Matter! Matter! Why, everybody’s gone crazy! What is the matter with all of you? Here’s this convention going headlong for Roosevelt for Vice President. Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between that madman and the Presidency? Platt and Quay are no better than idiots! What harm can he do as Governor of New York compared to the damage he will do as President if McKinley should die?
Ohio Senator Mark Hanna at the Republican Convention of 1900
I have been rolling around in my brain the thought that as President Donald Trump reminds me of Theodore Roosevelt. At first glance the two New Yorkers seem entirely dissimilar with Roosevelt the scholar turned politician who led the charge up San Juan Hill having little in common with the blue collar billionaire. However, in their shared endless energy, their desire to attack intractable problems, their appeal to restoring America greatness, their willingness to make enemies of the powers that be, etc. they do strike me as quite similar and unlike most other Presidents. Stephen Beale at The American Conservative makes the case for Trump being in the same mold as The Colonel:
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 Columbia.
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.)