By David Kurlander

President Trump has yet to formally concede the election, but reports suggest he’s already considering a 2024 comeback run. Newsweek’s Joshua Spivak, in a piece decrying the idea of another Trump campaign, invoked another Republican president who crafted a return to the presidential arena after stepping aside: Teddy Roosevelt. In 1912, after four years on the sidelines, Roosevelt challenged his successor, William Howard Taft, for the White House. This decision tore apart the GOP and illuminated many of the themes—executive power, party loyalty, and the political role of the press—that already swirl around Trump’s uncertain future…

Teddy Roosevelt entered the presidency amid tragedy. He was Vice President to William McKinley, who had just been reelected when anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated him at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. In effect, Roosevelt had been handed a full term. Following a landslide reelection, Roosevelt—aware he’d be serving more than a decade if he ran again—promised to step aside in 1908. Roosevelt hand-picked his close friend Taft as his Republican successor and headed off for a year-long safari in what is now Kenya with his 19-year-old son Kermit. Father and son killed a staggering 512 animals and Roosevelt wrote a popular hunting guide, African Game Trails. 

Roosevelt was hunting white rhino in the Congo when he got a terrible cable: Taft had fired Roosevelt’s longtime Chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot. “Pinchot is the man to whom the nation owes most for what has been accomplished as regards the preservation of the natural resources of our country,” Roosevelt wrote in his 1914 autobiography. The two men worked together to protect 150 million acres of forest during the Roosevelt administration. Taft kept Pinchot on, but the Chief clashed with Taft’s Secretary of the Interior—and Pinchot’s ostensible boss—Richard Ballinger, who criticized the conservation movement and the legally-questionable Executive Orders Roosevelt and Pinchot had used to secure much of the land. Pinchot got one of his congressional allies, Senator John Dolliver, to read into the Senate record an incendiary open letter to Ballinger. Taft, tired of the drama, reluctantly dismissed Pinchot…

After Pinchot’s ouster, and with Roosevelt still navigating the Nile, the back-and-forth between Ballinger and Pinchot became glaringly public. An Interior Department whistleblower, Henry Glavis, accused Ballinger of corruptly leasing Alaskan wilderness to a coal magnate. Pinchot boosted Glavis’s allegations, which soon ran as a blockbuster Collier’s article. Congress opened an investigation, with up-and-coming lawyer Louis Brandeis passionately representing Glavis in increasingly tense and convoluted hearings. The Party was splitting into pro-conservationist, anti-corporate “Pinchotites” and more conservative “Ballingerites.”

Pinchot met Roosevelt on the Italian Riviera, where the forester laid out a sweeping indictment of the Taft administration, from its tacit support of ultra-powerful Rhode Island Senator Nelson Aldrich’s pro-business tariffs to his delivery of letters from progressive Republicans criticizing Taft’s direction. After a brief sojourn to accept the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Russo-Japanese War, Roosevelt finally docked in New York on June 18, 1910. 

Roosevelt’s popularity, particularly after the disappointments of a year and a half of Taftian scandals, was at an all-time high. An estimated one million well-wishers converged on Broadway to welcome “Colonel Roosevelt” home, and his political endorsement immediately became the grand Republican prize during the 1910 midterms.

Conservative pro-Taft forces, led by New York GOP boss William Barnes, sprang into action, conspiring to stop delegates from voting Roosevelt in as chairman of the state Republican convention. Roosevelt, rapidly losing belief in Taft, responded by embarking on a fall tour of the West, delivering speeches decrying corporate power and edging toward a declaration of candidacy. In Osawatomie, Kansas, Roosevelt gave an influential address proclaiming a “new nationalism” against the “great special business interests” who “too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit” and in which conservation would be “a great moral issue.” Roosevelt published the speech in book form and spent much of 1911 reasserting its message in stops across the country. In February 1912, he made the run official during a Carnegie Hall speech, in which he famously declared, “My hat is in the ring.”

Roosevelt recognized that his only shot at the Republican nomination was in convincing state parties to embrace the “direct primary,” rather than having big-wig delegates effectively decide the nominee. Only six states had adopted this approach. Taft and his allies, led by Barnes, preached against this comparatively populist system. Despite Roosevelt’s victories in most of the primaries, the Republican establishment moved to renominate Taft at a bitter Convention.

Undaunted, Roosevelt started the Progressive Party, which he nicknamed the “Bull Moose Party” in reference to his strength. From the outset, the gambit appeared likely to split the GOP vote and swing the election to Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson. Still, Roosevelt ran aggressively, attacking an increasingly pacified Taft campaign as “boss-ridden and privilege-controlled.” In a legendary scene shortly before the election, Bavarian immigrant Frank Schrank, claiming that he had been called to violence in a dream by slain President William McKinley, shot Roosevelt in the chest as he started his stump speech in Milwaukee. With the bullet lodged in his chest, Roosevelt ad-libbed to the crowd, “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,” before orating for 90 minutes.

Roosevelt dramatically outperformed Taft, but Wilson indeed prevailed. The rejection of Republican progressivism set up the conservative, pro-business turn of 1920s Republican Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Roosevelt, for his part, recognized the strategic failure of his campaign, telling Pinchot shortly after defeat, “We must face the fact that our cutting loose from the Republican Party was followed by disaster to the Progressive cause.” 

Trump has compared himself to Roosevelt. Clearly, so much as a cursory glance at their domestic policy priorities provides some serious pushback; Roosevelt’s run was spurred on, after all, by his decidedly un-Trumpian conservationist ardor and disdain for corporations. As Republicans grapple with their identity, however, the specter of the 1912 split—and the power of a lingering personality to alter the long-term Party ideology—could serve as a meaningful warning for 2024. 

For more on the 1912 election, read James Chace’s book 1912 Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs—The Election that Changed the Country. To learn more about the role the press played in the GOP fissure, pick up Doris Kearns Goodwin’s enchanting The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. And for a fascinating portrait of Roosevelt’s post-presidency, check out Colonel Roosevelt, the third installment of Edmund Morris’ epic biography. 

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