A Is A in the Rotunda
So much for the peaceful transition of power this year. The January 6 riot put an end to that, and as a result, the US Capitol has been ominously fortified against insurrection, with national guardsmen camped out in the rotunda and around the Capitol complex to prevent a repeat or escalation between now and Joe Biden's inauguration.
Seeing photos of uniformed soldiers swarming around the Capitol was a kick in the gut, but there was one image that really caught my attention: an off-duty guardsman resting in the Capitol visitor center, reading what is very clearly a paperback copy of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.
Given that the novel portrays the collapse of the American system into tyranny and chaos, it seems an appropriate choice.
I don't know who the guardsman is or why he chose the book. Perhaps it was simply the anticipation of a deployment that would involve a lot of time sitting around without much to do in between hours on duty, which suggests a good opportunity to work through the thickest book you can find. But the novel actually offers a lot of lessons that are applicable to today's turmoil.
There is one lesson that seems most relevant, a phrase that has become associated with Ayn Rand and with Atlas Shrugged in particular.
A is A.
Ayn Rand didn't coin that phrase. It comes from the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who used it as his formulation of the Law of Identity. A is A. A thing is what it is. Facts are facts. Reality is absolute.
It is the affirmative side of another of Aristotle's basic axioms of logic, the Law of Non-Contradiction. Ayn Rand regarded these laws as so crucially important, and they are so central to the theme of Atlas Shrugged, that she chose "Non-Contradiction," "Either-Or" (Aristotle's third rule, the Law of the Excluded Middle), and "A Is A" as the headings for the three main parts of the novel.
Atlas Shrugged deals with many political and moral issues, and Ayn Rand is a scathing critic of the welfare and regulatory state. That's why you will probably find a few Ayn Rand fans who back Donald Trump, because they see her novel just as a manifesto against leftism. But they are missing the deeper and more important message. The dystopian America of Atlas Shrugged is not being destroyed by anything so trivial as bad public policy. It is being destroyed by a refusal to affirm that A is A. Every one of the book's villains wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Every crazy government directive, every corrupt business deal between political cronies, is designed to mandate a certain result while simultaneously making it impossible.
The novel's main villain, Jim Taggart, is the incompetent heir to a business empire who employs a steady drone of whining about his sense of grievance and victimhood as a tool to exploit everyone around him—particularly the novel's protagonist, his sister, who is the one who actually keeps the family business running. Jim views it as his job to make impulsive decisions and petulant demands, while it's her job to run behind him picking up the pieces and making them all fit together somehow. He's the type who thinks that if he can browbeat other people into believing his lies, they will somehow make the lies into reality.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Being enough of an expert on Atlas Shrugged to write a whole book about it, I devoted part of a chapter to explaining how Jim Taggart is psychologically identical to Donald Trump, just with more of a social justice flavor to his whining rather than Trump's populist-nationalist style.
But the real problem with Donald Trump is not that he always wants to get away with faking reality. It's that he has convinced the rest of the Republican Party and much of the conservative movement to make the same attempt.
Some years ago, a young conservative popularized the very Ayn Rand-ish slogan, "Facts don't care about your feelings." The whole Trump era has been an exercise in how thoroughly conservatives can betray that slogan, because they have continually put their feelings about what they would like to believe above the facts.
My favorite example is from Trump booster Lou Dobbs, who recently complained, "Eight weeks from the election and we still don't have verifiable, tangible support for the crimes that everyone knows were committed…. We have had a devil of a time finding actual proof." But how can "everyone know" the election was stolen if there is no actual proof? This is the pattern behind all of the "election fraud" claims. They are asserted as known, demonstrated, and obvious facts—but the evidence always dissolves upon examination, to be replaced with a new fabricated claim, and so on in an endless loop.
Each of these claims is and isn't at the same time. It is avowed to be certain in the same breath that laments the absence of any evidence for it. A is non-A. Reality is non-absolute. The facts give way to the Trump Republicans' feelings.
The Federalist's Bed Domenech offers us a look into this mentality in a weird sort of semi-apologia for the Capitol riot. It's a masterpiece of A-is-non-A writing. He manages to imply that the assault on the Capitol was no big deal: "I've known too many stories about the nooks and crannies where Ted Kennedy did stuff to get too verklempt about it." But also, it was really the left's fault: "'Is that Black Lives Matter?' No, it's not—but also, it is." Or it's the fault of the media: "the media lies about [the populist right] aggressively... And then...the very thing the media frames this development as comes to fruition in a new and more virulent form." But it's definitely not Trump's fault: "blaming this on Donald Trump is...too simplistic." And there's no way NeverTrumpers are vindicated: "A party of the right that rejects the mob of people who spent their hard-earned, working-class money to drive to Washington, DC, and wave a flag as deplorables will never win." And when you think about it, the real victims here are Trump supporters, because they will be targeted by a "total crushing, anti-free speech effort that treats Trump-supporting groups like Branch Davidians."
He manages to say all of that while not really saying it, implying these conclusions but never quite committing to them. Does he approve or disapprove of the Capitol riot? Is he condemning it or defending it? He's doing neither, or both at the same time. Don't be so "simplistic." Don't demand that it's got to be either-or, or that A has to be A.
The only thing of substance he ends up saying is this: "The rioters failed in their effort and ensured their marginalization. But marginalization doesn't mean evaporation. They're still here. They're still Americans. And they're not going away." So I guess we have to do more to appease them (and get them to read our clickbait) because there are an awful lot of them. On second thought, this sounds more like something out of Ayn Rand's other big novel, The Fountainhead. It's the sort of thing the squishy social conformist Peter Keating would say. There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their thought leader.
QAnon is the full embodiment of this flight from firm facts and reality, this willingness to believe something just because you want it to be true. At its center, QAnon is a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which all your tribal opponents will suddenly be exposed as the ultimate evil—child molesters!—and rounded up and executed. It's a dark and barbaric fantasy, and perhaps for that reason it is so tremendously emotionally compelling that it creates a powerful temptation to throw out all rules of evidence and logic. How else can its followers still cling to the belief, with mere hours left, that all the secret evidence is going to come out and Donald Trump's secret plan to seize power and punish his enemies is finally going to come to fruition any minute now?
In Atlas Shrugged, the fantasies eventually all come crashing down. This happens in part because the people who enabled the fantasists, the people who are supposed to follow the Jim Taggarts around and try to make their contradictions work, refuse to keep trying.
That's the biggest lesson to be learned from reading Atlas Shrugged in a time of extravagant lies and the attempt to rule by force.
Reality will assert itself, and A will stubbornly insist on being A. We can't change that outcome. We can only decide whether to listen to the voices that try to talk us into joining their doomed fight against reality.