Virgil: TR, Trump, and the Power of the Unprecedented
1. A New Yorker Leading the Nation in a New Direction
The New York Republican, new to power on the national stage, was determined to use his bully pulpit to get good things done for both the American worker and the American economy.
Yet now he could see a difficult situation arising in this industrial state. As he put it, “terrible suffering and grave disaster” loomed dead ahead.
Yet many experts told him that he’d be making a big mistake if he intervened to try to remedy the situation. Indeed, the United States attorney general formally advised him, twice, that nothing could be done.
Meanwhile, business leaders, having hatched their plan to enlarge their profits at the expense of workers, were apoplectic at the thought of the new leader stepping in. One irate businessman fumed: “There cannot be two masters in the management of business.” That is, businessmen should be able to run their business any way they wanted, and the workers be damned. In this view, the public interest didn’t matter; the government should just butt out.
Yet in reality, these same businessmen didn’t want to the government to butt out at all—they wanted the government’s active help. That is, they wanted the state forcefully to take their side in their struggle against worker protests, using federal troops. Thus another businessman stated his demand directly to the new leader:
I now ask you to perform the duties vested in you . . . to at once squelch the anarchistic condition of affairs.
In the meantime, the major media decided that nothing could be done to help the workers—and perhaps nothing should be done. The New York Times, for example, dismissed the workers’ effort to maintain their livelihoods as “evidently a practical failure.”
Indeed, according to another New York City-based outlet, the workers were nothing more than dupes; they were “simply being used as tools,” manipulated by demagogues who were “trying to force them into a fight.” And so, the editorial continued, it was right and proper that governmental power and public opinion should unite as one against the afflicted workers, putting “the weight of its influence against mob rule.”
Even a former US president weighed in, counseling the new leader against taking sides with the workers, because, as he put it, “The quarreling parties are both in the wrong.”
Yet the New Yorker, already known for being a brash iconoclast, ignored these counsels of disdain and despair. He knew that most of the workers had voted for him—his ticket had carried their state in the previous presidential election—and so they were looking to him, in particular, for hope. Moreover, he observed, if the situation were left unaddressed, it could worsen into a “national menace.”
So he plunged in, using all the skills of problem-solving and deal-making that he had accumulated over a lifetime. And in fact, he actually solved the problem, at least some of it. And for sure, he solved a lot more of it than anyone else had ever thought possible.
As he himself explained, abstract talk about “rights,” disconnected from tangible action, means little to people who are struggling to survive. What matters most, to people trying to put food on their table, is the bottom line: Do they have the wherewithal to keep the wolf from the door?
And yet this recognition of the practical challenges faced by ordinary people was offensive to the affluent elite, who seemed to think that people could eat their cliches. Or, more likely, the elite didn’t care if they ate at all. As the new leader explained of his new thinking at the time:
It was almost revolutionary, and gave rise to the bitterest denunciation of us by all the big lawyers, and all the big newspaper editors, who, whether sincerely or for hire, gave expression to the views of the privileged classes.
Yet if the privileged elite despised him, the non-privileged masses loved him. Indeed, in the wake of his effective intervention, his popularity soared.
Yet even after his success, the elite continued its scolding. A prominent thought leader and historian declared that the New Yorker’s actions were:
. . . one of the most unfortunate things a President of the United States has recently done—economically, legally, constitutionally, and philosophically. . . . To my mind he committed an egregious blunder, the consequences of which we are long destined to suffer from.
Does this sound familiar? A bit like the outlines of Donald Trump’s successful effort to help Carrier workers in Indiana? Sure it does.
And yet in fact, if the reader has been following the hyperlinks above, he or she knows it’s actually the story of another New York-born Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, who, in 1902, settled a bitter strike by 147,000 Pennsylvania anthracite coal miners.
Back then, the miners had a strong case: Their pay was low, and they wanted it to be higher. Their workday was long, and they wanted it to be shorter: to become a mere eight hours. Their work was extremely dangerous, and, well, given the nature of underground mining, there wasn’t all that much to be done about that. So let’s just say that the miners earned their wage with their sweat, their blood, and the tears of their families.
And so we can see that the miners had the cause of industrial justice on their side—and they went on strike in May 1902.
Yet at the same time, the entire country, dependent on coal, had a stake in the swift resolution of the strike. But there was no swift resolution; as the mine owners refused to negotiate, the strike dragged on through the summer and into the fall.
This was a serious matter, because, in those days, coal was the major fuel for American industry. Moreover, as winter approached, in late ’02, the “coal famine” threatened the nation’s home heating. A political cartoon in a major Minnesota newspaper put the matter plainly: “We must have that coal.”
So President Roosevelt was confronted with a major social and economic crisis, even though, as we have seen, many experts hadn’t wanted him to do anything.
Yet the experts didn’t have the measure of Theodore Roosevelt, the new president who had come into office unexpectedly in September 1901, after an anarchist had assassinated his predecessor, William McKinley. TR had never been a man to shrink from a crisis; as one biographer put it, “Roosevelt demonstrated from an early age his determination to overcome challenges through sheer willpower.”
Moreover, TR was blessed with a natural instinct to correct injustice wherever he saw it, no matter what the odds. To be sure, he was no Robin Hood; nor was he any kind of redistributionist; as a conservative, he believed in hierarchy, and yet he also believed in harmony. And now, because of the coal strike, the country confronted class-base disharmony. As TR later recalled, “I had to take charge of the matter, as President, on behalf of the Federal Government. . . . I was in readiness.”
Still, as the president sought to settle the coal strike through mediation, he was in uncharted territory. After all, never before in US history had the federal government attempted to mediate a strike. And yet in the past, the feds had hardly been hands off; many times in the past, the government had used troops to break strikes at the behest of the bosses. One notorious instance of Uncle Sam’s siding with capital, against labor, came in 1894, when Democratic president Grover Cleveland sent soldiers to Chicago to squelch a strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company. An estimated 30 workers died.
TR did not want a repeat of such violent bloodshed. To be sure, he was no softy; first and foremost, he believed in order. As he said to Carroll Wright, the US Commissioner of Labor:
The first principle of civilization is the preservation of order. Without order there can be no liberty and the foe of order is the foe of liberty.
Yet at the same time, he believed that order must be linked to justice; the two virtues must go together. Indeed, the two had to go together, because he understood that without justice, order would turn brittle and eventually be fractured by anarchism—of the kind that had taken President McKinley’s life—or even outright revolution.
So that was the thinking that guided TR as he sought to settle the coal strike. He wasn’t a liberal, he was a conservative, a conservative who believed in stewardship, who wanted everyone, high or low, to be treated fairly.
Yet as he waded into the details of the strike, he was appalled by the mossback stubbornness of the mine operators, who refused to bargain with the workers. Acutely mindful of the rising tide of peaceful Fabian socialism and also, much worse, the increasing prospect of violent red-revolutionism, TR felt urgency in his new mission as a mediator. As he said in puzzlement in regard to the operators’ obtuseness, “Do they not realize that they are putting a heavy burden on us who stand against socialism; against anarchic disorder?”
In October 1902, as temperatures fell, the country watched as TR went to work.
A famous contemporary political cartoon in a Chicago newspaper depicted TR as a stern schoolmaster, tutoring myopically selfish coal barons on the concept of enlightened self-interest.
And so, through the force of sheer willpower, TR persuaded the two sides, labor and capital, to agree to binding arbitration later that same month.
So early the following year, a compromise solution emerged from the five months of deliberation by TR’s Anthracite Coal Strike Commission: The workers got their raise, albeit smaller than they had wanted. Yet they also got something ultimately even more important—a de facto recognition of the United Mine Workers as their bargaining agent. And perhaps most important of all, as the workers went back to work, America would once again get its needed coal.
In the meantime, in his Second Annual Message to Congress, delivered on December 2, 1902, TR outlined his vision of harmonious industrial employment. It was his goal, he declared:
. . . to secure fair treatment alike for labor and for capital . . . to hold in check the unscrupulous man, whether employer or employee, without weakening individual initiative, without hampering and cramping the industrial development of the country.
This idea of “fair treatment” soon evolved into TR’s catchphrase, the “Square Deal.” And then TR reminded his audience of the true stakes of industrial disputes: Prudential economic reform is the only “sure safeguard against revolution.”
So as we can see, TR was anything but a radical. As the historian John Morton Blum wrote in 1954, Roosevelt “preached, partly by instinct, partly by design, what the self-conscious middle class, a safe majority, believed.”
Indeed, TR spoke for the majority—a big majority. And two years later, in 1904, the people who knew him best, his fellow Americans, re-elected him in a landslide; he won the popular vote by nearly 20 points.
2. Trump, in the TR Tradition
Yes, our 26th president had the same can-do spirit as does the soon-to-be 45th president. In fact, today, as we all know, Trump has been so eager to dive into the fray that he is already fighting for American jobs, dealing with Carrier a full two months before he is due to be sworn in to office. (Indeed, it seems as if the Obama Era has already ended.)
Indeed, Trump’s work on behalf of Carrier workers, and his overall stance on trade, is popular. As even Politico had to admit on December 6, citing new polling data, the President-elect’s pro-job policies are “wildly popular.”
Yet of course, the elite is a different matter. As we have seen, back in 1902, TR’s efforts on behalf of workers were admired by the public, but were excoriated by the elite.
And the same thing is happening now to Trump—the same split between the upper crust and the masses. Indeed, if Virgil ever needed proof of the old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”—well, here it is. Just as in TR’s time, the elitists, purists, and snobs of today are out in force, saying, in effect: To hell with the workers.
To be sure, the language of today is a bit different: Whereas back then, critics spoke of the supposedly sacred principle of laissez-faire (except, of course, when the elites demanded federal troops to break strikes), today, the critics talk about the supreme importance of unchecked market forces and untrammeled globalism.
In fact, the number of snooty articles trashing Trump over the Carrier deal is probably too high to count. Yet perhaps we can settle on a pair of particularly vehement pieces, one left and one right, which will serve to illustrate the whole.
From the left, there was a screed from Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of The Washington Post, who headlined his attack on the Carrier deal as “An economic fix Putin would love.” Warming to his theme, Hiatt declared:
There is a whiff of Putinism in the combination of bribery and menace that may have affected Carrier’s decision—the bribery of tax breaks, the menace of potential lost defense contracts for Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies.
In response, we might ask: When did tax breaks become “bribery”? And when did it become Putin-esque to demand good corporate behavior from a defense contractor? We can be sure, for example, that if the CEO of United Technologies were to say the “n” word, Hiatt would be demanding that the CEO be fired, on pain of losing those same Defense Department contracts.
And we might further ask: If Trump is Putin, does that mean that the Hoosiers working at Carrier are now somehow honorary Russians? And how about any other American who supports what Trump has been doing? Answer the question please, Da or Nyet.
Hiatt, of course, is a well-known Trump hater, as is the entirety of the “Bezos Post.” (We can recall that Trump lost any chance he had of gaining even a smidgen of affection from Post owner Jeff Bezos when he declared that, as president, he would make the Amazon mogul pay his fair share of taxes. At that point, the newspaper’s hostility to the New Yorker reached warp speed.)
Yet if Hiatt’s attack from the left was predictable, the attack from Sarah Palin on the right was unpredictable.
Palin, heretofore a Trump ally, argued against any intervention, insisting that the goal should be a “level playing field.”
We can step back and say: That’s a nice enough theoretical thought—if theory pays the mortgage. Indeed, if we’re thinking practically, about how the economy actually operates, we might ask ourselves: Has there ever, in the real world, been any such thing as a level playing field? Answer: Of course not. Every economic playing field, like the world itself, is lumpy and bumpy.
Then Palin continued:
When government steps in arbitrarily with individual subsidies, favoring one business over others, it sets inconsistent, unfair, illogical precedent.
Ah, there we have it once again, the old language warning against “favoritism.” As we have seen, according to the experts, it can be good to show favoritism toward business, but it’s always bad to show favoritism to workers.
So now we might ask ourselves another question: Is there anything that a US president could do that could not be construed as favoritism? After all, if the president does one thing, that means he isn’t doing something else. If he’s on the phone with A, then he’s not on the phone with B. If he visits country X, that means he’s not visiting country Y. We could go on and on, to the point of maddening infinity: Why this speech venue, but not that speech venue? Why does one locale receive a federal disaster designation, but not the other locale?
Here’s the point: We hire a president to make judgments on our behalf. And in 2016, the American people hired Trump, knowing full well that his agenda included aggressively fighting for American jobs.
To be sure, saving American jobs, especially vital industrial jobs, will take a lot more than last-minute presidential intervention—it will take new policies, on corporate taxation, on regulation, and, of course, on trade.
In the meantime, sadly, for as long as the old policies persist, the bell will keep tolling for blue-collar jobs. For instance, Rexnord Aerospace, not far down the road from Carrier, just announced that it was moving jobs to Mexico.
And the President-elect is on top of that situation, too; on December 2 he tweeted:
Rexnord of Indiana is moving to Mexico and rather viciously firing all of its 300 workers. This is happening all over our country. No more!
Now we might ask Trump’s critics: Does this tweet, too, offend your purist sensibilities? Until policies can be changed, should Trump not be using the tools at his disposal to save jobs? Like TR before him, Trump is doing everything he can; indeed, many early indicators are encouraging, such as this Bloomberg News headline about another company that’s been offshoring jobs: “Ford Willing to Work With Trump If Policies Right: CEO.”
So yes, by all means, let’s get the policies right.
Yet in the meantime, whether the critics like it or not, Trump is going to keep at it, using such tools of communication as Twitter, thus creating his own cyber-updating of the bully pulpit.
And so if we aggregate his tweets from the morning of December 4, we get this early peek at Trump administration economic policy:
The U.S. is going to substantially reduce taxes and regulations on businesses, but any business that leaves our country for another country, . . . fires its employees, builds a new factory or plant in the other country, and then thinks it will sell its product back into the U.S. . . . without retribution or consequence, is WRONG! There will be a tax on our soon to be strong border of 35% for these companies . . . wanting to sell their product, cars, A.C. units etc., back across the border. This tax will make leaving financially difficult, but . . . these companies are able to move between all 50 states, with no tax or tariff being charged. Please be forewarned prior to making a very … expensive mistake! THE UNITED STATES IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS
Critics will no doubt suffer anxiety attacks as they parse through each word, but here’s a bet: The vast majority of the American people—including many who didn’t vote for him in November—are now saying, Go, Trump! Finally, we have a leader who’ s fighting for us.