Senator Ron Johnson speaks to reporters in 2011. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
There is ample evidence to suggest that leading Republican members of the House and Senate are a good deal more familiar with the fiction of Ayn Rand than with the self-evident truths of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison or Abraham Lincoln.
While the movers and shakers in the party’s congressional caucuses may struggle with the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or the essential premises of the first Republican president, they can quote chapter and verse from the Russian-born writer who William F. Buckley once decried as a purveyor of “ideological fabulism” with a “scorn for charity.”
Rand’s books serve as an ideological touchstone for a new generation of Republican politicians who have built their politics around the writer’s cold delineation of distinctions between idealized “makers” and disdained “takers.”
House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee, peppers his remarks with Randian references and once admitted, “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.”
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann employed the Rand lexicon during her 2012 presidential run. California Congressman John Campbell gives interns copies of Rand’s opus, Atlas Shrugged, while House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), tweets: “Still reading Atlas Shrugged—it’s quite the read.”
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul says he’s really a “Randy”—not a namesake of the author. “But,” he adds, “I am a big fan of Ayn Rand. I’ve read all of her novels.”
But it is now safe to say that no congressional Republican is more in the thrall of Rand than Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson. The Tea Party favorite who came into the limelight last week, first with his convoluted questioning of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the tragic killings of Americans at Benghazi in Libya, and then with his acknowledgement after a dressing down from secretary of state nominee John Kerry that he had not actually been a member of the committee when some of the basic briefings on Benghazi were presented.
While Johnson may not be prepared for Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings, he’s entirely up to speed on Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged.
Never mind that Whittaker Chambers—no liberal he—famously dismissed the book with an assessment for The National Review that declared: "Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal." As far as Ron Johnson is concerned, Atlas Shrugged contains 1,168 pages of life lessons.
Before his election to the Senate, Johnson helped purchase and erect a statue honoring the book. And in a newly produced video he tells an interviewer that he thinks we’re living in an Ayn Rand moment and that he’s a lot like one of the characters from Atlas Shrugged.
“Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged in 1957, partly as a warning against the growth of government. Do you see parallels between the plot of Atlas Shrugged and current events?” asks Laurie Rice of the Rand-focused Atlas Society in the interview.
“Absolutely,” replies Johnson, while discoursing on how he thinks “we’re all suffering collectively from the Stockholm Syndrome. That’s where people who have been kidnapped are grateful to their captors when they just show them a little bit of mercy. And collectively, we just don’t understand the freedoms we’re really losing.”
The highlight of the interview comes when Rice asks the senator: “What do you see as the differences between your ideas and the ideas of Ayn Rand?”
“I’m not sure there are too many differences,” he says with regard to the writings of the author who decried “the appalling disgrace” of Ronald Reagan’s administration because of its deference to ideas emanating from what she referred to as “the God, family, tradition swamp.”
Then Johnson goes all in, finding something of himself in a favorite Ayn Rand novel.
“I guess when you take a look at the book Atlas Shrugged, I think most people always like to identify with the main character—that would be John Galt,” chirped Johnson. “I guess I identify with Hank Rearden, the fella that just refused until the very end to give up. And I guess I’d like to think of myself more as a Hank Rearden—I’m not going to give up.”
That’s the sort of confidence you’d expect from a senator who boldly interrogated the Secretary of State without bothering to prepare.
It may also be why Paul Krugman reminds us, “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
Rick Perlstein criticizes another Ayn Rand–inspired Republican fantasy: turning Detroit’s main park into a sovereign nation with a $300,000 citizenship fee.