The Parochial Progressive Obsession with Ayn Rand

Rand’s ideas don’t have nearly as much power on the right as liberals imagine.

A lot of CEOs have terrible taste in literature, and some of them like Ayn Rand a great deal. A few of those are true-believing libertarians and there’s the odd nutty Objectivist, but many people are attracted to Rand not because of her politics but because they have heroic conceptions of themselves and thrill to Rand’s heroic aesthetic.

There’s just something about executives and celebrities. Mark Cuban is a fan of The Fountainhead, and Angelina Jolie sings the praises of Atlas Shrugged. Eva Mendes is an admirer of Barack Obama’s, but she says she won’t date a man who isn’t a Rand fan. Billie Jean King isn’t what you’d call an arch conservative, but she’s a Rand fan. It might be related to working in dramatically competitive enterprises.

Where you don’t meet a lot of Randians is in the conservative world. They’re out there if you go looking: A fellow from one of the Rand groups (the factions divide and subdivide, being essentially Protestant in spite of their atheism) once approached me at a gathering and began haranguing me about Whittaker Chambers’s 1957 review of Atlas Shrugged in National Review. (That sort of thing is what professional libertarians substitute for sexual intercourse.) I wasn’t born until a few decades after that was published, and didn’t start working at National Review for several decades more (William F. Buckley Jr. inexplicably did not take me up on my offer to come work for him when I was a teenager), but the fine art of bearing a grudge has not been lost. Not on the Randians.

Bring up your undying love of Atlas Shrugged at the typical conservative gathering and people will smile at you and try very hard not to roll their eyes. Some people think of her novels as a kind of guilty adolescent enthusiasm now grown out-of-date, an intellectual mullet, a stage one goes through between the ages of 14 and 20. Some people use Atlas Shrugged as a totem — it had a moment at the cresting of the Tea Party phenomenon. But it is rare to meet actual adult human beings who organize their politics views (or, for pity’s sake, their lives) around Ayn Rand and her views. I don’t think National Review has a single Randian in the house; I’d be surprised if the Weekly Standard did, and if one showed up at Commentary then John Podhoretz would simply mock him out of existence.

Strangely, our progressive friends insist that the Right is entirely in thrall to the ideas of Ayn Rand. Left-leaning writers in places such as New York and Washington tend to be culturally insular — parochial, even — and many of them do not know very many conservatives. I cannot tell you how many times I have met some well-meaning lefty who tells me (thinking it is a compliment!) that I do not seem like one of those people. A young woman once insisted that, as a conservative, I simply must hate homosexuals. At the time, I was living in TriBeCa and working as a theater critic, which is not a very good gay-evasion strategy. People know what they know.

But I don’t think that Jonathan Chait insists that conservatives are intellectual hostages to Ayn Rand because he doesn’t know better; he’s just intellectually dishonest.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who once said that reading Rand is what got him into politics, is usually trotted out as Exhibit A in the case of the closet Randian. But Paul Ryan is not a Randian. Paul Ryan is a Roman Catholic Crossfit bro. (He has been officially categorized as a non-believer by the Ayn Rand Institute.) There isn’t anything particularly Randian about his politics. And, contrary to the cartoon version, he and his allies are not anti-government as such. They believe that our current government is too large, too expensive, and too intrusive. There are many people who believe that, and they are not Rand cultists. They are ordinary people who pay taxes and stand in line at the driver’s-license office.

The Left tries to create a false dilemma that opposes progressivism to Rand-ism — or what they imagine to be Rand-ism.

The Left tries to create a false dilemma that opposes progressivism to Rand-ism — or what they imagine to be Rand-ism, a blend of authentically Randian moralizing about moochers and takers with a kind of Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism, an atomistic society that denies community and despises the philanthropic impulse. Actual conservatives are more likely to be found in church, where, among other things, they exercise the philanthropic impulse in community.

Chait is worried that Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, once named Atlas Shrugged his favorite book. He says so under the headline How Ayn Rand’s theories destroyed ‘Never Trump’ conservatism,” and the essay is a work of truly acrobatic stupidity. I don’t think that the worrisome thing about Rex Tillerson is that he doesn’t have better taste in literature than Rob Lowe.

Strange that a Randian cabal would take Donald Trump as its mascot. Trump, an incompetent casino operator and hotelier who boasted of buying political favors, is practically a Rand villain. He even has the name for it.

Perhaps that is not what is happening.

I myself am not much of a Rand admirer. I think Atlas Shrugged is a better novel than The Grapes of Wrath, but The Grapes of Wrath is a terrible novel. Say this for the old bat, though: It is difficult to imagine a modern writer in the English-speaking world having a cultural footprint so large that an entire stream of American politics might be (wrongly and stupidly) attributed to his thinking.

#related#People just don’t take books that seriously anymore. I think The Bell Curve might have been our last genuinely controversial book. If you were not around in the 1990s, it is hard to imagine how all-encompassing that controversy was: Everybody was reading The Bell Curve, or at least opening it up and turning immediately to the naughty bits. (Or at least pretending to have read it.) You could not not have an opinion on The Bell Curve if you were the sort of person who read books. My impression from the career of Michel Houellebecq is that the French-speaking world is still up for a literary controversy. I envy that a little. I’ve always liked the story about the riot following the first performance of Rite of Spring, not because I like riots but because I want to live in a world in which people take Igor Stravinsky seriously enough to fight over him. The idea of a novelist — a mediocre one at that — occupying as much cultural real estate as Ayn Rand seems like a relic from another time. Which I suppose it is.

I happen to be in New York City while writing this, surrounded by a who’s-who of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. I don’t expect to meet any Randians. But I’ll let you know if I do.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.


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