Ayn Rand is dead. It’s been 35 years since hundreds of mourners filed by her coffin (fittingly accompanied by a dollar-sign-shaped flower arrangement), but it has been only four months since she truly died as a force in American politics.
Yes, there was a flurry of articles identifying Rand lovers in the Trump administration, including Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo. Yes, Ivanka Trump tweeted an inaccurate Rand quote in mid-February. But the effort to fix a recognizable right-wing ideology on President Trump only obscures the more significant long-term trends that the election of 2016 laid bare.
However much Trump stylistically seems like the Rand hero par excellence — a wealthy man with a fiery belief in, well, himself — his victory signals the exhaustion of the Republican Party’s romance with Rand.
In electing Trump, the Republican base rejected laissez-faire economics in favor of economic nationalism. Full-fledged objectivism, the philosophy Rand invented, is an atheistic creed that calls for pure capitalism and bare-bones government with no social spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security or Medicare. It’s never appeared on the national political scene without significant dilution. But there was plenty of diluted Rand on offer throughout the primary season: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz all espoused traditional Republican nostrums about reducing the role of government to unleash American prosperity.
Yet none of this could match Trump’s full-throated roar to build a wall, or his protectionist plans for American trade. In the general election, Trump sought out new voters and independents, using arguments traditionally associated with Democrats: deploying the power of the state to protect workers and guarantee their livelihoods, even at the cost of trade agreements and long-standing international alliances.
Trump’s economic promises electrified rural working-class voters the same way Bernie Sanders excited urban socialists. Where Rand’s influence has stood for years on the right for a hands-off approach to the economy, Trump’s “America first” platform contradicts this premise by assuming that government policies can and should deliberately shape economic growth, up to and including punishing specific corporations. Likewise, his promise to craft trade policy in support of the American worker is the exact opposite of Rand’s proclamation that “the essence of capitalism’s foreign policy is free trade.”
And there’s little hope that Trump’s closest confidants will reverse his decidedly anti-Randian course. The conservative Republicans who came to power with Trump may find they have to exchange certain ideals to stay close to him. True, Paul Ryan and Mike Pence have been able to breathe new life into Republican economic and social orthodoxies. In a nod to Pence’s religious conservatism, Trump shows signs of reversing his earlier friendliness to gay rights. His opposition to Obamacare dovetails with Ryan’s long-held ambitions to shrink federal spending.
Even so, there is little evidence that either Pence or Ryan would have survived a Republican primary battle against Trump or fared well in a national election; their fortunes are dependent on Trump’s. And the president won by showing that the Republican base and swing voters have moved on from the traditional conservatism of Reagan and Rand.
What is rising on the right is not Randian fear of government but something far darker. It used to be that bright young things like Stephen Miller, the controversial White House aide, came up on Rand. In the 1960s, she inspired a rump movement of young conservatives determined to subvert the GOP establishment. Her admirers were powerfully attracted to the insurgent presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, whom Rand publicly supported. They swooned when she talked about the ethics of capitalism, delegitimizing programs like Medicare and Medicaid as immoral. They thrilled to her attack on the draft and other conservative pieties. At national conferences, they asked each other, “Who is John Galt?” (a reference to her novel “Atlas Shrugged”) and waved the black flag of anarchism, modified with a gold dollar sign.
Over time, most conservatives outgrew these juvenile provocations. For example, Ryan moved swiftly to replace Rand with Thomas Aquinas when he was nominated in 2012 for vice president, claiming the Catholic thinker was his primary inspiration (although it was copies of “Atlas Shrugged,” not “Summa Theologiae,” he handed out to staffers). But former Randites retained her fiery hatred of government and planted it within the mainstream GOP.
Now Rand is on the shelf, gathering dust with Hayek, Burke and other one-time conservative luminaries. Instead, young insurgent conservatives talk about “race realism ,” argue that manipulated crime statistics mask growing social disorder and cast feminism as a plot against men. Instead of reading Rand, they take the “red pill,” indulging in an emergent internet counterculture that reveals the principles of liberalism — rights, equality, tolerance — to be dangerous myths. Beyond Breitbart.com, ideological energy on the right now courses through tiny blogs and websites of the Dark Enlightenment, the latter-day equivalent of Rand’s Objectivist Newsletter and the many libertarian ’zines she inspired.
Once, professors tut-tutted when Rand spoke to overflow crowds on campuses, where she lambasted left and right alike. But this was soft stuff compared with the insults handed out by Milo Yiannopoulos and the uproar that has greeted his appearances. Rand may have accused liberals of having a “lust for power,” but she never would have called Holocaust humor a harmless search for “lulz,” as Yiannopoulos gleefully does.
New ideas on the right have moved away from classical liberalism altogether. American conservatives have always had a mixed reaction to the Western philosophical tradition that emphasizes the sanctity of the individual. Religious conservatives often struggle with Rand because her extreme individualism leaves little room for God, country or duty. But Trump represents a victory for a form of conservatism that is openly illiberal, willing to junk entirely the rhetoric of individualism and free markets for nationalism inflected with racism, misogyny and xenophobia.
Mixed in with Rand’s vituperative attacks on government was a defense of the individual’s rights. This single-minded focus could yield surprising alignments, such as Rand’s opposition to drug laws and her support of legal abortion. And although liberals have always loved to hate her, over the next four years, they may come to miss her defense of individual autonomy and liberty.
Jennifer Burns is an associate professor of history at Stanford University. She wrote this article for the Washington Post.