Now that Ayn Rand's number one fan, Paul Ryan, has been tapped as Mitt Romney's running mate, it's time to take a closer look at the "philosopher" Ryan credits as his greatest influence. Here is a chapter from my book, Tales of a Real American Liberal, that explores the strange relationship and dangerous influence of Rand on the Republican Party.
Republicans involved in government since President Reagan’s days have named Ayn Rand (1905-1982) as an intellectual influence and role model. Libertarian Republican representative and presidential candidate Ron Paul, R-TX, is such a big fan of Rand that people assume he named his son, far-right, Tea Party favorite and current Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul, after Ayn Rand. The younger Paul explains that his name is actually Randal, but he readily admits that he is also a Rand fan and wistfully speaks about how he wishes he were named after Ayn Rand.
One striking example of Rand’s influence on today’s elected right-wingers is current Republican darling and Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, R-WI. Ryan actually says he got into politics because of Rand’s influence and he even posted a video to his Facebook page in which he claims we are “living in an Ayn Rand novel today” where government is wrong and capitalism is under attack. In the video, Ryan sounds like a freshman schoolboy with a crush on a senior girl who he has never met but who he is convinced will ask him to the prom any day now.
But just who was Ayn Rand? She is best known today for two best-selling novels from the 1940s and 1950s, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The novels’ main characters are self-centered egomaniacs, a description often applied to Rand herself. These books received as many negative reviews as positive when they were released, and most Republicans who mention Rand have probably never read them because they’re 720 and 1,200 pages long, respectively.
Right-wingers who question President Obama’s birthplace might be interested to know that Rand was born and educated in Russia. Her birth name was Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, which doesn’t sound like the name of anyone from Sarah Palin’s “real America.” That name won’t get you a ticket to the next Tea Party parade, where some participants have been seen holding signs reading, “I am John Galt,” the central character of Atlas Shrugged, whom they take to symbolize the battle against taxes or socialism or communism or one-world government or whatever paranoid fantasy the confused Tea Partiers think they are fighting against.
Rand held some other beliefs that might be a bit out-of-touch with the current wing-nutty far-right version of the Republican Party. She supported abortion rights, was against legislation banning homosexuality, and opposed the Vietnam War. Such views today would certainly get her name on Glenn Beck’s conspiracy chalkboard.
And all those Republicans who wail about how much “character” matters might be interested to know that their role model was publicly unfaithful in her marriage and had along-term affair with a married man 25 years her junior. She was addicted to amphetamines, and prone to narcissism, depression, and a lack of empathy. (Come to think of it, perhaps she would fit in well with today’s Republican Party after all—sounds a bit like a combination of Rush Limbaugh and the current crop of sex-scandalized Republican office holders and nominees.) One of her most important role models was child-murdering serial killer William Edward Hickman. Before her career as a mediocre novelist, she even worked in the Hollywood movie industry, that den of iniquity so often vilified by Republican politicians.
Worst of all, Rand’s most famous nonfiction book is called The Virtue of Selfishness. The philosophy embraced in the book is exactly what you might expect from the title: human beings should pursue their own self-interest rather than considering the plight of other people. It seems appropriate that the proper pronunciation of “Ayn” rhymes with “mine,” as in the word a toddler screams when someone touches his toy. All those Republicans running around today decrying the waste of Social Security, Medicare, health care reform, and unemployment benefits are basing their objections on Rand’s belief that people are at their best when they behave selfishly. Of course, these Republicans don’t mention the fact that Rand herself took advantage of Social Security and Medicare late in her life.
From the Republican’s selfish point of view, the government should spend money only to promote selfishness in society, exclusively the selfishness of social and economic elites. Republicans support the selfish elite through corporate welfare, very low tax rates for the wealthy, outsourcing labor, and privatizing profits while shifting the burden of economic troubles onto the general public. Promoting private profit is put above the public good in every case. Any government programs that benefit the middle class or the poor don’t promote selfishness enough for Republicans. That’s why Republicans call any program that doesn’t benefit the rich “socialism,” “big government,” “welfare giveaways,” “the nanny state,” “pork,” “earmarks,” or simply “waste”—because these aren’t based on Rand’s “virtue of selfishness.”
The Bible doesn’t say much in praise of selfishness. If the position that selfishness is a virtue doesn’t sound very Christian, that’s because it isn’t—and neither was Rand. She was a very public atheist who ridiculed Christianity and religion as a personality disorder. If she were alive today, the religious right would certainly condemn her atheism as anti-American rather than hold her up as a conservative icon.
Perhaps the reasons Republicans are so focused on labeling Obama an ultra-liberal, socialist Muslim (all incorrect labels) is that they don’t want voters to look too closely at the Republican ideology of radical selfishness. When Republicans talk about their favorite sound bite, “personal responsibility,” they never seem to mention the personal responsibility that all American citizens have to one another, the personal responsibility that binds us together as a nation. “E Pluribus Unum” is inscribed on the back of our coins: “out of many, one.” The Republican idea of personal responsibility is the opposite: “instead of the many, look out for number one,” and that motto comes straight from the twisted and selfish Rand version of personal responsibility.
So if Ayn Rand sounds like someone who represents the worst kind of selfishness, and Republicans embrace that selfishness, then why would any good-hearted, clear-headed American consider voting for Republicans?