Something about Rep. Paul Ryan’s approach to running for Speaker of the House struck me as vaguely familiar, and, thanks to Amanda Marcotte of Salon, I now know what it is. The Wisconsin Congressman thinks that he’s John Galt, the millionaire hero of Atlas Shrugged.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, the Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are currently in chaos. The extremist “Freedom Caucus” has been sabotaging anyone who wants to work with the Democrats, whether it involves keeping the government open or ensuring that the country pays its debts. They all but forced Speaker John Boehner out of office for collaborating and then forced his appointed successor to withdraw his name. A desperate Republican Establishment turned to Ryan as a compromise candidate, seeing him as someone who could bridge the divide. After all, while his politics are far to the right, in the past he has proved practical and capable of compromise.
Ryan has agreed to put his name forward but only if the Republicans overwhelmingly vote for him and only if they suspend their power to “vacate the speakership.” The latter threat was the gun that was always pointed at John Boehner’s head, and Ryan figures that he can’t be effective if it remains in place.
Oh, and he also wants to be relieved of fund raising duties so that he can spend weekends with his family. If Republicans don’t agree to his conditions by Friday, he will shrug his shoulders and return to chairing the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
Atlas Shrugged is Ryan’s favorite novel and in the past he has given it to all his staff members. Marcotte connects the dots:
After a couple of weeks of playing up his reluctance to be House Speaker, Ryan has descended from the mountain to issue the list of his conditions that must be met until he’ll deign to take on one of the most powerful political offices on the planet…. That Ryan thinks he’s in a position to issue such haughty demands isn’t really that much of a surprise. Ryan is a major fan of the works of Ayn Rand who has said that we are “living in an Ayn Rand novel” and that now, more than ever, we need Rand to explain to us “the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism.” Of course he imagines that he’s a Galtian superhero, the kind of man who deserves to have the unquestioning obedience of his underlings and the opportunity to spend his weekends relaxing on a boat while the lesser people have to toil away working overtime.
Marcotte points out the fly in the ointment. Atlas Shrugged is also the favorite novel of many members of the Freedom Caucus:
Alas, the problem for Paul Ryan is that everyone who subscribes to Randian philosophy thinks the same way: That they, by dint of their self-appointed status as smarter and better than everyone else, should also be the masters of the universe.
That’s the problem with Ayn Rand’s worldview. In order to be John Galt, you need the hordes of nameless plebes to lord your alleged superiority over. But the Republican party is made up of self-appointed John Galts. When everyone in your party believes they’re meant to be giving orders, not taking them, it’s really hard to have basic discussions, much less organize effectively to get anything done.
Needless to say, Marcotte is not optimistic about Ryan’s chances for success. While GOP leaders have been telling Ryan that he is the savior who can gallop in and save the party from itself, many in the Freedom Caucus have their own view of things:
Real Galtian heroes just stomp into a room, issue their demands, and refuse to play ball until all the little people acquiesce. But that relies on dealing with people who agree with your view that they’re the little people, and most definitely your average conservatives, who have also been feeding on a steady diet of Ayn Rand, do not see themselves that way.
There could be other connections with the novel as well. As House Ways and Means chair, Ryan can simply return to the committee if his demands aren’t met, at which point everyone expects the House to implode or something. In Atlas Shrugged, meanwhile, Galt and his business brethren withdraw from society when it refuses to listen to them, at which point America collapses. By the end of the book, Galt is declaring they will return and reorganize society on their terms.
It’s not clear where in the plot Ryan currently thinks he is: is the House collapsing already or will it collapse if House Republicans don’t give him the close-to-unanimous vote he is demanding? Anyway, he always has the option to retreat to his power center, and all those who didn’t appreciate him will be sorry. Maybe they’ll crawl on their knees next time.
It’s a child’s revenge fantasy, which is Ayn Rand’s maturity level. On the other hand, if Ryan’s hardball tactics really do pull the party together and he has a successful speakership, then perhaps we will be forced to grant that he is a Nietzschean Ubermensch who can indeed bend lesser mortals to his will.
I’ll hold my applause until I see it happen.
Update: So here’s the latest, according to Ed Kilgore of Washington Monthly. The headline reads, “Ryan Moves Goalposts, Declares Victory,” and it describes concessions that John Galt would not make:
So at some point last night, after it became apparent he wasn’t going to get the support necessary for a formal endorsement as Speaker by the House Freedom Caucus, which he had demanded the day before, Paul Ryan decided a “supermajority” was enough and declared victory. This isn’t 100% arbitrary; it is clear Ryan has enough support to be elected Speaker by the full House without Democratic votes. But it’s still an indication that the intended coronation of Ryan—referred to this morning by WaPo’s James Hohmann as “the Prince of Janesville”—hasn’t been terribly smooth.
Apparently Ryan as also backed down from his demand that the Freedom Caucus give up its power to “vacate the speakership,” and he agreed to follow the Hastert Rule, which would mean that he would not seek Democrat votes to pass bills. In other words, he essentially promised the Freedom Caucus that they would retain all their current power to disrupt. Hold on to your hats.
Further thought: In a follow-up essay, Marcotte reminds us that Ryan, the man who complained that the social safety net had become a hammock, has a John Galtian sense of entitlement:
[As Ryan views poor families], the only purpose to our lives is to work overtime for very little pay to make our bosses—and their beautiful, pampered families—even richer. (But hey, if you work hard enough, maybe you’ll one day make enough money to earn that sex and family life! Probably not, but keep plugging!) Paul Ryan isn’t a hypocrite for rubbing our nose in the fact that he has a lovely home life that he would deny to so many people. Reminding us that he’s a have and you are have-nots is what a self-appointed Galtian Übermensch is supposed to do.