American conservatism, broadly speaking, has had a remarkable ability to assimilate the expansion of federal power. Quite from the beginning — from the federal assumption of states’ debts after the Revolution to the Louisiana Purchase to Henry Clay-style “internal improvements” of the nation’s infrastructure on through to the New Deal.
Nevertheless the “irritable mental gestures” of the movement, as literary critic Lionel Trilling famously put it, always lurk on the margins. The political theorist and early National Review-ite Frank Meyer, for instance, spied creeping “totalitarianism” in the federal school lunch program.
The resurgence of “Atlas Shrugged” is another of these mental gestures.
However viscerally gratifying the revenge fantasy of “Alas Shrugged” may feel today — in the novel, heroic captains of industry withdraw from the economy in protest of collectivism — it remains just that: a fantasy.
Only in a novel can capitalist-individualists such as John Galt, the fugitive embodiment of Miss Rand’s ideas and ideals, de-link themselves so dramatically and completely from government and society — “stopping the motor of the world,” as she put it in “Atlas Shrugged.”
Mired in fantasy, intoxicated by legend, embittered in non-reality: This is no way for an opposition party to act.
At least not one that has any hope of relevance or vitality.