Rising income and wealth inequality, consolidation of capital and influence into a handful of oligarchs, looming environmental catastrophe, dark storm clouds gathering over a newly nationalistic Europe. Sound familiar? From the way we talk about the issues of inequality, “breaking up the big banks,” and Syrian refugees, you’d think we had never dealt with anything of the sort before. The Cubs’ World Series win should have tipped us all off: we’re in a New Gilded Age.
So how did the United States address these challenges last time? On September 6, 1901, Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley twice, and a then-42 year old Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the presidency. Roosevelt is a fascinating study in contradiction: a bloodthirsty hunter who founded nature reserves; a hawkish foreign intervener who won the Nobel Peace Prize; and a Harvard graduate and son of one of the country’s most prominent families who took on consolidations of wealth and power as a champion of the common man.
Roosevelt’s political genius took the form of leveraging those same contradictions. His breeding comforted the elites that bankrolled his campaign, while his time spent as a rancher in the Dakotas drew unlettered workers to him. Theodore’s beloved father was a prominent Republican, but Theodore himself bore little resemblance to his era’s Republican party on the issues. The label we fasten to Bernie Sanders, progressive, was originally coined to describe the movement that Roosevelt directed as president. Most people know that he later ran for president again with what came to be known as the Bull Moose Party; few people remember that the party’s actual name was the Progressive Party.
The Progressive Movement touched off by Theodore Roosevelt and then expanded by Woodrow Wilson and Theodore’s distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, revised the United State’s rough draft. Some modern Republicans mourn the loss of state autonomy and worry about how to finance a Baby Boomer-laden Social Security, but the movement ironically allowed an authentic capitalism to escape oligarchy.
Capitalism’s most fearsome predator is not socialism, or even communism: it’s crony capitalism. “Breaking up the big trusts,” as Senator Sanders would have called it, allowed authentic competition back into the market place. That, in turn, allowed the market to set prices, distribute goods, and regulate the flow of commerce. Phrased this way, Roosevelt’s Progressive Republican brand seems a natural pairing rather than a contradiction in terms.
Fast forward to 2016. Democrats have implemented a fair number of new ideas. Obamacare, overhauled relations with Cuba and Iran, and an international agreement to limit climate change are all innovative, if not universally beloved. Republicans, by contrast, include Ronald Reagan’s 1980 innovations in every single presidential platform. Upon winning a majority in both houses, Republicans’ top priority was not to build, but to tear down. Rather than implement a new project of their own, leadership expresses over and over again its enthusiasm to repeal Obamacare.
If summoning a towering figure were easy, history would look very different. Still, 2016 presented an opening for a progressive Republican. Voters grow naturally restless after eight years of one party in the White House, so anybody with an R next to their name had a good chance.
More importantly, Obama proved that innovative ideas can energize a base, and the Republicans in 2016 need innovations. Any party will have ideological contradictions, but the modern Republican Party’s lumpy consistency is hard to miss. Why does the party that champions the free market distort the market for energy by subsiding oil and warp the market for food by subsidizing corn? Why does the party of small business ownership fight to keep out immigrants, who open business much more frequently than the native-born?
Into this progressive window, voters unequivocally thrust a primitive Trump. First in the Republican primary, then again in the general election, voters proved that Trump was no fluke, no joke. But he is also no solution to wealth inequality, environmental degradation, and international instability.
As a registered Republican, I did not anticipate grieving a Republican winning an election, but grieve I did. The largest loss is in the opportunity cost. A transformational leader could have empowered Republicans to steer a progressive movement in a pro-market and pro-liberty direction. Instead Republicans will burn their political capital on the Trumpenreich’s small ball.
Put simply, where Roosevelt leveled the playing field by breaking up consolidations of wealth and power, Trump has thus far made a career coasting across a field jiggered to break just right for him. I would not put money on that course changing once he takes the oath of office.
I held out hope that Trump could have been Roosevelt in disguise. After all, they are both Ivy League educated sons of wealth whom the Republican establishment tried desperately to suppress. Playing upon the fears of the disenchanted white masses was a shrewd play, and perhaps he was just pandering to get those votes and would pivot immediately after his election.
While not impossible, I think this is highly (bigly?) unlikely after seeing Trump’s cabinet choices. A leader of substance surrounds herself with experts and people willing to challenge poor decisions. Trump’s first choices seem to seek to reward those on his bandwagon first, rather than people who will do the jobs particularly well. Each choice confirms the fear that he is a small person interested in rewarding friends and punishing enemies rather than transcending his time and place in history.
So what does this mean for our New Gilded Age? Has a New Progressive Age been cancelled? I don’t think so, although opportunity now belongs to the Democrats. Bernie Sanders proved that a progressive populism has political legs. Elizabeth Warren generated heat and light for Democrats that ought to give them comfort. The straightest path to the White House in 2020 probably cheats from the Bernie Sanders playbook, perhaps with some more appeals to rust belt whites and nonwhites across the country.
The real losers are Progressive Republicans like me. I welcome simplifying the tax code, which would force the hyper-rich (like Trump, ironically) to pay taxes and would eliminate deductions that twist the flow of capital; I support efforts to curb global warming; and I believe infrastructure spending at a time of near-zero interest rates is low-hanging fruit to move our economy forward. Each of those are surely on the to-do list of the coming progressive Democrat agenda. But other causes that are near to my heart, such as the pro-life movement, will surely have no place under that party’s tent. For myself, at least, I do not anticipate fitting into any traditional parties any time soon. It is virtually certain that I will have to sacrifice some of the causes that mean the most to me in order to move other causes forward.
One of the most rewarding experiences in studying history is seeing the present in the past and knowing there is a path forward. We have seen wealth inequality, international instability, and crony capitalism before, and we have survived as a people. But that reform will be much more difficult without a catalytic figure like Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt served our country, we know him as one of the four faces in Mount Rushmore. Mr. Trump, you’re no Theodore Roosevelt.