Josh Hawley Says Conservatives Must Reclaim the Theodore Roosevelt Legacy. Not So Fast

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Senator Josh Hawley in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., July 11, 2019 (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The Ethics & Public Policy Center had its Big Tech Symposium today, discussing hot button topics such as Section 230 reform, antitrust initiatives, and more. The meeting kicked off with remarks from GOP lawmakers who have come out in support of such measures. Josh Hawley, a longtime proponent of reigning in Big Tech, started the symposium by recalling a past Republican icon: Theodore Roosevelt. Hawley was not alone; in fact, the younger Roosevelt played a starring role in many congressmen’s remarks.

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Hawley argued in his introduction that the Republican Party has historically been a party of working-class Americans, small-businesses owners, and antitrust politicians. Building a case for a working-class antitrust coalition of Republicans should not be difficult nor a radical departure, according to the Missouri senator. For Hawley, the principles of free enterprise are not in conflict with the spirit of capitalism. Theodore Roosevelt was an example of how trustbusting can coexist with, and even support, entrepreneurship. 

The invocation of TR did not stop with Hawley; other GOP politicians at the Symposium pointed to the Rough Rider as an exemplary figure in American economic history. While the Republican is rightfully recognized as one of the most important presidents in our nation’s history, his status as an American conservative is, at best, ambivalent. Roosevelt was a transformative president, but he did so as an integral part of the Progressive Era. He moved to the left in 1906, prioritizing regulation, the right to strike, and an interventionist foreign policy. His “Square Deal,” for instance, was disputed by more-conservative members of the Republican and Democratic parties. 

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Perhaps the most peculiar reason for Roosevelt’s invocation as a trustbuster is that he, well, didn’t break up that many trusts. TR revived the Sherman Antitrust Act as president, but he generally preferred to regulate businesses rather than break them up. In fact, contemporaries criticized him for failing to break up monopolies properly.

It was his successor, William Howard Taft, who was the real trustbuster TR never was. In fact, Taft is a far better example of an antitrust conservative, too. Taft was a strict constitutionalist, deeply skeptical of his own power as president. Yet while he did undertake trustbusting measures, Taft has a sterling record of fiscal, social, and judicial conservatism.

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This small history detour is useful to keep in mind when congressmen invoke the legacies of presidents such as Roosevelt. We should be wary of bold, brash, progressive ideas cloaked in conservative clothing. A right-wing aesthetic does not a conservative policy make. Josh Hawley wants us to believe that Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy is one of reasonable, antitrust conservatism. He is not completely wrong, but we can’t forget the most lasting legacy of TR is as a powerful leader who used state power to usher in a new era of progressivism. It’s a legacy that need not be repeated. 

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