In the wake of Donald Trump’s ascent to dominance in the GOP, conservative leaders blame Republicans for the calamity. But they shouldn’t.
Before we turn to why they shouldn’t, consider why they do.
“There are many reasons Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee,” writes Dennis Prager, but “the biggest reason is this: The majority of Republicans are not conservative.”
David French observes that “the party of Lincoln is in ruins,” calls for conservatives to “stay firm in their opposition to Trump,” and scolds GOP leaders for supporting this “reprehensible man.”
Jay Cost says “the Republican party of 2016 is a spectacular failure”:
Lacking sufficient organization and largely bereft of vigilant leaders, it has proven itself incapable of refining and enlarging public views around a principled commitment to the national interest. It is little wonder that a demagogic, ill-informed outsider like Trump is on the cusp of capturing its most important nomination. The party lacks the strength to resist him.
And Matt Walsh chastises Trump-supporting Republicans who
turned out in droves for a left-wing vulgarian who, when he’s not bragging of his adultery or fantasizing about dating his daughter or mocking POWs and the disabled, has taken to perpetuating conspiracy theories about how his former opponent’s father killed JFK.
Underscoring the insanity of supporting this mess of a man, Walsh recalls that “Trump said himself, he could shoot someone in the middle of the street and these people would still follow him”—and, nevertheless, millions of Republicans have voted for him. “There is no complaining now,” Walsh concludes:
We can’t whine about our demise. We chose it. Well, some of us did not choose it, yet we live in a country where millions of our fellow Americans did . . . And here we are. Thanks, Republicans.
That’s an indication of where conservatives are placing the blame.
First, let me acknowledge a kernel of truth in what these conservatives say: Every Republican who has supported or voted for Donald Trump is partly to blame for the political ascent of this repulsive, power-lusting opportunist. During the primaries, Republicans had the alternative of supporting and voting for Ted Cruz, a flawed but essentially good candidate, whose ideas and positions on the most pressing issues of the day were infinitely better than anyone else’s in the race. So, shame on Republicans who had the means of knowing this, yet supported Trump (or anyone else) instead of Cruz.
But the political rise of Trump is not merely the fault of Republicans. It is also, and more so, the fault of conservatives—especially conservative leaders, both old and new.
In the pages of her revolutionary novel, Rand had handed conservatives, and the world in general, an observation-based, demonstrably true philosophy that, in addition to providing principled guidance for choosing and pursuing life-serving values at the personal level, also provides a rock-solid foundation for supporting and defending freedom and capitalism at the political level. This book was a godsend to everyone who loves life, loves America, and wants to advance the ideal of a government dedicated to protecting individuals’ rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
What did conservatives do with this gift? They shat on it.
Two months after Atlas was published, William F. Buckley’s popular conservative magazine, National Review, ran a “review” of the book, penned by ex-communist Whittaker Chambers. The reason for the scare quotes around the word review in the previous sentence is that it was not a review but a lie. A big lie. Indeed, it was and remains an unsurpassed (although often aspired to) model of intellectual dishonesty, injustice, malice.
The screed claimed, among myriad additional lies, that “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!’”
To those who have read Atlas, that one claim is sufficient to convey the jaw-dropping depths of dishonesty involved in the so-called review. For those who haven’t read Atlas, I’ll indicate briefly, without spoiling the plot of the novel, how obscenely dishonest this claim and the entire review it represents are.
Atlas is a story about the role of reason in human life—about the fact that the individual’s reasoning mind is his only means of knowledge and his basic means of living—about the principle that each individual is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others—and about the principle that being moral consists in using one’s mind to pursue one’s life-serving values while respecting the rights of others to do the same.
Among the countless ways in which these ideas are vividly depicted and illustrated in Rand’s thousand-page novel, the heroes of Atlas take an oath, which they all uphold unwaveringly: “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
As part of their commitment to living by this oath, the heroes call for a government that does one thing and one thing only: protects the rights of all individuals by banning physical force and fraud from social relationships so that everyone can act on his own judgment, produce goods and services, trade them with others by mutual consent to mutual advantage, and flourish in a land of liberty.
Also as part of their commitment to living by the principle that no one should ever sacrifice or be sacrificed for anyone, the heroes in Atlas, time and again, refuse to cooperate with government officials or unscrupulous businessmen who seek to violate anyone’s rights for any reason in any way whatsoever.
From this book, the reviewer for National Review heard a voice commanding: “To a gas chamber—go”?
He did not. He lied.
He lied to discredit Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. He lied to stop people from reading her work or taking her ideas seriously. And William F. Buckley and the editorial staff at National Review not only published this big lie and stood by it in 1957; they also have republished it repeatedly since then, most recently just a few years ago.
Following this initial conservative big lie about Rand’s ideas, similarly malicious treatments of Rand and her philosophy became the modus operandi of the leaders of the conservative movement. To this day, with few exceptions (Ted Cruz being one), if conservative leaders don’t ignore Rand’s ideas (as Dennis Prager, Jay Cost, and Matt Walsh do), they misrepresent her ideas (as Daniel Flynn, Roger Scruton, Anthony Daniels, Andrew Klavan, Bill Whittle, and countless others do).
With their commitment to ignoring or maligning Rand and her philosophy of rational egoism, individual rights, and laissez-faire capitalism, leaders of the conservative movement have decisively severed themselves and their movement from any affiliation with the one philosophy that could support freedom, capitalism, and the American republic.
Before we turn to the results of such evasions and malice, let’s briefly consider the motivations behind them.
If you’re a professional intellectual (e.g., a philosopher, an economist, a journalist, or a political talk show host), and if your aim is to defend capitalism, and if an extremely careful thinker writes books with titles such as Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, might you have a professional responsibility to examine this thinker’s arguments and to determine whether her views are true and worth sharing—or false and in need of (honest) dismantling?
Why, then, have conservative intellectuals chosen instead to ignore or misrepresent Rand’s ideas? Why won’t they consider the principles of her philosophy, take them straight, represent them accurately, and either acknowledge that they are true—or explain where Rand erred?
Here, we can only speculate. But I think the answer is rather straightforward.
Almost to a man, conservative intellectuals seek to anchor capitalism in religion, faith, and altruism. Rand, however, saw—and demonstrated—that doing so is impossible. She showed that capitalism, the political-economic system of individual rights and self-interest, can be supported only by a morality of individual rights and self-interest—namely, rational egoism. Rand further saw—and demonstrated—that for a morality to be valid, it cannot be derived from “supernature” via revelation or faith; rather, it must be derived from actual nature via observation and logic. And Rand not only demonstrated these (and many related) truths; she did so with such clarity and concretization that there is no way to analyze her works and point out where she erred in any substantial or fundamental way—which is why no one has.
So, people who desperately want Rand to have erred about what is necessary to defend freedom and capitalism—and who are unwilling to face the fact that she got these matters right—have two choices: (1) They can ignore her ideas; or (2) They can misrepresent them and thus appear to have acknowledged and dismissed her ideas, while actually having dismissed strawmen.
Why are conservatives unwilling to face the fact that Rand got these issues right? Again, we can only speculate, but, given the nature of Rand’s ideas along with uncontroversial facts about conservatives, the answer appears clear.
Rand’s philosophy opposes religious dogma and exposes it as baseless; thus, conservatives who are unwilling to challenge religious dogma cannot bring themselves to give her ideas a fair hearing. Conservatives, by and large, were taught, from Sunday school onward, that reason can’t deliver the deepest, most important truths—only faith can. They were taught that being moral consists in obeying God’s commandments, that selflessness is good and selfishness is evil, that we are our brother’s keeper, that we must be openhanded toward the poor and needy, that we know all of this because the Bible tells us so—and that none of this is to be challenged.
Well, Rand challenges all of it. And she not only challenges it; she also disproves it—by proving (or demonstrating) the contrary in each respective area. For instance:
- She identifies the principles by reference to which we can know that reason is man’s only means of knowledge—so faith is out.
- She identifies the principles by reference to which we can know that only one reality exists—so a supernatural dimension, including God, is out.
- She shows that rational self-interest, the policy of pursuing one’s life-serving values and refusing to surrender greater values for the sake of lesser values, is moral—so altruism and self-sacrifice are out.
- She shows that individual rights are observation-based moral principles identifying the individual’s need of freedom to act on his own rational judgment and for his own life-serving purposes in order to live and prosper—so the notion that rights are gifts from God is out.
Conservatives who encounter Rand’s demonstrations and proofs are thus faced (implicitly or explicitly) with questions such as:
- Do these ideas make sense?
- If so, should I embrace them?
- If I do embrace them, what will happen to my social standing?
- What might people think of a selfish atheist?
- What’s more important: truth or personal relationships?
And conservatives’ answers to such questions—in conjunction with their willingness or unwillingness to face the scoffs and scorn that likely will come their way if they embrace the truths Rand discovered—determine whether they (a) choose to embrace or at least grapple with her ideas—or (b) choose between ignoring or misrepresenting them.
Again, this is speculation. But I can’t think of another plausible explanation for why so many conservatives—and virtually all conservative leaders—either ignore or misrepresent Rand’s ideas. (If you know of another plausible explanation, let me know.)
Now, how has the conservatives’ dismissal of Rand’s ideas paved the way for the political ascent of Donald Trump?
To answer that, we need only answer the question: What happens when the leaders of a political movement ostensibly dedicated to defending individual rights, freedom, and capitalism ignore the only demonstrably true moral and philosophic foundation for those values—and, instead, pretend that such values can be defended by means of religion, faith, and altruism?
The answer is: They fail. And they leave a vacuum where the philosophic defense of capitalism should be.
Here we need not speculate, because it’s simple historic record.
During the past several decades, when conservative-championed political representatives have held office in the White House or Congress or both, they have (in the aggregate) increased government intervention in the economy, increased regulatory burdens on businesses, increased government spending, increased taxation, increased the size and scope of the welfare state, and generally increased rights violations by the government. (For examples of all of this, see “The American Right, the Purpose of Government, and the Future of Liberty”; “The Republicans’ Opportunity to Restore America . . . and Their Obstacle”; “Altruism: The Moral Root of the Financial Crisis”; “The Creed of Sacrifice vs. The Land of Liberty”; “The Rise of American Big Government: A Brief History of How We Got Here”; and “The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism.”)
Well, when conservative leaders through their representatives in government expand rights-violating policies for decades on end, what do the citizens who were counting on those leaders to constrain government and reduce spending and cut taxes come to think of the ideas behind the movement? Naturally, they come to the conclusion that the ideas aren’t practical, don’t work, and need to be replaced.
Replaced with what?
The answer to that is wide open and depends on what is available and easily digestible when the rebellion begins.
Most Americans are not professional intellectuals. They are not philosophers, economists, journalists, or political talk show hosts. Rather, they run or work in restaurants, doctor’s offices, tech companies, or countless other kinds of businesses that provide the material goods and services we need in order to live and prosper. In other words, Americans have areas of specialization, and they don’t have time to investigate and grapple with every philosophic, economic, or political theory someone claims is true. They count on professional intellectuals to do the heavy lifting in those areas and to convey the essentials in layman’s terms so that chefs, waitresses, doctors, and engineers can understand them sufficiently for their purposes. Just as professional intellectuals count on doctors to treat cancer and to explain the essentials of that process in layman’s terms, and just as professional intellectuals count on engineers to make electronic devices and to explain in layman’s terms how they work, so too doctors, engineers, chefs, and the like count on professional intellectuals to do their job. It’s called division of labor.
But conservative intellectuals haven’t done their job. They haven’t identified and conveyed the essential ideas and principles necessary to support and defend freedom, capitalism, and America. They’ve chosen instead to ignore or misrepresent those ideas so as to avoid scoffs, scorn, or having to reconsider what they learned in Sunday school. (Thank God the Founders weren’t conservatives.) And because conservative intellectuals failed to do their job for decades, those who had been counting on them to do their job went looking for someone else to professionally defend freedom, capitalism, and America.
Who did they find?
Well, when Americans looked around to see who might be offering new ideas about how to limit government to its proper function of protecting rights, they saw no professional intellectuals with such ideas. What about Ayn Rand’s ideas and the handful of professionals who advocate them? Intellectuals from both the “progressive” left and the religious “right” had already discredited Rand’s ideas in the minds of their readers and listeners. “Ayn Rand? Isn’t she the materialist who says it’s morally wrong to help other people? Well, that’s all I need to know about her and her philosophy.” And: “Wasn’t Rand’s big book Atlas Shrugged about why men of ability should send lesser people to gas chambers? That’s monstrous. How could anyone even consider her ideas?”
So freedom-loving Americans saw no professional intellectuals prepared to defend individual rights, capitalism, and America on solid ground. And they were not about to turn to “that horrible Rand person.”
Where did they turn?
They looked past professional intellectuals. They looked for a “problem-solver” of a completely different variety. They looked for someone who is not a conservative but nevertheless is “pro-freedom,” “pro-business,” “pro-capitalism,” “anti-left,” and maybe even “politically incorrect” to boot. They looked for someone in the public eye who will “say it like it is” and “cut deals” and “make America great again.”
Enter Donald Trump.
Unlike conservatives, who drone incessantly about Judeo-Christian ethics and the virtues of sacrifice and humility, Trump is a bold, brash, money-loving businessman. Sure, he’s crude—but that’s good, Republicans figured, because it makes the left apoplectic. And, yes, he’s inconsistent—but that’s OK too, Republicans figured, because he’s a “pragmatic, reality-oriented businessman” who “gets things done.” And, best of all, they figured, Trump is not a conservative—so he’s not going to retry those godforsaken conservative “principles” that have failed for decades on end to make America great again. He’s going to ditch principles and “do what works”—and that’s what we want.
In short, Trump-supporting Republicans see him as a new, bold, non-conservative problem solver—and as a big middle finger to the conservative leaders who have repeatedly let them down. “Conservatives,” these Republicans have said, “You’re fired! We’re hiring Trump!”
Some may say my analysis is oversimplified. It is not. Nor does it exonerate Trump supporters. They are partly to blame for this nightmare. But conservative intellectuals bear the lion’s share of responsibility.
That conservative leaders have—for nearly sixty years—ignored or maligned the one philosophy that can support and defend individual rights, capitalism, and the American ideal is an observable fact. That conservatives could have embraced Rand’s philosophy and used it as a rock-solid foundation for their efforts to establish and maintain a rights-protecting government and a free society is clear as day to anyone who reads Rand’s work. And that the failure of conservative leaders to do so paved the way for—and indeed necessitated—the rise of someone to fill the void is a matter of natural law: In political philosophy, as in physics, nature abhors a vacuum.
Donald Trump is now the standard-bearer for the Republican Party because when conservative leaders—who, by their chosen profession, had a responsibility to identify, convey, and apply a viable philosophy to support rights, freedom, and capitalism—were handed a philosophy that clearly could do so, they ignored or maligned it. And they did so for decades.
Republican presidential candidate Trump is a product of conservative leaders’ evasions. He’s their Frankenstein. He’s their fault.
Have other factors contributed to the rise of Trump? Yes, many other factors have. But conservatives’ evasions are the fundamental cause. If conservative leaders had embraced rather than ignored or misrepresented Ayn Rand’s ideas, conservative efforts to defend freedom, capitalism, and the American ideal would have been anchored in an irrefutable moral and philosophical foundation; thus, America would now be—or would at least be headed in the direction of—the rights-protecting republic it is supposed to be. In such a context, a vulgar opportunist such as Trump couldn’t garner political support from any sizable portion of the population. Instead, he’d be using “the best words” to complain about the difficulty of “cutting deals” without the coercive power of eminent domain.
So the point here is not that no other factors have contributed to the political ascent of Trump. Rather, the point is that the fundamental cause of his ascent is the evasions of conservative leaders.
What is the solution to this problem?
There is no quick fix. Conservatives’ evasions have plunged America deep into a swamp of unprincipled politics and philosophic confusion. The only way out of the muck is by means of a new movement led by new intellectuals. The intellectuals needed for this movement are those who are willing to look at reality, to think for themselves, and to embrace and convey the philosophical, moral, and political ideas that actually support a system of individual rights, freedom, and capitalism.
In other words, the solution is for new intellectuals to do what conservative intellectuals should have done but have refused to do ever since 1957: Read Ayn Rand’s works, see whether her ideas make sense, and, if they do, embrace them and use them to argue for a return to the American ideal of a government that does one thing and only one thing: protects rights.
Those who want to learn about Ayn Rand’s ideas can profitably start almost anywhere in her corpus. If you like fiction, you might start with We The Living, The Fountainhead, or Atlas Shrugged. If you prefer nonfiction, maybe start with Philosophy: Who Needs It, or The Virtue of Selfishness, or Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
If you want a quick overview of Objectivism, see “What is Objectivism?” For an article-length primer on Rand’s morality of self-interest, see “Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Morality of Egoism.” And for a systematic presentation of her theory of rights, see “Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights: The Moral Foundation of a Free Society.”
Wherever you start, know this: Rand’s ideas challenge the fundamental ideas you’ve been taught about philosophy, religion, morality, rights, and politics. And bear in mind that Rand is the first to point out that you should not accept her ideas—or anyone’s ideas—unless they make sense to you. As she puts it: “The most selfish of all things is the independent mind that recognizes no authority higher than its own and no value higher than its judgment of truth.”
But if you give her ideas a hearing—rather than listen to conservatives who misrepresent them as a matter of course—I think you’ll see that they make sense, that they are grounded in perceptual reality, and that they support freedom, capitalism, and the American ideal like nothing you’ve encountered before.
If you do come to see that Rand’s ideas are sound, you can then join the movement that should have been soaring since 1957 but that conservative leaders chose to cripple with their dishonesty—the movement dedicated to supporting individual rights, freedom, and capitalism by reference to the observation-based moral and philosophical foundations on which these values depend: the Objectivist movement.