Recently, several media outlets have made a connection between Ayn Rand and Donald Trump. They have made this link based on an interview in which Trump stated, “It [The Fountainhead] relates to business (and) beauty (and) life and inner emotions. That book relates to … everything.” Going further, several media sources have made the claim that Trump is stacking his cabinet with people who share Rand’s views because some of them have read her novel Atlas Shrugged.
In drawing such parallels, media pundits are likely not focusing too much on the particulars of Trump’s actions and policies, many of which fly in the face of Rand’s stated views—from his overt racism, to his proposal to criminalize flag burning, to his promises to protect welfare programs, to his proposed expropriation of money from Americans to fund infrastructure spending. Rather, they are making a broader claim about Trump’s overall approach to morality and values, which they believe is an embodiment of Rand’s ideal of selfishness.
In making this claim, the media appears to consider Trump and his cabinet members “selfish” in the sense that they are willing to say and do anything (including using the power of government) to achieve the ends they want to achieve, with no regard for others.
Yet this understanding of selfishness is fundamentally at odds with Rand’s own conception. Instead of using any means whatsoever to achieve his or her ends, Rand held that a rationally selfish person is one who uses his or her own mind to the best of its ability to survive, thrive, and achieve personally chosen goals through his or her own independent thought and effort, and by engaging in voluntary, win-win relationships with others.
In order for all individuals to survive and thrive, Rand held that their government must enact policies that unconditionally protect their individual rights, including the rights identified by the American founders: life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
Setting aside the question of whether Trump and his acolytes are rationally selfish in their own lives, it’s clear that many of Trump’s proposals ignore individual rights in favor of defending the so-called collective prosperity of the nation. To use Rand’s terms, Trump rejects individualism and espouses collectivism in the form of nationalism.
In the economic realm, several of Trump’s policies, including his abandonment of the TPP and his proposed tariff on goods from Mexico, prevent individuals from participating in volitional economic interactions without paying a hefty fee. These policies and others that Trump has proposed, which are examples of economic nationalism, prioritize protecting the alleged interests of the nation over the legitimate rights of the individual to trade freely. If Trump had really been influenced by Rand, he would know that free trade is the hallmark economic policy of a rights-protecting government. But instead, since his policies protect the group or the nation over the individual, they are ultimately another form of collectivism, as Rand defined it.
When it comes to personal liberties, specifically abortion, Trump has stated that he thinks the government should punish women who choose to have an abortion and 100% outlaw it. According to Rand, abortion is a highly private medical decision. But Trump would rather this decision be made arbitrarily by the state or by the collective decision of voters. In either case, the policy undermines an individual woman’s right to make choices that affect her own body. By contrast, Rand called abortion a “moral right” for women everywhere, writing: “who can conceivably have the right to dictate to [a woman] what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?”
But it’s not just Trump’s avowed policies that are collectivist; it’s also his racist, xenophobic attitudes. Rand called racism “the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.” Trump has revealed his racism on multiple occasions, such as when he called Mexican immigrants all manner of vile names throughout his presidential campaign, ignoring the fact that most Mexican immigrants are decent, hard-working, honest individuals who are not criminals. Likewise, when a Mexican judge ruled against Trump, in a lawsuit dealing with Trump University, his immediate response was to question the judge’s decision because of his race.
Trump’s damning of an entire ethnic group, such as Mexicans, on the basis of their country of origin, is plain and simple racism. And Trump’s racism reveals the ugly nature of collectivism, in that it utterly disregards the individual’s beliefs, values, and actions, automatically attributing to an individual both the best and worst characteristics of the collective group or race of people with which that individual is associated.
In stark contrast to Trump and his positions, a truly rational and selfish person, in Rand’s sense of these terms, would understand the need for individual rights to be protected and would reject collectivism in all its manifestations. Rand viewed humans as rational and independent entities capable of making decisions for themselves; Trump views humans as sheep needing to be shepherded, or (in the case of non-Americans) as wolves that need to be walled off to protect said helpless sheep. Rand’s view is individualistic; Trump’s is collectivistic.
Hence it is clear that Trump is far removed from Rand and from her distinctive conception of rational self-interest; instead, Trump falls squarely in the collectivistic and irrational realm. Therefore, we must fully disaffiliate Ayn Rand and her philosophy from the statements, actions, and policies of President Trump, regardless of Trump’s alleged infatuation with Rand and her characters.
The Undercurrent is a magazine distributed at college campuses and communities across the country. We release a print edition once per semester, and in the interim, regularly post additional articles, blog entries, and campus media responses reports to our website.
The Undercurrent's cultural commentary is based on Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism. Objectivism, which animates Ayn Rand's fiction, is a systematic philosophy of life. It holds that the universe is orderly and comprehensible, that man survives by reason, that his life and happiness comprise his highest moral purpose, and that he flourishes only in a society that protects his individual rights.
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