So Donald Trump says he’s an Ayn Rand fan. That has about as much credibility as every other claim Trump makes about himself.
This comes by way of an interview with Kirsten Powers for USA Today. Here’s how it’s described:
Trump described himself as an Ayn Rand fan. He said of her novel The Fountainhead, “It relates to business (and) beauty (and) life and inner emotions. That book relates to … everything.” He identified with Howard Roark, the novel’s idealistic protagonist who designs skyscrapers and rages against the establishment.
So The Fountainhead “relates to business, beauty, life, and inner emotions”? Wow, that’s really specific, because no other novels in history have ever related to “inner emotions.” (By the way, why “inner emotions”? What would “outer emotions” be? Don’t bother answering. I’ve seen Trump speak. That’s what outer emotions are.)
This kind of vague answer is par for course when Trump is pretending to talk about something he knows nothing about. It reminds me of Trump describing why he admires Abraham Lincoln.
He was a man who was of great intelligence,… but he was also a man who did something that was a very vital thing to do at that time. Ten years before or 20 years before, what he was doing would never have even been thought possible. So he did something that was a very important thing to do, and especially at that time.
A history professor who was asked about this said that Trump’s answer sounds like an inattentive student trying to bluff his way through a test question.
Trump talking about The Fountainhead sounds like a poor student trying to bluff his way through a book report, without even bothering to skim the Cliff’s Notes.
But here’s what makes it really funny.
When I pointed out that The Fountainhead is in a way about the tyranny of groupthink, Trump sat up and said, ‘That’s what is happening here.’ He then recounted a call he received from a liberal journalist: ‘How does it feel to have done what you have done? I said what have I done. He said nobody ever in the history of this country has done what you have done. And I said, well, if I lose, then no big deal. And he said no, no, if you lose, it doesn’t matter because this will be talked about forever. And I said it will be talked about more if I win.’
So Trump pivots from how he supposedly identifies with Howard Roark to a discussion of his favorite topic: how much people are talking about him. It’s one of Trump’s distinctive verbal tics to boast about how well he’s doing in the polls, or about what “everybody says” about how great he is.
To people who have not read The Fountainhead, let me explain why people who have read The Fountainhead are smiling right now. The whole point of the character of Howard Roark is that he doesn’t care whether other people are talking about him. Ayn Rand created Roark as the ultimate individualist, all the way down. Conformity has no pull on his soul, and what other people think of him has no fundamental impact on his “inner emotions.”
There is a character in The Fountainhead who cares deeply about what other people think of him, who is obsessed with the opinions of others. That character is not Howard Roark. It’s Peter Keating, the ultimate conformist, or what Ayn Rand called a “second-hander”—someone who borrows his ideas and goals “second-hand” from others.
In the first half of the novel, while Roark’s independent vision keeps meeting with rejection, Keating rockets to early success by being whatever other people want him to be. His motivation, as Roark eventually realizes, is “not to be great but to be thought great.” He’s not focused on actually achieving something good. He’s focused on wanting everybody to say good things about him.
Here’s Peter Keating’s inner monologue on his first day as draftsman at New York’s leading architectural firm. At first he is overwhelmed, but then:
[H]e noticed the wrinkles of a gray smock sticking to a pair of shoulder blades over the next table. He glanced about him cautiously at first, then with curiosity, then with pleasure, then with contempt. When he reached this last, Peter Keating became himself again and felt love for mankind. He noticed sallow cheeks, a funny nose, a wart on a receding chin, a stomach squashed against the edge of a table. He loved these sights. What these could do, he could do better.
And now here is Donald Trump doling out spectacularly bad life advice:
[Y]ou’ll find that when you become very successful, the people that you will like best are the people that are less successful than you, because when you go to a table you can tell them all of these wonderful stories, and they’ll sit back and listen. Does that make sense to you? OK? Always be around unsuccessful people because everybody will respect you.
So yes, Donald Trump is like a character from an Ayn Rand novel. But he’s one of the villains.
But what about Trump’s bluster about how he’s willing to be politically incorrect and doesn’t care about what other people think? Sure, then he usually goes on to complain about what Megyn Kelly thinks of him, and what Ted Cruz said about him, and about how his latest poll numbers show what idiots they are. It’s a pose of defiance, covering up an all-consuming obsession with what other people think.
The Fountainhead has this covered, too. Many of its characters are variations on the theme of “second-hand lives”—which was the original working title for the novel. Lois Cook is a modernist poet (Rand’s satire of Gertrude Stein) and a loud “non-conformist” who makes a big show of defying convention. While Keating’s approach is to find out what everybody wants and be that, Cook’s approach is to find out what everybody wants and be the opposite. But the point Rand is making is that Cook is still controlled by other people’s opinions. She’s still a copy of other people, but in reverse, like a photographic negative.
Similarly, Donald Trump’s whole shtick of being “politically incorrect” largely consists of figuring out what other people will regard as offensive and saying that.
That’s what Powers gets wrong about Howard Roark. He does not “rage against the establishment.” He ignores it. (One of the villains dares him to “tell me what you think of me, in any words you wish,” and Roark replies, “But I don’t think of you.”) The point of his character is that he chooses his own set of independent standards and sticks to them. He isn’t ruled by a compulsion to conform to others—or by a compulsion to defy them. But if you talk with Trump’s supporters, you’ll find that defying others is centrally important to them. They can’t tell you much about what voting for Trump will actually achieve. They’re just doing it to stick a finger in somebody’s eye—the essence of a “second-handed” motivation.
Here’s how Lois Cook describes to an appalled Peter Keating her concept for a house:
Keating, I want the house to be ugly. Magnificently ugly. I want it to be the ugliest house in New York…. They all work so hard and struggle and suffer, trying to achieve beauty, trying to surpass one another in beauty. Let’s surpass them all! Let’s throw their sweat in their face. Let’s destroy them at one stroke. Let’s be gods. Let’s be ugly.
“Let’s be gods. Let’s be ugly.” That’s a perfect campaign slogan for Trump’s brand of populism, and it would fit really well on a bumper sticker.
But when actual fans of The Fountainhead think of Donald Trump, they are more likely to think of the publishing baron Gail Wynand. (A man, not a woman; it’s a somewhat old-fashioned Irish male name.) Wynand has risen to fame and fortune by running a lowbrow, muckraking newspaper that appeals to the lowest common denominator—an early precursor of “reality TV.” And there’s no product he sells harder than himself and his own gaudy lifestyle: the big mansion, the parties full of famous people, scandalous affairs with beautiful women.
The difference is that Wynand knows it’s all a show. It’s the cynical camouflage he adopts to pander to the masses, while he privately has his own, higher standards, represented by a secret collection of rare and exquisite art. It’s that contrast between the two sides of his personality that fuels a lot of the dramatic tension later in the novel.
Somehow, I don’t think Trump has a secret art collection tucked away at Mar-a-Lago. He seems more like Wynand’s right-hand-man, Alvah Scarrett, who’s in charge of the paper’s muckraking sensationalism. Scarrett doesn’t do it because he secretly despises the masses. He does it because muckraking sensationalism is who he is. The lowest common denominator is already in his soul.
Trump gives off the same sense. He doesn’t run his campaign in a way that is carefully, rationally calculated. If he did, he would probably know how caucuses work or how Colorado awards its delegates. Instead, he runs his campaign from his gut, and if he has the crude style of a character from professional wrestling, that’s just what comes naturally.
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. He’s exactly the sort of person who would want you to think he’s an Ayn Rand fan, while he really acts like one of her villains.
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