Donald Trump vs. Howard Roark: Who Could Build a Classier Building?

Dyspeptic presidential candidate reveals love for Ayn Rand novel The Fountainhead, but no understanding of its political implications.


Who would have thought Donald Trump had great love for books? (Besides his own Art of the Deal and The Holy Bible, of course.)

He now tells USA Today that he's:

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.

When I pointed out that The Fountainhead is in a way about the tyranny of groupthink, Trump sat up and said, "That's what is happening here." He then recounted a call he received from a liberal journalist: "How does it feel to have done what you have done? I said what have I done. He said nobody ever in the history of this country has done what you have done. And I said, well, if I lose, then no big deal. And he said no, no, if you lose, it doesn't matter because this will be talked about forever.

"And I said it will be talked about more if I win."

Yes, in an abstract way, The Fountainhead's hero, architect Howard Roark, is fighting "the tyranny of groupthink." But more specifically, he's standing up for an expansive vision of the rights of a creator over his property, and by extension everyone's right to their justly owned property and liberty.

Rand was an artist and storyteller, but she deliberately crafted Fountainhead as a volley in a cultural war over individualism and political liberty and property, and it was seen by alert libertarian individualists in the cultural wilderness as a great blow in that cause, along with two nonfiction works by two of Rand's friends and influences that came out in the same year of 1943, Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine and Rose Wilder Lane's The Discovery of Freedom.

So it is not the sort of novel that should resonate with a fan of eminent domain and the power of government to tax or prevent free trade such as Trump. Still, he's certainly not alone among prominent people who express love for her novels without seeming to support her Objectivist philosophy and its political libertarianism in a rigorous way. 

Someone who fully understands Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, Craig Biddle at the Objectivist Standard, astutely notes that Trump the politician sounds more like any number of Ayn Rand villains.

The Atlas Society compiled a list of other celebrities who have declared love for Rand the novelist or The Fountainhead without necessarily seeming to have grasped the libertarian political implications of its artistic individualism. That list of all-stars includes Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Vince Vaughn (who is also an avowed Ron Paul fan), Christina Ricci, Eva Mendes, Sharon Stone, Mayim Bialik, Rob Lowe, Jerry Lewis, and even leftist hero Oliver Stone.

While Rand herself, and a significant subset of her fans, understood Fountainhead to have a deliberately libertarian political message, it is admittedly less obviously about the moral and practical dangers of Big Government than its follow-up, Atlas Shrugged.

It has been an enduring mystery of Rand's work how the libertarianism she saw as inherent in it, and its libertarian admirers see in it, is so easily missed by so many readers. A bit of an exaggeration, but given the enormous number of readers she's had as a popular novelist, if she were as effective as injecting readers with her philosophy as she wanted to be, we'd already all be living in Galt's Gulch.

Rand once wrote in an introduction to one edition of The Fountainhead of men of prominence who would privately admit to her, or to others in a way that got back to her, of a deep and enduring admiration for her work that they would never speak of publicly.

Nathaniel Branden, for many years Rand's primary intellectual disciple, told me of appearing on TV with some prominent '60s leftist radicals who raved to him about their adoration of Rand, which confused him. But to them her message was just one of fighting the power and doing one's own thing, regardless of one's vision of the proper role of government

Trump's version of "business, beauty, life and inner emotions" has a lot less respect for the rights and achievements of other individuals than Rand's. Fountainhead's architect hero Roark was precisely a success to Rand as an artist because he wasn't "successful" in terms of wealth and acclaim that obviously mean the most to Trump. Roark for most of his career was the opposite of a Trumpian "winner."

Rand's enemies have often accused her work as being essentially an excuse for being an asshole. This is not true, though statements like Trump's make it harder to convince those who haven't actually read or thought about Rand of that.

As I wrote in my book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, it's certainly true that the vast majority of her many millions of fans as a novelist either didn't get the political part, or were able to enjoy her skills as a builder of plot and character without worrying about it. (I can imagine this being more possible with Fountainhead; how any non-libertarian can read Atlas without feeling like a bad dog having his face shoved in a pile of poop he left on the nice carpet is frankly beyond me, but it obviously happens.) Trump is not the first avowed fan of Rand to not understand her, and he won't be the last.