About the only thing that could make Donald Trump as a politician—with his authoritarian instincts and promises, his anti-trade autarkism, his belief that America's companies and capital work at his whim, his wish to round up millions and toss them from their homes because they crossed a border without proper paperwork—seem worse to a certain class of American intellectuals is linking his administration to the always-hated Ayn Rand.
What's the bill of indictment to connect Trump to a supposed Randian conspiracy to take over the U.S. government, from this president-elect whose politics intersect Rand's in few places in specific detail (tax cuts, to some extent, since Rand wanted all taxation ultimately to be voluntary), and not at all in general spirit?
If Trump cares about or believes in freedom as important in principle, as opposed to proposing it as an occasional option in a small handful of areas such as guns where he knew it was politically necessary, he's shown no particular signs of it.
I've written at length about Trump's only public connection to Ayn Rand I've ever seen. It was his saying some nice (and not completely dumb or silly) things about her 1943 novel The Fountainhead to a reporter from USA Today.
In that article I explained that Fountainhead 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…
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."
Howard Roark in Fountainhead stood for the property rights of the creator (intellectual ones, in the specific case) over the "public good" 'til the bitter end, said end involving blowing up a public housing project. (And being so eloquent about the reasons why that a jury did not convict him for doing so.)
Trump, on the other hand, believes that private property can and ought to be taken away from its owners for any sort of "public good" decided by any random collection of local or national bureaucrats, even if that "public good" is mostly just profit for a specific politically connected company. He shows this belief not only in his career-wide love for eminent domain but in his threatening companies that dare take their capital out of the U.S. with ruinous tariffs.
If one admires Rand and doesn't want to feel stained by any association of her with Trump, there is one easy, and true, out: by Rand's own standard, in which one must understand and accept her theories of identity and concept formation and work up from there to why laissez-faire capitalism is right, neither Trump nor by any evidence anyone in his administration is a true Randian, or Objectivist, the term she preferred for believers in her philosophy.
But the people pinning Rand on Trump now aren't making that strong claim, so the rhetorical fight over linking Rand with Trump is not won that easily.
Here is some of the evidence for the connection, both personal and political, between the nascent Trump administration and libertarian heroine Ayn Rand being offered by writers scared of both.
Hohmann in The Post reports that Trump's secretary of state, CIA, and labor department picks, Rex Tillerson, Mike Pompeo and Andy Puzdar, are avowed fans of Rand's fiction. (As are some other people Trump has talked to, but not taken into his administration.)
What are we to make of this, in Hohmann's scattered, bullet-point summation that doesn't make a clear argument? Well, her novels present scenes that many readers interpret as rape (though Rand, and her characters, did not see it that way); she is virulently anti-Christian; and she doesn't believe in forced charity. (I have never seen Trump openly condemn all government welfare transfers, though he has been an advocate for linking such programs to work or searching for work.)
Hohmann notes that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has been forced to deny a previous affection for Rand, and interestingly that Steve Bannon, perhaps the most hated figure in Trump's circle for his embrace of an "alt right" nationalism based in Bannon's stated views on racial background as well as being part of this literal nation, is loudly anti-Rand. That's perfectly appropriate for someone of Bannon's populist/nationalist bent; he is smart enough to know who his enemies are, and Rand and her fans are among the biggest. No matter what one fears from Rand or fans of Rand, clearly the Trump administration is by no means a one-sided advocate of her views.
Chait in New York tries to argue that Randian influence "destroyed 'never-Trump' conservatism." Why? Mostly, he argues, because many Republicans and conservatives have a Rand-inspired belief that shrinking government's taxing and regulatory power and scope is such a moral imperative that they are ultimately willing to forgive all the authoritarian, crude, or dumb aspects of Trump's thought and persona because they believe his administration will help shrink the parts of government they care most about.
While Chait is wrong to say that Rand saw "workers" as the class enemy of capitalists, I don't think he's entirely wrong in saying that, whether or not Rand is the proximate cause, many modern conservatives will forgive a lot of horrible nonsense if they believe taxes might end up cut.
Rand was not at all a supporter of the rich and successful as such against the worker; she made the case for the heroism and necessity of anyone who produced, who made the world better through their creative and/or physical effort and made their fortune via free trade, not via political pull. Most of the villains of Atlas Shrugged were the very type of crony capitalists who will likely be thriving due to their connection with or fealty to President Trump. (This point is well-argued a couple of years ago by Steve Horwitz at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.)
Many of Rand's liberal, progressive, moderate, and even conservative foes misunderstand her. Still, it would be disingenuous to insist that to really know her is to really love her. Most Trump haters probably would hate a nation governed to Randian principles far more than one governed according to whatever we can make out of Trumpian ones.
Hohmann and Chait have indeed detected aspects of Randian thinking that are genuinely troublesome to certainly most of their likely readers, if not most Americans. (As I've written, when otherwise admired public figures get tainted by association because they've been marked as Rand lovers, they often feel the need to publicly recant.)
It is true that neither Trump, Tillerson, Pozdar, nor certainly for goodness sake a prospective CIA chief such as Pompeo, want to actuate a government that literally does nothing but protect our rights to life and property, and is funded voluntarily, as Rand ultimately wished.
But that's not really what Hohmann and Chait want their readers to be nervous about. There is a general spirit that animates her that makes them nervous. For example, Rand, like the Trump administration as imagined by those who see a Rick Perry running Energy or an ExxonMobil exec like Tillerson at State, does value the advantages of industrial civilization over anyone's absolute right to not have their atmosphere polluted.
Tillerson (not that he'll be making climate policy directly) on the other hand, despite being an oil exec, is an on-the-record supporter of carbon taxes to cut such emissions that he believes are causing damaging climate change. Rand, were she still alive, may have been driven by evidence to come to believe that carbon emissions rise to the level of an actionable rights violation, and she did at least in theory understand that pollution can be a rights-violation.
But I do doubt that the woman who wrote "Anyone over 30 years of age today, give a silent 'Thank you' to the nearest, grimiest, sootiest smokestacks you can find" would have ended up exactly where Tillerson seems to be on the issue.
Rand fan Tillerson, then, is not as bad, in a liberal sense, on global warming as they imagine the industrialist-valorizing Rand would be.
But what to make of this seemingly bizarre or sinister convocation of fans of one novelist in this administration that Hohmann and Chait have noticed? It is actually to be expected that a novelist and free-market advocate as widely read as Ayn Rand—the most widely read such advocate in American history of the past century—would crop up in the background of adult professionals who tend to believe in the free market. (Which Trump, at any rate, clearly does not.)
As Robert Tracinski, himself a self-identified Objectivist who isn't seeing his beliefs reflected in the burgeoning Trump administration, put it at The Federalist:
"NEWS FLASH—Conservative Businessmen Read Ayn Rand." If you're in a bit of a liberal bubble, I guess that's news to you. But it shouldn't be. Rand's novels have sold millions of copies and have a lot of fans. Right-leaning people, especially those in the business world—which Rand famously celebrated, treating businessmen as heroes instead of stock villains—frequently read her novels and recommend them.
As Tracinski hints, it is sometimes news to people that Rand is not some alien villain for them to occasionally notice and get scared of or mock, but an immensely popular American novelist for now 63 years and still running strong. And his Objectivist take on Trump himself? "Most Objectivists recognize him as a pragmatist in the worst sense of that word: as someone without fixed convictions and principles and without any sense that he needs to have them."
Fans of Rand shouldn't get too excited, and enemies of Rand shouldn't be too scared, that we are entering an American era of Rand because of some of Trump's cabinet picks. Back in 2009 I explained at length how and why real-deal Randianism remained too radical for the United States, and while Trump is in some ways an American radical, he's more of a populist one.
At root Trump is about the aristocracy of pull Rand decried, a world where the Great Leader makes the big decisions about everyone's wealth, life, and property and is all the better the more "strong" and ruthless he is in doing so. One can easily imagine Trump behaving like Rand's craven national leader "Mr. Thompson" in Atlas Shrugged who said things like "Oh you theoretical intellectuals!…he's a man of action….He'll make things work…We'll make a deal with him" insisting, wrongly, of Rand's hero John Galt that "there's no such thing" as a man not open to a deal.
As any Rand fan understands, the nation's fiscal situation is what it is, and Trump's tax and spending plans and his softness on entitlements are something that might not be amenable to his art of the deal.
Rand has been the ghost haunting purveyors of the morality and practicality of big government for generations now. It's not surprising she still has the power to spook its adherents. But as often is the case, they are jumping nervously at what's just a sound they don't quite recognize, not actually feeling the touch of her imagined spectral powers.