Following the latest allegations of Trump’s corruption and calls to impeach him, more journalists have speculated about what really motivates the president. Many posit that Trump is selfish.
An essay by Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post asks, “What drives Donald Trump?” Its answer: “Greed, and greed alone.” Rampell argues that Trump’s pressure on Ukraine was only the latest of his illicit decisions undertaken “to enrich or otherwise benefit himself.” Amanda Marcotte of Salon calls Trump’s actions a form of “pure self-interest” and associates them with Ayn Rand’s “philosophy of radical selfishness.”
But Rand’s radical philosophy rejects the conventional wisdom that equates selfishness with behavior like Trump’s. It even makes the provocative claim that a lack of selfishness is at the root of the real moral corruption displayed by this kind of behavior.
Conventionally understood, selfishness is an excessive concern with one’s own interests, without regard for those of others. According to that view, if Trump selfishly wants to gain money, it will cause him to lie to or cheat others in order to get what he wants.
But, in Rand’s philosophy, the truly selfish individual actually has to have a self whose interests are being advanced. And, she thinks, to have a self means having a core set of convictions and values that are truly one’s own. Many people who are conventionally seen as selfish don’t have that.
Consider this excerpt from The Fountainhead, in which Rand’s hero, Howard Roark, diagnoses the moral corruption of his literary foil, Peter Keating. Keating is a fellow architect, whose major life decisions are dictated by his estimate of what will gain others’ favor. Does Keating’s behavior here sound familiar?
Look at Peter Keating … In what act or thought of his has there ever been a self? What was his aim in life? Greatness—in other people’s eyes. Fame, admiration, envy—all that which comes from others. Others dictated his convictions, which he did not hold, but he was satisfied that others believed he held them. Others were his motive power and his prime concern. He didn’t want to be great, but to be thought great.
He didn’t want to build, but to be admired as a builder. He borrowed from others in order to make an impression on others. There’s your actual selflessness. It’s his ego he’s betrayed and given up. But everybody calls him selfish.
Shortly afterwards, Roark evaluates Keating’s lack of self:
Isn’t that the root of every despicable action? Not selfishness, but precisely the absence of a self. Look at them. The man who cheats and lies, but preserves a respectable front. He knows himself to be dishonest, but others think he’s honest and he derives his self-respect from that, second-hand. The man who takes credit for an achievement which is not his own. He knows himself to be mediocre, but he’s great in the eyes of others … The man whose sole aim is to make money … [M]oney is only a means to some end. If a man wants it for a personal purpose—to invest in his industry, to create, to study, to travel, to enjoy luxury—he’s completely moral. But the men who place money first go much beyond that … What they want is ostentation: to show, to stun, to entertain, to impress others.
There’s an uncanny resemblance here to some of Trump’s better known characteristics: his oft cited disregard for the truth; his hunger for publicity and the approval of crowds; his ostentatious displays of wealth (in spite of his lack of business success); his desire to be viewed as the best in every category; his willingness to say or do anything to win.
Keating, the man Roark criticizes for having no self, is an otherwise educated, articulate, and, at times, reflective character. He is an architect who reads intellectual books and tries to justify himself philosophically. If Roark thinks a character like this lacks a self, imagine what he would think of Trump.
Onkar Ghate has written an incisive piece identifying and critiquing Trump’s avid anti-intellectuality. Ghate’s point is not that Trump is unintelligent or that he lacks academic training. It is that he “projects disdain” for thinking and acting on principle and respect for the truth. Seen in the light of Rand’s philosophy, this disdain for the truth means a disintegration of the self, because “a man’s self is his mind—the faculty that perceives reality, forms judgments, chooses values.”
That last quotation is taken from Rand’s essay “Selfishness Without a Self,” a must-read for anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of the error of equating selfishness with doing whatever you want at the expense of others. In it, Rand explores the connection between the anti-intellectuality of the amoralist and his lack of self. She portrays disdain for moral principles as an expression of a “deep-seated antipathy to abstract thinking,” on the part of someone who seeks to “hide (or fill) the nagging inner vacuum left by his aborted self.” The self or I of such an amoralist is at best “a physical hulk driven by chronic anxiety,” who experiences the “chronic feeling that life, somehow, is a conspiracy of people and things against him.”
Real self-interest, in Rand’s view, cannot be achieved by anxiety-driven whims—whether one’s own, or those of the people one seeks to impress. Real selfishness requires a committed reverence for the facts about what life requires (including how to create real value to exchange with others). It requires a clear, well-defined, rational set of moral values and virtues.
Leave aside Trump’s alleged backroom deal with an American ally, Ukraine. What’s much worse in Trump’s foreign policy is his open contempt for moral principles, an attitude manifested in his deference to and even praise for dictators in Russia, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. As the Ukraine scandal was breaking, the news media largely ignored the congratulations Trump issued to President Xi on the seventieth anniversary of the bloody founding of the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, Trump has refused to condemn the Chinese crackdown on human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang—and may have even agreed to remain silent as the price of progress in trade talks.
Those who wish to understand where Trump and the United States have gone wrong should question their assumption that a human being’s own interests—or the interests of a nation—can be defined by whim, without reference to moral and intellectual values. They would do well to heed Rand’s warning: “The grim joke on mankind is the fact that [the amoralist] is held up as a symbol of selfishness. This encourages him in his depredations: it gives him the hope of success in faking a stature he knows to be beyond his power.”
Doesn’t anyone remember or take into account the 2016 election was first and foremost the usual continuation of a Republican and Democrat duopoly which often gives Americans the difficult choice of voting between the lesser of two evils? What’s currently of more importance than philosophizing about the character flaws regarding Trump or future presidential candidates is the reality that the current political system needs reform from its antiquated way of a two-party system. By the way, no one seems to recall the Republican Party initially tried unsuccessfully to thwart Trump from campaigning on their ticket. One need only find those archived media interviews. I’m not associated with a podcast that deserves this sharing but highly recommend giving it a listen because it offers the most sane explanation as to how and why Trump became POTUS and informs us of the 16 billion dollar industry which generates the Republican and Democrat… Read more »
A lot of readers missed the point. Rand was innovative precisely because we don’t have a term for someone who figures what is good for him and does it–all without infringing on the rights of others. She pointed out that we have a false dichotomy between either a criminal or a saint. She offered a third option.
We have a term that means “lies, cheats, steals” (selfish) and one that means “sacrifices himself intentionally to be worse off / does what is bad for him” (self-less).
If you object to Rand redefining selfish as “figures out what is good for him and does it without infringing on anyone’s rights” and calling both criminals and self-sacrificers *self-destructive*, then what word do you propose we use?
I’d say that what Trump lacks is a center, and integrity, not a self. He’s plenty selfish. The author has shoehorned the definition of self into his Randian ideology and in my opinion it’s an awkward fit. Full disclosure I’m a Zen monk, but I’d say that ego never serves greatness. The need for approval, fame, wealth etc. that Rand’s Peter craves is the very definition of ego, i.e. a hunger that functions according to a vicious and tautological circle wherein one tries to satisfy a “self” that fundamentally doesn’t exist, or, that exists only in relation to others, to the “outside world.” Human beings don’t live in isolation. The world feeds and nourishes our gifts and talents and allows them to flourish at least as much as culture/society oppresses us and tries to make us conform. Implying that one has a “pile of greatness potential” within them just waiting… Read more »
Actually his crime is that you don’t like him. Everything else is a figment of your imagination 🙂
Has Areo officially jumped the shark with this article? It is possible.
This feels like a bit of a motte and bailey to me, using a highly unconventional definition of selfishness but then trading on the conventional usage of the term. As acknowledged in the piece, the definition used of selfishness is not conventional. Rand’s definition of selfishness seems to be along the lines of “has goals set internally rather than externally/by society” rather than the common understanding of “acts to advance one’s own interests without regard to those of others”. Rand’s definition is describing a different thing – I’d suggest something more akin to agency or source of motivation – and the two concept are independent. In and of itself, this is fine – words are labels, and particularly in philosophy it can be important to sometimes be precise and unconventional in definition. Where it becomes underhanded is when someone uses an unconventional definition technically, but deploys the word conventionally, as… Read more »
Does it really matter what Trump’s personality is like? I find this excessive focus on Trump irritating and distracting. Unless you subscribe to the ridiculous Great Man Theory of History, Trump’s personal foibles are of no consequence in the larger scheme of things. Can I recommend a classic essay on this very subject https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1898/xx/individual.html
Sure, if we redefine “selfish” to mean what Ayn Rand says it means, then Trump isn’t selfish. But that meaning is not the one used by the vast majority of people.
That said, I think the underlying insight into Trump’s behavior is valuable.
I’m convinced President Trump has nothing but the best intentions for America, the only problem is in his style.
The President has F.U. money, so he’s accustomed to saying F.U. if he doesn’t get his way. After all, what good is F.U. money if you don’t say F.U.?
That inappropriate “style” is the entire reason for the Trump Derangement Syndrome sweeping over so many Americans.
Is the President inappropriate? YES !
Is inappropriate behavior impeachable? NO !