Even though the Trump administration seems to be conducting policy by Twitter, texts longer than 140 characters are rumored to be central to its worldview. These texts contain hundreds of thousands of characters, and we know them as books. The influence of books on the thinking of Trump’s lieutenants is perhaps surprising, given that the President himself has struggled in interviews to name the last book he read. The search for a source code to this administration’s ideology has led critical observers back to books. As an English professor, I can get into this, since it suggests that the work I do–examining how books enable people to make meaning and interpret the world around them—might not be so irrelevant after all, despite Trump’s proposal to eliminate the NEH and NEA.
This bibliographic trail often leads to just two books, both by Ayn Rand: The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. These steamy romances of capitalism have been described as “the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right.”1 The only liberal aspect of her writing is a wanton use of adjectives and speeches that go on for twenty pages at a time. If Rand is your idea of literature, then it makes perfect sense, both stylistically and ideologically, to cut all government funding for the arts and humanities.
To the extent that The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged serves as a bildungsroman of the right, it is easy to understand how a cabinet of presidential advisors might resemble an Ayn Rand Book Club. What remains a puzzle is the completely ordinary status that Rand has in US secondary schooling. In high school classrooms, her work literally appears as a novel of education, where it is required reading for students preparing for the Advanced Placement exam. In the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election, I sat in on English classes at a public high school where students undertake an intensive study of Rand’s plots and prose. What I learned in interviewing teachers and talking with students is that Rand is ideal for anyone who needs a ready-made argument about ethics, freedom, or other social abstractions.
In Advanced Placement English courses in Maryland, Texas, Georgia, Arizona, New Jersey, and a host of other states, Rand’s books provide students with a model of interpretation that is as brutally simple and efficient as any of the buildings designed by Howard Roark, the architect-rapist, of The Fountainhead. For students frustrated by the thematic ambiguity that is essential to literature, Rand offers the refreshing alternative of a fictional world structured by stark, unyielding oppositions. Heroic individuals look scornfully at moochers crippled by their own dependency on state welfare. Angular heroines square off against flabby bureaucrats who literally embody government excess.
In the Wisconsin high school classes that I visited, this cast of capitalist heartthrobs and easy villains gave students an ample handhold for lifting themselves up to the next ledge of analysis. So what if when they finally pulled themselves and looked down from this summit of literary interpretation, they saw that they were only three feet off the ground?
Students find writing about literature difficult because they can never be sure if they have the “right” answer among a range of possible interpretations. Rand assures them that there is only one answer and that it is within their grasp. That is, as long as students carefully attend to the lengthy diatribes delivered by her characters, which, sort of like built-in Cliff Notes, spell out the deeper meaning of her novels that has been on the surface all along. In short, here is the dream of interpretation that requires no interpreting.
Before describing how students can earn college credit in high school by reading about John Galt, it is worth spending a moment collating the reports that Trump’s administration is packed with readers of Rand. In the run-up to the presidential inauguration, a flurry of news stories traced the influence of Rand’s ideas upon the incoming administration. A headline in the Washington Post announced, “Ayn Rand-Acolyte Donald Trump Stacks His Cabinet with Fellow Objectivists,” referring to the pseudo-philosophy of objectivism, which, more or less, equates happiness with unforgiving class inequality.2 The world of her novels is one of knifelike contrasts. On one side a bunch of whiny parasites rely on the nanny state to save them from their own weakness in surviving capitalism. On the other stands a resolute class of oversexed individualists who heroically reject all governmental regulation as enslaving and burdensome. With appointees who see the EPA and IRS as job-killing agencies, it is easy to tell which side team Trump is on.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson names Atlas Shrugged as his favorite book. CIA Director Mike Pompeo is on record identifying Ayn Rand as an abiding inspiration. Andrew Puzder, who crashed and burned as nominee for Secretary of Labor, talks about encouraging his six children to make their way through Rand’s oeuvre. The Washington Post found it “deeply revealing” that the Trump Cabinet’s taste in fiction has the potential to guide real policy. These men, the Post concluded ominously, “will now run our government.”3
Conservatives responded that even if such liberal paranoia were true, the scenario about a fifth column of Rand readers really shouldn’t worry us. Assuming a pose of equanimity, The Federalist asserted “While we don’t have high hopes for Trump, we’re happy to see some Rand fans going into his Cabinet.”4 The headline to this piece, “Inside Donald Trump’s Secret Ayn Rand Conspiracy,” appealed to sarcasm as the best strategy for muting the alarms that liberals had sounded about the reading habits of Trump’s closest advisors.
Rand’s ideology is already manifest; so little interpretative finesse is needed to unpack what is already in plain sight.
Despite an early report that Trump models himself after Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, the story never gained much traction, perhaps because Trump himself is not known as much of a reader. But it was enough for a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute to remind us that this identification aligns Trump with one of “the twentieth-century’s best-known fictional rapists.”5What’s more, devotees of Rand are quick to point out that Trump better resembles one of Rand’s loser-villains who are so dependent on other people’s views that they can develop no true self. “Trump is a guy who says he doesn’t care what other people think, then goes on to obsess endlessly about what other people think,” quipped Robert Tracinski, the editor of the Intellectual Activist, an objectivist magazine.6
The migration of Rand’s ideas into the White House predates Trump. The chain-smoking Russian émigré posed for a photograph with Alan Greenspan in the Oval Office, when President Gerald Ford appointed him Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors in 1974. In Ayn Rand Nation (2012), Gary Weiss doubled down on the conspiracy theory, playfully likening Greenspan to a Manchurian candidate who has been brainwashed by bad ideas. Except that in this case his secret mission is not to install the red Communist queen (played by Angela Lansbury in the 1962 film of The Manchurian Candidate) as the leader of the free world; rather, as Weiss put it, Greenspan’s undercover op is to “go forth and assassinate government regulation of business.”
The intrigue succeeded with disastrous results. In 2008, as economists were struggling to understand the full extent of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, Greenspan’s handiwork in deregulating financial markets was plain to see. Explaining the complexity of subprime derivatives is important to understanding the origins of the 2008 crash. So too is understanding literature, according to Adam Weiner. In How Bad Writing Destroyed the World: Ayn Rand and the Literary Origins of the Financial Crisis (2016), Weiner traces how Rand’s sloppy thinking and inflexible prose brainwashed Greenspan and other anti-government zealots into believing that the free market could settle all the world’s problems. Literature professors like Wiener and me often yearn for evidence that the books we teach have real social effects. With Atlas Shrugged, we seem to have gotten our wish, always sure cause for regret.
But Rand’s influence on contemporary American life may be less a plot with a smoking gun and more an accidental effect of college-bound students preparing for a test to pass out of freshman English. With these stakes, Rand’s easy-to-apply ideology exercises a certain appeal. The lure is not the specifics of her ideology but rather the fact that her ideology is already manifest, so primed for interpretation because so little interpretative finesse is needed to unpack what is already in plain sight.
The Trump-Pence signs that dotted the highway in my drive from Madison, where I teach American literature, to a suburban high school outside Milwaukee were visible reminders that neither the effects nor the accusations surrounding the 2008 financial crisis had faded away. Maple Hollow High School (school administrators asked that I use a pseudonym for the school and staff members) is located just 15 miles from downtown Milwaukee, but it might as well be a different country altogether. More than 90 percent of the town is white and the median income is close to $61,000, almost double what it is in Milwaukee, the fifth poorest city in the United States. On a map of this deeply divided state, Maple Hollow “is like choosing the most conservative place in Wisconsin and putting your finger on it,” said the English teacher who first introduced Rand to the school’s AP and honors classrooms almost a decade ago. In the 2016 election, Trump carried this county by a 3 to 1 margin.
An ambitious reading list includes works by William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and Toni Morrison, but AP Lit at Maple Hollow starts with Rand’s The Fountainhead. Students are required to read the first half of the novel over the summer, essential if they are to have any hope of finishing this seemingly endless epic of capitalism.
There’s plenty of course material on the syllabus to make college literature professors happy, but Rand’s writing is enough to make most members of my profession cringe. “She is almost an interesting writer,” states Weiner in his book on bad writing, but Rand’s preference for dogma over subtlety forever condemns her to the “graveyard of bad ideas.” Over the years, conservative intellectuals haven’t been much kinder. William Buckley recounted how he found reading Atlas Shrugged to be pure torture: “I had to flog myself to read it.”7 The “dictatorial tone” that suffuses “this mountain of words” prompted Whittaker Chambers to disparage Rand’s novels in Orwellian terms.8 He dubbed her “Big Sister” in an infamous review.
The English teacher at Maple Hollow who has kicked off his class with Rand for the past three years admits to a similar fatigue. Each August when Andrew Webster starts rereading The Fountainhead, he has to brace to himself: “Here’s 700 pages of Rand indoctrinating me again.” Yet he finds Rand to be eminently useful for teaching students to develop a strong, focused thesis that explains the greater significance of a work of literature as a whole.
This skill is especially important to master for the AP exam, where students have 40 minutes to build an essay that will or will not be the deciding factor in allowing them to receive college credit for a course taken in high school. Remember in The Fountainhead how Roark’s pencil rips across the drafting paper with “furious strokes,” creating bold architectural drawings in mere seconds? Rand teaches students to do the same thing with literary analysis: to draw on obvious themes to quickly build an essay. Just as Roark attacks his sketchpad by “slashing raw black lines” across the paper, students can use the black-and-white oppositions that make up the Randian universe to structure an essay, which—by eschewing contradiction and ambiguity—has all the purpose, direction, and uncompromising integrity of her heroes.
If the meaning of a novel could be summed up in a sentence, there would be no point in reading or writing a novel.
Literary analysis at first can frustrate AP students, who up to now have succeeded in math and science by coming up with the correct response. Advanced interpretation doesn’t yield a single “right” answer, however. If the meaning of a novel could be summed up in a sentence or two, there would be no point in reading—or writing—a novel in the first place. Unless the novel is by Ayn Rand. Her work offers students right answers: individualism is good while anything that smacks of collective agreement is abhorrent; freedom is absolute, which means that compromise constitutes the most profound threat to selfhood; men and women can only act on society’s behalf by forgetting all others and acting selfishly. Here, at last, is a surefire key to writing an essay quickly, scaffolding an argument around dramatic contrasts and unapologetic principles.
The students in AP Lit at Maple Hollow are smart. When they broke into small groups to workshop thesis statements on Rand, they kept running into the same problem. Mr. Webster, a graduate of my English Department and an AmeriCorps veteran, had given his class a colloquial benchmark. “Does it pass the ‘well, duh’ test?” That is, does the thesis get beyond the obvious? Many of the students wrote fluently and were clearly up to a challenge where “you have 40 minutes to get your idea down and articulate it,” as their teacher summed up the last section of the AP test. While they all succeeded with the assignment, they grew impatient and began critiquing their classmates’ work for sticking to surfaces, for confusing plot summary with analysis, for setting up static oppositions—
in short, for being obvious.
Take students who responded to a peer’s thesis that “Ayn Rand uses Howard Roark in The Fountainhead to highlight society’s shallow values and its twisted version of success.” They readily praised the writer for getting to the “the whole point of the book,” but in doing so they also noted that the thesis didn’t produce any revelations that would not already be accessible to anyone who had read the book. Not to mention those who hadn’t, as one student added wryly. “As a thesis, it’s pretty obvious,” said a senior wearing a Star Wars hoodie. His partner agreed, “You can obviously tell what the characters stand for.” So what, then, was the point of writing an essay about a character, when the character is more of a walking ideological statement than a human being? One student, who prefaced her remarks by saying that she had just started her application to NYU the night before, agreed: “Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead is not a person.” Instead, she’s a cardboard cutout. Her teacher sympathized, reflecting that as readers make their way through the novel, “We don’t even know which character is talking and it doesn’t matter because they’re saying the same thing.”
This assessment does not constitute a critique, however. The teachers at Maple Hollow who use Rand in their courses agreed that she’s perfect for students who are racing the clock to churn out an interpretative essay. After more than a month of discussing The Fountainhead with their peers, the students in this seventh-hour class, the last in a long school day, credited one another with their ability to produce a thesis that addresses the meaning of a literary work as a whole, just as the AP exam asks. But a group of seniors, who all made a point of telling me that they are working on their college applications, started to grow impatient. Looking at their work for the past hour, they expressed dissatisfaction. Their arguments were “shallow,” one said. Even when they were interpreting the novel, they expressed anxiety that they had produced little more than plot summary in the end. They felt that they had failed their teacher’s “well, duh” test.
Perhaps most dissatisfied was the student who aspired to go to NYU. She had worked on a thesis about “moral ambiguity.” The problem, as she saw it, was that it made for an essay that was spectacularly unsuited for a timed writing. “The purpose is not clear,” she complained. With this sensibility for nuance, she will never succeed in writing about Rand.
So, too, a person of her critical skills would find such an “ambiguous” reading useless in a Cabinet meeting, composed of men whose favorite author is esteemed because she gives them the absolute freedom to interpret the world in ways that accord with what they already know to be true.
- Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 4. ↩
- James Hohman, “Ayn Rand-Acolyte Donald Trump Stacks His Cabinet with Fellow Objectivists,” Washington Post, December 13, 2016. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Robert Tracinski, “Inside Donald Trump’s Secret Ayn Rand Conspiracy,” The Federalist, December 14, 2016. ↩
- Ed Kilgore, “Donald Trump’s Role Model Is an Ayn Rand Character,” New York, April 12, 2016. ↩
- Tracinski, “Inside Donald Trump’s Secret Ayn Rand Conspiracy.” ↩
- William F. Buckley, interview, Charlie Rose, June 6, 2003. ↩
- Whittaker Chambers, “Big Sister is Watching You,” National Review, December 28, 1957. ↩