Recently the Washington Post has published numerous stories that worry about “fake news” (see a first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth example out of many articles on the subject). It seems odd, then, that the paper also published the ludicrous claim that Donald Trump is an “Ayn Rand-acolyte” and an “objectivist” who follows Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. In fact, there is zero evidence that Trump understands any aspect of Rand’s ideas and much evidence that in the main he flatly rejects them.
The above quotes come from the article’s headline; the text of the article, by James Hohmann, is in some respects closer to reality although still deeply flawed. Hohmann claims that Trump and Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, share an “affection for the works of Ayn Rand, the libertarian heroine who celebrated laissez-faire capitalism.”
What evidence does Hohmann cite for his claim about Trump? Earlier this year, Trump told Kirsten Powers, a writer for USA Today, that he liked one of Rand’s novels, The Fountainhead. Here’s what Powers had to say:
Trump described himself as an Ayn Rand fan. He said of her novel The Fountainhead, “It relates to business (and) beauty (and) life and inner emotions. That book relates to . . . everything.” He identified with Howard Roark, the novel’s idealistic protagonist who designs skyscrapers and rages against the establishment.
Assuming that Trump actually finished the 753 page novel given his aversion to reading entire books, Trump’s remarks do not suggest that he remembers anything substantial about it. What novel ever written doesn’t relate in some way to business, beauty, life, and inner emotions?
Beyond the superficial similarity of an interest in buildings, Roark and Trump have nothing in common; the functionalist architect Roark would have hated Trump’s ostentatious displays as well as his political “deal making.” (If anything, Trump shares some of the worst characteristics of Gail Wynand, another character in the book, and few if any of the better ones.) And the suggestion that “rage” equally well describes Roark’s usually-calm and articulate demeanor and Trump’s boisterous tantrums, conspiracy-theory mongering, and scapegoating is beyond ridiculous.
It’s no surprise that Trump has heard of The Fountainhead and perhaps even read it at some point. The novel has sold some 6.5 million copies since it was first published in 1943, and it continues to be a favorite among business leaders, tech developers, creative artists, and free-market advocates. Even Hillary Clinton had “an Ayn Rand phase.”
Obviously reading and praising a novel does not make a person an “acolyte” of the novel’s author, much less a follower of the author’s philosophy. I love the Harry Potter novels—so much so that I wrote a criticism of them that, in part, argues against some of the books’ central ideas. I love Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov even though my world view is very different from that of the author. Generally, most people who read novels love some of them without embracing the philosophies of the novels’ authors. So the claims of the headline of Hohmann’s article are just bizarre.
That said, Hohmann does offer some useful information in his article, such as the fact that Tillerson, Andy Puzder (Trump’s choice for Labor), and Mike Pompeo (CIA) also have praised Rand’s novels. Hohmann tells us that Puzder has also praised the work of Christian apologist C. S. Lewis—a writer whom Rand harshly criticized. And, Hohmann adds, Stephen Bannon, one of Trump’s key advisors, has explicitly condemned Rand’s ideas (grotesquely misrepresenting them in the process).
Hohmann also misrepresents Ayn Rand’s works and ideas at various points:
- Hohmann calls Rand a libertarian even though Rand condemned libertarianism.
- Hohmann says that, in The Fountainhead, Roark “dynamites a housing project he designed because the builders did not precisely follow his blueprints.” In fact, Roark dynamites the vacant housing project after bureaucrats grotesquely disfigure it in blatant violation of the architect’s conditions; later he rebuilds the development according to the original plans.
- Hohmann claims that Roark “rapes a woman”—a claim that is either flatly false or, at a minimum, in need of serious qualification. (I think the scene in question, involving the extremely complex character who falls in love with Roark and eventually marries him, clearly involves consent, although it is a tacit form of consent that would not withstand legal scrutiny. Certainly the scene is not a model for real-life behavior.)
- Hohmann suggests that a correct interpretation of The Fountainhead is “some people count, and some people don’t.” But Hohmann offers his own rebuttal when elsewhere he quotes Rand saying that each person “exists for his own sake [and] that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.”
- Hohmann claims that Rand’s novels “celebrate individuals who consistently put themselves before others.” It is true that Rand is a (rational, rights-respecting, friendship-valuing) egoist, but Hohmann’s remark is highly misleading. Hohmann is talking specifically about people who serve in government. Certainly Rand advocated government officials serving with integrity and honesty to uphold the rule of just law; she strongly denounced abuses of government power for perceived short-term personal advantage (such as the abuses behind Hillary Clinton’s corruption scandals). Here the key example from Rand’s work is Judge Narragansett of Atlas Shrugged, a paragon of integrity.
In sum, Hohmann’s article contains a lot of useful facts and insights, but it (with its headline) is also in many respects the sort of fake news that the Washington Post elsewhere rails against. Perhaps if Hohmann would care to seriously read Rand’s works for himself he would learn something about Rand’s ideas.
It is obvious to anyone who has read and understood Rand’s works that Donald Trump is not an “acolyte” of Rand nor a follower of her philosophy. Moreover, Rand and Trump are not merely different; in important respects they are diametric opposites.
A caveat: Rand would not have disapproved of everything Trump does or says. For example, she too called for scaling back regulations on business. (Actually she called for ending bureaucratic regulations and going to a system of torts and contracts.) And she likely would have found something to like about some of Trump’s selections for top government positions. (No one disputes that banker John Allison, whom Trump considered and then rejected for Treasury, is an Objectivist.) Certainly Rand would not have approved of most of Hillary Clinton’s policies, so she probably would have considered her loss a silver lining of Trump’s victory. But the differences between Rand and Trump are far more pronounced than any minor similarity. Consider just a few of the relevant issues:
Rand called her philosophy Objectivism in part because she held that there is an objective reality apart from human consciousness and that people can learn about reality insofar as they embrace objective principles of knowledge. Rand embraced reason and logical consistency, rejected arbitrary assertions, and condemned philosophic pragmatism.
Trump, on the other hand, contradicts himself nearly on a moment-by-moment basis. I’d say that he is a pathological liar, except I’m not convinced he knows the difference between reality and his lies. This is a man who smeared a political opponent by citing National Enquirer. To modify the common saying, you can take Trump seriously only if you take nothing he says literally. To say merely that Trump has no principles is not enough; he is profoundly anti-principle, a range-of-the-moment pragmatist looking for the next “deal”—and never mind what he might have said yesterday or might say tomorrow.
Rand advocated the rule of just law applied equally to all and a government tightly bound by objective law, including a rights-protecting constitution. She condemned what she called the politics of pull—using government power for special treatment such as subsidies and rules harming competitors.
Trump, on the other hand, is an archetype pull peddler. Trump has threatened to go after Jeff Bezos and Amazon with tax and antitrust laws; praised and pursued eminent domain to seize private property from some to give to others; and promoted laws to hurt his competitors (among other things). Trump advocates punishing tariffs, he threatened businesses thinking of moving operations to Mexico, and he cajoled Indiana government to give a business special treatment. Rand advocated free market capitalism; Trump advocates cronyism. As Craig Biddle writes for the Objective Standard, Trump in the main “advocates policies that violate individual rights.”
Rand fled Communist Russia, later set her anti-authoritarian novel We the Living there, and continually denounced the regime. Rand spent her life advocating a culture of reason and a political system based on objective law for the purpose of protecting individual rights. She vociferously condemned all forms of authoritarianism, including socialism and fascism. (Don Watkins of the Ayn Rand Institute offers a good discussion of Rand’s opposition to authoritarianism.)
Trump has called the Chinese government “strong” and “powerful” for its crackdown at Tiananmen Square (although he also called that crackdown “a horrible thing”). He has described Vladimir Putin—the former KGB operative suspected of murdering various political opponents—as “a strong leader for Russia” (although Trump said his remarks weren’t an endorsement). Far from encouraging rational discussion about politics, Trump has promoted rage against scapegoats and blind trust in his leadership. And Trump said that media outlets critical of him would “have problems” once he became president.
Trump initially said he wanted to forcibly round up and expel all illegal immigrants; then he said he only wanted to throw out “criminal” illegal immigrants. Trump advocates restricting immigration even for peaceable people whom American companies want to hire.
Rand was an immigrant herself—perhaps an illegal one. She explicitly denounced “protectionist” arguments for restricting immigration, and she said there is “no right to close the borders” to (peaceable) immigrants. She said, “How could I advocate restricting immigration when I wouldn’t be alive today if our borders had been closed?”
At one point, Trump said government should punish women who get abortions. His current position is that the Supreme Court should overturn the Roe v. Wade decision and return abortion law to the states.
Ayn Rand would have disapproved of Donald Trump for many other reasons, including his narcissistic bragging, his demeaning and shallow remarks about women, and on and on. In many ways, Trump is remarkably like the smarmy, shifty, manipulative villains who populate Rand’s novels.
That said, I hope that Trump reveals his better qualities while in office and listens to sound advice. If he does, he could become one of the less-bad presidents of my lifetime—which granted isn’t saying much. If he doesn’t, he could substantially damage the economy, undermine the rule of law, and compromise national security.
Perhaps Hohmann’s fake news for the Washington Post about Ayn Rand will have the silver lining of encouraging more people to check out Rand’s works and ideas for themselves. If they do, they will find that Rand is far different from the caricature of her often portrayed in the media.
I will happily concede this point: Trump does share with Rand a genuine appreciation for successful business leaders, and that is no small thing. For example, Trump recently praised leaders of technology firms for their “incredible innovation.”
December 15, 2016
Trump Is No Objectivist
No Objectivist would consider jailing women for having an abortion; oppose immigration; condone stripping one’s citizenship for flag burning; strong-arm anyone, let alone a CEO. I could do this all day; Trump is no Objectivist. Hohmann’s article is an insult to Ayn Rand and all Objectivists. His misrepresentation of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is indeed a form of fake news as it in no way a dipiction of reality.
December 16, 2016