“Who is Lou Dobbs?” As the genially malevolent talking head considers a bid for the presidency, a lot of people are asking themselves that question. It recalls another similar query, “Who is John Galt?”—a question that runs through Ayn Rand’s sensationally popular 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged.
Perhaps it’s President Obama’s increasing incapacity to seem actually engaged with his country’s traumas beyond eloquently declaring his engagement, again and again, but I see failures of the liberal imagination everywhere—most recently in the way two new biographies of Rand were treated by the liberal commentariat who review books. This is too bad, because if you can’t understand the popularity of Ayn Rand, you are never going to understand either the popularity of Lou Dobbs, or what seem to be Dobbs’ outsized political ambitions.
Dobbs and Beck are self-created, hail from humble origins, and seem to have the audacity, not just to hope for change, but to wreak it.
Reviewers belittled Rand as a crackpot philosopher, or as a lousy novelist, or as a highly neurotic egoist desperately in need of some self-criticism. It would be hard to refute any of those judgments. But no one seriously considered her as a powerful mythmaker, whose archetypal tales of individual initiative and self-creation respond to the way a lot of Americans like to think of themselves. Some reviewers never even mentioned the self-made world-beater Galt.
Instead, they dismissed Rand’s fans as examples of arrested development or as simply unhinged, in much the same way as the political historian Richard Hofstadter attributed the fanatical conservatism of the 1950s to a bad case of status anxiety.
But Rand’s novels sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year, while the descendants of Hofstadter’s hordes are a permanent fact of American life. The dysfunction of rage and resentment can only get you so far. There has to be something more to a populism that seems to be only getting stronger. In that sense, Rand’s fiction is a “teachable” oeuvre.
Dobbs and Glenn Beck, who has also been making politically ambitious noises lately, are figures that seem to have walked out of an American nightmare, which for some people is in fact the American Dream. Like Rand’s John Galt, the son of a mechanic who bends the static world to his dynamic will, Dobbs and Beck are also self-created, hail from humble origins, and seem to have the audacity, not just to hope for change, but to wreak it. Like Galt, they spring from the country’s gut and therefore know how to speak to it.
Until now, such figures have stridden the phantasmal plains of American folklore and popular culture. Another similar character is Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes in the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd. Like Galt—a cross between Prometheus and Joe the Plumber— Rhodes is an eerily familiar precursor. A small-time television personality, he first attains popularity and power through the same type of abusive and abrasive behavior flaunted by his successors: He trashes his sponsor to the delight of the audience. Sales soar, and Rhodes is rocketed toward a political career before his hypocrisy and unrestrained appetites derail him.
It’s significant that both A Face in the Crowd and Atlas Shrugged came out in 1957. That was the era of the advent of television, and both Rand and Budd Schulberg—who wrote the film—were inspired by the new medium’s power to shape mass opinion. How much more powerful are our mass media now! Cable, combined with radical advances in permissiveness, and with the exponential amplifications of the Internet, is a demagogue’s dream. With the dawn of our digital age, the demagogues of American folklore have become the real bugbears of American society.
The reviewers denounced Rand the novelist for her one-dimensional characters, but she knew what she was about. One-dimensionality is the key to myth; mythic characters are strangers whom, when we encounter them, we feel we have always known. In other words, mythic characters are celebrities. Rand was aware of this phenomenon, and so was Schulberg, who portrays Rhodes with an electric simplicity that makes him a kind of pre-celebrity before he is discovered. Both writers knew that celebrity—which provokes a feeling of intimacy with someone you don’t and never will know as a person—was the new prerequisite to political success.
The Hollywood-averse Republicans are becoming contemporary masters of celebrity in the realm of politics. Sarah Palin, Beck, and Dobbs are imperfect, incremental steps toward the perfect Republican candidate. Even Obama’s eloquence is no match for their breathtakingly expressive one-dimensionality.
If the celebrity Dobbs thinks that he is going to turn his audience of bigots and dunderheads into a broad political base, he is grossly deluded. But in terms of demagogue potential, he is several steps ahead of the celebrity Beck—the histrionic Beck’s downfall would be his attempt at a candidate’s sincerity—and one or two ahead of celebrity Palin. The most effective anti-elitists are also themselves elitists, and Dobbs is a graduate of Harvard and a media aristocrat, having been with CNN since just about the cable network’s beginning. He can perform the common man, without making the common man’s mistakes of guileless self-presentation.
Neither Palin nor Dobbs has any type of political future—the former because of her ignorance and thin skin, the latter because of his bigot’s baggage. But if you surround Dobbs’ brain with Palin’s sensual warmth, add Beck’s acting skills, top it all off with the moderate-seeming polish of a Mitt Romney, and then throw in a dash of the new Newt Gingrich’s “ideas” and “skepticism” and “detachment,” you’ll have something like the populist Frankenstein that will, tragically, come to dominate American politics.
The decent populist sentiment that warily elected Obama is moving on, and it is becoming less and less decent as it hunts for his successor. The Democrats had better start learning what Ayn Rand knew, despite her foolish solipsism. They need to stand firm on simply stated principles. They need, in other words, to borrow celebrity’s idiom without its shallowness, to get heroically one-dimensional, and to start governing from the gut.
Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.