Carrying On: Bringing down a cult of personality

September 2, 2010

Ayn Rand loves egomaniacs. Her two most famous works, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, extol ethical egoism; her political philosophy encourages everyone to act in their own self-interest.

Recently, Rand’s books and philosophy have experienced a rise in popularity, particularly among members of the Tea Party and opponents of the bank bailouts, government stimulus, and health care reform. Some right-wingers, including Glenn Beck, have represented Atlas Shrugged’s portrayal of a government that exerts total control over the economy, crushing innovation and eventually leading to a global economic collapse, as a picture of what would happen if Democrats achieve their policy goals. Signs at Beck-inspired Tea Party protests sometimes bear references to the hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt. A mythical figure throughout the book, Galt emerges when the nation is on the brink of disaster to champion a new society based on self-interest and the work of individuals. Rand presents him as a powerful figure standing for what is right against the power of a corrupt and aggrandizing state.

Rand’s ideology is a reaction against the overwhelming statist control of the economy that fascism and communism sought in 1920s and ‘30s Europe, the place and time of her upbringing. The America of today is a welfare state, to be sure, but far from the totalitarian state of Atlas Shrugged, Nazi Germany, or Soviet Russia.

John Galt is a fictional hero. Nevertheless, this fact has not stopped Glenn Beck from attempting to follow in his footsteps. Beck embodies the dark side of Rand’s egomaniacal heroes. The enlightened egoism we see in Galt’s defense of the free market markedly contrasts with the megalomania that Beck regularly displays. Since before President Barack Obama was elected, Beck has been using his television show’s chalkboards to draw shady connections between Marxist extremists and Obama, arguing that the President aims to destroy the America we know.

Abstractly, his opinions seem Galt-like, creating the image of one man in opposition to a predatory state. The notion that Obama is a Manchurian candidate for a leftist anti-business cabal is entertaining, and could easily fit into a Rand plot—but it is false. His attempts to link groups like the Tides Foundation, a progressive organization that supports various liberal think tanks, and terms like “social justice” to either Marxist or fascist attempts to take over America remind me more of Jim Jones, a cult leader who poisoned over 900 people in 1978, than of John Galt.

His part political rally, part religious revival on Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial was the latest, and the grandest, of his attempts to cloak himself in messianic imagery. The clergyman he awarded at the rally with the Medal of Faith compared him to Jesus Christ. Beck said that the timing of the rally, which coincided with the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, was “divine providence.”

What is most troubling is his ability to hook the masses onto his ideas of the looming “dark,” which God has blessed Beck with the exclusive power to perceive and remedy. Fortunately for lovers of freedom, his claims that the government is planning a takeover of the private sector and that socialism is creeping toward the heart of America aren’t true. All that Obama has done is continue the economic stimulus packages and bank bailouts that President George W. Bush approved and push through a health care reform package that doesn’t even include a public option. A John Galt is not needed.

Beck makes over $30 million a year from his radio and television shows, books, guest appearances, and his comedy tour (yes, he did a comedy tour). The free market economy that is supposedly in mortal danger seems to be working perfectly well for him. While he rakes in the dough with his divisive and petty rhetoric, concerns held by his listeners and viewers over the depressed economy become infused with often racially-motivated fears of Marxism, Islamic extremism, and fascism.

In a few years, when America has become a socialist-Marxist-fascist state ruled by the New Black Panther Party, Beck will of course be silenced and imprisoned. Until then, we should just try to ignore him.


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