USA Politics

At FDR's 'Little White House,' a portrait of Trump's starkly different worldview

Finding the patterns

President Roosevelt imagined an America of fearless optimism and global engagement at his Georgia hideaway. President Trump is challenging that worldview. But the place also shows how the times shaped both men.  

A statue of Franklin D. Roosevelt stands on Dowdell's Knob in Warm Springs, Ga.
Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor | Caption

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gazed out from Dowdell’s Knob in April of 1945, he was greeted by a peaceful vista that contrasted, to its very horizon, with a bloodied and broken world.

The four-term president’s favorite picnic spot on the crown of Pine Mountain, historians say, helped soothe the guilt of war and, in part, inspired the groundwork for what came afterward – a remarkable stretch of relative world peace, policed by the might, and guided by the vision, of the United States.

Looking out on the same landscape this week, Jim Treadwell, a pseudonym for a local law enforcement officer who asked for anonymity to speak frankly, sees something darker: Danger sneaking through the hardwood groves below – whether Mexican gangs from nearby Columbus, Ga., or liberals moving to the Peach State countryside and making a fuss about protecting the wildlife.

To him, that clear-eyed appreciation of danger – combined with liberal overreaction – sums up the young presidency of Donald Trump.

“I lock the door when I go to bed at night,” he says. “That’s all Trump wants to do. He wants to lock the door at night, and in the morning he’ll unlock it and put the ‘open for business’ sign back out again.”

Mr. Treadwell’s analogy echoes a broader sentiment taking root, which critics say diverges from many long-accepted norms in how Americans view and interact with the world. Where Roosevelt moved the country out of its post-World War I isolationism, Mr. Trump has promoted a nationalistic “America first” philosophy built on darker views of “carnage” at home and threats abroad.

The shift comes at “a complex age of turbulence and opportunity,” when “Americans are dissatisfied with their government and divided over their country’s role in this unsettled world,” according to a recent report by RAND Corp., a security consultancy.

In the process, Americans like Treadwell – an independent who says he voted for Democratic Presidents Carter and Clinton – are putting stock in Trump to reassess Roosevelt’s legacy of fearless optimism and world leadership.

“There have only been a handful of true ‘regime shifts’ in American political history, and perhaps the biggest one was FDR,” says Brandon Weichert, a geopolitical analyst and founder of the Weichert Report, in Alexandria, Va. “We are seeing one now with Trump. And it does come at a dark time. The elites don’t understand this dark vision, because to them the world is great.”

“It’s important to remember that every president is a product of their times.”

Two different worldviews 

For FDR, that meant engagement.

He championed trade deals that lowered tariffs and helped liberalize global trade. He pushed for United States membership in the World Court. And he played a crucial role in founding the United Nations after World War II.

Roosevelt used his inauguration to proclaim “that the only thing we have to fear is ... fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

In a 1940 fireside chat, Roosevelt exhorted:

There are many among us who closed their eyes, from lack of interest or lack of knowledge; honestly and sincerely thinking that the many hundreds of miles of salt water made the American Hemisphere so remote that the people of North and Central and South America could go on living in the midst of their vast resources without reference to, or danger from, other continents of the world.

At his inauguration, Trump spoke of American “carnage.” With his executive powers, Trump has sought to build up America’s natural barriers, abandoning the Pacific trade deal, moving toward building a Mexico border wall, and trying to temporarily keep out citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations.

Hope and humiliation 

Warm Springs was a fount of Roosevelt’s hope. He built his rustic “Little White House” here for its healing 82-degree spring.

But today, it also offers a more nuanced picture of Roosevelt – and his connections to Trump. Meriwether County, about an hour south of Atlanta, voted for Trump by 56 percent. And Bob Patterson, the pastor of the Warm Springs First Baptist Church and a life-long Roosevelt buff, has no doubt why Trump’s message plays well here: a sense of economic insecurity. 

“There’s no problem here in Meriwether County that 2,000 jobs wouldn’t solve,” he says.

Bob Patterson, pastor of the Warm Springs First Baptist Church, talks about Franklin D. Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Ga., on Wednesday.
Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor | Caption

Scholars note some of the same tendencies in Trump and Roosevelt – both took on the courts, both pushed the boundaries executive authority in the name of national security, and both showed an ability to take advantage of emerging media (radio for Roosevelt, Twitter for Trump). But here in Warm Springs what binds them is their common touch.

As with Roosevelt, a large chunk of Trump’s base is self-described “commoners” who feel they have a handshake deal with the president. Indeed, the dapper Hyde Park native made a deep and genuine connection with the “common man” here.

“Trump revived FDR’s ‘forgotten man,’ ” says Mr. Patterson. “He reminded a lot of Americans that they have been deprived, left out, and forgotten.”

A stark difference, of course, is that Roosevelt entered office with 25 percent unemployment compared with 4.9 percent unemployment today. That’s one reason Trump’s vision hasn’t been more broadly appealing, observers say.

“When FDR talked about a country laid to waste by the Great Depression … he was describing a picture that all Americans were seeing.” Today, however, many Americans don’t recognize Trump’s evocations of a “dark ‘American carnage,’ ” writes Linette Lopez for Business Insider.

But for those who do recognize it, Trump and his senior adviser, Steven Bannon, have activated a mix of Christian apocalyptic thought peppered with a sense of humiliation at the hands of foreigners. As Treadwell, the Georgia cop, says, “We’re tired of two things: God being taken out of daily life and being laughed at behind our backs.”

While Roosevelt spoke with optimism, Trump has proven masterful at pushing on the “pain points” of shame and humiliation, says Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael D’Antonio, author of “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success.” 

“Roosevelt was worldly and sophisticated enough to have hope, but Trump ... finds no inspiration in the world,” he says. “That’s why FDR called on people to open their hearts and Trump is calling on them to close them.”

One view of the 'carnage' 

Roy Orlinger looks like any good husband as he patiently waits outside a row of Warm Springs gift shops as his wife shops, eventually emerging with a couple of throw pillows.

The retired Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent recalls flying drug interdiction missions aboard a converted C-130 military plane, chasing drug runners out of the Georgia skies. After one plane dropped duffel bags of cocaine, agents located the cache – along with a cocaine-covered dead bear that had overdosed by licking the sucrose used to cut the drug.

“There is carnage,” says Mr. Orlinger, pointing to violence perpetrated by gangs and Mexican drug-runners in cities such as Memphis and Chicago. To him, Trump is looking at the world bluntly and realistically. His embrace of Trump is not a rejection of Roosevelt, he says, but of President Obama, whom he believes “was trying to destroy America from within.”

Roy Orlinger sits in downtown Warm Springs, Ga., on Wednesday.
Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor | Caption

To Orlinger, Trump’s deeper point is that patriotism will banish prejudice. “We have to stop looking at race and start looking at each other as brothers and sisters,” he says.

That is a key point of Trump’s appeal, says Robert McCurtain, a Wall Street analyst who specializes in consumer psychology.

“Like in FDR’s day, many [Trump voters] don’t view the United States as the cause of problems in the world and they do still believe the USA is a beacon for the oppressed,” he says. “The big qualifier could be that they want people who live in the USA to live under and by the rule of law.”

To Orlinger and other Trump supporters, a focus on sovereignty isn’t a retreat from the world, but a reassessment of America’s place in it. After all, as Treadwell muses, “What’s wrong with putting America first?”

For Patterson, the pastor, Trump’s willingness to fashion a new kind of presidency harks to Roosevelt, as well. The challenges facing the US might not be remotely on the scale of the Great Depression or World War II, but the perception is that they are – and that Trump is addressing that challenge.

“Seriously, FDR should have been impeached, but instead he ended up being one of our greatest presidents,” says Patterson. “Perhaps Trump can take that to heart.”