More than a half century ago the establishment (is there any other kind?) liberal Bennett Cerf (a panelist on the What’s My Line? television game show that ran 17 years), a founder of the venerable Random House, decided that Ayn Rand was provocative. Cerf urged Rand, the founder of Objectivism, to publish a collection of essays by her and her (then, but later excommunicated) protégé, philosophical heir, and sub rosa lover — Nathaniel Branden. I never met Rand but in the late-1970s came to know Branden (who died two years ago) and more recently others who were close to Rand, part of her in-group “Collective” that included Alan Greenspan before he went rogue and eventually became Federal Reserve chairman.
The book was titled The Virtue of Selfishness. Sharon Presley, one of the pioneering women in libertarianism in the 1960s, confronted the Left back then, at “Free Speech” (now suppressed speech) UC Berkeley, with her bold rejection of collectivism. To her fellow libertarians, Presley said Rand’s use of the word “selfishness” was “perversely idiosyncratic.” Generally, one does not think of “selfishness” as a virtue or as virtuous behavior. But Rand rejected the association of selfishness with undesirable conduct and said instead that selfishness is “concern with one’s own interest,” and that is a good thing.
President Donald Trump campaigned on a theme of “America First,” a slogan associated pejoratively with Charles Lindbergh and Pat Buchanan. Oddly, it has its roots with Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps “America First” may seem like a nationalist extrapolation of selfishness. But implausible as it may seem, Rand was no isolationist. Indeed, she was a believer in what has come to be known as American Exceptionalism. A refugee from Czarist and Communist Russia who came here in 1925, Rand viewed this imperfect nation as closest to her ideal of a society that championed the individual.
In recent weeks President Trump has, some would say, repudiated — others would say, amplified — his campaign planks on foreign policy. He and his surrogates — especially cabinet members such as the Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley — have enunciated Administration policy. For example, President Trump is “strongly” committed to NATO and against Russian imperialism. Also, he will resist China’s appropriation of the South China Sea, stand with Japan against North Korea, against which he has established an unsaid red line. And watch out, Iran, variations of sanctions are on the horizon.
The evolving foreign policy of Donald Trump is an unintended reincarnation of Ayn Rand. When he says “America First,” he is effectively saying that the United States should act in what Rand would call its “rational self-interest.” Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) was founded forty-one years before the 9/11 attack on America, that is, on September 11, 1960 at the Buckley estate, Great Elm. Its founding document ended: “That American foreign policy must be judged by this criterion: does it serve the just interests of the United States?” Not the United Nations or the Third World, but only the U.S. and, where interests meet, our allies.
Trump remains a critic of using American boots on the ground to build nations or to spread democracy. And he is unlikely to give foreign aid to socialist idiots. The aforementioned is all do-gooder stuff that he rejects.
And Trump has a peculiar approach to immigration reminiscent of a century ago. We want immigrants, he says, who want to be part of America and share its values of pluralism and liberty. In other words, people who come to this country will become Americans, not simply foreigners living in America. Before multiculturalism, Trump’s view was not considered weird. Those were the days when immigrants learned English and civics.
President Trump asserts that he will not show his cards and let the enemy know what we will or will not do, or when we will act. He will not publicize our rules of engagement, and those rules will not (Obama-like) unduly burden our generals. Necessarily, he must reconcile “keep them guessing” with “don’t mess with us.” In other words, the enemies must know our response will be momentous, but nothing more.
And instead of killing bad guys via drones, we might occasionally capture some for spirited interrogation. What a concept.
But what about NATO, England, Japan, and other allies and alliances?
President Trump is unknowingly applying two axioms of Ayn Rand. First, as noted, he is calculating that certain alliances are in the self-interest of the U.S. They are not altruistic but something we do for us. And second, President Trump is reviving the paradox of Rand’s equation on altruism. If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, because we are what Ronald Reagan called that “shining city on the hill,” and altruism is part of that exceptionalism and what we want to do, then being altruistic is selfish.