It seems ridiculous to compare Franklin Roosevelt with Donald Trump. Yet the comparison is telling.
The response from the White House to the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched through Charlottesville should have been obvious. Instead President Donald Trump has doggedly maintained his neutrality. In his initial statement, Trump refused to call out the sinister forces present in Charlottesville. He could only bring himself to condemn hatred, bigotry, and violence “on many sides.”
For two long days, he refused to revise his comments. Finally he read out a statement calling white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan “repugnant.” But the following day he reclaimed the moral low ground, equating racists with anti-racists and claiming there was “blame on both sides.”
Naturally, white nationalists were delighted. “When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room,” crowed the The Daily Stormer. “Really, really good. God bless him.”
“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth,” tweeted former Klan leader David Duke.
A week later, in his speech on Afghanistan, Trump again sought to clean up his Charlottesville response, rejecting prejudice, bigotry, and hate and declaring that “love for America requires love for all of its people.” But it was too late.
Trump has said dreadful things about race in the past. He spent years questioning whether the first African American president was born in America. As a presidential candidate he called Mexicans “rapists” and promised a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
And yet the moral relativism of his comments about Charlottesville was still shocking. In Charlottesville, only one “side” counted Nazis among its ranks. We expect the president of the United States to be unambiguously opposed to Nazis.
Franklin Roosevelt was not a perfect human being; he was a man of his time. But in 1940, he knew whom he supported and whom he opposed.
On foreign policy, too, the difference between the two men is stark. For decades, Trump has leaned towards isolationism. He admires strong men such as Vladimir Putin. By contrast Roosevelt was an internationalist. He defined America’s interests broadly. He liked democrats, not dictators.
Roosevelt’s response to the shocking events in Europe in 1940 was not to withdraw into the Western Hemisphere, as urged by many outside and inside his administration, but rather the opposite. In his Charlottesville address, Roosevelt vowed to hasten American rearmament and expedite the flow of aid to “the opponents of force.”
Over the next year and a half, he initiated the Lend-Lease program, expanded U.S. naval operations in the Atlantic, and moved a divided America toward ever-greater involvement in the European war. He helped transform the United States from a hesitant, isolationist middle power into a global leader.