The Anti-Intellectuality of Donald Trump: Why Ayn Rand Would Have Despised a President Trump
No one can speak for the dead. But as an expert on Ayn Rand’s philosophy, I’m often asked what Rand would have thought of President Trump, especially now, on the one-year anniversary of his election and in light of stories in the Washington Post and elsewhere trying to link Trump to Rand.
My wager is that were Ayn Rand alive today, she would condemn the whole Trump phenomenon. Far from seeing him or his administration’s actions as even partially influenced by her ideas, she would see Donald Trump as the kind of political figure whose rise she had foreseen and warned us against.
To appreciate why, we need to know something about her view of the country’s state. From the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1957 to her death in 1982, a constant theme in her writings is that we as a nation were in a state of intellectual and cultural bankruptcy.
The Democrats, liberals and political left had abandoned the intellect. Marx, although evil, was, Rand thought, the last intellectual voice worth confronting. When the Marxists entrenched in academia gave way or morphed into the likes of B. F. Skinner, John Rawls, Herbert Marcuse, and a sundry list of postmodernists preaching ethnic determinism, “back to nature,” the impossibility of objectivity and other anti-Enlightenment doctrines, their pretense to intellectuality was up.
This created an opening for the true heirs of the Enlightenment, the advocates of freedom and capitalism, to pick up the discarded banner of the intellect. They refused.
A few months before her death, Rand told an audience of her fans, no doubt to the surprise of many, that she didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter, whom she regarded as a small-town power luster. “There is a limit,” she told them, “to the notion of voting for the lesser of two evils.”
Rand did welcome Reagan’s strong language toward Soviet Russia and his promises to cut spending and taxes. But she warned that his invitation of the so-called Moral Majority to the halls of power would be a long-range disaster. By tying the (supposed) advocacy of freedom and capitalism to, in Rand’s words, the anti-intellectuality of “militant mystics,” who proclaim that aborting an embryo is murder and creationism is science, Reagan’s presidency would discredit the intellectual case for freedom and capitalism and embolden the anti-intellectual, authoritarian mentalities in the country.
Enter Donald Trump.
Trump’s salient characteristic as a political figure is anti-intellectuality. Because Rand saw this mentality as on the rise (she called it the anti-conceptual mentality), she had a lot to say about it, and it’s illuminating how much of it fits Trump.
In Rand’s terms, to be intellectual is to sustain through life the conviction that ideas matter. This means that knowledge, abstract principles, justice and truth are of personal importance to you, embedded in everything you value and informing your every action. “To take ideas seriously,” Rand says, “means that you intend to live by, to practice, any idea you accept as true.”
This is a demanding responsibility. To be intellectual requires real independence of judgment and enduring honesty and integrity.
It’s not just that Trump lacks these virtues; in comparison to, say, Jefferson, Washington or Madison, most of today’s politicians do. It’s that Trump projects disdain for these virtues.
On cable news, it’s now a regular feature for reporters like CNN’s Anderson Cooper to catalog Trump’s latest lies. But to call them lies misses the point.
A liar retains some respect for the truth: he tries to conceal his lies, weave a web of deception and make it difficult for his victims to discover the facts. Trump does none of this.
He states, for instance, that his inauguration crowd was the largest ever — when photos of his and past inaugurations are easily accessible. He declares to a national audience that “nobody has more respect for women than I do, nobody” — when the Billy Bush tape of him boasting that he grabs women “by the pussy” is fresh in everyone’s mind. In defense of his Saturday Charlottesville statement, he says that unlike others he waits for the facts to come in before making judgments — when his Twitter outbursts are read by millions.
Trump makes no distinction between truth and falsity, between statements backed by evidence and statements unsupported by any evidence. This is why you can’t catch him in a lie. He doesn’t care.
Rand puts it like this: to an anti-intellectual mentality words are not instruments of knowledge but tools of manipulation. Trump’s description of how he came to use the phrase “Drain the swamp” captures this kind of attitude perfectly.
The phrase, of course, in this context is hollow. By his own admission, Trump was part of the swamp, a master at playing every side of a corrupt political system. To drain the swamp would be to get rid of people like him — not elect them to the presidency. But somebody suggested to Trump that he use the phrase. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s so hokey. That is so terrible.’ I said, ‘All right, I’ll try it.’ So, like, a month ago I said, ‘Drain the swamp.’ The place went crazy. I said, ‘Whoa, watch this.’ Then I said [it] again. Then I started saying it like I meant it, right? And then I said it, I started loving it.”
Closely connected to this disdain for the truth is a complete amoralism. “The normal pattern of self-appraisal,” Rand observes, “requires reference to some abstract value or virtue,” such as “I am good because I am rational” or “I am good because I am honest.” But the entire realm of abstract principles and standards is unknown to an anti-intellectual mentality. The phenomenon of judging himself by such standards, therefore, is alien. Instead, Rand argues, the “implicit pattern of all his estimates is: ‘It’s good because I like it’ — ‘It’s right because I did it’ — ‘It’s true because I want it to be true.’”
Trump’s co-author on The Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz, said that in the eighteen months he worked with Trump “the word ‘moral’ never came up . . . that was not part of his vocabulary.” Other commentators have noted that, no matter how shameful his actions, like his whitewashing of the neo-Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville, which in Trump’s telling contained some “very fine people,” it’s impossible to shame Trump. This is the reason.
The self-centeredness that an amoralist exhibits, Rand holds, is centered on self-doubt; he therefore exhibits a constant and pathetic need to be loved, to be seen as a big shot and as the greatest ever. Observe Trump’s steady refrain that he’s accomplishing feats no other president has or could, Washington, Madison and Lincoln included. One suspects that the fake Time magazine with him on the cover hanging in Mar-a-Lago was as much to assuage Trump’s anxieties as to impress the gullible and sycophantic among his guests.
The place that loyalty to abstract standards occupies in a moral person’s mind, Rand argues, is typically replaced in an anti-intellectual mentality by “loyalty to the group.” Observe Trump’s special focus on this. Loyalty is desirable — if it has been earned. But Trump demands it upfront. As former FBI Director James Comey and others have remarked, a pledge of loyalty was among the first things Trump asked of them.
The wider phenomenon this demand for loyalty represents is a profound tribalism, a world divided into the loyal and the disloyal, insiders and outsiders, us versus them. To get a flavor, listen to any Trump rally.
Rand argued that in a period of intellectual and cultural bankruptcy, if the anti-intellectual mentality is on the rise, tribalism will be ascending culturally and, politically, a country will drift toward authoritarianism and ultimately dictatorship.
Political authoritarians rely on scapegoats, who are said to be responsible for all the country’s troubles. The Communists demonized the bourgeoisie, the Nazis demonized the Jews, and the Socialists demonized the owners of private property. Hand us the reins of power, they said, and we’ll get rid of these undesirables.
One of the most disturbing elements of the 2016 presidential campaign was the vitriol directed by the candidates not at their political opponents, which we expect, but at large segments of the public. Sanders and Trump, the two candidates with the most enthusiastic followings, excelled at this. Sanders demonized financiers, drug companies, bankers, Wall Street and the so-called one percent. Trump demonized Hispanics, immigrants, journalists, free traders and elites.
During the 2007–8 financial crisis, sales of Atlas Shrugged soared, in part because people wondered how Rand could have foreseen America’s economic collapse. Sales should be soaring again — because the book is not primarily about economic collapse, but about cultural and intellectual bankruptcy.
At the novel’s start, we witness a crumbling world, with posturing intellectuals who have long ago abandoned the intellect but who continue to preach irrational, shopworn ideas, which everyone mouths but no one fully believes — or dares challenge. Part of the point of the story is that these pseudo-intellectuals will eventually be replaced by their progeny: people who more openly dispense with the intellect and who are more explicitly boorish, brutish and tribal, i.e., by anti-intellectual mentalities.
This is best symbolized by the appearance on the political scene, late in the novel, of Cuffy Meigs. Although I suspect we are only at the beginnings of a similar political descent, the parallels, unfortunately, exist. Meigs is a short-range amoralist uninterested in arguments or reasons or facts, who carries a gun in one pocket and a rabbit’s foot in the other. President Trump carries the nuclear codes in one pocket and Infowars in the other.
The only way to prevent this kind of political and cultural disintegration, Rand thought, was to challenge the irrationalism, tribalism, determinism and identity politics at the heart of our intellectual life, propagated by the so-called left and right and by too many others as well. We need to realize that whether the appeal is to ethnicity or gender or faith or family or genes as the shaper of one’s soul and whether the demand is to sacrifice the rich to the poor, the poor to the rich, the able to the needy, whites to blacks, blacks to whites, individuals to the nation or sinners to God, all of it is corrupt. We are rational beings, who are capable of choosing a logical course in life and who should be pursing our own individual happiness.
Unless we are ready to radically rethink our culture’s fundamental ideas, with the same intensity of thought our Founding Fathers exerted in rethinking government, our long-term trajectory is set and will play out. But the choice is ours — this is the message of Atlas Shrugged.
Thus I think Rand would have said that a President Trump is a predictable outcome, but not an inevitable one.