President Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has said Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” is his favorite book. Mike Pompeo, head of the CIA, cited Rand as a major inspiration. Before he withdrew his nomination, Trump’s pick to head the Labor Department, Andrew Puzder, revealed that he devotes much free time to reading Rand.
Such is the case with many other Trump advisers and allies: The Republican leader of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, famously made his staff members read Ayn Rand. Trump himself has said that he’s a “fan” of Rand and “identifies” with Howard Roark, the protagonist of Rand’s novel, “The Fountainhead,” “an architect who dynamites a housing project he designed because the builders did not precisely follow his blueprints.”
As a philosopher, I have often wondered at the remarkable endurance and popularity of Ayn Rand’s influence on American politics. Even by earlier standards, however, Rand’s dominance over the current administration looks especially strong.
What’s in common with Ayn Rand?
Recently, historian and Rand expert Jennifer Burns wrote how Rand’s sway over the Republican Party is diminishing. Burns says the promises of government largesse and economic nationalism under Trump would repel Rand.
That was before the president unveiled his proposed federal budget that greatly slashes nonmilitary government spending — and before Paul Ryan’s Obamacare reform, which promised to strip health coverage from 24 million low-income Americans and grant the rich a generous tax cut instead. Now, Trump looks to be zeroing in on a significant tax cut for the rich and corporations.
These all sound like measures Rand would enthusiastically support, in so far as they assist the capitalists and so-called job creators, instead of the poor.
Though the Trump administration looks quite steeped in Rand’s thought, there is one curious discrepancy. Ayn Rand exudes a robust elitism, unlike any I have observed elsewhere in the tomes of political philosophy. But this runs counter to the narrative of the Trump phenomenon: Central to the Trump’s ascendancy is a rejection of elites reigning from urban centers and the coasts, overrepresented at universities and in Hollywood, apparently.
Liberals despair over the fact that they are branded elitists, while, as former television host Jon Stewart put it, Republicans backed a man who takes every chance to tout his superiority, and lords over creation from a gilded penthouse apartment, in a skyscraper that bears his own name.
Clearly, liberals lost this rhetorical battle.
What is Ayn Rand’s philosophy?
How shall we make sense of the gross elitism at the heart of the Trump administration, embodied in its devotion to Ayn Rand — elitism that its supporters overlook or ignore, and happily ascribe to the left instead?
Ayn Rand’s philosophy is quite straightforward. Rand sees the world divided into “makers” and “takers.” But, in her view, the real makers are a select few – a real elite, on whom we would do well to rely, and for whom we should clear the way, by reducing or removing taxes and government regulations, among other things.
Rand’s thought is intellectually digestible, unnuanced, easily translated into policy approaches and statements.
Small government is in order because it lets the great people soar to great heights, and they will drag the rest with them. Rand says we must ensure that “the exceptional men, the innovators, the intellectual giants, are not held down by the majority. In fact, it is the members of this exceptional minority who lift the whole of a free society to the level of their own achievements, while rising further and ever further.”
Mitt Romney captured Rand’s philosophy well during the 2012 campaign when he spoke of the 47 percent of Americans who do not work, vote Democrat and are happy to be supported by hardworking, conservative Americans.
No sympathy for the poor
In laying out her dualistic vision of society, divided into good and evil, Rand’s language is often starker and harsher. In her 1957 novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” she says,
“The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all their brains.”
Rand’s is the opposite of a charitable view of humankind, and can, in fact, be quite cruel. Consider her attack on Pope Paul VI, who, in his 1967 encyclical Progressio Populorum, argued that the West has a duty to help developing nations, and called for its sympathy for the global poor.
Rand was appalled; instead of feeling sympathy for the poor, she says:
“When [Western Man] discovered entire populations rotting alive in such conditions [in the developing world], is he not to acknowledge, with a burning stab of pride – or pride and gratitude – the achievements of his nation and his culture, of the men who created them and left him a nobler heritage to carry forward?”
Telling it like it is
Why doesn’t Rand’s elitism turn off Republican voters? — or turn them against their leaders who, apparently, ought to disdain lower and middle class folk? If anyone – like Trump — identifies with Rand’s protagonists, they must think themselves truly excellent, while the muddling masses, they are beyond hope.
Why hasn’t news of this disdain then trickled down to the voters yet?
The neoconservatives, who held sway under President George W. Bush, were also quite elitist, but figured out how to speak to the Republican base, in their language. Bush himself, despite his Andover-Yale upbringing, was lauded as “someone you could have a beer with.”
Trump has succeeded even better in this respect — he famously “tells it like it is,” his supporters like to say. Of course, as judged by fact-checkers, Trump’s relationship to the truth is embattled and tenuous; what his supporters seem to appreciate, rather, is his willingness to voice their suspicions and prejudices without worrying about recriminations of critics. Trump says things people are reluctant or shy to voice loudly — if at all.
Building one’s fortune
This gets us closer to what’s going on. Rand is decidedly cynical about the said masses: There is little point in preaching to them; they won’t change or improve, at least of their own accord; nor will they offer assistance to the capitalists. The masses just need to stay out of the way.
The principal virtue of a free market, Rand explains, is “that the exceptional men, the innovators, the intellectual giants, are not held down by the majority. In fact, it is the members of this exceptional minority who lift the whole of a free society to the level of their own achievements."
But they don’t lift the masses willingly or easily, she says: “While the majority have barely assimilated the value of the automobile, the creative minority introduces the airplane. The majority learn by demonstration, the minority are free to demonstrate.”
Like Rand, her followers — who populate the Trump administration — are largely indifferent to the progress of the masses. They will let people be. Rand believes, quite simply, most people are hapless on their own, and we simply cannot expect much of them. There are only a few on whom we should pin our hopes; the rest are simply irrelevant. Which is why she complains about our tendency to give welfare to the needy. She says,
“The welfare and rights of the producers were not regarded as worthy of consideration or recognition. This is the most damning indictment of the present state of our culture.”
So, why do Republicans get away with eluding the title of elitist — despite their allegiance to Rand — while Democrats are stuck with this title?
I think part of the reason is that Democrats, among other things, are moralistic.
They are more optimistic about human nature — they are more optimistic about the capacity of humans to progress morally and live in harmony.
Thus, liberals judge: They call out our racism, our sexism, our xenophobia. They make people feel bad for harboring such prejudices, wittingly or not, and they warn us away from potentially offensive language, and phrases.
Many conservative opponents scorn liberals for their ill-founded naïve optimism. For in Rand’s world there is no hope for the vast majority of mankind. She heaps scorn on the poor billions, whom “civilized men” are prodded to help.
The best they can hope for is that they might be lucky enough to enjoy the riches produced by the real innovators, which might eventually trickle down to them in their misery.
To the extent that Trump and his colleagues embrace Rand’s thought, they must share or approach some of her cynicism.