Essay 2: The author who is shaping your present and that of the next generation

In 2018, the US president came to the podium of the US general assembly and remarked that “Our military will soon be more powerful than it has ever been before. In other words, the United States is stronger, safer and a richer country than it was when I assumed office … We are standing up for America and for the American people.” He also added that “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy. America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism. And we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” This came as a surprise for many nations but not to astute observers of politics. President Trump had described himself in the past as an Ayn Rand fan. He commented on the book “The Fountainhead”, “It relates to business (and) beauty (and) life and inner emotions. That book relates to … everything.” USA Today also noted that Trump identified with Howard Roark, the novel’s idealistic protagonist who designed skyscrapers and raged against the establishment.

Ayn Rand had a simple philosophy in her writings. Rand saw the world divided into two groups – “makers” and “takers.” To elaborate, there were strong individualistic “makers” on one end, and the parasitic government and collectivist groups on the other end. Both the groups were in perpetual battle. The economy was going down the tubes, because the government bureaucrats and “second-handers” were winning. The country had to be taken back by individualistic creators, most of whom were business people: scientists, inventors and industrialists. Since the real makers were a select few – a real elite, on whom all other humans would do well to rely, and also clear their way, by limiting taxes and government regulations, among other things.

Everything boiled down to simple axioms. Reason is everything. Piety is a fraud. Selfishness is a virtue. Altruism is a crime against human excellence. Self-sacrifice is a weakness. Weakness is contemptible.  The goal of life was to grow and develop as an individual, and that a moral social system supports the rights of the individual above that of the community.

This philosophy has been remarkably influential. In 1991, the Book of the Month Club and the Library of Congress asked readers to name the most influential book in their lives. Atlas Shrugged came in second only to the Bible.  This was a far cry from the initial reception to this book in 1943. It was released to terrible reviews. Critics faulted its length, its philosophy and its author, Ayn Rand’s literary ambitions. Both conservatives and liberals were unstinting in disparaging the book; the right saw promotion of godlessness, and the left saw a message of “greed is good.” Rand is said to have cried every day as the reviews came out.

Understanding the influence:

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The painting of Ayn Rand by Nicholas Gaetano that was used for a U.S. postage stamp.
Mark Wilson/ Getty Images

Economics: One of the earliest and most ardent followers of Ayn Rand was Alan Greenspan, chair of the Federal reserve from 1987 to 2006. This was the time when the United States became the unchallenged superpower. Earlier, Greenspan became one of the members of Rand’s inner circle, the Ayn Rand Collective, which read Atlas Shrugged while it was being written. During the 1950s and 1960s Greenspan was a proponent of objectivism, wrote articles for objectivist newsletters and contributed several essays for Ayn Rand’s books. Greenspan was also among the mourners present at Ayn Rand’s funeral in 1982, where one floral wreath was fashioned into a 6ft dollar sign, now understood to be the logo of Randism.

Greenspan played a critical role in preventing the 1987 stock-market crash from spiraling into something much worse. Then, in the 1990s, he presided over a long economic and financial-market boom and attained the status of World’s financial czar. But the super-low interest rates Greenspan brought in the early 2000s and his long-standing disdain for regulation were held up as leading causes of the mortgage crisis of 2007-2010. The Time magazine identified him for being one of the 25 people responsible for the 2008 financial crisis.

The current government: Ayn Rand and objectivism has almost completely taken over current US economic and foreign policy. Let us look at the current US administration. Donald Trump, was a fanboy of Ronald Reagan, terming him a “great president“. But Ronald Reagan was himself a self-professed “admirer of Ayn Rand“. Martin Anderson who was part of Ayn Rand’s circle was also part of Reagan’s inner circle from his 1976 presidential campaign and was Reagan’s top domestic policy adviser in the White House in 1981. Interestingly Ayn Rand did not reciprocate in the same way. When asked what she thought of Ronald Reagan, Ayn Rand replied, “I don’t think of him. And the more I see, the less I think of him.” In 1976, she urged people not to vote for him. It appears that her views on Ronald Reagan kept evolving.

Rex Tillerson, former secretary of state, was a fan of Ayn Rand. His favorite book was “Atlas Shrugged”. His successor and present Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo has observed that “One of the very first serious books I read when I was growing up was Atlas Shrugged, and it really had an impact on me.” Andrew Puzder, ex CEO of CKE restaurants withdrew his nomination as Secretary of Labor in 2017. When asked what Puzder did in his free time, a friend replied that Puzder read Ayn Rand. CKE restaurants is owned by Roark Capital, a private equity firm which has raised 13 billion dollars in equity capital, which owns brands like Jimmy John’s, Arby’s and Buffalo Wings. As their website declares “”If a man sincerely believes a claim to be true, then he must hold to this belief even though society opposes him. He must think independently and form values that he never sacrifices. Howard Roark’s life exemplified the true nature of this independence and integrity.” Puzder has encouraged his children to read “Fountainhead” first and “Atlas Shrugged” later.

The Republican flagbearers: The intellectual godfather of the tea party movement was Ron Paul. On three occasions, he sought the presidency of the United States: as the Libertarian Party nominee in 1988 and as a candidate in the Republican primaries of 2008 and 2012.  In 2007, he told Dartmouth students that “she (Ayn Rand) had a lot of influence on me”. His son Rand Paul, Junior Senator from Kentucky has remarked ““I’m a big fan of Ayn Rand, and I’ve read all of her novels.” When the Tea Party came out in force against the Affordable Care Act, in 2009, some of its members carried signs reading “Who Is John Galt?” a reference to “Atlas Shrugged.” Another poster boy for the Tea Party, Paul Ryan, the former House Speaker, is a Rand evangelist who gave out copies of “Atlas Shrugged” as Christmas presents to his staff and said that she “did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism.” He credited her with inspiring his interest in public service, saying “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” As soon as Ryan got nominated for vice president in 2012, he basically erased his Randian roots as much as he possibly could. He claimed that his true inspiration was St. Thomas Aquinas. 

Many Republican presidential candidates also share a common trait. Ted Cruz, the Senator from Texas and runner up for the 2016 Republican US Presidential nomination has remarked that “One of my all time heroes, Ayn Rand, in Atlas Shrugged described how the parasitical class would put into place arbitrary power— I couldn’t help but think about Ayn Rand’s observations.” Mark Sanford who was a long time governor of South Carolina and candidate for the Republican US Presidential nomination of 2020 mentioned that “When I first read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in the 1980s, I was blown away. Those books portray the power of the free individual in ways I had never thought about before.” Gary Johnson the ex-Governor of New Mexico and libertarian candidate for the 2016 US Presidential nomination gave his wife, a copy of “The Fountainhead” early in their courtship. ‘If you want to understand me, read this,’ he said. Senator Ron Johnson from Wisconsin called “Atlas Shrugged” his “ foundational book.”

Conservative talk show hosts are not far behind. Rush Limbaugh, who hosts the most listened to talk show in the US, Glen Beck who hosted the third most listened to talk show program and Neal Boortz, one of the top 25 American talk show hosts, have offered praise of “Atlas Shrugged” on their respective radio and television programs. Glenn Beck unsurprisingly even had a cameo in the film Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt?.

Industry: The Cato institute is a conservative think tank, reputed to be among the most influential in the world. It was founded as the Charles Koch Foundation in 1974 before changing its name. John Allison, ex CEO of  BB&T Corporation, the 10th‐​largest financial services holding company took over the president and CEO of the Cato institute in 2012. Allison was probably the most ardent follower of Ayn Rand. So intense was Allison’s devotion to Rand’s work that he has started a campaign to make college students read Rand’s books, using the power of the BB&T Charitable Foundation and millions of dollars in donations to schools to achieve his goal. BB&T spends about $5 million a year to finance teaching positions and research on “the moral foundations of capitalism.” Under Mr. Allison, new executives at BB&T Corporation were handed a copy of “Atlas Shrugged.” Allison has also remarked that “I know from talking to a lot of Fortune 500 C.E.O.’s that ‘Atlas Shrugged’ has had a significant effect on their business decisions, even if they don’t agree with all of Ayn Rand’s ideas,”

Tech and the Silicon Valley: Rand’s spirit is prominent in Silicon Valley, too: the billionaires Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Travis Kalanick, and others have credited Rand with inspiring them. Uber’s founder and former CEO, Travis Kalanick, has described himself as a Rand follower. Before he was sacked, he applied many of her ideas to Uber’s code of values, and even used the cover art for Rand’s book “The Fountainhead” as his Twitter avatar

Mark Cuban, Shark Tank investor and the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and John Mackey, the chief executive of Whole Foods have said they consider Rand crucial to their success.

Sports: Tennis great Martina Navratilova was a Rand fan. When asked to name her favorite book, she picked The Fountainhead and explained her choice in this way “The striving for excellence, sticking to your beliefs and ideals even if it means going against the popular tide. Accepting responsibility—wow, what a concept—too bad politicians don’t read these books.” Amazingly, Navratilova’s great opponent, Chris Evert, was also a Rand fan. Asked about her favorite book, she responded in the February 2003 issue of Good Housekeeping: ‘When I was younger, a book that made a big impression on me was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read it when I was first making the rounds of tennis tournaments. another female tennis immortal, Billie Jean King, also named Atlas Shrugged as her favorite novel.

Judiciary: Each year, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas hosts a screening of the 1949 film version of Rand’s novel, “The Fountainhead,” for his four new law clerks. In his words “I tend to really be partial to Ayn Rand, and to The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.”

Hollywood: Hollywood has not been behind the curve. Ayn Rand has devotees ranging from Brad Pitt to Eva Mendes.

The real life inspirations:

Ayn Rand was heavily inspired by many real life characters of her time. In the book “The Fountainhead”, Ayn Rand modelled the character Howard Roark after the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, industrialist Gail Wynand after industrial tycoon William Hearst, Peter Keating after Raymond Hood, and the contemptible Ellsworth Toohey after the Socialist doyen Harold Laski.

The end of the 19th century was an interesting time, when the first tall steel skyscrapers were designed by Louis Sullivan. He was called the “father of skyscrapers” and the “founder of modernism.” After some successes in the 1880’s, Sullivan went into financial distress by the late 1890’s. He was a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright for 7 long years. In the book, this character is modelled by Henry Cameron who mentored the hero Howard Roark. For both Sullivan and the fictional Cameron, trouble began for them after the 1893 World’s Columbian exposition, when the world began to regress to the past.

Frank Lloyd Wright, a dropout from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was an uncompromising individualist and an architectural innovator, who is arguably the most famous architect of all time. Eight of his buildings are listed as UNESCO world heritage sights. 4 of his buildings are listed among the top 10 buildings of the 20th century. He was determined not to repeat the mistakes of Louis Sullivan. Wright served as the model for the fictional Howard Roark.

Architect Raymond Hood was educated at Brown, MIT and École des Beaux-Arts and may have have inspired the character of Peter Keating. Author Frank Heynick writes that like the character of Peter Keating, Raymond first became famous for “the most beautiful and eye-catching building in the world” modelled on a historic Gothic mode. One of the most famous architects of his time, Raymond designed the Rockefeller Centre, which included the RCA and Daily News Building. In Rand’s story, Keating stole ideas from Roark. In real life, Frank Lloyd Wright told architects “I studied the elevation, and I told Ray (Raymond Hood), ‘Ray, you just stop the whole thing right here,’ and I drew a line across the elevation with the tip of my cane. And that’s why the Daily News Building looks the way it does.”

Like the fictional Gail Wynand, William Hearst joined forces with his contemporary, Joseph Pulitzer to sensationalize headlines, twist facts, and creat gossip stories in his tabloid empire. Outright fabrications were common. He was ardently anti Socialist and anti Russian, but lost popularity later because of his support for Germany and Italy in the Second World War and his opposition to the New Deal.

Harold Laski after whom the character Ellsworth Toohy was created, was a Professor at the London School of Economics and Chairman of the British Labor Party. A eugenist by training and married to another eugenist, he was once a lecturer at Harvard and Yale. His long standing admiration of Stalin was not appreciated within Britain or the United States. Hence he used his position to mentor rich and influential families who came to study in London. Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Krishna Menon, Indira Gandhi, Mulk Raj Anand and Chu Anping were deeply influenced by Laski’s teachings. Many of the Indian leaders were part of an exclusive group started by Laski – the Left Book Club. There was also an institution set up by the Indian Government in 1954 in his honor- The Harold Laski Institute of Political Science. The socialist ideas of Toohey live enshrined in the Indian republic. Ayn Rand attended Laski’s lectures, took detailed notes about Laski and even changed the physical appearance of the character Toohey to fit Harold Laski.

It is interesting how Ayn Rand thoughts continue to mould US policy and how Laski’s thoughts continue to mould India’s policy, decades after their deaths. What do you think of these comparisons?

Published by Vinod Aravindakshan

Engineer, Economist and Manager

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