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Friday, July 22, 2016

Would Ayn Rand Approve of Rule by a Rich and Powerful Capitalist?

Could a liar and a fraud be the hero of an Ayn Rand novel?

As we get closer to the full swing of the general election cycle, those sympathetic to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism will face this question: “Shouldn’t an Objectivist be in favor of Donald Trump? He’s selfish and a powerful businessman, right?”

Shouldn’t an Objectivist be in favor of Donald Trump?It’s a question that I have gotten already, both from supporters of and detractors from her work. Moreover, it’s a question based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the philosophy and its implications on American politics. Gallingly, a self-identifying Objectivist recently made this claim to me in conversation: “Donald Trump is like Howard Roark.”

No, no, and no. USA Today’s Kirsten Powers, in an interview with the now-official GOP nominee back in April, wrote this nugget: “He identified with Howard Roark, the novel’s idealistic protagonist who designs skyscrapers and rages against the establishment.” This led another writer to ask whether that’s a good thing.

It’s a common slur used any time a conceited, cold-hearted politician emerges within the GOP: He’s straight out of an Ayn Rand novel. As a student of philosophy and a fan of Rand’s literature and ideas, I completely agree. But, far from the ideal characters of John Galt (Atlas Shrugged) or Howard Roark (The Fountainhead), Donald Trump is a cozy fit with another figure in The Fountainhead: Peter Keating, Howard Roark’s classmate and competitor.

To see why this matters, one must look no further than in the notes Rand wrote about her characters, as relayed by Leonard Peikoff in the afterword of The Fountainhead. Of Roark, she wrote the following: “Above all – the man who lives for himself, as living for oneself should be understood. And who triumphs completely. A man who is what he should be.” He is “self-sufficient” and “self-confident.”

One who hasn’t read the book might say, “But Donald Trump is definitely self-confident.” And it is true that he is certainly the culture’s understanding of a selfish person. Yet, his matching the culture’s understanding of selfishness is precisely what makes him Peter Keating.

Unprincipled Egoism

About Keating, Rand writes this: “The exact opposite of Howard Roark, and everything a man should not be. A perfect example of a selfless man who is a ruthless, unprincipled egotist – in the accepted meaning of the word. A tremendous vanity and greed, which lead him to sacrifice all for the sake of a ‘brilliant career.’”

In other words, the “ruthless, unprincipled egotist” – in our case, Donald J. Trump – is not what she means when she talks of selfishness as an ideal.

“The egotist in the absolute sense is not the man who sacrifices others. He is the man who stands above the need of using others in any manner.This is confirmed in Rand’s opening remarks in The Virtue of Selfishness: “In popular usage, the word ‘selfishness’ is a synonym for evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.” One may note that these descriptions sounds much like Dan P. McAdams’ account of Trump’s narcissism in the Atlantic.

A careless, surface-level reading of Rand’s philosophy may give one the impression that she is in support of a Nietzschean selfishness which leaves no room for regard for others. But this is precisely what The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged warn against, as much as any system of collectivism or group-think.

As Howard Roark says in the waning moments of The Fountainhead, “The egotist in the absolute sense is not the man who sacrifices others. He is the man who stands above the need of using others in any manner… This is the only form of brotherhood and mutual respect possible between men.”

A man constantly mired in fraud-related lawsuits and accused of defrauding his customers and contractors is not Howard Roark. The man accused by the ACLU of promoting countless unconstitutional violations of individual rights is not the same man who swore against violating the rights of any other man. A narcissist who brags incessantly and dishonestly about his wealth and IQ is not the self-confident and self-sufficient producer depicted in The Fountainhead. The candidate who has been dangerously anti-free trade is not the hero of a woman who believes in the morality of laissez faire capitalism.

One does not have to be sympathetic to Objectivism to see that funding buildings and being “selfish” does not necessarily mean that one is Howard Roark. Donald Trump is an unprincipled, immoral and dangerous “second-hander,” to use Roark’s (and thus Rand’s) own vocabulary.

Peter Keating did, and was, those things too – “everything a man should not be.”

  • Christopher Machold is a recent graduate from Cornell College with a passion for research and writing. He is a Young Voices Advocate.