The top honchos of the Donald Trump administration have a particular writer they ardently worship.
She is none other than Ayn Rand, a Russian immigrant who made a name in America as a novelist and fringe philosopher. Two of her novels – Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead – attracted a cultic following in her day. They still do.
Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, says Atlas Shrugged is his favourite book.
Mike Pompeo, the boss of the CIA, calls Rand a “major inspiration.” And Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, famously required his staff members to read Ayn Rand as part of their job description.
Trump himself says he is a Rand “fan” and that he identifies with Howard Roark, the protagonist in The Fountainhead.
The Roark character is an architect, a breed of professionals Trump came to know well and work with as a real estate developer.
Roark dynamites a building he had designed because the builders did not follow his blueprints. That is the sort of action Trump would admire.
At some point in our lives, Rand was the kind of writer who would leave us drooling.
We would strut around with her books with a superior air when other colleagues were reading unremarkable West African novellas with cheap themes.
Rand has a very powerful mind and a very compelling way of writing that leaves a deep impression in everybody who reads her.
But once her novelty wears off, you discover you are dealing with an arrogant polemicist peddling a dangerous philosophy.
It is a philosophy which exalts the cult of so-called superior individuals who invent things and run big corporations which produce the goods that the world relies on. These are the people Rand praises as the brains of the world while the rest of humanity are dismissed as second-raters and third-raters who just consume what the supermen produce.
This lower hierarchy of humankind, Rand preaches, are of little consequence in the direction of world history. Such ideas, when you think about them, are outright crazy.
I get puzzled by adults who don’t overgrow Rand.
One such was former US Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan.
Most people I know went through her as an infatuation during a particular phase of their lives, not as a lifelong obsession.
I don’t know about Trump, but Bill Clinton has a very mature and wide-ranging reading list, from historians like David M. Kennedy to biologists like Stephen Jay Gould.
He even fell for Philip Gourevitch’s masterpiece on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.
Trump remains a big contradiction even in his professed love for Rand.
He came to power claiming affinity with the American working class, not the elites.
But again, one can never be sure with Trump. This professed affinity for the ordinary Joe is probably fake. His real aim seems to be to ensure the rich make even more money. Just look at the billionaires who fill up his cabinet.
Trump’s economic nationalism would repel Rand, who thought differently on this score. But his proposed budget cuts on non-military spending and his war on “Obamacare” would gladden her heart. (It threatens to strip health coverage for 24 million low-income Americans.)
I wouldn’t know what some of our leaders read. Once upon a time, I read somewhere of Uhuru Kenyatta praising the book titled From Third World To First, authored by Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kwan Yew.
I too admire Lee but, like with most political tracts, books by politicians tend to veer to the self-promoting and are not always riveting.
Lee was a greater leader than he was writer. Anyway, he never pretended to be otherwise.
As for Raila Odinga, I have no clue the titles he most prefers in his personal library. Still, his unabashed adoration of Nelson Mandela has remained constant.
He has plenty of company there, not least Barack Obama.
In fact, Obama is one of the better writers among contemporary world political leaders, as his book Dreams From My Father amply attests.
However, I do recall a recent American critic who felt parts of it were a bit contrived.