On Tuesday morning, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump decided to hold himself alongside one of the most towering figures in American political history, for a pretty dismal reason. Trump compared himself to Franklin D. Roosevelt, our 32nd president, while defending his proposal that we ban Muslims from entering the country. He likened it to Roosevelt's decision to intern citizens and immigrants of Japanese descent during World War II.
It's a pretty rough comparison to draw. First of all — and this is a good thing — it reminds us all of the perils of racism, paranoia, and fear on a massive scale, hearkening back to one of the darkest chapters of 20th century America. In 1942, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans into camps across the country. It would take more than four years for that seismic injustice to come to an end, and more than 40 after that for the U.S. government to compensate its victims and formally apologize.
It's an ugly truth, but you have to give Trump this much: His proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States is definitely in that same awful realm as Japanese internment (though thankfully, it's still nothing but an idea). It's a reality which fans of the Roosevelt years must grapple with honestly and regularly — the man did enact one of the most racist, authoritarian programs in American history.
In that one respect, Trump could argue that he and Roosevelt are sort of like-minded. The Japanese military attacks Pearl Harbor, dragging the United States into World War II? Intern tens of thousands of innocent civilians! High-profile terrorist attacks by violent Islamic militants draw America deeper into the international fight against ISIS? Ban millions upon millions of Muslims from entering the United States! Trump, of course, invites the comparison — he told Good Morning America Tuesday that his proposed ban is "no different than FDR," and in an interview with Time, he suggested that he might've been open to Japanese internment in the early 1940s, too:
I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer. I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer ... It’s a tough thing. It’s tough. But you know war is tough. And winning is tough. We don’t win anymore. We don’t win wars anymore. We don’t win wars anymore. We’re not a strong country anymore. We’re just so off.
Trump and Roosevelt were also both born into immense privilege. Trump is the son of a wealthy real estate developer, and Roosevelt was the child of a wealthy family which already boasted one president, Theodore Roosevelt, before he first ran in 1933.
But it's in that privilege that a gaping difference between them becomes starkly apparent. Economically, Roosevelt spoke strenuously and zealously on behalf of poor, struggling, and underserved Americans, effectively winning over people from entirely different upbringings by shedding some of the trappings and greed of his high-class roots. This was immortalized in policy by the New Deal, and also in his rhetoric, such as in his famous 1936 speech at Madison Square Garden in New York, delivered just days before he was elected to his second term. Here's a bit of it:
For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up. We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.
By today's standards, that speech would have the Republicans screaming class warfare with a capital C. By contrast, when met with arguably the most FDR-esque voice on economic justice and opportunity in the race, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Trump dubbed him a "maniac."
This socialist-slash-communist — okay, nobody wants to say it ... he's gonna tax you people at 90 percent. He's gonna take everything! And nobody's heard the term communist. But you know what, I call him a socialist-slash-communist, okay, cause that's what he is.
That's a far cry from welcoming the hatred of the greedy and rapacious. Suffice to say that if Trump really wants to go around comparing himself to FDR, it'd be worth it to take some lessons from some of the good things he did, rather than sticking to the gross violations of human rights.