We’ve seen this before. A scion of New York – one born with a silver spoon in his mouth – becomes the GOP presidential nominee, prophesying national decline and blaring a populist tune at odds with his own party. Businessmen and politicians are rigging the system! Immigrants are weakening America! An influx of foreigners taking our jobs and creating “obstructions to the current of our national life,” he declares, urgently demanding us to “regulate our immigration by much more drastic laws.” Not all of the immigrants are bad, of course, but the “criminals, idiots, and paupers” among them must be turned back. Especially those in border areas who pose an existential threat to American language, culture, and way of life.
French-Canadian migrants, that is. “They are swarming into New England with ominous rapidity,” Theodore Roosevelt confided to a friend. The year was 1904.
There are echoes of Teddy Roosevelt in Donald Trump, just as there are echoes of the Progressive Era in today’s America. Both men championed issues ignored by the social class they arose from. Both were obsessed with their own virility. (Trump doesn’t speak softly, but boasts about his big stick). And both used race to win votes. Roosevelt worried publicly that immigration, combined with a declining Anglo-Saxon birth rate, would “supplant the old American stock.” Race suicide, as he called it, could only be stopped by curbing immigration and increasing white birth rates. This sounds a lot like the utterances of today’s Stormfront.org, “White Genocide” acolytes, and other racist rightwing groups that have applauded Trump’s statements on Muslims and Mexicans.
Yet Roosevelt differed from Trump in important ways. He was an optimist about American culture and its ability to absorb new immigrants, even as he hoped they would assimilate the culture of “old American stock.” Doom and gloom were not his métier. Though he finished his letter on the Canuck deluge by predicting that Catholicism would become “the predominant creed in several of the Puritan commonwealths” – a prospect to horrify the WASPocracy – he himself remained “a firm believer that the future will somehow bring things right in the end for our land.” Roosevelt had no intention of building walls. He needed no “I love poutine!” photo to soften his harsh views.
His fighting spirit and love of provocation notwithstanding, Roosevelt was also a seasoned politician, with the experience – as state assemblyman, Governor of New York, and vice-president of the United States — to help him move his Progressive agenda through Congress. In the end, his presidency addressed much more than race and immigration. Roosevelt lowered taxes and tariffs even as he curbed the power of monopolies. He pushed through reform legislation like the Pure Food and Drug Act. He ushered in an era of environmental conservation via the creation of National Parks, Game Preserves, and National Forests. The Rough Rider, in short, had real goals and policies, along with the will and the wherewithal to effect them. Does Trump?
Finally – another irony — it’s worth noting that Roosevelt’s Progressive-Era populism fell short on a point that should give pause to those Trumpistas tempted to adopt the original Rough Rider as their patron saint: namely, that his vision for America did not include them. In the dominant view of his day, Irish, Italian, Eastern European, and French Canadian immigrants might be white in color, but not in “stock.” The uneducated and underemployed whites who stand at the center of the Trump’s world stood marginalized and often reviled in Roosevelt’s – the demographic problem, not the solution. As Roosevelt the historian –yes, he was that, too—knew well, the more times remain the same, the more they change.