Theodore Roosevelt died a century ago in January, but his political legacy remains up for grabs — today, perhaps, more than ever. Everybody wants him on their team. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, has repeatedly cited Roosevelt as her favorite president and her “dream” running mate because, like her, he pushed a progressive agenda that included taking on industrial trusts. “Man, I’d like to have that guy at my side,” she told Ari Melber of MSNBC in March.
Roosevelt was, of course, a Republican, at least until 1912, when he ran as a third-party candidate. Still, many in that party continue to claim him as one of their own — even as a forebear of President Donald Trump. “I think the United States once again has a president whose vision, energy and can-do spirit is reminiscent of President Teddy Roosevelt,” Vice President Mike Pence said in 2017.
At a gathering this month dedicated to building a nationalist conservative movement — called, appropriately, the National Conservatism Conference — Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri approvingly cited Roosevelt in a speech about the rising threat of “cosmopolitanism.” Hawley, one of the many young Republicans jockeying to take over the party once Trump leaves office, knows what he’s talking about: He wrote a well-received book about Roosevelt’s political philosophy.
Like a handful of other figures in American history — Washington, Lincoln, King — Roosevelt inspires admiration across the political spectrum, in part because his own politics are so hard to place. Through his career and his voluminous writings, he can appear as a reformer, a nativist, an imperialist, a trustbuster, a conservative and a progressive — often at the same time.
And it makes sense that Roosevelt is in such demand. He came to prominence in the late 19th century, a time marked by many of the same challenges we face today. Immigration was reshaping the population. Technology and globalization were tearing down old industries and building new ones. Corporate power was at an apogee. The Republican Party was at war with itself.
Roosevelt offered answers to all these challenges, and it’s easy to see why a left-leaning Democrat like Warren would find them compelling. One of his first significant steps in office was to file suit against Northern Securities, a railroad holding company he claimed was illegal under the Sherman Antitrust Act. Although often skeptical of organized labor, he supported unions. He was, famously, America’s conservationist in chief.
Roosevelt also backed significant expansions of the regulatory state, like the Pure Food and Drug Act. And he pushed for greater government control over a number of industries through the Interstate Commerce Clause, a tool later used by his distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt to build the New Deal.
His progressive zeal continued after he left office in 1909. A year later, Roosevelt delivered one of his most famous speeches — “The New Nationalism” — in Osawatomie, Kansas. In it, he called for a generous minimum wage, a progressive income tax, an estate tax and laws that would essentially ban corporate interests from politics.
“The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to his profit must now give way to the advocate of human welfare,” he said — the sort of idea that, he noted, would surely get him branded a communist.
But if Roosevelt was a progressive, he was not a particularly liberal one, especially by today’s standards. He had little patience for pluralism — he derided what he deemed “hyphenated Americans” — and he believed that America’s future depended on constructing a unified, common culture, a call that echoes strongly among those pushing for a new conservative nationalism today.
At the National Conservatism Conference, Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, picked up on one of Roosevelt’s core themes in his speech, “Why America Isn’t an Idea.” Like Lowry, Roosevelt believed America’s political culture was rooted not in universal principles about things like liberty and individual rights but in the specifics of its history, its landscape and the experience of its people — which to Roosevelt meant predominantly Northern Europeans.
That’s one reason Roosevelt, like many of today’s conservative nationalists, endorsed restrictions on immigration. In his 1905 message to Congress, he said: “It will be a great deal better to have fewer immigrants, but all of the right kind, than a great number of immigrants, many of whom are necessarily of the wrong kind.”
Especially in his later years, Roosevelt’s nationalism, already problematic, became overtly racist. He proposed subsidies for white Americans to have more children and endorsed sterilizing the poor and mentally handicapped — a eugenic natalism that Hawley writes in his book, “Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness,” was “not entirely dissimilar to that pursued by the German Third Reich.”
In the book, Hawley takes pains to criticize Roosevelt for his racism, which he concedes was central to Roosevelt’s vision for America and not just an artifact of his time and place. Roosevelt’s welfare-state agenda, he writes, was not an end in itself; it was a means to facilitate the growth of a culturally homogeneous nation, dominated by the descendants of Anglo-Saxon settlers. Warren may dream of having a trustbuster as a running mate but probably not one who refers to white people as the “forward race.”
Still, Roosevelt’s nationalism presents an even bigger problem for the right. Like Roosevelt, Hawley and others at the National Conservatism Conference endorsed a long list of ideas to facilitate a common American culture — breaking up big business, protecting domestic labor, rebuilding heartland economies.
But all of that requires a powerful, centralized federal government, rooted in an expansive executive branch — the kind Roosevelt favored and Warren supports, but that sits at odds with the main currents of national conservatism and its belief that the federal government has been captured by “cosmopolitan” elites.
It’s a problem Hawley concedes in his book. “In the long run, then, Roosevelt’s tenure represented not so much the arrival of the imperial presidency as it did the birth of a fourth branch of government whose existence has strained the constitutional order,” he writes.
To be fair, Roosevelt is not yet a poster boy for the nationalist right. But even if they don’t fully embrace him, his attitude toward public policy illuminates the difficulty faced by any movement that eschews both big government and big business. In both practical and political terms, it’s hard to see how you can tame one without the resources of the other.
Perhaps, then, the question is not whether Roosevelt belongs to the right or the left; rather, it’s why anyone today wants to claim him at all. There is a lot to admire about Roosevelt, and also a lot to abhor, and in the end perhaps the best to be said is that he was a man of dynamic intellect and sometimes despicable ideas who drove his country forward until he, inevitably, fell behind the curve.
One thing is sure, though — Roosevelt would have laughed at the thought of anyone picking apart his legacy to partisan ends. “There are on each side unhealthy extremists who like to take half of any statement and twist it into an argument in favor of themselves or against their opponents,” he wrote in 1900. “No single sentence or two is sufficient to explain a man’s full meaning.”
Clay Risen is the author of “The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century.” This first appeared in The New York Times.