She was born more than a century ago in Russia, but today the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand is one of the most powerful intellectual forces in American politics. Speaker of the House of Represantatives Paul Ryan has called her books "the reason I went into public service." President Trump said her novel "The Fountainhead" was one of his favorites. And many of Trump's most prominent team members – including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and CIA director Mike Pompeo – are also fans of Ayn Rand. Year in and year out, her books command a broad popular audience. Combined annual sales of all her books hover around the million mark. Not bad for a writer whose last major work was published in 1957!
What explains the lasting influence of Ayn Rand among American conservatives? And what can her perennial popularity tell us about where the new Trump administration might be headed?
The roots of Rand's ideas lie in the Russian Revolution. She was raised as Alissa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, one of three daughters in a prosperous Jewish family. The Bolsheviks came to power in her homeland when she was 12 years old, and her bourgeois family was one of the new regime's targets. The Soviet state seized her father's chemistry business, plunging the family into poverty. It was enough to turn anyone against communism.
But Alissa, a shy and bookish girl, saw the Revolution as part of something larger and even more pernicious. Communism was not just a political system, but an ethical system that claimed the community was more important than the individual. To fight communism, she concluded, it was necessary to defend the individual above all else. And to effectively do this, one had to challenge the whole basis of Western morality. Rand, an atheist, believed Christian morality was at the root of the problem. To win the global struggle against collectivism, society would need a new moral system that made the individual paramount. This would be the ideal to which she dedicated her life.
But first, Rand wanted freedom for herself. Aided by her family, in 1926 she managed to escape Russia and settled in Hollywood, where she carved out a successful career as a screenwriter. Determined to reinvent herself, like a movie starlet she took on a new name: Ayn Rand.
It wasn't until the 1930s, amid the tumult of economic depression and political crisis in Europe, that Rand began to pay attention to politics in her new homeland. She had never stopped hating communism, but believed it was no threat to America. But now, amid the "Red Decade," when countless intellectuals and writers turned to communism, Rand began to fear the worst. She was particularly troubled by Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Originally, she had supported Roosevelt because he vowed to end Prohibition. Yet as he rolled out relief programs, expanded the state's role in the economy and consulted with intellectuals Rand considered "pink," she began to consider Roosevelt a threat to American freedom.
It was around this time that she finished writing "The Fountainhead," – the novel President Trump counts among his favorites. The book's hero is Howard Roark, an independent architect who fights against the herd mentality. Rand celebrated individualism through Roark. She also used her novel to critique the New Deal and Roosevelt. American conservatives recognized her immediately as a kindred spirit.
But Rand's real political breakthrough came with "Atlas Shrugged," her second novel, published in 1957. More than a story, Rand's novel laid out the essentials of "Objectivism," a new radical philosophy intended to counter rising collectivism. In this story, Rand glorified capitalism as the only moral social system, because it was based upon the individual. "Atlas Shrugged" is set in a future America that is breaking down because of too many government regulations. The country's leading capitalists, fed up with taxation and regulation, are led by the mysterious John Galt to Galt's Gulch, a secret hideaway nestled in the mountains of Colorado. Here they wait for the establishment of a government that will recognize the importance of free markets and capitalism. In the meantime, the country begins to fall apart.