Trump at The Movies: Dismantling Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (Preview)
by Matthew Harle
What is the culture of “Trumpism”? What best characterizes the rhetoric, actions, and personality of a figure so dazzlingly conceited, so pathologically narcissistic, and yet so politically inept that he has stunned many into stunned disbelief? As President Donald J. Trump’s administration is gradually staffed, we are beginning to get a clearer idea.
Last year, in an interview with Trump for USA Today, columnist Kirsten Powers wrote:
Trump described himself as an Ayn Rand fan. He said of her novel The Fountainhead, “It relates to business [and] beauty [and] life and inner emotions. That book relates to…everything.” He identified with Howard Roark, the novel’s idealistic protagonist who designs skyscrapers and rages against the establishment.
When I pointed out that The Fountainhead is in a way about the tyranny of groupthink, Trump sat up and said. “That’s what is happening here.”
It has come as no surprise that the ideological cult figure of Ayn Rand permeates the cultural imagination of key members of the new Trump Administration and many of the leaders in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Senate. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stated that he prefers Rand’s last novel, Atlas Shrugged, which he says is his favorite book. It’s understandable why the former CEO of ExxonMobil would identify with the coalition of American industrialists in Rand’s dystopian novel who fight government regulations to defend laissez-faire capitalism. Mike Pompeo, new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, also favors Atlas Shrugged, which he says was “one of the first serious books I read” and it “really had an impact on me.” Andrew Puzder, Trump’s failed nominee for Secretary of Labor, is an outspoken Rand fanboy who claims he regularly reads and re-reads her novels. The CEO of CKE Restaurants (think Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.), who opposes a raise in the minimum wage, named CKE’s parent corporation Roark Capital Group in homage to The Fountainhead’s protagonist, and has encouraged his six children to read Rand’s novels.
During his 2012 campaign as Vice President on the Republican Party ticket with Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan backtracked somewhat on his previous enthusiasm for Rand, but the Speaker of the House previously stated, “The reason I got involved in public service by and large, if I’m to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” Ryan also recently acknowledged that he has given copies of Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents and that Rand’s novels are required reading for his staff members.
Rand’s influence over the imagination of American conservatism has deep roots. Adam Curtis’s documentary series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011) traces the expansion of neoliberal economics precisely to Alan Greenspan’s participation in Rand’s Objectivist reading groups in the 1950s. Yet, Trump’s recognition of Rand is not part of this neoliberal, quasiphilosophic strain of the Greenspan generation. Instead, what is alarming is Trump’s identification with The Fountainhead’s protagonist, Howard Roark. If Rand has re-emerged as an ideological authority in the White House once again, it is more likely due to Trump’s incessant vanity. It is unlikely, in fact, that Trump, who has never been known as a reader, has actually read any of the 700+ pages of The Fountainhead, and it is far more likely that he is familiar with the work because he has seen the film version.
For this reason alone, it is worth revisiting the faithfully adapted 1949 Warner Bros. production in order to help define the nature of a culture of Trumpism. The Fountainhead is more than a valuable insight into the romantic inner life of American conservatism; the film is both a fantasy and a roadmap that compellingly delineates not only what the aspirations of this current government are, but also how they came to be elected, and what path brought them here.
Warner Bros. optioned the rights to The Fountainhead in 1943, the year it was published, but not before Rand ensured that she would both write the screenplay and retain decisive editorial powers over the novel’s adaptation. With her usual disturbing efficiency, Rand condensed the 754-page novel into a polished first draft screenplay in a matter of weeks, and by the summer of 1944, Mervyn LeRoy was set to direct. However, under the influence of the War Board (Rand’s literary output was inconveniently anti-Russian for the final months of WWII, but suitably anticommunist to be reprised immediately afterward), the project was delayed until 1948, this time with King Vidor replacing LeRoy at the helm. Rand, with the studio’s backing, then installed Gary Cooper as her architect, Howard Roark. The project’s revival may or may not have had something to do with Cooper and Rand’s membership in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The week after Cooper signed his contract with Warner Bros., he traveled to Washington, DC to appear as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). A relatively unknown young stage actress, Patricia Neal, was cast as the female lead and filming began upon Cooper’s return from Washington.
The film that emerged is a strange, unwieldy patchwork of stony-faced drama, ideological propaganda, and unintentional hilarity. Ostensibly a melodrama, the narrative features an unsatisfying quartet of one-dimensional lead characters. At the centre is Howard Roark—visionary modernist, uncompromising individualist, Establishment outcast—and his struggle to achieve recognition in an apparently collectivist American society of the 1920s and ’30s. Standing in Roark’s way is Peter Keating (Kent Smith), a weak, compromised, populist architect, and Roark’s nemesis, Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas), the “socialist” architecture critic for the popular tabloid The Banner. Toohey is a tastemaker and enemy of the individual—the foil to Roark’s career—played by Douglas in high camp style. Patricia Neal is Dominique Francon, another architecture critic for The Banner, Roark’s champion, and love interest. Alongside Francon is Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), the self-made multimillionaire owner of The Banner who, as Rand’s example of a failed, “nearly man” individualist, serves as the film’s tragic hero…
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