How Ayn Rand Seduced Generations of Young Men and Helped Make the U.S. Into a Selfish, Greedy Nation
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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....To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.— Gore Vidal, 1961
Only rarely in U.S. history do writers transform us to become a more caring or less caring nation. In the 1850s, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was a strong force in making the United States a more humane nation, one that would abolish slavery of African Americans. A century later, Ayn Rand (1905-1982) helped make the United States into one of the most uncaring nations in the industrialized world, a neo-Dickensian society where healthcare is only for those who can afford it, and where young people are coerced into huge student-loan debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.
Rand’s impact has been widespread and deep. At the iceberg’s visible tip is the influence she’s had over major political figures who have shaped American society. In the 1950s, Ayn Rand read aloud drafts of what was later to become Atlas Shrugged to her “Collective,” Rand’s ironic nickname for her inner circle of young individualists, which included Alan Greenspan, who would serve as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1987 to 2006.
In 1966, Ronald Reagan wrote in a personal letter, “Am an admirer of Ayn Rand.” Today, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) credits Rand for inspiring him to go into politics, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) calls Atlas Shrugged his “foundation book.” Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) says Ayn Rand had a major influence on him, and his son Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is an even bigger fan. A short list of other Rand fans includes Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; Christopher Cox, chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission in George W. Bush’s second administration; and former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.
But Rand’s impact on U.S. society and culture goes even deeper.
The Seduction of Nathan Blumenthal
Ayn Rand’s books such as The Virtue of Selfishness and her philosophy that celebrates self-interest and disdains altruism may well be, as Vidal assessed, “nearly perfect in its immorality.” But is Vidal right about evil? Charles Manson, who himself did not kill anyone, is the personification of evil for many of us because of his psychological success at exploiting the vulnerabilities of young people and seducing them to murder. What should we call Ayn Rand’s psychological ability to exploit the vulnerabilities of millions of young people so as to influence them not to care about anyone besides themselves?
While Greenspan (tagged “A.G.” by Rand) was the most famous name that would emerge from Rand’s Collective, the second most well-known name to emerge from the Collective was Nathaniel Branden, psychotherapist, author and “self-esteem” advocate. Before he was Nathaniel Branden, he was Nathan Blumenthal, a 14-year-old who read Rand’s The Fountainhead again and again. He later would say, “I felt hypnotized.” He describes how Rand gave him a sense that he could be powerful, that he could be a hero. He wrote one letter to his idol Rand, then a second. To his amazement, she telephoned him, and at age 20, Nathan received an invitation to Ayn Rand’s home. Shortly after, Nathan Blumenthal announced to the world that he was incorporating Rand in his new name: Nathaniel Branden. And in 1955, with Rand approaching her 50th birthday and Branden his 25th, and both in dissatisfying marriages, Ayn bedded Nathaniel.
What followed sounds straight out of Hollywood, but Rand was straight out of Hollywood, having worked for Cecil B. DeMille. Rand convened a meeting with Nathaniel, his wife Barbara (also a Collective member), and Rand’s own husband Frank. To Branden's astonishment, Rand convinced both spouses that a time-structured affair—she and Branden were to have one afternoon and one evening a week together—was “reasonable.” Within the Collective, Rand is purported to have never lost an argument. On his trysts at Rand’s New York City apartment, Branden would sometimes shake hands with Frank before he exited. Later, all discovered that Rand’s sweet but passive husband would leave for a bar, where he began his self-destructive affair with alcohol.