The Truth About GOP Hero Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand -- Russian emigre, founder of the mid-century Objectivist movement, putative philosopher, writer of the novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and the inspiration for a small but intensely devoted band of acolytes -- has been enjoying a resurgence of late on the American right. The cultural capstone to this resurgence arrived last week with the release of a filmed adaptation of the first third of Atlas Shrugged, independently financed by a wealthy devotee of Rand's work and pitched explicitly at the Tea Party demographic. FreedomWorks, one of the central organizations in that movement, rolled out a massive campaign to encourage audience attendance and to push the film into as many theaters as possible. The 2011 CPAC conference held the world premiere of Atlas Shrugged's trailer, and the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation hosted an advanced screening of the film. This marketing tactic is understandable. The opening line of Atlas Shrugged -- "Who is John Galt?" -- has appeared again and again on signs at Tea Party protests across the nation. The Tea Party builds the theme of "Going Galt" into its rhetoric -- a reference to the strike of industry titans organized by the hero of the novel. Glenn Beck praises Atlas Shrugged regularly on his various shows, and even held a panel dedicated to asking if Rand's fiction is finally becoming reality. The Economist reported several sharp spikes in sales of Atlas Shrugged since 2007. And according to the Ayn Rand Institute, sales of the novel hit an all-time annual record that year, then reached a new record in 2008, with possibly another peak in 2009. By all accounts, Ayn Rand is now one of the central intellectual and cultural inspirations for the base of the Republican Party.
RAND'S INFLUENCE ON GOP
"For over half a century," says Jennifer Burns, a recent biographer of the novelist, "Rand has been the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right." And with good reason. Besides her prominence in the Tea Party's intellectual and cultural lexicon, some of the Republican Party's leading lights have cited Rand by name as an inspiration. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) said she was the reason he entered public service. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) called Atlas Shrugged "his foundational book." Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is an avowed fan and quotes extensively from Rand's novels at Congressional hearings. His father Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) told listeners that readers ate up Rand's Alas Shrugged because "it was telling the truth," and even conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas references her work as influence in his autobiography -- and apparently has his law clerks watch the film adaptation of The Fountainhead. The phenomenon holds amidst the right-wing media as well: Rush Limbaugh called her "brilliant," Glenn Beck's panel on Rand featured the president of the Ayn Rand Institute Yaroom Brook, and Andrew Napolitano enthusiastically recounted a story in which his college-age self introduces his mother to Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness. John Stossel and Sean Hannity have name-dropped her as well. Going further back, Alan Greenspan -- former chairman of the Federal Reserve and a fierce advocate of free-market ideology -- is an acolyte of Rand's thinking and knew her personally, and Rand was also dubbed the unofficial "novelist laureate" of the Reagan Administration by Maureen Dowd. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about Ayn Rand's reach on the right is how unremarked-upon it most often is.
The philosophy, such as it was, which Rand laid out in her novels and essays was a frightful concoction of hyper-egotism, power-worship and anarcho-capitalism. She opposed all forms of welfare, unemployment insurance, support for the poor and middle-class, regulation of industry and government provision for roads or other infrastructure. She also insisted that law enforcement, defense and the courts were the only appropriate arenas for government, and that all taxation should be purely voluntary. Her view of economics starkly divided the world into a contest between "moochers" and "producers," with the small group making up the latter generally composed of the spectacularly wealthy, the successful, and the titans of industry. The "moochers" were more or less everyone else, leading TNR's Jonathan Chait to describe Rand's thinking as a kind of inverted Marxism. Marx considered wealth creation to result solely from the labor of the masses, and viewed the owners of capital and the economic elite to be parasites feeding off that labor. Rand simply reversed that value judgment, applying the role of "parasite" to everyday working people instead. On the level of personal behavior, the heroes in Rand's novels commit borderline rape, blow up buildings, and dynamite oil fields -- actions which Rand portrays as admirable and virtuous fulfillments of the characters' personal will and desires. Her early diaries gush with admiration for William Hickman, a serial killer who raped and murdered a young girl. Hickman showed no understanding of "the necessity, meaning or importance of other people," a trait Rand apparently found quite admirable. For good measure, Rand dismissed the feminist movement as "false" and "phony," denigrated both Arabs and Native Americans as "savages" (going so far as to say the latter had no rights and that Europeans were right to take North American lands by force) and expressed horror that taxpayer money was being spent on government programs aimed at educating "subnormal children" and helping the handicapped. Needless to say, when Rand told Mike Wallace in 1953 that altruism was evil, that selfishness is a virtue, and that anyone who succumbs to weakness or frailty is unworthy of love, she meant it.
PAUL RYAN'S AYN RAND BUDGET
Given that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is the lead architect of the GOP's 2012 budget plan, his own devotion to the ideas of Atlas Shrugged and its author are worth noting. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat has dismissed the connection as Ryan merely saying some "kind words about Ayn Rand," which simply isn't a plausible characterization given what we know: Ryan was a speaker at the Ayn Rand Centenary Conference in 2005, where he described Social Security as a "collectivist system" and cited Rand as his primary inspiration for entering public service. He has at least two videos on his Facebook page in which he heaps praise on the author. "Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism," he says. All of which reflects a rather more serious devotion than a few mere kind words. So it should come as no surprise that Ryan's plan comports almost perfectly with Rand's world view. He guts Medicare, Medicaid, and a whole host of housing, food, and educational support programs, leaving the country's middle-class and most vulnerable citizens with far less support. Then he uses approximately half of the money freed by those cuts to reduce taxes on the most wealthy Americans. By transforming Medicare into a system of vouchers whose value increases at the rate of inflation, he undoes Medicare's most humane feature -- the shouldering of risk at the social level -- and leaves individuals and seniors to shoulder ever greater amounts of risk on their own. But if your intellectual and moral lodestar is a woman who railed against altruism as "evil" and considered the small pockets of highly successful individuals to be morally superior, it's a perfectly logical plan to put forward.