Real estate mogul Donald Trump continues to act like, or at least mimic the words of, a man gearing up for a presidential campaign. While he continues to play coy about his actual intentions, he has insinuated in recent interviews that he is inclined to run as a Republican, but, if he runs and fails to win that party’s nomination, he may consider running as an independent.
Trump, if he has a passing familiarity with American history, will be aware that almost exactly one hundred years ago Theodore Roosevelt broke from the Republican Party, watched the Progressive Party (or Bull Moose Party, courtesy of a choice phrase from the eminently quotable Roosevelt himself) spring up around him, and ran for president as its nominee. While Roosevelt lost the 1912 election to Woodrow Wilson, the fractured Republican Party and its ineffectual incumbent, William Howard Taft, lost to both. To this day, Theodore Roosevelt remains the only third-party presidential candidate in American history to defeat one of the two major parties in either electoral or overall votes (having finished second in both).
It’s quite possible that Trump, in a perfectly believable avalanche of high self-esteem, sees himself as a sort of twenty-first century incarnation of Roosevelt, a visionary maverick willing to buck the system to bring the country what it needs: namely, Donald Trump. To be sure, the similarities between Trump and Roosevelt—centuries apart in our minds, but not in our hearts—are hard to avoid:
ROOSEVELT: spent decades of his life as a civil servant, first as a New York state assemblyman, then later as New York City Police Commissioner; he spent just shy of a year as Vice President of the United States, and then seven-plus years as President. On top of that, before his presidency he served in not one but two branches of the U.S. military, first as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, later resigning from that post to serve in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War.
TRUMP: builds hotels and casinos, several of which have failed to go bankrupt.
ROOSEVELT: grew up as an easterner but lived as a rancher and a hunter, coming to love and admire and even eventually embody the spirit of the American West; was an accomplished naturalist with an ear for birdsong; published nearly three dozen books on military history, ornithology, biography, political commentary, and American history; had enormous personal charisma that often left even his political rivals disarmed, touched, and filled with reluctant admiration; and possessed an astounding breadth and depth of knowledge that would have qualified him as an expert in half a dozen wide-ranging fields.
TRUMP: has his own reality TV show, where he seems to be playing an unconvincing caricature of himself.1
ROOSEVELT: won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1906, back when actual accomplishments, rather than anticipated accomplishments, were required for that sort of thing.
TRUMP: in 2004 filed a trademark application for the words “You’re fired,” just in case there was money to be made from other people losing their jobs.
Roosevelt’s and Trump’s own words also help to highlight the stunning similarities in their characters and the quality of their thought processes:
“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet—there is where the bullet went through—and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”2
—Theodore Roosevelt, 1912
“I’m a really smart guy. I was a really good student at the best school in the country.”
—Donald Trump, 2011
Trump has claimed to be concerned that American has become “the laughingstock and whipping post for the rest of the world.” At almost exactly the same time, however—and with no apparent understanding of irony—he has flung himself willingly onto the birther bandwagon, questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship in a shameless appeal to the nation’s craziest common denominator.
It is unclear whether Trump is aware of the yawning disconnect between his concern for America’s reputation and his endorsement of one of the stupidest conspiracy theories in its history. It’s hard to say whether it’s occurred to him that a blowhard television personality with no political experience may not be the best way for the nation to turn the corner on that whole “laughingstock” thing. What should be fairly obvious—not to mention disappointing and depressing—to the rest of us is the yawning gulf between what gets called a presidential candidate in 2011, and what qualified just one hundred short years ago.
1. Other folks with television shows: the Thundercats, the Smurfs, the Transformers, and any number of other cartoonish boobs with political experience similar to Trump’s. It’s to their credit, though, that they were not part of a reality show. Frankly, we’d also probably prefer President Snarf to President Trump.
2. The famously verbose Roosevelt spoke for approximately ninety minutes—a rather long time by the standards of the stunted modern attention span; rather longer yet when you consider that he had a fucking bullet in his chest.