Since the election pundits have from time to time compared Donald Trump to various former presidents, most frequently Andrew Jackson because both were racist populists with tempers who liked talking tough and using the military. But I’ve also seen writers find similarities in Trump’s temperament to both Adamses, in incompetence to Buchanan and in dishonesty and political strategy to Nixon. Trump himself has spoken of his accomplishments as worthy of a Lincoln, which to people who live in the real world is akin to claiming an average Little League baseball player is as good as Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays (or Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout for younger readers).
In a continuation of this trend, Vice President Mike Pence recently compared his boss to Theodore Roosevelt — a comparison that may have surprised many Americans because TR is depicted as a hero and one of our greatest presidents in most history books while the public already realizes how unprepared and incompetent Trump is for the job he has now held for about eight months.
But as Stephen Kinzler’s depiction of TR in his entertaining and illuminating The True Flag reminds us, Trump and Teddy share so many personality, character and class traits that you might think they’re the same person. The True Flag discusses the debate surrounding the Spanish-American War and its bloody aftermath in which American soldiers tortured, raped and slaughtered their way to victory against rebels in the Philippines, the first time the United States used its military might to make acquisitions beyond the borders of the contiguous 48 states. The book focuses on the imperialist arguments made at the end of the 19th century by TR, Henry Cabot Lodge and the yellow journalist William Heart, who with Joseph Pulitzer pretty much invented fake news. They and many others were in favor of projecting American military might, holding possessions in which the inhabitants could not have free elections and extending U.S. control to peoples considered racially and culturally inferior. On the other side, the peaceniks believed fervently that the U.S. should not pursue military adventurism and that it was unconstitutional suppress the voting rights of people in other lands; they included such luminaries as Mark Twain, former President Grover Cleveland, Jane Adams, Andrew Carnegie and the distinguished Senator Carl Schurz.
Nowhere in The True Flag does Kinzler mention Donald Trump, but the picture he paints of TR is so similar to the Donald we have seen for the past 30 years that you could swear it was Trump being described.
Let’s start with their backgrounds. Both TR and Trump were born in the lap of luxury with a silver spoon in their mouth, on third base and thinking they hit a triple. Filthy rich. The Roosevelt family had what’s called old money. Very old money. The original Roosevelt arrived in the New World from Holland sometime in the years just before 1650 and bought a lot of land in mid-town Manhattan, the original source of the family wealth. Trump family money also originally came from real estate—developing and managing properties.
Inherited money gave TR and Trump immediate access to the public through the news media and to political circles that would not be available to most people. Both used that access to expatiate about controversial topics, going to war and projecting America’s might in TR’s case and, for Trump, spreading the bold-faced, racially-tinged lie that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
But access doesn’t necessarily translate to respect. For the most part, the ruling elite, including the Republican Party, disliked both and found both to be a royal inconvenience, and with good reason: The Rough Rider was and Trumpty-Dumpty is a self-centered and loud-mouthed buffoon who often spoke/speaks without thinking and acted/acts impetuously. The center of TR’s world was TR, who thought himself the best man for every job and burned to wield the power of the presidency. Sound familiar? Many in the Republican Party at the turn of the 20th century feared that the irresponsible Roosevelt would gain the power that he so blatantly sought. Same for Republicans during the 2016 primary and election season.
But while despised by the political, civic and intellectual elite, TR and Trump were/are highly popular with large segments of the American public, thanks to the news media. In TR’s day, the media meant newspapers, of which there were many, many more across the country than today. Interestingly enough, Teddy’s rise in the public esteem was fueled to a great extent by one media giant, William Randolph Hearst, who owned and ran a media empire of newspapers based on sensationalizing the news and saber-rattling for wars of conquest. Hearst grew to dislike Teddy, especially after Hearst also became infected by political ambition.
Here’s where the similarities get really sick: Both Theodore Roosevelt and Donald Trump built their reputations on fabrications. TR was the warrior, the hero, the Rough Rider who led a band of volunteers up San Juan Hill against the Spanish Army in Cuba. In fact, the hero spent a total of two afternoons in battle. His one casualty was an escaping unarmed prisoner surrounded by TR’s men who he shot in the back several times. Kind of sounds like big game hunting.
Most of us now know that when Donald Trump agreed to be the business mogul featured in the original “Apprentice” he was a failed real estate developer and casino operator in multiple bankruptcies and a mess of financial trouble. It was the mass media—the television show and the entertainment and celebrity media that covered it—that established his reputation as a business master of the universe, thus giving Trump the platform to pursue his sometimes successful and sometimes disastrous branding business.
Two frauds that the media turned into celebrities.
The last similarity: both were accidental presidents. The Republican Party made Teddy McKinley’s VEEP to remove him from power and the public eye. The plan backfired when McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt assumed the presidency. Let’s not dwell too long on the long string of freak occurrences that enabled Trump to win the electoral college despite losing the popular vote by about three million, including the wave of voter suppression laws, the interference by the Russians, the weakness of the other Republican candidates and former FBI Director James Comey’s ridiculously stupid twin decision to release information about the Clinton probe but not about the Russia-Trump connection.
A consideration of the differences between the two men is sobering, because it reminds us that the problem with Donald Trump is his not his emotional frailties but his political positions and the reasons he holds them.
Roosevelt believed in science and in weighing the evidence, which among other things, informed him of the need to protect the environment from the degradations of human beings. He backed down from his imperialism once he became president and had more information and experience (and perhaps the power after which he lusted). TR was well-read. His beliefs in domestic matters tended towards the progressive, which in those days meant minimizing the power of large corporations and setting the rules to create fairness for workers and consumers.
By contrast, Trump is poorly read and educated and holds a basket of deplorable beliefs about immigration, crime and the economy that are rooted in the myths of the 1950’s, and by myths I mean beliefs that were wrong then and not held now. On global warming and environmental regulations, he has ignored basic science and the advice of virtually every reputable expert in favor of his own irrational beliefs. He looks past the crime statistics which shows an enormous long-term decline and instead believes in the harsh image of crime in the cities depicted in the tabloid newspapers that he read in the 1960’s and 1970’s, before the days of cable news.
Which brings us to the issue of racism. TR made and Trumpty-Dumpty makes a large number of racist statements. Racism was inherent to the Rough Rider’s imperialism and lurking behind many Trump’s beliefs and actions. But TR’s racism reflects the mainstream thinking of his era. Like Woodrow Wilson and much of the Progressive movement, TR believed in the inherent superiority of white people of European descent. Racism tars his reputation, but most every other white American was racist at the time. I doubt that TR would be an overt racist today, since all his views, even his foreign expansionism, were mainstream. By contrast, Trump’s racism puts him out of the mainstream. Virtually every Trump statement or action to be condemned by other Republicans has involved denigration of or harm to African-Americans, Muslims, Mexicans or other non-white minorities. He flirts with racist groups that hold views that are so far out of the mainstream as to be an anathema to virtually everyone else.
Finally, despite his heavy-handed narcissism, Roosevelt ended up being one of our better presidents, rated by some among the top ten. In contrast, by ending DACA and U.S. support of the Paris agreement, disrupting relations with long-term strategic allies, cracking down on immigrants, trying to kill the individual health insurance markets created by the Affordable Care Act, threatening the civil rights of the transgendered and rolling back environmental, business and educational regulations, Trump has already done enough damage to America and the world to rate as the second worst person ever to win the electoral college or succeed a dying or resigning president. All he has to do to slide below Harry Truman to the very bottom of the list is convince the American military to drop a nuclear bomb on some enemy.
The lesson, again, in comparing these two highly narcissistic individuals is that it’s not the state of Trump’s emotions that should be of concern, but his politics. It’s his harmful, racist and misogynist stands and beliefs that are most dangerous to the future of the United States.