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The cover of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged idolizes "the strong." We know Randian gym rat Paul Ryan agrees, but in the debate, Joe Biden won the arm-wrestle.

VP Debate: Only the Strong Survive

Paul Ryan is wrong that “projecting strength” will solve all of America’s problems. But it does win debates.

BY Theo Anderson

Going forward, Obama would be wise to take a page from Biden’s book last night. Dignified-and-above the fray might work in a press conference. In a political campaign, it comes off as weak. And it’s deadly.

Just hours after the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan ended on Thursday, the second installment of a film version of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, the novel that is a bible to libertarians, opened in theaters.

The story has an intricate plot that begins with the world on the verge of economic collapse and the most talented people—the best minds—going on strike to protest the government’s increasingly socialist policies.

For all its plot twists, the book’s fundamental idea is straightforward: a war is on between the vast majority of humans who are weak and the small minority who are strong. Moochers versus producers. And it’s the government’s role to protect and coddle the moochers. Paul Ryan has named Rand as a formative influence in his political thinking.

The timing of Atlas Shrugged’s release, so close to the debate, is probably a coincidence. But thinking about it in relationship to the debate, and the recent presidential race, puts a few things in perspective.

For example: those pictures published this week by Time magazine, in which Ryan looks like he’s auditioning to be “The Situation” in a D.C. spinoff of Jersey Shore. The photos show him in various workout poses—his hat backward and his right bicep bulging as he curls a barbell.

It’s a subtle thing, yes. But then you recall how often you’ve heard about Ryan’s famously rigorous P90X workout regimen, and how those bulging biceps probably speak volumes to society’s self-declared producing class—the strong—who believe themselves to be under siege by the mooching 47 percent. No wonder they see Ryan as one of their own.

Rand’s philosophy is usually connected to economic theory and used as a radical argument against government regulations and economic redistribution. But what stood out in the vice-presidential debate was how the Randian “strong versus weak” paradigm has become muted in the economic realm.

Even a self-described disciple of Rand like Ryan feels compelled to declare his support for the social-safety net. His intention is to save, not destroy, Social Security and Medicare. Or so he says. Rhetorically, he’s fine with government programs that save the weak from themselves. This might be pure political calculation, or it might actually be rooted in something genuine–as a teenager, Ryan himself received Social Security benefits when his father died prematurely. Nothing shape a person's beliefs like personal experience. 

Contrast his endorsement of social-welfare programs with Ryan's foreign policy attack, which is Randian to the core. The administration’s primary goal, according to Ryan’s account, is to bind the American people in chains of weakness. Ryan said more than once in the debate that recent developments mark “the unraveling” of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Those developments include allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons; failing to support the “freedom forces” in Syria early enough; and the murders of four Americans at the U.S. consulate in Lybia. This is in addition to the Obama administration’s proposals to cut the military budget and its outsourcing of our foreign policy to the United Nations, especially with regard to Iran. In all of these ways, we are “projecting weakness.”

It took this vice-presidential debate to put the horror show that was last week’s presidential debate in perspective, and to fully understand why it was so devastating. Obama might have imagined that he was being dignified by refusing to call Romney out or respond to his plain untruths. He might have imagined, too, that his success in killing Osama bin Laden had inoculated him from the “weak on defense” line of attack.

But his performance played perfectly into the idea that Obama is an appeaser of our enemies who is unfit for the job. Will a man who refuses to stand up for himself be able to stand up for American interests abroad, after all? In that debate, Romney’s aggressive bearing and flawless delivery—contrasted with Obama’s passive and detached delivery—amounted to a visual case study in “projecting strength.” 

What the Randian philosophy requires, to be persuasive, is isolation from real-world experience and actual on-the-ground reality. It’s convenient for “the strong” to believe that they’re smarter and work harder than the lazy moochers. And it would be it would be nice if projecting strength could solve all our foreign policy dilemmas.

Though he didn’t achieve the magnitude of Romney’s victory Obama, Biden won his debate with Ryan last night just by pushing back and insisting on concrete details. You would take a different approach in Syria? How? You would deal more effectively with Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions? In what way?

Ryan had no answers, aside from vague promises to project American strength. Because in fact there are no good answers. As everyone knows, we tried the plan of projecting our strength in Iraq, with disastrous results.

And that may have been why Obama seemed so paralyzed on the stage last week. Romney’s nonsense was so out of touch with reality that it was difficult to even know how to begin pushing back. But going forward, he would be wise to take a page from Biden’s book last night. Dignified-and-above the fray might work in a press conference. In a political campaign, it comes off as weak. And it’s deadly.

Because politics is one realm in which, as Paul Ryan and his bulging biceps can attest, it’s true: Only the strong survive. 

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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