Liberals love Teddy Roosevelt – but his racism paved the way for Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson

Theodore Roosevelt is revered as a "progressive" president — but his views on race were anything but

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 11, 2023 10:00AM (EDT)

Theodore Roosevelt (Getty Images/John Parrot/Stocktrek Images)
Theodore Roosevelt (Getty Images/John Parrot/Stocktrek Images)

The so-called "great replacement" theory is all the rage among American right-wingers, from former Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson to Republican legislators like Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Rep. Lauren Boebert (Colo.) Bluntly white supremacist at its core, it holds that liberal elites (frequently, though not always, a dogwhistle for Jews) are trying to "replace" white Americans with non-whites, particularly non-white immigrants.

Donald Trump drew from this ideological well when he ran for president in 2016, arguing at the time that "this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning" because if illegal immigrants were "legalized" then "they're going to be able to vote and once that all happens, you can forget it." By 2020, Trump was pulling from great replacement arguments to justify the Big Lie which denied that he had lost that year's election to Joe Biden.

While there are endless variations to how conservatives play with the concept of a great replacement, they generally argue it is being implemented via some combination of mass immigration (legal or otherwise) from non-white countries and dropping birthrates among white Americans. Although proponents usually insist that they are not racist, they will also conveniently assert that the "values" and "culture" that ineffably "define" America will decline if too many non-whites become full members of American society.

Speaking to the National Congress of Mothers in 1905, he warned of "race suicide" and implored women deemed white to have as many babies as possible.

These white supremacist ideas may seem like products of alt-right indoctrination, and so they are — but they are hardly recent. Indeed, there is a Republican president widely admired by liberals who held racial views quite similar to those of the modern alt-right. He is the mustachioed president from Mount Rushmore: Theodore Roosevelt

When Roosevelt's political legacy is discussed, it is frequently in the context of his many progressive achievements. He passed landmark laws regulating consumer products like food and drugs, broke up business trusts and monopolies, regulated railroads and conserved over 230 million acres of nature within the United States. He was president at a time when Republicans tended to be more liberal and Democrats tended to be more conservative (the two sides gradually switched between 1912 and 1964), and as such he has been romanticized in popular culture, whether by biographers like Edmund Morris or by liberal-leaning actors like Robin Williams. Yet Roosevelt's last listed achievement — his conservationism — is a good place to start when unpacking the man's racism. 

One of Roosevelt's closest allies in the conservationist movement was Madison Grant, who in spite of a deep love for nature was also a passionate white supremacist. Even before his infamous 1916 eugenics polemic "The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History," Grant vehemently insisted that the so-called "Nordic" peoples were inherently superior to other races and yet were gradually losing power.

Grant attributed this to the high birth rates among supposedly "inferior" groups like ethnic whites and Black Americans. Roosevelt — who had extensively discussed these ideas with Grant in private long before his book was published — praised the tome as "a capital book; in purpose, in vision, in grasp of the facts our people most need to realize." Later admirers of Grant's book included Nazi Germany's dictator Adolf Hitler and white supremacist mass shooter Anders Brevik.

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"Thus the thirteen colonies... saw themselves surrounded north, south, and west, by lands where the rulers and the ruled were of different races, but where rulers and ruled alike were hostile to the new people that was destined in the end to master them all," Roosevelt wrote.

Yet Roosevelt did not need Grant to inspire him with white supremacist beliefs. He had harbored these opinions long before he met the man. Speaking to the National Congress of Mothers in 1905, shortly after he won his first full term in the 1904 election, Roosevelt warned of "race suicide" and implored women deemed white to have as many babies as possible. He rejected the notion that they should try to enjoy their lives as rewards for their own sake, instead imploring them to existences filled with toil in order to guarantee that their race would continue in perpetuity.

"The woman's task is not easy — no task worth doing is easy — but in doing it, and when she has done it, there shall come to her the highest and holiest joy known to mankind; and having done it, she shall have the reward prophesied in Scripture," Roosevelt proclaimed. "For her husband and her children, yes, and all people who realize that her work lies at the foundation of all national happiness and greatness, shall rise up and call her blessed."

Roosevelt's ideas were primarily based in eugenics, the pseudoscience of controlling human reproduction to ensure that genetic traits deemed desirable were passed on. It helps explain why, near the end of his presidency, Roosevelt accepted and disseminated a report by Yale University Professor Irving Fisher which argued that America needed to increase its number of Northern European babies compared to other groups — as well as prevent poor people and those with health issues from reproducing.

Yet Roosevelt also drew his beliefs from the racist ideologies that are baked into America's very identity. Tracing all the way back to its colonial period, white Americans have long justified their expansionist policies in racial terms. Dubbed "Manifest Destiny," they embraced the notion that their race was naturally fated to rule over other races by conquering the continent.

"Thus the thirteen colonies, at the outset of their struggle for independence, saw themselves surrounded north, south, and west, by lands where the rulers and the ruled were of different races, but where rulers and ruled alike were hostile to the new people that was destined in the end to master them all," Roosevelt wrote in his historical monograph, "The Winning of the West: From the Alleghenies to the Mississippi." He put these ideas into practice in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, when he stepped down as Assistant Secretary of the Navy after helping prepare America's fleets in order to personally lead a voluntary cavalry known as the Rough Riders.

The Spanish-American War marked America's first attempt to be a global power — and involved the United States conquering many islands in the Caribbean, with this violent colonizing eventually extending to the Pacific when the United States took over the Philippines. In each of these areas, America was initially reluctant to let go of their acquisitions, with Roosevelt arguing in 1901 that "what has taken us thirty generations to achieve, we cannot expect to see another race accomplish out of hand, especially when large portions of that race start very far behind the point which our ancestors had reached even thirty generations ago."

It is not difficult to see how these views, even if framed as benign, are ultimately motivated by contemptuous attitudes which can result in violence. During a lecture that he gave in New York in 1886, Roosevelt detailed his genocidal views of Indigenous Americans.

"I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth," Roosevelt declared. "The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian. Turn three hundred low families of New York into New Jersey, support them for fifty years in vicious idleness, and you will have some idea of what the Indians are. Reckless, revengeful, fiendishly cruel, they rob and murder, not the cowboys, who can take care of themselves, but the defenseless, lone settlers on the plains."

None of this means that Roosevelt's entire legacy should be regarded as negative. He was a complicated man who caused good and harm throughout his life in very large measure. Whether one thinks the good outweighs the bad is a subjective matter. Perhaps the more pertinent takeaway from Roosevelt's legacy is that — despite having what he believed were good intentions — he wound up championing ideas and actions that have caused nothing but bloodshed and oppression. It is a sober warning to Americans who now occupy the same political space as those who believe in the great replacement theory today, many of whom act only with malicious intentions.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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