US Republican leaders love Ayn Rand’s controversial philosophy—and are increasingly misinterpreting it

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Ayn Rand’s books are over the top and cinematic to a fault. Her characters are all stylish or bloated cardboard cut-outs of people, and the heroes are profoundly selfish. Yet a century after she was born, the Russian-born novelist endures as a deeply influential artist and intellectual in the US—particularly among the American right. Though philosophers have never taken her seriously, Rand’s controversial “objectivist” ideas have been invoked by generations of conservatives, from Reaganites to the Tea Party, and now Donald Trump.

The US president-elect has only ever mentioned liking three works of fiction. The Fountainhead, Rand’s 1943 novel about an embattled architect, is one: “It relates to business (and) beauty (and) life and inner emotions. That book relates to … everything,” Trump told USA Today last April. Meanwhile, his pick for labor secretary, Andy Puzder, reportedly told his six children to read The Fountainhead. (Puzder is also the CEO of CKE Restaurants, a group ownedby Roarke Capital—named after the novel’s hero.) And rival Republican leader and house speaker Paul Ryan has credited Rand for inspiring him to go into public service.

But the political leaders who love Rand don’t seem to entirely grasp the truth of her philosophy, says Stanford historian Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (2009). Quartz spoke with Burns to explore what’s made Rand such a symbol for US conservatives, and what her devotees get wrong.

What is objectivism?

Rand’s conception in the 1930s and 1940s was to create an individualist morality. Rand took traditional Christian morality, which said it was good to act in the interest of others—not in your own selfish interest—and she flipped that. She said selfishness is a virtue, and the goal of life is to grow and develop as an individual, and that a moral social system supports the rights of the individual above all.

If an individual chooses to do charity, they may; and if they choose to help others, they may; but that’s not how you measure their worth. You measure their worth essentially by their independence, their autonomy, their integrity to themselves.

Where did Rand’s objectivism come from?

Rand was a thinker forged in the Russian revolution, which happened in her home city of St. Petersburg when she was around 12. Her family’s property was confiscated in the revolution. It happened at a formative moment of her life: She looked at the ideas of the Russian Revolution, which were equality and fairness, in the name of the people, and she saw that they led, in the experience of her family, to the seizure of their property. And she decided these ideals—fairness, equality, justice—were really just a cover for the state being able to do what it wanted, and to trample over the rights of the individual.

So Rand was born as an individualist philosopher at that moment, in late 1917, early 1918, and then her ideas continued to develop in the context of the Cold War. And she began to see a global struggle between individualism, embodied in countries like the United States and the capitalist system, and collectivism, embodied in Soviet Russia, which she knew best, but also in Nazi Germany. So she fled Russia as a young woman, and came to the United States.

Rand had a decent career as a Hollywood writer. What happened then?

She created this philosophical system and decided she would put it in fiction. Russian communists kind of pioneered propaganda and agitprop, with these big, bulky novels that would star a heroic worker fighting the dirty capitalist. Rand took that formula and again inverted it.

Ayn Rand Jennifer Burns Goddess of the Market book cover
Image: Courtesy Jennifer Burns

The first novel that was really successful in this was The Fountainhead. It came out in 1943 in the middle of World War II when liberal democracies were in a fight for their life against totalitarian systems. She dramatized it in the American context between the heroic architect Howard Roark, who’s an independent creator and the truly moral man— according to her new philosophy—and sets him up against a whole array of what she calls “second handers,” people who try to get ahead by using the work or labor of others. These are people who aren’t honest, they’re not capable, they’re trying to look good for other people, but they don’t have an inner sense of self-worth.

Is The Fountainhead consistent with US conservatism?

Rand makes the individual the center, essentially sacred, but this is key: It’s a materialistic philosophy, an atheistic philosophy. She does not believe in God. Rand says very explicitly that she’s an atheist. […]

This is the crux of Rand, the tension point of why she will never fit easily into conservatism. The atheism piece will always be the one that people pretty much decide to ignore and push aside. But it really was an essential part of the package as she saw it.

Was Rand interpreted correctly by her followers during her lifetime?

She got fed up with conservatives, because in the 1950s many conservatives took a strong turn towards God and country. She spent about ten years writing her second book, Atlas Shrugged. That came out in 1957, and was far more ideological than The Fountainhead.

There were strong individualistic creators on one hand, and parasitic, weak government officials and politicians on the other. And they were locked in battle, and the country was going downhill, 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, industrialists linked to commerce.

The atheistic piece was attractive to young conservatives coming of age, looking for an ideology and inspiration. I would say most of them at that moment in the 1960s did interpret her correctly. They took it into conservative youth organizations, into a libertarian movement, into a whole host of political and social contexts.

They focused on [Rand’s] elevation of the individual and her assertion that the government really didn’t have a positive role to play in society, it needed to be absolutely minimal. It should set the rules of the road, enforce contracts, provide for national defense, and otherwise basically get out of the way.

How does Rand fit with today’s Randians, like Donald Trump and Andy Puzder?

Rand was adamantly pro-choice. She thought it was ludicrous to assume that a child in utero would have any rights that would trump those of an individual woman.

After a certain point Rand’s atheism becomes a liability. There’s often a move to take Randian ideas and say they come from somewhere else, or to combine them with religious ideas. So until this past year, that’s been the conservative move around Rand, the way she’s been sort of coopted, tamed, and managed.

A good example of this is Paul Ryan. He is someone who is very much in the mold of that young conservative in the ’60s, although he was not of that generation. He came of age looking for a philosophy, a set of ideas that would help him understand what is the correct role of government in society, and he found Rand’s ideas. He found them very powerful.

For many years he would give Atlas Shrugged as a Christmas present, which is ironic: The Atlas Shrugged Christmas present. He gave it to his staffers as well. You can see the plans he’s made in terms of the Ryan budget, the attempt to privatize certain government programs, they’re very much in line with the Randian philosophy. The way you free the individual, the way you grow a free society, is by stripping the government down and shrinking the government as much as possible.

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. What’s interesting about Rand is that she was so clear that you couldn’t and shouldn’t do that with her philosophy. And she launched campaign after campaign against conservatives in her lifetime, and warned explicitly that religious conservatism was the most dangerous thing of all.

This is fairly typical: Thinkers are rarely integrated into social and political movements completely intact. There’s always a cycle to her appeal. In moments of liberal dominance, people turn to her because they see Atlas Shrugged as a prophecy as what’s going to happen if the government is given too much power.

People are really fascinated with the idea that [Rand’s] fiction could be predictive, and that her fiction could be prophetic, a counterfactual vision of the future: “If we’re not really careful about the growth of government, if we let liberals get too much power, this is what will happen. See: Atlas Shrugged.”

You see that boom in the late 1960s, and again with the Tea Party in late 2007, 2008.

Rand wrote [her book] very explicitly as propaganda. She used to say, “I was educated by the best propagandists of all.” One of the facts about Rand that explains almost everything about her, is she received a history degree from the University of Leningrad. She knew exactly what the Soviets were doing; she saw them twisting history and twisting art, culture, everything, to support the Communist cause. She thought, “I can do that too.”

If Rand were alive today, what do you think she would say about Trump?

The Trump campaign was in many ways a rejection of Randian economics. Basically he said, “I am going to help you. The American worker needs the help of the government to get better trade deals, to bring back jobs; I’m going to do that.”

He didn’t say, “Everything’s fine, the free market is going to work great.” He basically said, “The free market is broken, you guys have been getting screwed by elites, and I’m going to get on the phone with Business and tell them what’s what.”

That is totally anti-Rand.

The way he has interacted with business leaders; she would be irate. During her lifetime Kennedy did something very similar with the steel companies. Steel companies raised their prices, and president Kennedy got on his soap box and said this is inappropriate et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, and the steel companies backed down. Rand thought that was a complete and total abuse of political power, and Kennedy had no business doing that. It was chilling, it was dangerous.

She would say exactly the same thing about the Carrier deal, about all the threats that Trump has made. I think she would find them deeply, deeply problematic.

But then you have this cabinet emerging where people are said to be avid Rand fans. It’s very curious. It’s sort of a reshaping of Rand in a new way, and this time the issue is not related to atheism; this time some of the free market capitalism, that seems to have been shaved off. There’s not much left of Rand once you slice that off.

Has she been completely distorted?

What is left is something that’s run under the radar: the elevation of the business person, the elevation of the capitalist entrepreneur individualist as the true leader of society, as the true change agent of society. That has been a piece of her appeal for a long time. For a long time she has been beloved by disruptors, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, people who see themselves as shaping the future, taking risky bets, moving out in front of everyone else, relying only on their own instincts, intuition, and knowledge, and going against the grain.

What Rand did very deliberately is to create a portrait of American business, American commercial life, American industry, as a creative and challenging and dynamic field of human endeavor. And also a moral place. Where, to grow a business and have an idea and see that idea come to fruition, come to reality, was essentially a moral thing to do.

It was not selfish; it was self-actualization, and it was performing to your highest potential in the world.

This interview has been edited and condensed.