Ayn Rand’s 1957 classic Atlas Shrugged is the outline of a moral philosophy—objectivism. Objectivism holds that contradictions cannot exist and that men control their own destinies by following the engines of their moralities. This philosophy enjoys favor among many of the top brass Republicans in the USA. Rand’s abhorrence of big government and her fanatical devotion to the myth of the free market conform well with conservative policy in this country. Although the novel is often identified as merely a polemic against socialism, Rand’s critical eye exposes much more about American society than the flaws inherent to large bureaucratic institutions. Atlas Shruggedis not only the outline of a moral philosophy, but also a modern tragedy lamenting the triumph of an inferior kind of masculinity over the ideal kind, the kind epitomized by Rand’s hyper-masculine heroes.
The novel contains innumerable references to gender, identity, and sexuality in its 1000-plus pages. The protagonist, Dagny Taggart, is a brilliant engineer and industrialist. Her femininity is suppressed throughout the novel, even as she pursues three romantic relationships. Dagny and her suitors all strive for and largely meet the characteristics associated with hegemonic masculinity—physical strength, mechanical and financial competence, and fierce independence. Rational thought and planning form the foundation of the morality that guides the novel’s heroes through their concordant quests. Though all three of Dagny’s suitors are physically capable, financially brilliant, and perfectly self-sufficient, the enigmatic John Galt dominates his peers. His name appears again and again on the lips of most every character, “Who is John Galt?,” a prayer for a masculine cure for all the country’s ills.
Dagny’s brother, James, is the President of the family’s railroad company, Taggart Transcontinental. Throughout the novel, James is nothing but a dithering buffoon. He passes all responsibility for the family business to his sister and elects to spend his days and nights in small, dim rooms with other incompetent executives. They plot and scheme, hungry to expand their power and determined to destroy anyone whose ability or effort might threaten their position. These men are weak. Only their intractable aggression identifies them as masculine.
In most other ways though, these men are not masculine. James and his cadre are indecisive and emotionally unstable. They whine incessantly about fairness and blame. They have no technical competence whatsoever. They are referred to as “leeches” at many points in the novel. And most importantly, they have no ties to rationality, opting instead to pursue a path of contradiction in order to increase uncertainty in the populace and expand their power. Miraculously, they succeed.
When James Taggart and his Unification Board take control of the country, they institute nonsensical economic policies designed to starve the prosperous and the able. When their actions cause a national catastrophe, they capture and torture John Galt, pleading with him to lead them as a dictator from their dire situation. When James and his men refuse to acknowledge their share of the blame, Galt declines. By declining, the ideal masculine, embodied by Galt, bows to a lesser form of masculinity. Galt knows that incorporation into James’ crew will lead to the destruction of his masculine identity. Rand is arguing here that the dominant masculinity in a social context need not be or even strive to be the ideal form. James Taggart’s masculinity is that of a drowning man who pulls someone down in order to reach the surface. Weakness can be a great source of power.
James Taggart masculinity abounds today. Our Commander in Chief ran on a campaign of blaming immigrants for domestic problems and has since shifted blame for all his missteps to the courts, the press, and the American people. His administration seems more interested in defending his image than governing. His economic success is mainly the product of inheritance. And he has little to no respect for facts.
In the closing pages ofAtlas ShruggedJames realizes that his moral engine was the desire to “[prove] to himself that he could exist in defiance of reality and would never have to be bound by any solid, immutable facts.” Why are the Rand-ites in Congress today unable to see the parallels between President Trump and James Taggart? Perhaps pushing policy with little interference from the White House is more alluring than a strong, competent leader. Or maybe their fascination with Rand is merely superficial, a philosophical justification for the way things are. What is clear is that the James Taggart masculinity espoused by Trump dominates all others, unchallenged not because of its strength, but because of its weakness.