The growing influence on the American right of Ayn Rand, the libertarian right’s answer to Scientology’s novelist-philosopher L. Ron Hubbard, is a wonder to behold. When she died in 1982, Alissa Rosenbaum — the original name of the Russian-born novelist — was the leader of a marginal cult, the Objectivists, who had long been cast out of the mainstream American right. But the rise of Tea Party conservatism, fueled by white racial panic and zero-sum distributional conflicts in the Great Recession, has turned this minor, once-forgotten figure into an icon for a new generation of nerds who imagine themselves Nietzschean Ubermenschen oppressed by the totalitarian tyranny of the post office and the Social Security administration.
Rand-worshipers can be found in, among other places, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. At a 2005 gathering to honor her memory, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan declared, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”
The late Gore Vidal would not have been surprised by the former Republican vice-presidential candidate’s choice of a patron saint. After all, it was Vidal who observed, in a 1961 article for Esquire:
She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the ‘welfare’ state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts. For them, she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil, self-interest is the only good, and if you’re dumb or incompetent that’s your lookout.
Vidal might be dismissed as a biased leftist. But the late William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of post-1945 conservatism who engaged in a famous televised spat with Vidal during the 1968 Democratic convention, shared Vidal’s contempt for Ayn Rand. After her death in 1982, Buckley wrote in the New York Daily News: "She was an eloquent and persuasive anti-statist, and if only she had left it at that, but no. She had to declare that God did not exist, that altruism was despicable, that only self-interest was good and noble." In 2003, Buckley described his encounter with Rand’s interminable propaganda novel "Atlas Shrugged": “I had to flog myself to read it.”
Ayn Rand and her “Objectivist” cult members never forgave Buckley for reading them out of the mainstream American right, along with the equally crackpot John Birch Society. In 1957 Buckley, then the young editor of the flagship magazine of the conservative movement, National Review, published a review of "Atlas Shrugged" by Whittaker Chambers, the ex-communist intellectual who had played a key role in exposing Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy.
Chambers titled his review “Big Sister Is Watching You.” He wrote:
Its story is preposterous. It reports the final stages of a final conflict (locale: chiefly the United States, some indefinite years hence) between the harried ranks of free enterprise and the “looters.” These are proponents of proscriptive taxes, government ownership, Labor, etc. etc. The mischief here is that the author, dodging into fiction, nevertheless counts on your reading it as political reality. “This,” she is saying in effect, “is how things really are. These are the real issues, the real sides. Only your blindness keeps you from seeing it, which, happily, I have come to rescue you from.”
The juvenile plot of "Atlas Shrugged" is a melodramatic war between “Children of Light” and “Children of Darkness”:
The Children of Light are largely operatic caricatures. In so far as any of them suggests anything known to the business community, they resemble the occasional curmudgeon millionaire, tales about whose outrageously crude and shrewd eccentricities sometimes provide the lighter moments in Board rooms. Otherwise, the Children of Light are geniuses. One of them is named (the only smile you see will be your own): Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian d’Anconia.
Today’s libertarian rightist radicals distinguish between “makers” and “takers.” In the flagship conservative magazine of the 1950s, Whittaker Chambers did not tolerate such crude sloganeering:
In Atlas Shrugged, all this debased inhuman riffraff is lumped as “looters.” This is a fairly inspired epithet. It enables the author to skewer on one invective word everything and everybody that she fears and hates. This spares her the plaguey business of performing one service that her fiction might have performed, namely: that of examining in human depth how so feeble a lot came to exist at all, let alone be powerful enough to be worth hating and fearing. Instead, she bundles them into one undifferentiated damnation.
Long before the historian Corey Robin made the case for the Nietzschean roots of much modern libertarianism, Chambers detected Nietzsche’s influence on the author of "Atlas Shrugged":
Miss Rand acknowledges a grudging debt to one, and only one, earlier philosopher: Aristotle. I submit that she is indebted, and much more heavily, to Nietzsche. Just as her operatic businessmen are, in fact, Nietzschean supermen, so her ulcerous leftists are Nietzsche’s “last men,” both deformed in a way to sicken the fastidious recluse of Sils Maria. And much else comes, consciously or not, from the same source.
Chambers concluded that despite all her talk about individualism and liberty, Rand was driven by a romantic and illiberal vision in which a heroic minority of superhuman geniuses would remake a corrupt society from top to bottom:
One Big Brother is, of course, a socializing elite (as we know, several cut-rate brands are on the shelves). Miss Rand, as the enemy of any socializing force, calls in a Big Brother of her own contriving to do battle with the other. In the name of free enterprise, therefore, she plumps for a technocratic elite (I find no more inclusive word than technocratic to bracket the industrial-financial-engineering caste she seems to have in mind).
Chambers did not live to see one of Ayn Rand’s early disciples, Alan Greenspan, become chairman of the Federal Reserve, the ultimate technocrat of the financial caste, if not of industrialists and engineers.
Rand’s conceited Nietzschean elitism was shared by another libertarian hero, Ludwig von Mises, who wrote to Rand: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the efforts of men who are better than you.” (Hayek later confessed that he was defeated by "Atlas Shrugged": “Although I tried seriously to read the book, I failed, because there was no romance in it. I tried even more diligently to read that fellow John Galt’s hundred-page declaration of independence, and I knew I’d be questioned on all that, but I just couldn’t get through it.”)
The mentality of Ayn Rand, as described by Chambers back in 1957 in the pages of the leading conservative magazine, is remarkably similar to the mentality of the Tea Party right that seeks to sabotage government (as Rand’s heroes sabotage the economy), no matter the consequences for the nation:
In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked.
What should we conclude from the fact that Ayn Rand’s works are admired by 21st century American rightists like Paul Ryan who have forgotten, if they ever knew about, sophisticated conservative intellectuals like Chambers and Buckley? Gore Vidal’s comments in 1961 seem chillingly prescient in 2013:
Ayn Rand’s ‘philosophy’ is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society. Moral values are in flux. The muddy depths are being stirred by new monsters and witches from the deep. Trolls walk the American night. Caesars are stirring in the Forum. There are storm warnings ahead.