Podair: Trump campaign risks emulating Roosevelt Bull Moose debacle

What happens when a former president decides he wants his old job back, regardless of what stands in his way?

As Donald Trump launches his third run for the White House, it is useful to look back on the experience of another ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt. His campaign to regain the office from successor William Howard Taft divided the Republican Party, ensuring victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

In my view as a scholar of 20th-century American history, Roosevelt’s sense of entitlement, his moral narcissism and his belief in his own indispensability led him to turn his back on his party. And the disastrous results of that decision could presage what awaits the GOP in 2024.

There is little question that Roosevelt’s presidency of 1901 to 1909 was filled with successes — labor rights, anti-monopoly initiatives, the birth of environmentalism, consumer protection, democratic electoral reforms, a modern navy, even a Nobel Peace Prize.

As the first modern president, Roosevelt was an activist, a nationalist and a celebrity. But this last quality, celebrity, that may have defined him most of all, as he reveled in notoriety and visibility.

“My father,” his daughter Alice once remarked, “always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.”

He was an exuberant and vociferous showman — or showoff, as his critics complained. His favorite exclamation, “Bully,” expressed perfectly his almost childlike zest for life in the public eye.

“You must always remember,” one of his ambassadors ruefully observed, “that the president is 6 years old.”

It was thus wrenchingly difficult for Roosevelt, having made an impulsive promise not to run again, to turn over his office to his hand-picked successor.

Regret set in almost immediately. In fact, as soon as he returned from a yearlong trip to Africa and Europe in June 1910, he began to pick arguments with the cautious and uncharismatic Taft.

Some were imagined and others real, but that was beside the point. Roosevelt so coveted the limelight that he decided to seek the presidency again.

In early 1912, he announced he would run against the incumbent president — a man from his own party, a longtime close friend and a close colleague whose nomination he had himself engineered four years earlier.

Because Taft controlled the GOP’s party machinery, Roosevelt’s path to the nomination ran through the new mechanism of state primaries, an early product of Progressive reform.

Roosevelt took nine of the 12 that were contested, but most of the delegates to the Republican convention were selected by local bosses. But Taft won almost all of them.

At the national convention in Chicago in June, Roosevelt broke with tradition and appeared in person. He challenged the credentials of Taft delegates, especially those from the South, which held a quarter of the total votes, despite the Republican Party’s moribund position in the region at that point.

When his objections failed and Taft was nominated on the first ballot, Roosevelt could have done what virtually every defeated candidate does — swallow his disappointment and, however grudgingly, offer his support to the winner. But that was not in Roosevelt’s DNA.

Embarrassed and furious, he charged Taft with stealing the nomination through fraud and announced formation of a new Progressive Party as his personal vehicle.

Known unofficially as the Bull Moose Party, it duly nominated Roosevelt at a hastily organized August convention marked by high moral dudgeon. The delegates adopted “Onward, Christian Soldiers” as their anthem and heard their leader describe the upcoming campaign as an “Armageddon” and a “battle for the Lord.”

Roosevelt spent a great deal of his time on the general election campaign trail claiming that he had been cheated of the Republican nomination. He also stooped to personal vitriol, describing Taft as having “brains less than a guinea pig” and appearance-shaming his 300-pound-plus opponent as a “fathead.”

Taft was deeply hurt by the rift with his former friend. He ran a less than energetic campaign, having become resigned to losing the three-way general election almost as soon as he won the nomination.

Unlike Roosevelt, Taft’s career ambition was not to be president, but chief justice of the Supreme Court. And he achieved that in 1921.

Does history repeat itself?

The result in November, as Roosevelt knew it would be, was a landslide victory for Wilson. The Democrat carried 40 of the then 48 states.

But between them, Roosevelt and Taft had taken over half the popular vote, a stark reminder of the importance of intraparty unity and of acceptance of defeat with grace and dignity.

While unintended, Roosevelt’s self-aggrandizement had another consequence that still burdens his legacy with the weight of historical responsibility.

Wilson, a product of the antebellum South, carried the racial attitudes of his region and class into the White House. He segregated parts of the federal civil service, praised the racist film “Birth of a Nation,” insulted and demeaned Black civil rights leaders on the rare occasions he deigned to meet them at all, and refused to offer Black Southerners a federal jobs quota they had negotiated under Republican administrations.

Mark Twain once said, “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”

As today’s sharply divided GOP looks to the 2024 election, Roosevelt’s promotion of his own ego and vanity over the institutional well-being of the party carrying him to a governorship, vice presidency and presidency provides an ominous example of the tendency of history to rhyme.

Just as it was in 1912, the Republican Party is being held hostage to the whims of a former president who has shown he will storm from a game he loses, petulantly overturning the board as he leaves.

If Trump does so in the upcoming presidential campaign, he could put the continued existence of the Republican Party in jeopardy. The GOP survived 1912, but might not be as fortunate next time.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


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