Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State, said his favorite book is Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. That’s troublesome.
In Greek mythology, Zeus makes Atlas, a Titan, forever hold the heavens on his shoulders. Rand’s title means he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and when it gets too heavy one of the fictional characters in the story advises Atlas “to shrug.”
Despite less than 25% of eligible voters electing Trump and just over 1/3 (36%) of all Americans approving of him, most of those supporters are simply shrugging at how his glaring incompetency and adolescent behavior threatens the world. What is needed is for a true American Atlas to stand up and lead the movement to rid the presidency of Trump and his pernicious undermining of democracy, morality, ethics and the rule of law.
What we do know is that no Republican politician, including cabinet members, has yet expressed any outrage nor offered anything more than a minor grimace about the deleterious impact of Trump. They mirror the villains in Atlas Shrugged while the rest of the world carries the weight of his ineptness on its shoulders.
(8 minute read)
“This is outrageous.” – Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA and White House Chief of Staff
When does America’s outrage reach a threshold where the titans, the Atlases of America – the leaders who claim to carry a portion of responsibility for the country – stand up and shrug? Where are those who made their fortune in America – or their ancestors did – when it comes to standing up and protecting the foundation that provided their good fortune? Where are those who simply shrug and look the other way, rationalizing that “America will survive Trump,” we just have to sit back and wait? America needs an Atlas and yet most who are in a position to do something aren’t standing up and speaking out. The resounding silence is a national infestation spreading across the nation while America is being led in the wrong direction with nothing more than bombast and braggadocio.
Silence is not responsibility, it’s acceptance – even cowardice. It reinforces that it’s “okay” for Trump – an incompetent, corrupt real estate developer – to undermine the honor and stature of the presidency, the integrity and values of the country, the security of the nation and the 230 year-old Constitution, while enriching himself, his family and his cronies.
Ayn Rand’s heroes are not silent, they are characters with character, leaders who take responsibility for shouldering the world, relying on inner strength, clear reasoning and comprehensive thinking to oppose what is wrong. Of course, they’re fictional.
“There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think.” – Ayn Rand
Does America not realize they have placed the weight of the world on the shoulders of a guy who has spent his whole life in a family run, real estate business bubble while becoming a whiz-bang, brand promoter, including a failed foray into casinos. That’s it. That’s the extent of his credentials. And he sure as hell hasn’t read Atlas Shrugged. As for Tillerson, he said Altlas Shrugged was his favorite book. But that hardly qualifies him to lead America in foreign affairs, nor does his plodding 41-year career climbing the hierarchial ladder in one industry, oil (see below). America is being led by two guys whose careers have been extremely stunted and both are void of any intellectual development in world affairs?
You really can’t tell a book by its cover
“Really! He’s a great guy. Really great … really … amazing. Let me tell ya’ …really great. He’s gonna be yuuge … really. He reads to me all the time … yuugh fan! Really! … believe me.”
Good for Tillerson for reading Atlas Shrugged. But what other books are on his top-five list? Any non-fiction? History? Geo-politics? Greek Classics? Russian history. Evolutionary psychology? Or The Making of Donald Trump (great insight into his boss)?
We may not be able to tell a book by its cover but we can tell a lot about a person by the books they read. What people read gives us a sight line beyond their public persona into the depth and breadth of their intellectual curiosity. And if, like this President of the United States, a person doesn’t read much, or reads a lot of the same stuff, well … what we see is what we get – limited knowledge, narrow perspective, short horizon, shallow values, stunted wisdom and an unexamined life.
Conversely, two examples of deep reservoirs of knowledge, derived from insatiable intellectual curiosity, are Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, the two guys who head up Berkshire Hathaway. They read more than six hours a day, have developed extensive mental models for thinking, do more for humanity in a year than Trump and Tillerson have done in their lifetimes, and in between all that “doing,” they’ve made a shekel or two. For Tillerson and Trump, the two guys who head up America in the world, reading Atlas Shrugged isn’t even a rudimentary beginning.
Atlas Shrugged is worth reading but as a most “favorite,” it reflects a darkly cloistered view. At the time of publishing (1957), some critics said the book was “written out of hate.” But notwithstanding the ideological bent of Rand’s exploration into something she defined as laissez-faire capitalism and objectivism, the fictional story delves into a philosophical spectrum that includes the importance of reasoning and fact-based thinking – as opposed to “alternative-fact” spewing, flat out lying and reckless narcissism. There are valid lessons in the book and Tillerson should be whispering some of them in Trump’s ear. Or because of Trump’s busy presidential schedule, short attention span and the cognitive demands of 140 character thinking, maybe Rex could read excerpts to The Donald. Or recommend the movie (see below). All of this because it’s highly unlikely Fred Trump ever read to his son.
If nothing else, the book stirred controversy and disparate reviews and opinions, from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas declaring it’s among his favorites and Conservative echo chambers like Rush Limbaugh praising it to Paul Ryan rejecting Rand’s philosophy and Gore Vidal describing it as “nearly perfect in its immorality.”
“Atlas Shrugged is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world.” – Paul Krugman.
The irony of Paul Krugman’s comment is seen in Trump, the man who became President sixty years after Rand wrote her magnum opus.
Are there any outraged grown ups in the room?
Let me be clear, I’m not talking about external outrage or polemic rants or more media hyperbole. That’s a social-political veneer of entertainment, disguised as news, and delivered as exaggerated noise by the likes of Wolf Blitzer and Sean Hannity, night after night. What’s required is a deep, inner outrage, a biological uprising of the human immune system, a revolt against a pathogenic virus that’s eating away at human morality, decency and acceptability. We need a vanguard, led by a few good leaders.
We need one, non-political leader, then two, then three, then dozens to calmly, firmly, unequivocally express, publicly, their universal condemnation of Donald Trump as President. Denounce him and his behavior. Be open, candid, honest. No need to call for impeachment, leave that to the weak, compromised politicians. Just stand up and honestly articulate beliefs, stand for principles, protect the country and expose the dangerous folly of Trump. Be willing to do what is right, even “take a bullet,” metaphorically speaking, for the nation. Perhaps, James Comey will. That’s what “G-men” pledge to do.
Too many so-called leaders are cowering in silence behind an economic, self-centered rationale. They won’t risk the loss of money, power, privilege or career. They won’t call a spade a spade, and an unfit, ignorant, adolescent the degenerate, miscreant, reprobate that he is. Many, in defense of Trump, cling to one or two positive things and deny the frightening, ominous core of the man. What we need are leaders with the integrity to act. And they certainly don’t have to wait for bunch of drawn out investigations to know the extent and danger of the quagmire we are in.
“I don’t need to see the answers to see what he [Trump] is doing.” – David Frum, senior editor, The Atlantic.
Where are the offended?
Trump is a moral and ethical issue, everything else is incidental. Unfortunately, almost everyone gets caught up in the incidentals and the debate of political ideology rather than an honest dialectic pursuit of the reality. The primary problem is not politics or economics. This is about re-establishing a moral and ethical benchmark in a society in which Trump has, by default, become the lead-dog. As David Frum said in a podcast with Sam Harris (well worth the listen), “The president of the US has the power to end organized human life on this planet. He has zero checks on this power.”
“I am unfit for this place and should never have come here.”– Warren Harding [on his death bed].
This is about truncating the erosion of foundational values, principles and practices. It’s needs to be personal for any leader who has a core humanity that is offended, a personal integrity to be defended, and an inner constitution to do what’s right, for the nation. Are there such Titans, with the character and capacity to carry the world on their shoulders? Could it be Comey? Mueller? Or someone still sitting on the sidelines, someone of impeccable stature and credentials: Warren Buffett? Bill or Melinda Gates? Tim Cook? Jeff Bezos? Martha Ford? Somebody? Anybody? Because so far we’ve not seen an Atlas in Trump’s inner circle or Administration.
Was Exxon just a stagnate game of Xs-and-Os?
The LA Times wrote and op-ed in January 2017 that addressed the question of “What Rex Tillerson’s Exxon Mobil track record tells us.” It’s worth perusing. They stated: “He rose through its ranks to CEO, but he was so cloistered in its corporate culture that he could not appreciate the decline of an outdated business model. As a case study for MBA students, that’s perhaps instructive; as a biography of the nominee to be Secretary of State, that’s frightening.” And this is compounded by the marrying of this sheltered reasoning from within one industry to the deficient thinking of his boss. There will be no profound reasoning coming from these two.
And after four months in his new job, we can see some of the ingrained traits and habits of a four decade career climb: Obedience, loyalty, compliance, subservience, acquiescence, caution, redundancy, deceit and lying. Certainly, no outrage. He’s fitting right in.
Many have said that Tillerson’s essential failure as chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil has been that he viewed climate change as a threat to the company’s bottom line rather than a signal to change course. When business environments and markets shift, companies must adapt or die. Tillerson must have understood the scientific consensus about climate change for decades; after all, Exxon Mobil is one of the most science-based corporations in the world. – Los Angeles Times.
The LA Times questions the consequences of Tillerson bringing into the State Department the thinking behind “Exxon Mobil’s abhorrent decision to prioritize short-term oil profits over humankind’s shared future.” And in view of the coincidental “Russian connection” that he and Trump share, “remember integrity” should be emblazoned on a postie-note stuck to the inside of his forehead. If his Exxon line of reasoning becomes the shared policy of the already questionable alliance with Russia … then it’s not a foreign policy, it’s a greasy, oily, slippery, sycophantic policy geared to post-public-service-life of wealth accumulation.
The Exxon culture, fostered and led by Tillerson, aligns with the current White House tumult and meshes with Trump’s lifetime strategy of self-service.
A clear and present danger
Years ago I co-authored a short book with Philip Kirby, The Future. We Can’t Get There From Here. Its premise was that in a time of turmoil, we need to understand both the place we are in and the shifting conditions in order to decide what best to do. And if reasoning is grounded only on what we know, it’s a dangerous place to start. As Ayn Rand believed, any form of “just knowing” was like relying on a Ouija board. So if America is facing a clear and present danger and Trump and Tillersons’ plan to make America great again is based on one of them having read Atlas Shrugged and the other counting on the real-life Ouija board called Fox and Breitbart News, well … somebody better take on the role of Atlas and do something about it, soon.
“It’s a judgement on us for not being better citizens, better consumers of information, not being more committed to the political process, not working harder to persuade friends and neighbours … to overcome our normal political impulses. We have to be better citizens.” – David Frum.
It’s up to us
Yes, there’s a dearth of leadership at the top of the most powerful nation in the world and as of yet, no Atlases have stepped up. But whether some do or don’t, we all have a role to play. We are all part of the reason people like Trump rise up, including all bad political leaders, at any level. We have to be part of the solution and eliminate the body politick of such pathogens: Ignorance, apathy, disengagement, moral indifference and cultural sclerosis, which are the social manure in which the worst survive. So we must do something, anything: write a letter, turn out at town halls, convince neighbors to participate and show up to vote. That’s the least we can do while waiting for some as-of-yet-undetermined Atlas to shrug.
“Our country is being tested. History is watching.” – Senator Charles Schumer.
For the non-reading President
Tillerson will never get Trump to read so maybe he can get him to watch the movie Atlas Shrugged (see Part I trailer – it’s a trilogy). And in the meantime, Tillerson can perhaps broaden his reading list in order to extricate himself from what is destined to be, not only a debilitating intellectual journey, but an ominous time in our history.
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