The Republican Party's slapstick search for a leader would be heartwarming and sidesplitting but for the tragic knowledge that one of these scrambling midgets will collect tens of millions of votes in the presidential election of 2012. Never have so many amounted to so little, talked so much rubbish, dreamed of an office so far above their abilities. Blood pressures rose among party elders when Donald Trump, marginally Republican and one of the greatest fools in the solar system, momentarily tossed his hairpiece into the ring and became the instant favorite.
The GOP dilemma—a golden opportunity to rule but nothing to say and no one to say it—is so desperate that my instinct is to help them sort it out. Could we start, at least, by dismissing candidates who called for President Obama's birth certificate or raised the specter of Shariah law in America, followed by briskly ushering offstage lunatics who dismiss global warming as a socialist plot? That would leave plenty of unbalanced extremists still in the running, yet reduce the stench of sheer evil and madness. The "birther" and Shariah cults reek of cheesy talk-radio racism; climate-change denial is a stranger faith yet, a political assault on basic science that insults a ground squirrel's intelligence and casually threatens the survival of life on Earth.
The party that produces birthers and global-warming deniers no doubt harbors End-of-the-Worlders, too, Christians who packed their bags for heaven with the senile prophet Harold Camping on May 21. Though none of them, I suppose, would commit to the time and expense of a presidential campaign, just to preside over a nation of sinners expiring in fire and pestilence.
Leo Rangell, the prominent Freudian analyst whose obituary is in this morning's Times, once lamented that the American public is "gullible or easily seduced, and susceptible to leaders of questionable character." Dr. Rangell wrote that in 1980, long before gullibility became such an epidemic that we began to doubt the value of our schools, before media demagogues made a billion-dollar industry of manipulating our most credulous citizens, before the Republican Party dedicated itself to gathering most of them into its fold. Before Rush Limbaugh, before Fox News, before the tea party.
"Finally, people's stupidity will break your heart," observed my father, a small-town politician and a loyal Republican of the moderate traditional strain that has been systematically exterminated by the radical right. My father lived long enough to vote for George McGovern and against Ronald Reagan, but the rhetoric GOP candidates churn out to charm this tea party would sound extraterrestrial to most Republicans of his generation.
The odious hypocrite Newt Gingrich, who considered himself a serious presidential candidate until his entire staff abandoned him in disgust, rests his appeal on his intellectual superiority to Sarah Palin and Rick Perry—a distinction much like being a faster runner than Dom DeLuise. In his obligatory pre-campaign book, Gingrich claims that Barack Obama, a cautious centrist if there ever was one, drives a "secular-socialist machine" that "represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did."
Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, Father Coughlin, move over. Newt is just full of Shariah, among other things, and accuses Obama of "Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior," a blatant pitch for the racist vote the tea party has re-energized. A colossal irony—demonstrating how hopelessly divided America has become—is that the radical philosopher Cornel West, a black Princeton professor, calls Obama "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats." This is not helpful of Dr. West, nor is it responsible. He and Newt Gingrich are equally useless if a calmer, more logical and coherent political culture is what we're after. But if I had to say which of these two hostile portraits of our president is less preposterous, I'm sure I'd choose West's. Virtually all the valid criticism of Barack Obama has come from the left.
When tea-stained legislators gut environmental laws to protect corporate profits, when they sneer at climate change while America bakes in its bedrock like a big green casserole, when Republican educational reform means classrooms with fewer teachers and more guns—there's a temptation for reasonable Americans to throw up their hands and succumb to despair. Is it a death wish or a scheme to kill the rest of us, when "conservatives" fight against clean air laws, or legislate to place a loaded pistol in every yahoo's holster? I've reached the second half of my seventh decade, and I've never seen such an intimidating swarm of fanatics and fools marching under one banner. The election of a non-white president has brought out the worst in the worst of us. But who guessed that there were so many, or that their worst was so awful?
Albert Einstein, of my father's persuasion if not of his party, once wrote despairingly, "The tyranny of the ignoramuses is insurmountable and assured for all time." But the coalition that poisons this struggling republic is an unnatural one, made up of rich cynics who supply the money, and poor ignoramuses who supply the votes. They have nothing in common, except that the cynics will say anything and the morons will believe it. There must be something, optimists insist, that could drive a wedge between the exploiters and the exploited—some irresistible revelation, some fraud or contradiction so flagrant that the most obtuse voter could see how callously and criminally he's being used.
How about Ayn Rand? The latest Republican poster boy, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, stole the media spotlight with a slash-to-the-bone budget proposal that Fox News heralded as the Magna Carta of fiscal responsibility in America. I lack the expertise to take on Rep. Ryan's budget digit-for-digit, but I place considerable confidence in the opinion of the Times' Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2008. "The proposal wasn't serious at all," Krugman wrote. "In fact, it was a sick joke. The only real things in it were savage cuts in aid to the needy and the uninsured, huge tax cuts for corporations and the rich and Medicare privatization. All the alleged cost savings were pure fantasy."
That sounds about par for the current Republican course, with fresh infusions of tea party belligerence and unreality. But what frightened me most about Rep. Ryan was the report that he is an avowed disciple of the writer/ philosopher Ayn Rand, and has declared in public that Rand is "the reason I got involved in public service."
Good grief, she's back. She died in 1982, but someone neglected to drive a stake through her heart. A passion for the prose and philosophy of Ayn Rand tells us a great deal about an individual, none of it good. There are few surer signs of a poor reader, a poor thinker and an unpleasant person than a well-thumbed copy of Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead. In 2005, Rand's acolytes gathered in Washington for a symposium to celebrate her 100th birthday—the occasion for Rep. Ryan's disturbing confession—and I admit I'd give anything to see the seating chart. If there were some way to ban everyone in that room from holding public office, we could probably turn the United States of America back toward the generous light of reason.
Yet Rand herself claimed that reason was her only guide. Who is/ was Ayn Rand? (To parody the famous first line of Atlas Shrugged, "Who is John Galt?") Fifty years ago, when I first heard her name, that question was seldom asked. She was a major cultural figure, if not exactly a revered one. Critics despised her best-selling novels, and philosophers ridiculed her "objectivist" philosophy. She was to literature what Rod McKuen was to poetry, what Fabian was to rock 'n' roll, what Guru Maharaj Ji was to religion. Look them up. Like them, she once enjoyed a huge audience of admirers. Unlike them, she was never harmless, and she's enjoying an alarming revival.
Since Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, it has sold 7 million copies. It's possibly the most polarizing book ever written. For every Paul Ryan who finds it life-shaping, a dozen readers are mystified and a dozen more appalled. Few actually finish the 1,200-page novel, which ends with the mysterious Galt drawing a dollar sign in the air with his finger. If you wade into this stuff up to your ankles—the hokey melodrama, the backlit macro-characters posed like Easter Island monoliths, the cruel and obvious message stamped on every page—you begin to fear that you can never wash it off.
At times her critics oversimplify Rand's beliefs, which embody any number of contradictions and opacities. But essentially she glorifies the will and celebrates Nietzsche's Übermensch, the superman whose blazing passage through the world need never be impeded by the interests or opinions of mediocrities like you and me. It's the same string of arrogant assumptions that spawned the master race theories of Herr Hitler: ego deification, social Darwinism, arbitrary stratification of human types. Adapted for capitalism, it becomes the divine right to plunder, a license for those who own nearly everything to take the rest, because they wish to, because they can. Because the weak don't matter. Let the big dogs feed.
This repulsive theology was the work of a fairly repulsive person. For an eyewitness portrait of Ayn Rand in the flesh, in the prime of her celebrity, you can't improve on the "Übermensch" chapter in Tobias Wolff's autobiographical novel Old School. Invited to meet with the faculty and student writers at the narrator's boarding school, Rand arrives with an entourage of chain-smoking idolaters in black and behaves so repellently that her audience of innocents gets a life lesson in what kind of adult to avoid, and to avoid becoming. Rude, dismissive, vain and self-infatuated to the point of obtuseness—she names Atlas Shrugged as the only great American novel—Rand and her hissing chorus in black manage to alienate the entire school, even the rich board member who had admired and invited her.
What strikes Wolff's narrator most forcefully is her utter lack of charity or empathy, her transparent disgust with everything she views as disfiguring or disabling: a huge wen on the headmaster's forehead, the narrator's running head cold, the war injury that emasculated Hemingway's Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises. To the boy, she appears to be exactly the sort of merciless egotist who might have designed a fascist philosophy that exalts power and disparages altruism. Rand is wearing a gold pin in the shape of a dollar sign. After meeting her, he can no longer read a word of The Fountainhead, which as an adolescent romantic he had enjoyed.
This division of the human race into the elect few who are destiny's darlings and the "second-rate" multitudes above whom they soar—this Übermensch nonsense—is perilously thin ice on which to rest a philosophy. (Nietzsche, you recall, went hopelessly mad.) Since there's no agency that rates human beings the way we rate bonds, the elect are always self-elected supermen and superwomen. Super, says who? If it's supposed to be intellect as much as will that sets them above us, I sense a critical problem. Whenever a person of superior intelligence begins to comprehend the human condition, the first fruits of his knowledge are humility and irony: two things Rand and her heroes most spectacularly lack.
Personally, I never feel more superior than when I see someone carrying a copy of Atlas Shrugged. What actually sets the self-styled super race apart is an unrepressed infantile id, a raging "I want" that defies socialization. These are damaged children, people of arrested development drawn to an ugly philosophy that legitimizes narcissism and socially unacceptable behavior. Donald Trump would be a perfect example.
For an apostle of self-willed happiness, the goddess of greed led a troubled life, marked by depressions, amphetamine addiction, messy love affairs and betrayals. But you could say that she had a capacious mind, if not a healthy or an orderly one. She was well educated; she had actually read Aristotle and Nietzsche before she hobbled them and hitched them to her wagon. Her unlikely 21st-century resurrection is the work of much smaller, often almost invisible minds that cherry-pick the vast creaking structure of her oeuvre for their own ends, just as they cherry-pick the Bible or The Wealth of Nations.
If corporate feudalism is your dream for America, she's the prophet for you. Her naïve faith in capitalism and contempt for "the welfare state" are just what the right-wing doctor ordered. Much of the rest, alas, will never fly in Alabama. Pundits have been delighted to note that the heroine of the new Republicans was a pacifist who opposed the Vietnam War, a feminist who supported abortion, an adulteress who preached free love, a bohemian who mocked family life and childbearing, an elitist who sneered at the common man and, after all her "nanny state" rhetoric, a recipient of Social Security and Medicare and a late, sick convert to the benefits of socialized medicine.
Worst of all, for tea-stained Christian Republicans, she was a militant atheist. In Rand's ideology, religious faith was the most abject form of weakness, a sniveling retreat from the hardheaded, self-centered "objectivism" her heroes impose on the world. She not only would have rejected Jesus and his gospels, she actually did—repeatedly. Christ's message that the poor are blessed and the meek will inherit the earth is antithetical to Rand's belief that the poor and meek are no more than mulch where the dreams of the mighty take root. So adamantly did she denounce the altruism and self-sacrifice at the center of the Christian message, it's no exaggeration to call her the intellectual Antichrist. It's no great exaggeration to say that praising her is like spitting in Christ's face.
How do Paul Ryan, Ron and Rand Paul and company manage to pass off this radical atheist, this subversive Russian Jew (born Elisa Rosenbaum) as an iconic role model for Christian conservatives? Apparently they don't think they need to get into the details, not with their particular constituency. Assuming that they know the details themselves. The careless condescension of their leaders is not yet a scandal to the teabaggers of America's unlettered hard right. But Ayn Rand seems like the biggest joke of all, one that might yet blow up in the party's face. The plutocrats she worshiped are so few, the plebeians she scorned are so many. The GOP's little people can't all be totally illiterate, and Limbaugh and Glenn Beck actually urge them to read this woman's books.
This in-your-face deception reminds me of the old stage villain, the silent-movie heavy with the waxed mustache, cackling behind his cloak and inviting the audience to share the cruelty he's about to inflict on his innocent victims. It's as if Wall Street is surreptitiously giving the finger to Main Street Republicans, laughing at the gullible recruits as they march to the polls to lower corporate taxes and deregulate markets. Ayn Rand, indeed. She would have applauded the big dogs' ruthlessness but rolled her eyes at the Christian-family rhetoric they're obliged to use for bait.
She wasn't one of them, of course; she certainly wasn't one of us. She was one of a kind, thank God. In her defense, you might argue that her love affair with capitalism was rooted in a Russian Jew's horror of the totalitarian systems that devastated Europe in the 20th century. That offers her a gravitas she doesn't share with ultra-light Midwestern reactionaries like Paul Ryan or Michele Bachmann.
But the more Americans read her books, the better for liberals and the worse, I think, for Republicans. Her work illustrates conclusively what a few brave clergymen and a few ink-stained relics like me have been saying for years to anyone who would listen, and to Republicans who refuse to listen: that Christianity and the wolverine capitalism of a John Galt are totally incompatible systems, two mutually exclusive human possibilities. They cancel each other out. Any political party that pretends to integrate them is a party of liars, and doomed.