Ayn Rand, Trump and the Conservatives, and Abortion

In a December 13, 2016, Washington Post article, speaking of Donald Trump’s decision to nominate ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state, writer James Hohman told us:

Tillerson and Trump had no previous relationship, but the Texas oilman and the New York developer hit it off when they met face to face. One of the things that they have in common is their shared affection for the works of Ayn Rand, the libertarian heroine who celebrated laissez-faire capitalism.

We learn further, on the one hand, that

The president-elect said this spring that he’s a fan of Rand and identifies with Howard Roark, the main character in “The Fountainhead.” Roark, played by Gary Cooper in the film adaptation, is an architect who dynamites a housing project he designed because the builders did not precisely follow his blueprints. “It relates to business, beauty, life and inner emotions. That book relates to … everything,” Trump told Kirsten Powers for a piece in USA Today.

and, on the other, that

Tillerson prefers “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand’s novel about John Galt secretly organizing a strike of the creative class to hasten the collapse of the bureaucratic society. The CEO listed it as his favorite book in a 2008 feature for Scouting Magazine, according to biographer Steve Coll.

Hohman continues, offering a list of others in the Trumpian inner-circle and thinking himself able to offer the summary judgment that:

Trump is turning not just to billionaires but Randians to fill the cabinet.

There is room, however, to think that the apparent devotion of members of the Trumpian inner-circle to the Randian philosophy will lead to conflict within Republican conservative circles. For one thing, there is the matter of Rand’s atheism. Hohman notes and opines that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan “also used to be an outspoken booster of Rand, but he distanced himself in order to advance his political ambitions.”

Hohman goes on to tell us, first, that

In a 2005 speech, Ryan said that Rand was required reading for his office staff and interns. “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” he told a group called the Atlas Society, according to a New Yorker profile by Ryan Lizza.

and then that

By 2012, looking beyond his safely-red House district to the national stage, the Wisconsin congressman claimed that the idea he was inspired by Rand is “an urban legend.” “I reject her philosophy,” Ryan told National Review. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas…Don’t give me Ayn Rand!”

I am not in any position to comment on Ryan’s understanding of the epistemology of Thomas Aquinas. But I do think it evident that Rand’s atheism has to give pause to the Christian conservatives so central to the Republican Party, like Ryan (and, no small by the way, Vice President to be Mike Pence).

There is a second matter about which the apparent devotion of members of the Trumpian inner-circle to the Randian philosophy may well find themselves to be in conflict with Republican conservative circles, that of Rand’s “pro-choice” stance. Hohman tells us that

In 2014, when no one anticipated that Trump would actually go through with running for president, John Oliver’s HBO [comedy] show [, Last Week Tonight,] produced a four-minute segment making fun of Rand’s enduring appeal to so many conservatives and rich people. After sound bites of Rand ripping into Ronald Reagan and explaining why she supports abortion rights, the narrator asks: “Why would conservatives hold up as their idol someone who says things like that? Especially when there are so many other advocates for selfishness they could choose, like Donald Trump…”

In that four-minute segment, after we hear the voice-over speaker saying (c. 2:15 ff.) that

However, Ayn Rand is an unlikely hero for conservatives, because she was also pro-choice.

we see and hear Rand herself saying that

A man who claims to defend rights and objects to the right to have abortions? That’s no defender of rights.

A more explicit statement of her pro-choice position can be found in her “Of Living Death” (http://en.liberpedia.org/Of_Living_Death), a reply to Pope Paul VI’s papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae (http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html).

An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not yet living (or the unborn).

Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body? The Catholic church is responsible for this country’s disgracefully barbarian anti-abortion laws, which should be repealed and abolished.

As the kids say, “Just sayin.”

Until next time.


About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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6 Responses to Ayn Rand, Trump and the Conservatives, and Abortion

  1. JDR says:

    As a teenager, I suppose I was pro-abortion. But I then discovered Rand’s fiction and I became anti-abortion. It was a shock to read her essays and discover she was actually pro-abortion. Even more surprising was her argument for that position. She explicitly disagreed with Aristotle on just about everything he wrote outside of logic. Yet, she supported her position on his actuality/potentiality distinction. Her fiction portrays the morality of personal responsibility and the relevance of context to making moral decisions. It is easy to reach an anti-abortion position from reading her novels. Her later nonfiction is another matter altogether.

  2. I’d be interested in seeing the argumentation that would lead from the philosophy (or “philosophy”) of the novels to an anti-abortion position.

    It is very interesting that she brings in the Aristotelian theory of act and potency, or of the actual and the potential. Do you see this as a logical theory or as a physical or metaphysical theory?

    I’m starting to get more curious about her philosophical theory.

  3. JDR says:

    It has been decades since I read Rand’s fiction and nearly as long since I have read any Aristotle, other than the Nicomachean Ethics. I think I came to my anti-abortion position from the way that her various bad characters tried to excuse their behavior after their decisions brought them to ruin. I am thinking of Peter Keating in Fountainhead and James Taggart and the Wet Nurse in Atlas Shrugged. They claim they could not help themselves or that they weren’t aware of some crucial piece of information when they acted or they were only following the pack.

    I have never put much thought into act/potency theory. I am not sure what you mean by logical theory. My first thought is to say that it is epistemological. That is, we impose this distinction on what we observe in nature. That is probably the wrong way to put it. Absent consciousness, the universe does not make the distinction. Yet, matter has many properties, not all of which are in evidence at any moment. So, perhaps, it is better to call it a real physical distinction.

    Rand’s philosophy is worth study. I think she is right in her rational egoism. I think that her theory of concepts and liberty and rights and art is better than anything on offer from others.

    • I have never read anything other than snippets of Rand before. I have ordered several of her works, as I find myself lured into at least something of an investigation of her thought.

      Just what logic, or logical theory, is is something that I have a lot to say about; I will, for the time being, forbear.

      I don’t think that the theory of act and potency, or of the actual and the potential, is at all an epistemological theory, i.e., a theory of knowledge. In an Aristotelian scheme, it is a theory of the real. It stands at the basis of what has to be called philosophical physics, the theory of changing beings precisely as changing beings. Thus, to illustrate, though I may actually be thinking of x and not of y, I may also be potentially thinking of y. If I then change, i.e., come to actually be thinking of y, I have actualized or realized that potentiality. Analogous things happen as, say, an oak tree goes one stage to another in the course of its development.

      I am not yet prepared to comment on her ethical egoism.

  4. JDR says:

    I am willing to grant that things change, but it seems to me that to discuss potential in terms of subjects to think about, I guess I don’t if potential is then in the world or only in thought. Is potential only what we can anticipate/imagine, because we can think about what is not and about what is? Is potential in the world or in us? Forgive me , it has been ages since I thought about this stuff.

  5. When I change from actually thinking about x and but potentially thinking about y to actually thinking about y and but potentially thinking about x, it is I who am changing, I whose potentiality has been actualized, not either x or y.

    There is no reason for me to forgive you; rather, I thank you.

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