How the Trump-Era Media Would Cover Teddy Roosevelt
Gilded Age populist president well-known for withering broadsides against elite adversaries
President Trump hung the wrong presidential portrait on the Oval Office wall. For a president who haunts the nightmares of Republican Party bosses, blasts the media for their “evil” fake news, and singles out specific corporations for their greedy ways while still maintaining a healthy love of free market capitalism, Teddy Roosevelt belongs on the wall, watching everything through those famous round spectacles.
If Trump and any other U.S. president are kindred spirits, it has to be the irascible, irrepressible Roosevelt who — through the strength of his personality — imposed his populist will on Washington D.C. and the Republican Party. Roosevelt viewed the country and its problems through the lens of a good versus evil paradigm and attacked his “enemies” full force. He famously loved the proverb, “Walk softly and carry a big stick,” but he was, paradoxically, never a soft walker. He galloped through life and through his presidency with the disruptive gait of a bull moose and believed “soft hitting” to be an “unforgivable crime.” “Do not hit at all if it can be avoided,” Teddy advised. “But never hit softly.”
Anyone who watches CNN or reads The New York Times or scores of other papers is well aware of the apocalyptic tone that accompanies so much of the Trump administration coverage.
If the Gilded Age had Twitter, Teddy Roosevelt would have worn his thumbs to the bone attacking his political foes. He believed that “there should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or businessman.”
He was a gilded age version of the Dos Equis guy. A reality TV star without the camera. That special sort of man whose likeness inevitably winds up carved into the face of a mountain.
Just like Trump, he fought battles with the media of his day — famously dubbing them “muckrakers.” He said it was a necessary job to expose the muck in government, but added that “the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.” If Roosevelt had lived in today’s 144-character, hashtag-ready, soundbite culture, he may simply have called it fake news.
Roosevelt owns one of the most enduring legacies of any American president, but his presidency and his stature in the minds of the American media would have been far different if he'd been up against today's mainstream media — let's call them the muckmakers, since they are the creators of the dripping-with-muck narratives that seem to follow everything Trump says or does. We all know the narratives from "Hillary will turn the whole country blue on Election Day" to "Trump is in cahoots with Russia" all the way to the shocking Justice Department purge of 2017 (the one that looks like every DOJ purge by every new administration), the ultra-liberal, smear-happy, 24-hour mainstream news media of 2017 is serving up stories of dystopian doom.
Does anyone believe the words "Democracy Dies in Darkness" would have suddenly popped up on as the new slogan of The Washington Post if Hillary Clinton had won the election? Anyone who watches CNN or reads The New York Times or scores of other papers is well aware of the apocalyptic tone that accompanies so much of the Trump administration coverage.
David Frum's recent cover story in The Atlantic Monthly is a prime example of the apocalyptic yellow journalism permeating the mainstream media. The story begins, "It's 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term." It looks like The Atlantic, but it reads like an excerpt from the lesser works of Kurt Vonnegut.
TIME magazine's new cover story covering Trumps wiretapping claims begins, "At 6:35 a.m. on March 4, President Donald Trump launched an attack against the government of the United States." As if tweets were tanks and all the investigations had been concluded.
But — apocalyptic tone notwithstanding — much of the Trumpian behavior that the press cites as evidence that democracy is endangered could just as easily be labeled Teddy-ism.
When Judge Robart ruled against Trump's travel ban, Trump took to Twitter and complained. "The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!" The media celebrated with another so-long-democracy news cycle. CNN cautioned that "It is highly unusual for a president to publicly criticize a federal judge."
But Teddy did it! When Judge Peter Grosscup overturned a huge fine levied on Standard Oil, Roosevelt called it "a gross miscarriage of justice" and said "there's too much power in the bench." When Roosevelt thought Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled wrongly in Northern Securities Co. v. United States, Roosevelt said, "I could carve out of a banana a judge with more backbone." Yet, somehow, democracy — The-Little-Political-Philosophy-That-Could — managed to keep chugging down the tracks all the way to 2017.
Roosevelt threatened to throw a mine owner out of a window saying, "If it were not for the high office I held, I would have taken him by the seat of the pants and the nape of the neck and thrown him out the window." But Democracy kept on chugging.
Roosevelt was a name-caller, too. He took to the stump calling his erstwhile friend William Howard Taft "fathead." He called Upton Sinclair a "crackpot." "Crooked Hillary" and "Lyin' Ted" seem tame by comparison.
Criticism of the president is a necessity, but the mainstream media doesn't just want to criticize Trump. They want to control him. That's why they've gone far beyond criticism into fear-mongering. Today's MSM, discovering they couldn't control Roosevelt, would have attacked him the same way they're attacking Trump — not by raking muck against him but by making it.
Eddie Zipperer is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Military College and a regular LifeZette contributor.