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The Last of the Ayn Rand Acolytes

This year's Objectivist Conference revealed that her cult of hyper-capitalism has a major recruiting problem: All the young people want to be socialists!

Oscar White/Corbis/Getty

Eight rules governed the original Ayn Rand clubs that proliferated across college campuses in the 1960s, as they sought to seed Objectivism—Rand’s philosophical glorification of laissez-faire capitalism and heroic individualism—in the minds of impressionable youth. And of these eight, only two rules could ever be mentioned publicly: 1) Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived, and 2) her novel Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.

For the Randian faithful, this pair of diktats has withstood the test of time. At this year’s Objectivist Conference, the world’s largest annual gathering of Rand acolytes, everyone seemed to be in compliance. Take Emily Bujold, 26 years old. She was once an avowed environmentalist. She didn’t own a car or eat meat, and had even signed a pact to never have a child, so as not to help perpetuate a rapacious species. But a chance encounter with Rand’s wisdom rocked her world. “Now I know that the only solution is to celebrate and encourage development,” she told me.

Bujold was among the 500 pilgrims who made the trip this June to the conference, held this year in Cleveland, Ohio. The organizers at the Ayn Rand Institute stressed that the location was significant: Cleveland was the city Rand chose for the fictional Patrick Henry University in Atlas Shrugged, where a penniless but ideologically unimpeachable John Galt first made his mark before going on to lead the resistance against collectivism. It’s also, they pointed out, the first major American city to produce commercial-grade steel. But the choice of Cleveland was tinged with irony as well. The once-robust Rust Belt metropolis has been ravaged by a real-life version of Randian corporate overlordship—its factories closing, its people fleeing, its scraps fed to a subprime mortgage machine. 

This was the grim setting for a nearly week-long celebration of Rand’s genius that coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of her clarion call for a capitalist-aligned cultural and aesthetic movement, The Romantic Manifesto. Thrumming in the background was a related, similarly unnerving trend for Objectivists: The romance of the movement has lost a good deal of its cachet in an unequal, austerity-battered America—particularly when it comes to pulling in the young recruits who were once the backbone of the Rand insurgency. All the kids these days are becoming socialists and communists. Only 45 percent of young Americans view capitalism positively, compared with 51 percent who profess a fondness for socialism. They want higher taxes, regulations, a Green New Deal. Their thousand-page tome of choice isn’t Atlas Shrugged; it’s Marx’s Capital (or perhaps Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century).

Objectivism has a serious youth problem, and the conference’s organizers were quite aware of it. They offered a discount rate for those under 30, a talent show, and extracurricular activities like “late night jams.” It made me wonder: Is Rand’s hyper-capitalist philosophy—which has influenced some of the most powerful political and economic giants of recent history, from Ronald Reagan and Alan Greenspan to Mark Cuban and Steve Jobs—running out of juice? There was only one way to find out. I would have to attend the conference’s various panels on the virtue of selfishness, the evils of regulation, and the greatness of capitalism’s dark patron saint, and try to fraternize with the next class of Paul Ryans in the making. So I went into the Objectivist sanctums of Cleveland, sporting an Ayn Rand tote bag outfitted with an “I <3 fossil fuels” pin, to gauge the reach of Rand’s cult of unbridled capitalism on today’s political scene.

Ayn Rand might not have become the world-conquering figure we know today were it not for an eager teenager. In the late 1940s, Nathan Blumenthal sent Rand a series of fan letters, proving his dedication to her work by functionally memorizing the 750-page novel The Fountainhead, then her most popular title. In 1950, as a 19-year-old, he netted an invitation to Rand’s house. And once they were better acquainted, she anointed Blumenthal, who changed his last name to Branden, as her proselytizer-in-chief. 

It was Branden who elevated Rand’s profile, hosting lectures and presentations on her writing across the country. When Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, it was unsparingly savaged by critics on the right and left, not only for its soulless vision of a world whose highest aspiration was personal pocket-stuffing, but also for its melodramatic plot, wooden characters, and didactic and interminable philosophizing. “I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance is so implacably sustained,” wrote National Review critic Whittaker Chambers—certainly no pinko—at the time. “Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.” 

But Branden’s propaganda campaign helped turn Rand’s novel, against all odds, into a word-of-mouth best seller. Thanks to his efforts—which included the establishment of an Objectivist newsletter, an Objectivist magazine, a nationwide lecture series, book clubs, movie nights, and an annual gala—the Rand student movement ten years later numbered 3,500 card-carrying members across 50 U.S. cities.

After Branden and Rand parted ways in 1968—the two Objectivists were having an extramarital affair that blew up over Branden’s relationship with another woman—Rand named Leonard Peikoff, a onetime student, her true heir. When Rand died in 1982, Peikoff inherited her estate and set about rehabilitating a legacy that had grown stagnant since Rand’s 1960s heyday. In 1983, the first Objectivist Conference was held in San Diego. Two years later, the Ayn Rand Institute was formally founded. Its mission was to turn a new generation into apostles of no-holds-barred laissez-faire capitalism—a savvy marketing move at the height of the Reagan revolution.

“The first program of the Ayn Rand Institute was focused on young people,” said former director Yaron Brook. “From the beginning we understood we’re going to have to appeal to young people at the point in their life when they’re making big choices.” True to that aim, the ARI began donating 400,000 copies of Rand’s novels to advanced-placement high school programs each year. It also awarded big cash prizes for Rand-themed essay contests (in 2018 alone, ardent young Objectivists raked in a cool $130,000 for such broadsides).

Over the decades, the Objectivists’ full-court offensive bore fruit in the culture at large. Everyone from Peter Thiel to Jeff Bezos to the members of the Canadian power trio Rush got a taste of Rand’s philosophy. Even Hillary Clinton claimed to have had a Rand phase. 

To this day, Objectivism continues to appeal to a certain kind of precocious youngster: contrarian, brash, frustrated with the status quo but uncertain of where to direct that frustration. At the opening ceremony of this year’s conference, the ballroom at the Hilton Cleveland Downtown was buzzing with fresh-faced capitalist devotees sipping wine and beer and declaiming their love of Rand’s work. I struck up a conversation with two young Objectivists, Jonathan Brajdic and Michael Beardsley, both recent graduates of nearby Ohio State. They hadn’t known each other previously; each had assumed he was the only Objectivist on campus, and their meeting had the feel of a reunion of spiritual twins separated at birth. “I was introduced to Rand by a roommate,” boasted Jonathan. “It changed my life forever.” “It either changes your life or puts into words everything you’ve always felt,” replied Michael. 

My first conversation with the Objectivist youth was a challenge. Like other ideological movements, Randism brims with a jargon of authenticity, tailored to reinforce the sense of belonging for young initiates. Jonathan had studied architecture, which made him, according to Michael, “our own Howard Roark” (the strident, world-hating hero of The Fountainhead who blows up a public housing complex because it was compromised by government regulation). Aspiring venture capitalist Michael was more of a Hank Rearden (a 20-hour-workday-pushing inventor-investor hero of Atlas Shrugged). When I told them I was writing about this conference for a magazine, their enthusiasm faltered. It went without saying: I had just outed myself as an Ellsworth Toohey, The Fountainhead’s villainous newspaper journalist. I assured them I was open to their ideas, but I was already in a hole.

That wasn’t my only mistake. When I asked Michael how long he’d been into conservative politics, he clarified that he was not conservative—no objectivists were. This was an important source of indignation that also referenced the embattled identity of the movement. The blowback I encountered was not unlike what you’d hear after calling a member of the Democratic Socialists of America a liberal.

We were interrupted by some timely welcoming remarks by the Ayn Rand Institute’s president and CEO, Tal Tsfany, who had the honor, he told us, of announcing 2019’s Self Made Man award. The crowd gathered close with excitement as the winner was announced: Leonard Peikoff.

Everybody clapped, and though there seemed to be a strong case that the inheritor of Rand’s fortune and founder of the group that was hosting the event might have serious eligibility issues for such a distinction, I didn’t hear any grumbling. His award, we were told, would be on display in the third floor art gallery all week. Someone else accepted it on his behalf.

I woke up the next morning ready to learn. It was hard to choose which seminar to attend during the triple-booked 8:40 a.m. slot. “Logic: The Cashing-In Course” seemed to be the biggest draw, but it came with a homework assignment, and “Duty as Anti-Morality” seemed a bit too by-the-numbers even for me, an Ayn Rand novice. Given the conference’s focus on establishing Randian beach heads in American culture, I opted for “Appreciating Ayn Rand’s Tiddlywink Music.” 

Tiddlywink music, for the uninitiated, sounds like the score to “Steamboat Willie” or a tune you might hear on an old-timey carousel: manically upbeat and repetitive, calling to mind a sonic hamster wheel. For an hour, we listened to different examples of the genre, which seems to have been classified as such by Rand and no one else. “Pay attention to the tinkling,” the lecturer encouraged us. To me, it sounded like something a homicidal clown would listen to, or what a particularly sadistic interrogator would blast at high volume to torture his quarry.

What made Tiddlywink music uniquely pro-capitalist? It has roots in the 1890s, which Rand insisted was the only historical period of true human flourishing. It was an era of unfettered capitalism—child labor, robber barons, tenements—which she loved not in spite of those things, but because of them.

And here, as in so many other spheres, Rand’s true believers heed their master’s voice. For objectivists, Rand’s whims and fancies are inextricable from the movement’s philosophical precepts—so the assembled faithful were duly tutored in the finer points of grainy music-box melodies of the 1890s. We listened intently to Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz”—an inferior piece of music, we were told, because of its melancholy overtones and low “note density.” Tiddlywink music, in happy contrast, had five-and-a-half notes per second. When the hour was up, the presenter asked if we’d prefer a Q&A or another song. “One more song!” the crowd shouted back. 

Ayn Rand waits to testify to the House Un-American Affairs committee in 1947.
Leonard McCombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Objectivists insist that their predilections are derived from a highly logical, uncompromising framework. But there were moments when it felt like we were engaging in a lot of ex post facto justification of Rand’s personal tastes. Jazz, we were later told, sucked. Rock and roll sucked. Gilbert and Sullivan sucked. Bach sucked. Modern art sucked. But surely an exception should be made for the Objectivist members of Rush, one concerned attendee wondered aloud at a different panel. The speaker’s answer was a perfect study in measured circumlocution: “We just don’t have the vocabulary to really talk about music.”

As I moved through the main halls of the conference, I was struck by the notable absence of any one who seemed under the age of 30. My young friends from the night before were nowhere to be seen. I was starting to worry that, despite the movie night, the subsidized admission, the promise of board games and picnics, young people really were turning their backs on capitalism after all. In the break between lectures, I browsed the merch table, getting schooled via pamphlets like “The Selfish Path to Romance” and “Health Care Is Not A Right” and books like “Equal is Unfair.”

But as I plowed on with my crash course in Objectivism, I found younger attendees turning out in greater numbers for the afternoon sessions. (Perhaps they’d been up late partying to Rush anthems?) The highly anticipated “The New Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” presentation drew a healthy contingent of the young. Outside the auditorium, Emily Bujold told a group of rapt listeners her own conversion story from misguided environmentalist to development enthusiast. The assembled crowd seemed to be divided on the question of whether one could properly speak of an environmental problem in the first place—but they definitely seconded Bujold’s view that, to the extent there may be one, capitalism is definitely the solution. 

That, at any rate, was the message we heard from Alex Epstein, one of the featured speakers. A self-identified “intellectual entrepreneur,” Epstein converted to the Objectivist creed while a freshman at Duke, an identity that made him an outcast. After college, he went to work at the Ayn Rand Institute. He now runs the Center for Industrial Progress, a think tank (for-profit, of course) that caters to the oil industry. (He explained that, in contrast to nonprofit think tanks that often engage in tacit quid pro quo intellectual work for their corporate benefactors, he’s able to candidly provide companies with their preferred talking points and white papers as a straightforward market exchange.)

The moral case for fossil fuels, it turned out, was a Steven Pinker–esque tribute to the bright side of human progress. “The world is better than ever,” Epstein declared, thanks in no small part to energy derived from fossil fuels. Environmentalism is thus anti-humanist. “People are just looking for negatives about fossil fuels,” he lamented. “They’re not looking for positives.” He then drilled the crowd on some useful rhetorical flourishes that he has passed on to policy-makers. (“To paraphrase Atlas Shrugged,” he said, “I want them to have the words they need.”) When he pulled up the famous “hockey stick” graph showing a dramatic spike of atmospheric carbon levels after the industrial era, he told us that it actually charted a great saga of “human flourishing.”

An exuberant question-and-answer session followed. When someone noted that his peers were alarmed by a rapidly warming climate, Epstein took a dig at the Green New Deal championed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, saying, “I think she should be called Venezuela Ocasio-Cortez!”  When another audience member invited him to respond to accusations that his acceptance of fossil fuel industry dollars might preclude him from being objective, Epstein steamrolled the question with a John Galt–style show of brio: “I’m that superhero who’s coming to help this industry tell the truth.”

Epstein’s talk drove home the perverse incentives the Objectivist dogma offers to on-the-make intellectuals: Selling out to the highest bidder is not merely condoned; it’s deemed a positive moral virtue. It didn’t even matter if Epstein really believed his own advocacy; maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. What mattered above all is the belief in the sanctity of the transaction. “That was very interesting,” one of the young Objectivists murmured to me on the way out.

The Objectivist youth I eventually managed to ingratiate myself with were largely STEM majors, hailing from all over the world. Many were exiles from conservative movement groups like Turning Point USA, YA Liberty, and the Federalist Society, turned out, they said, for holding extreme views. They made jokes about initiating me into the “cult,” and ribbed me for lacking fluency in the Rand canon. We made plans to meet up for a Sunday night performance of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, Ayn Rand’s favorite play, about a French swordsman and poet stymied in his romantic pursuit of his cousin by a lack of confidence relating to an oversized nose. After that we’d hit the town. 

It turned out to be a bowdlerized performance, but even with just six scenes on offer my attention wandered, and the young Objectivists caught me dozing off. It was hard to get a read on whether anyone else was as bored as I was—even my most leading questions about the absurdity of the piece teased out no criticism. Afterward, I ended up at a nearby sports bar with Ross Williams and Connor Watts, a mid-20s gay couple from Wales who had made the Objectivist Conference the occasion for their first visit to the United States. 

Connor had gotten into Ayn Rand as an undergraduate English major at the University of Swansea in 2016. Rand’s writing resonated so much with him that he decided to make it the focus of his English dissertation in progress. After he graduated, he wrote to the ARI seeking funding to pursue further studies.*

He came up empty in that request, but the ARI had identified him as a possible culture warrior—one of the world’s first Objectivist literary critics. The institute gave him free Ayn Rand books, and enrolled him in the Objectivist Academic Center—a parallel training program with extensive coursework, homework, and mentorship, to augment his university training. They also subsidized his trip to the conference, though not enough that the couple could afford to stay at the hotel where the conference was happening. 

Ross ordered a beer. Connor abstained, and requested a cranberry juice. (The Objectivists’ blind appreciation for all things Ayn apparently did not extend to her drug of choice. Her most famous vice—beyond cigarettes, which she insisted were not carcinogenic—was Benzedrine, to which she became addicted.) He was due for a 7:15 a.m. meeting, he mentioned, with ARI’s most important donors, where he would report on his progress as a critic.

Ross, a civil engineer, explained that he got into Rand’s work as a dutiful boyfriend. He seemed to be struggling a bit with the doctrine, some of its minor “contradictions.” “I guess it’s not strictly rational or logical to drink alcohol,” he lamented, as we drank.

While we were on the topic of potentially troubling contradictions, I asked about Rand’s attitudes toward homosexuality, which she’d famously referred to as “immoral” and “disgusting.” She had also advocated against federal regulations against workplace discrimination. That seemed to me like a pretty significant stumbling block. But Leonard Peikoff had walked back her anti-gay stance after her death, which now rendered the point moot, Connor told me.

When the bartender came back around, Connor asked for a straw for his juice. Apologetically, she pointed to a sign hanging behind the bar. “We are a straw-free establishment, saving marine life,” it read. Connor rolled his eyes; Ross shook his head in disbelief. “See, this is what they mean when they talk about preventing ‘human flourishing,’” he told me, harking back to Epstein’s fossil fuel speech. Connor stared dejectedly at his beverage, now tainted by collectivism. We left soon after that. 

Back at my hotel, which was hosting the conference, the night was just beginning. After a quick stop at a karaoke bar, the rest of the Objectivists, young and old, had filled the hotel’s rooftop bar for a jam session. A middle-aged man sporting a ponytail played acoustic guitar hits while the group crooned along, and they charged through a spirited rendition of “Sweet Caroline.” There were no calls for Tiddlywink music.

Coming into the conference I had been under the impression that Objectivism was a small sect with massive influence. A few days in, it became clear that I was the only one who saw it that way.

Objectivism, I was now being told, had not gained any real traction in our political culture despite a wide array of high-profile boosters. It had been corrupted and watered down by a following that lacked both dedication and message discipline. Today’s Rand movement is full of transgressors and reprobates. Donald Trump claimed to like Rand, but hadn’t abolished welfare and had imposed tariffs. Ronald Reagan was a professed “admirer” of Rand but embraced religion—a stark violation of Rand’s hardline atheism. Ted Cruz once read from Atlas Shrugged on the Senate floor during a filibuster, but there he was, just the other day, clamoring to break up Big Tech. George H.W. Bush raised taxes! Quislings, all of them. 

When I spoke with Yaron Brook, Objectivism’s preeminent YouTube celebrity and former head of ARI, he told me that the entire business and political establishment had betrayed the cause. Objectivists hadn’t spent the last four decades dominating the zeitgeist, he insisted; instead, they’d been decimated by liberal, socialist, regulatory forces. “The last politician an Objectivist could’ve been mildly excited about was Barry Goldwater,” he lamented.

He wasn’t entirely wrong. All of Rand’s greatest proponents had turned their backs on her. Alan Greenspan, despite riding her ethic of deregulation to an economy-crippling housing crisis, eventually distanced himself from the movement. When he was tapped to be the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee in 2012, former House Speaker Paul Ryan disavowed his Randian infatuation as an indecorous youthful intellectual romance (though it lasted long enough for him to make Atlas Shrugged required reading for his newly hired Hill staffers). In the respectable American right, a fascination with Rand was little more than a rueful rite of intellectual passage: a phase that grown-up right-wingers must set aside with other childish things. 

Still, there remains something notionally rebellious about hardcore Randianism that continues to captivate young followers even through these dark days. But the challenge is keeping them hooked once they’ve come down from their first Galt high. Even Brook admitted that it was a tough sell. “It alienates you from so many people,” he told me. “The people around you think you are crazy.” The socialists have weekly happy hours at hipster bars in Brooklyn, and conservatives have Trump rallies, but the cult of the individual has nothing comparable on offer. “It’s lonely,” he admitted.

The morning after our night on the town, I dropped into a lecture titled “An Artful Investment,” hosted by Linda Cordair of Quent Cordair Fine Art. The company sold Ayn Rand–themed portraits in the “art gallery” on the third floor—which, it turns out, were very expensive. A small print of the book cover art fetched hundreds of dollars, while a painted still-life featuring Rand books set you back thousands.

In fact, I was starting to realize that nearly everything at the conference was a sales pitch. Take a surprise visit from Brian Amerige, who was Facebook’s aspiring James Damore. (Damore, you may recall, was fired by Google after posting a manifesto asserting that women were biologically unequipped to work technology jobs.) Amerige authored a memo for Facebook managers titled “We Have A Problem With Political Diversity,” and he delivered very on-brand remarks to the Rand faithful about Silicon Valley’s left-wing slant. But before long, he proceeded to the main event: a pitch to support his new business-friendly tech platform. YouTube stars Yaron Brook and Greg Salmieri, who were also selling their own books at the event, offered a suite of revenue-enhancing gestures of solidarity to their fellow ultra-libertarian rebels.

It was kind of like being at an airport, where a captive consumer base is forced to pay exorbitant prices for completely ordinary stuff. The Ayn Rand book we were ostensibly celebrating, The Romantic Manifesto, cost full price. And though they’d received a wide array of free books from ARI, Connor and Ross dutifully shelled out for duplicate copies of Rand’s books, while an ARI employee solicited them for donations, dangling a photocopy of a letter from Frank Lloyd Wright to Ayn Rand as a gift to entice potential donors. There were also materials on how to write the Rand Institute into your will. The closing reception set attendees back an additional $130.

It started to feel like the Ayn Rand Institute was, if nothing else, hewing to its mission. The event organizers were exploiting young adherents of Objectivism as any number of Rand’s fictional mouthpieces treated the contemptible untermenschen doomed to toil anonymously in the shadows of history’s Great Men. For a community predicated on hyper-individualism—one that enshrines the transaction as the highest form of human connection and the U.S. dollar as the ultimate signifier of freedom—I suppose none of it was misleading. This was, according to the doctrine, the optimal way for a society to operate, everyone looking out only for themselves. There’s no room in the supposedly fiercely logical schema of Objectivism for bad feelings. But it didn’t exactly feel good. 

Maybe I was being oversensitive. I was a first timer, after all. I had tried to talk to James Biller—at 23, an adult alumnus of the Objectivist student conference—on multiple occasions, to see whether experience rubbed away Objectivism’s rough edges. We first met in the merch room, where he was selling 3-D-printed busts of Ayn Rand’s head, into which one could screw a lightbulb. Later, I ran into him after a lecture, where he told me he’d been doing the lights for free, with the hope that ARI might hire him to do the conference’s lighting in the future.

On my last day, I finally flagged him down for lunch. This, he told me, was his third Objectivist Conference. He was first exposed to Rand in high school in nearby Michigan. But he didn’t become genuinely hooked until he started going to Wayne State. There, he dropped his finance major to study philosophy, seeking to go deep into the tantalizing rigor of Rand’s published work.

But Wayne State didn’t have enough Randians on staff. Once he realized his love of Rand was irreconcilable with his pursuit of higher education, he dropped out. He enrolled with an ex-girlfriend in his first Objectivist Conference shortly thereafter, and snagged a scholarship so generous that he actually made money off the trip. He was hopped up on the individualist doctrine—and the fact that it pissed off his mom only helped.

These days, however, he was considerably less excited about Rand and her capitalist vision. He said the conference had changed, pointing out that the financial generosity he had experienced as a newbie had dried up. He brought the cult question up before I could. “A lot of people think it’s like a cult,” he told me. “My mom thought it was a cult. It’s cult-like. It’s not a cult. It has elements of a cult. But it’s all about thinking for yourself. The cult of thinking for yourself.”

Four years in, his faith seemed to be wavering. Objectivism’s environmental disregard had started to seem wanton; he now found universal basic income to be an enticing political idea. When I called him an Objectivist he bristled. “I’m not an Objectivist,” he insisted. “I’m an individualist.”

Even though I’d seen him at that morning’s panel “Discussing Objectivism: Climate, Energy, and the Environmental Movement,” where the major environmental crises of the past 50 years were dismissed with mechanical efficiency, he kept coming back to the subject. “It’s really bad to dismiss environmentalism,” he told me. “It’s a really bad idea. If we’re wrong, it’s over. There’s no going back.” It was the first critical comment about Rand that I’d heard all week.

The “taxation is theft” line of thinking had started to ring hollow for him as well. “If you just have no welfare and nothing at all do you really think people are just gonna donate their money to all these people?” he asked me. “You have to tax! Warren Buffett knows that. Warren Buffett is way smarter than all these fucking people here, dude.” 

Yet despite that creeping doubt, he assured me he would never defect from Rand entirely. “I’ll always affiliate. I love coming to these,” he said. “Even though I’m not officially an Objectivist, this is the closest thing I got to what I believe in.” Then he ducked into a back room to check on his 3-D printer, which was churning out a custom order of Rand’s head for $25.

*An earlier version of this article stated that Connor Watts petitioned the Ayn Rand Institute for grant money as an undergraduate. He asked the ARI for funding after he graduated. We regret the error.