The Declaration of Independence says that government has one primary purpose; that of protecting beliefs of the people that includes the unalienable right to freedom. Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism argues that the purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness, and that the purpose of government is to aid that pursuit. Laissez-faire capitalism, she argues, is the only system that truly protects individual rights. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand extends this idea to divide humanity into two groups: creators, who should be given free rein to do anything, and consumers, who should be tolerated if possible and crushed if necessary. The core of Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism – which also constitutes the overarching theme of her novels – is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. These beliefs support the legitimacy of unbridled capitalism of neoliberalism – the product of economists like Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman.
There are problems: Greenspan pre-2008 wrote a letter to the New York Times responding to a damning book review: “Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.” In October 2008, Greenspan belatedly hinted that he may have finally seen the dark side of Rand. In a speech to Congress, he said he had found a “flaw” in his “ideology” of how the free market worked. He had always hewed to the Randian belief that companies left to their own devices would work in their best long-term interests. But the real-estate bubble demonstrated that many companies had actually favored massive short-term profits over long-term sustainability. In the process, they laid the groundwork for the biggest recession in sixty years.1
In the aftermath of a potentially demoralizing 2008 electoral defeat, when the Republican Party seemed widely discredited, the emergence of the Tea Party provided conservative activists with a new identity funded by Republican business elites and reinforced by a network of conservative media sources. With the financial crash and the presidency of Barack Obama that followed, spooked by the fear that Obama was bent on expanding the state, the Tea Party and others returned to the old-time religion of rolling back government with lower taxes and federal budget deficit through decreased government spending – Ayn Rand-style capitalism to counter change. Yaron Brook observed, “So many people see the parallels with actually what’s going on, with the government taking over the banks, with the government kind of taking over the automobile industry, a president who fires the CEO of a major American corporation. These are the kind of things that come out of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’” The goals and beliefs of the Tea Party movement support a national economy operating without government oversight.
By 2010 the Tea Party became a very influential movement in American politics. How does this affect American politics? By clinging to the superficial commonality of hostility to welfare, tea partiers fail to see (or willfully ignore) something critical: Rand espoused an elitist, oligarchic philosophy that is both anti-American and deeply at odds with the Tea Party’s own “we the people” causes. Tea Party activists in their fervor against the elites, more closely echo the motto of the Russian Bolsheviks, “the cook, if taught will efficiently govern society.” So deep is the Tea Party mistrust of the elite, over-educated Americans that the mediocre academic pedigree of political figures like President Trump seems to be a point of pride. Certainly, the Tea party does praise Ayn Rand-style capitalism, but it also passionately defends universal principles of liberty promulgated in the Declaration of Independence – the voice of the people does matter – restore a government of the people by the people, is a fundamental departure from Rand.
The polarizing of American politics has its strongest roots in Rand’s classic, Atlas Shrugged, where a capitalist elite engage in a perpetual cultural warfare for the soul of America, fighting society’s “moochers, looters and parasites,” anyone and everyone demanding government money to solve their problems. The elite see a threat of America degrading into a welfare state and socialism. Ayn Rand was defined by her rage, not her advocacy of a fantasy version of capitalism. Her message of creative aspiration is laced with anger and cruelty, and endowed with idealized and moralized selfishness and greed. The individuals that Trump has surrounded himself with is a collection of power- and wealth-obsessed closet Objectivists. Trump’s culture of cruelty views violence as a sacred means for addressing social problems and organizing society.
Cognitive dissonance is the brain’s inability to handle two conflicting realities, so it creates an alternate one, which often defies actual reality. Cognitive biases reflect mental patterns that can lead people to form beliefs or make decisions that do not reflect an objective and thorough assessment of the facts. For instance, people tend to seek out information that confirms preexisting beliefs and reject information that challenges those beliefs. On the societal level, cognitive dissonance is responsible for a large number of people not taking the COVID-19 risk seriously. On the individual level, it’s responsible for failure to connect with other human beings and create harmonious relationships. Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias are simply a means of not being able to accept, or even listen to, the COVID-19 response. We will do anything we can to disprove, discredit, and deny the new information. However, the more we deny, the less we will be able to learn.
Today narcissism is metastasizing so rapidly Americans feel ever more helpless to solve their problems, making collapse a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, this toxic narcissistic virus has infected America’s soul, eating away at core values while blinding most to both the problem and the solution. You ask, why do Americans embrace their own demise like out-of-control addicts? The theory of cognitive dissonance helps explain why people will sometimes go to great lengths to account for thoughts, words, and behaviors that seem to clash – when one learns new information that challenges a deeply held belief. When we’re involved with a narcissist, cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that keeps us clinging to a narcissistic person like Trump even when we know he is completely incapable of ever satisfying us. In other words, we are torn between believing what we want to believe about someone and accepting what we know to be the truth (as horrible as that might be).
The government action that you support during the COVID-19 pandemic is a function of your perceived risk – and will depend on your personality, physical health, financial health, and biases. If are you scared of getting the virus (perhaps because you have a chronic condition, are older, or have a more anxious disposition) you are more likely to support the government forbidding travel and closing most businesses, and damaging other businesses to protect you. However, if you are not concerned (perhaps because you are young, healthy, more worried about losing your job) you are more likely to resent the willful damage to your own and others’ livelihood and be concerned about long term consequences of emergency decisions that are being made. In relation to biases, remember that many of the measures taken under special government authority to protect lives in the short-term will themselves have unquantifiable consequences on health and lives in both the short- and long-term – aggravated by the unraveling of the social safety net over the past 30 years.
Carl Jung observes, “His uncertainty forces the enthusiast to puff up his truths, of which he feels none too sure, and to win proselytes to his side in order that his followers may prove to himself the value and trustworthiness of his own convictions… Only when convincing someone else of this does he feel safe from knowing doubts.” Public policy analyst Robert Reich argues that “the theme that unites all of Trump’s [budget] initiatives so far is their unnecessary cruelty.” The culture of cruelty has become a primary register of the loss of democracy in the United States. Vast numbers of individuals are now considered disposable and are relegated to zones of social and moral abandonment. A culture of cruelty highlights both how systemic injustices are lived and experienced, and how iniquitous relations of power turn the “American dream” into a dystopian nightmare in which millions of individuals and families are struggling to merely survive. Limiting the public’s knowledge now becomes a precondition for cruelty.2
The power elite control what you think through proxies who control information and communication, and through their lobbyists who influence what most of your politicians believe. A little more than a year after America rebelled against political elites by electing a self-proclaimed champion of the people, Donald Trump, its government is more deeply in the pockets of lobbyists and billionaires than ever before. Interrogating a culture of cruelty offers critics a political and moral lens for thinking through the convergence of power, politics and everyday life. It also offers the promise of unveiling the way in which a nation demoralizes itself by adopting the position that it has no duty to provide safety nets for its citizens or care for their well-being, especially in a time of misfortune. There is more to introducing change than getting rid of Trump, there is a need change beliefs to eliminate this pervasive irrationality in which democracy is equated to unbridled capitalism.
1 Bruce Watson. (6/Feb/2010) Ayn Rand, Thomas Malthus, and the High Cost of Terrible Ideas https://www.aol.com/2010/02/06/ayn-rand-thomas-malthus-and-the-high-cost-of-terrible-ideas/
2 Henry A. Giroux. (22/March/2017) The Culture of Cruelty in Trump’s America https://truthout.org/articles/the-culture-of-cruelty-in-trump-s-america/