With the benefit of hindsight and the catalyst of the Capitol debacle, it is easy to see Donald Trump for what he was: a cruel joke—cruel precisely because he was so close to what we wanted in this moment. He was a bona fide fighter, by all appearances, though sometimes excessively so; to those on his side the benefits seemed to outweigh the embarrassments, and to opponents he offered at least as much laughter as he did real cause for concern. At a time when millions of Americans struggled to find dignified work, he offered a populist conservatism and a new nationalism that promised to protect their interests. The appearance of sincerity was bolstered by his willingness to stand up to massive corporations despite his party’s decades-long coziness to the same. This was made all the more puzzling (and, maybe, all the more effective) by his hailing from one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in New York, perhaps the most powerful state in the Union.
You know the classic trope in campy sci-fi flicks where the mad scientist tries to clone someone (usually himself) and winds up producing some hideous, half-human thing that only bears, somewhere deep within, a ghost image of the person it was meant to be? Well, Donald Trump is our very own botched reproduction of Theodore Roosevelt.
Now, as the architects of a potential realignment scramble to redraw their plans with Trump scratched out, it is not surprising that attempts to revive Roosevelt’s legacy in the party are abundant. This has been in the works for some time: Sen. Josh Hawley, who fancies himself something of a trustbuster in dealing with Silicon Valley, wrote a glowing biography of TR (Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness) a full decade before his arrival in the Senate. Just last summer, Republican leaders in both houses of Congress established the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus to carry on the admirable environmental legacy of the 26th president and founder of the National Park Service.
But late reappraisals of the GOP crusader are more pointed, tending toward the period when he left both the presidency and the party. Unhappy with the failure of fellow Republican William Howard Taft—whom he had groomed as his successor—to follow closely in his footsteps, Roosevelt made a late play for the 1912 nomination (just one cycle after leaving office) that was doomed from the beginning. Then, with Taft confirmed as the Republican nominee, Roosevelt did something that had not been done since before the Civil War—and, if we are being honest, has not been done since: mounted a viable third-party campaign for the United States presidency.
Together with a few faithful allies—the label they tended to use, back in vogue today, was “progressive conservative”—Roosevelt established the Progressive Party, more generally remembered as the “Bull Moose” Party from TR’s remark that he felt “strong as a bull moose” after losing the Republican nomination to Taft. Young conservatives have taken to citing the 1912 party explicitly. Just last week, the Young Americans for Freedom chapter at Baylor University split from its parent organization to rechristen as the Baylor Bull Moose Society, dedicated to “conservative ideas which aid the American worker, preserve and promote the American family, uplift the poor and downtrodden, and ensure that Americans of traditional Christian faith can freely serve God.” The Penn State Bull Moose Party, meanwhile, boasts of being “America’s oldest nationalist student organization.”
There is good reason for all of this. It’s safe to say that the last four years have delivered the death blow to the old consensus, even if it may limp along for a while before caving to the fatal wound. This is the time to look for positive alternatives, and Teddy Roosevelt is a fine place to start. On domestic policy, Roosevelt embodies a healthy populism and a prudent conservatism that serves people before it serves markets. On foreign policy, he reminds us of an era of true statesman, a time when national power was prized, but prized all the more when kept in reserve. His marriage of rugged Americanism with a sincere public morality points the way to a “fusionism” that might just actually work.
But there is more than a little reason to be wary.
First there are the substantive concerns. Roosevelt was bright but far from brilliant, and he was prone to getting caught in the political winds of the moment. The Bull Moose platform contained some hyper-democratic planks popular among left- and right-progressives at the time that were implemented soon after with less-than-stellar results, such as the direct election of senators, ratified in the 17th Amendment the very next year. We cannot blame Roosevelt for that unfortunate amendment—it had already been proposed in the spring of 1912—but the temptation to jump on board with the cause du jour provides an obvious cautionary tale. Reformers in the Roosevelt mold will surely work over the next few years to build bridges with those who call themselves populists on the left, but they should not work too hard. There is such a thing as too much common ground.
Nonetheless, common ground is crucial for a successful Rooseveltian program—which brings us to the practical concerns. For all its romanticization in recent days, we should not forget that the Bull Moose Party’s only accomplishment was to hand an election to the worst man ever to set foot in the Oval Office before spluttering into oblivion over the course of half a decade. Though he beat Taft—pulling 27.2 percent against the Republican’s 23.2 in the popular vote—both were roundly defeated by Woodrow Wilson’s 41.8 percent and 435 electoral votes. In effect, the Bull Moose Party split in half what might have been a clean GOP victory.
Now, plenty of people would be perfectly happy to let the Republican ticket flounder in 2024—either as retribution for the failure of 2020 or as retribution for the success of 2016. But assuming we do have plans (or even hope) for success in the near future, we must be careful that the realignment is actually a realignment and not merely a rupture. To succeed where Roosevelt failed, a latter-day Rooseveltian would need to draw more than just the sympathetic faction or the populist base of the current Republican Party. If I were a reform-minded conservative with an eye to ’24, I would have Tulsi Gabbard’s number dialed and ready to go.
That brings us to the elephant in the room. If a Roosevelt-style shakeup really is expected—and it certainly would be welcome—just who would our Roosevelt be? It’s certainly not Donald Trump—not least of all because Roosevelt in 1912 was 54 and at the end of a long career, while Trump in 2024 would be 78 with four years’ experience in government. Josh Hawley, the careful student of Roosevelt, shows skill and ambition but little by way of electability. Marco Rubio has moved in recent years toward a humane view of economy that Roosevelt would find laudable, but it is far from certain that the Florida senator is ready to leave the GOP of the neocons in the rearview. Ted Cruz is still Ted Cruz.
A Bull Moose movement needs a bull moose to lead it, and there are none in sight. It hardly seems likely that what failed in 1912 with Roosevelt at the helm would fare better in 2024 with a lesser man in charge. But maybe we’re at a different point in the story than we think.
Perhaps a better parallel to our own moment is offered, not by the realignment that was tried for in 1912, but by the one that was sparked in 1881. That spring saw James A. Garfield, a straight-dealing GOP reformer from Ohio, inaugurated after a razor-thin election with record-high turnout. Two unbroken decades of executive control found the Republican Party rotten and corrupt, but Garfield, a Union general born in poverty who worked his way through college, brought some hope of change. Early in his tenure he made strides to clean out the Post Office, a focal point for spoils-based corruption.
To enter the Oval Office as a critic of one’s own party, we know well, is hardly met without opposition. One of Garfield’s fiercest opponents was Roscoe Conkling, a senator from New York and the leader of the party’s Stalwart faction and associated machine. Conkling embodied everything that was wrong with the party, and everything that reigned in it.
Garfield and Conkling sparred over the spoils-based machine that the latter operated in New York, and as the months wore on the battle only grew more heated. By May, it had reached a boiling point, and Conkling resigned over the president’s meddling in his patronage system, confident that the Stalwarts in the state legislature would simply reelect him, sending a not-so-subtle message to the White House.
Then came a moment that shocked the nation: a Stalwart fanatic named Charles Guiteau, fed up with the party’s infighting, shot Garfield in the back. Not quite sane, Guiteau thought that Garfield’s removal from the picture would ensure Stalwart dominance in the party, and provide him with the office he felt he deserved as a party loyalist. On the contrary, the shameful scene spelled the death of Conkling’s faction. The senator was not reelected, and a space was opened for a new politics in New York and the nation.
As all this transpired stateside, an American aristocrat was knee-deep in a five-month honeymoon in Europe. He had a personal axe to grind here: three years earlier, his father had become a pawn in a similar conflict between Conkling and Garfield’s predecessor, Rutherford B. Hayes. An honorable, independent man appointed to the post of Collector of the Port of New York without Boss Conkling’s consultation, he was subjected to vicious confirmation hearings headed by Conkling that ended not only in his rejection but, some believe, his death at 46 from the combination of immense stress and a gastrointestinal tumor.
The watcher could not yet act, with an ocean between him and the U.S. and other things on his mind. He was due to climb the Matterhorn, an Alpine feat only a handful men had ever accomplished—at 23 that spring this spindly, asthmatic New Yorker became one of the few as thoughts of politics raced through his mind.
He would soon return to the city of his birth, where on October 28 he launched a renegade campaign for the New York State Assembly against the handpicked candidate of the machine. The old guard was as scornful as they were dismissive. But others gathered in the district’s shabby hall saw some strange promise in this odd, eccentric, energetic youth. When the first round of ballots were counted for the party’s nominee, 16 of 25 bore the name Theodore Roosevelt. The rest, as they say, is history.
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