based on the word of White townsmen, stands as a low point in his presidency. Nonetheless, he did invite Booker T. Washington to the White House in 1903, despite fierce criticism in the South, and his views on race evolved. “The country will never really demonstrate that it is a democracy in the full reach and range of that conception until we have had a both a Negro and Jewish president of the United States,” he said later in life. While he never fully shed his racist views, Roosevelt’s many programs to combat economic injustice prompted the NAACP to praise him in an editorial upon his death: “That he was our friend proves the justice of our cause … Even in the hot bitterness over the Brownsville affair we knew he believed he was right, and he of all men had to act in accordance with his beliefs.”

For those to his left he was never left enough, and for those who don’t take the trouble to dig any deeper he remains a caricature: a bellicose Trumpian bully. To those to his right he was “a traitor to his class.” On almost all the issues that contemporary Republicans despise, this Republican led the way.

He was that increasingly unpopular thing these days: complicated. Messy. Imperfect. He instinctively understood that dogmatism was problematic, be it left, or right. He believed that in the service of progress one had to take each issue on its own, case by case, and try to do the best one could given the circumstances confronted, guided not by theory, but by reality.

Roosevelt’s hard middle way offers much for us as we move forward in precarious times. Embracing such a path is hard, since a fall to either side could prove fatal. But it is also necessary if we hope to address the crucial problems plaguing America, problems that Roosevelt himself identified and worked to address.

This is the dangerous road before us. But there is a final lesson from Roosevelt’s worldview that can guide Americans today: the former president did not regard all threats as equal. While he mocked the “evil of the doctrinaire” and the “mere beating the air, mere visionary adherence to a nebulous and possibly highly undesirable ideal” of the most extreme of the reformers, he saved his greatest wrath for those who were ambitious without morals. He went so far as to say that he hated “the scoundrel who succeeds” more than the “scoundrel who fails.” He wrote: “Success is abhorrent if attained by the sacrifice of the fundamental principles of morality. The successful man, whether in business or politics, who has risen by conscienceless swindling of his neighbors, by deceit and chicanery, by unscrupulous boldness and unscrupulous cunning, stands toward society as a dangerous wild beast.”

The reformers might be blinded by their ideology. But it was exactly this sort of beast, he believed, that could prove the greatest threat, not just to keeping to the path, but to the nation and to democracy itself.