Mr. Thompson (fl. ca. 2000-2020), in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, was the Head of the State during the time of the strike of the men of the mind called by John Galt. His first name is never stated. He was usually a rather remote administrator, and took an active role only toward the story's end. His last act was an abject abdication of his executive responsibility in turning over a prisoner of the United States government for interrogation under torture. The novel does not disclose his ultimate fate or punishment.
Ayn Rand stated that her inspiration for Mr. Thompson was President Harry S. Truman. But from the comments that she made, she appears to have taken nothing from Truman beyond his physical appearance. Mr. Thompson acts and behaves in a manner that appear utterly out-of-character for Truman.
Furthermore, as Rand has repeatedly stated, the novel takes place in a time when United States civic institutions are no longer recognizable as such. She uses "Legislature" for Congress and "Head of State" fror President of the United States for a reason: to
|“||avoid the honorable connotations attached to such a title as 'President of the United States' by another era and a different principle of government.||”|
Not only are there no Congress and no President; there is no Supreme Court, either. That can mean only one thing: a runaway Constitutional convention has taken place, in which a unicameral Legislature and a nondescript Head of State have replaced the Congress and the President. This convention has also abolished the national judiciary, thereby vesting the judicial power in the Head of State and in such agencies as the Legislature will ordain and establish, or the Head of State shall decree by Executive Order.
Atlas Shrugged provides no details on the early life or political history of Mr. Thompson. Rand's description of him is that of an almost deliberately nondescript person. But Rand's subsequent statement that her use of the generic "Legislature" and "Head of State" for "Congress" and "President" were not an oversight, but a conscious refusal, imply the following:
Mr. Thompson was the last elected President of the United States. In real life, he would correspond to President William J. Clinton. But in the alternate reality, he did not face impeachment over a woman, as the real-life Clinton did. Instead, he faced impeachment over certain unlawful acts for which his administration became infamous.
Ever the deal-maker (for he had been a used-car salesman before he entered politics, and a very good used-car salesman, if only by the measure of the number of cars that he sold), Mr. Thompson cobbled together a coalition of moneyed Progressives and other like-minded persons. He made a very simple case: his opponents cared nothing about the plight of "the little guy," and their impeachment of him was an excuse. And if they wanted to stop the attempted political reaction against his "common-man-friendly reforms," they would induce their State legislatures to apply at once for a Constitutional convention, as per the terms of Article Five. That Article reads in relevant part:
|“||The Congress...on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the several States, shall call a convention for proposing amendments.||”|
What helped Mr. Thompson most of all was that applications for a Constitutional convention were already pending, from groups wanting balanced budgets and similar reforms. Mr. Thompson persuaded the legislatures of New York, California, Oregon, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island to get their applications in. Then he argued that those eleven applications, together with twenty-three applications from other States, were sufficient to compel Congress to call a Constitutional convention, regardless of any statement of purpose listed on any given application. An application was an application, no matter what.
The Supreme Court, in Thompson v. Narragansett, fatefully agreed. The Convention sat in 2000. And, as any knowledgeable Constitutional scholar might have predicted, it "ran away." Once seated, the delegates followed the instructions of the Thompson clique, and produced a revised Constitution that:
- Abolished the United States Senate, thereby turning the Congress into a unicameral Legislature.
- Called for the election of a Head of State by popular vote, and making him serve for a seven-year term.
- Provided for the suspension of the Head-of-State elections, and the continuance in office of the then-current Head of State, in time of "national emergency," which "emergency" was for the Head of State to decide,
- Provided also that the Head of State could, if he deemed the circumstances sufficiently "emergent," abolish the judiciary and vest the judicial power in himself, and
- Provided that Legislative elections would take place ever four years, not the traditional two.
The convention then said that the ratification of thirty-four states would be "sufficient to establish" the new Constitution "among those States ratifying the same."
Mr. Thompson got his ratifications in short order. The holdout States were largely those in the American West, including Colorado, in a plot of land that, while contiguous, was not only landlocked but entirely surrounded by "ratifying" States. They had no choice but to ratify the new document. Or so they thought.
Colorado did defy the trend in one way: it revised its own Constitution to abolish every agency of government except its legislature, its judiciary, and a Governor that was little more than a Chief of State Police. A minor figure named Horace Bussby (sic) Mowen would later describe Colorado's government as the "laziest" of State governments.
In 2004, the unicameral Legislature founded the State Science Institute, on the recommendation of Robert Stadler, then Professor and Chairman, Department of Physics, Patrick Henry University. Stadler was one of many reputable men who gave Mr. Thompson and his friends the credibility they needed to establish their rule over all aspects of American life.
When Mr. Thompson abolished the judiciary is impossible to infer. But that he did so on or before the index date of the novel is virtually certain. Neither he nor Wesley Mouch, Top Co-ordinator of his Bureau of Economic Planning and Natural Resources, could have gotten away with half the measures they promulgated had this not happened.
The first appearance of Mr. Thompson in the novel is in the discussion, in Wesley Mouch's office, concerning Directive 10-289. This Directive was intended to freeze all economic activity, and indeed any activity that could affect the economy in any manner, at the then-current levels. Mr. Thompson did little more than authorize Wesley Mouch to finalize and promulgate the Directive. He then left the room, saying that he had a speaking engagement, and that he would "leave it up to you boys to iron out the wrinkles."
The next appearance of Mr. Thompson is in Dunkertown, Iowa for the demonstration of Project X, also known as the Xylophone, also known as the Thompson Harmonizer. Mr. Thompson did not invent this device, of course, but he did allow his name to be attached to it. This was a weapon of mass destruction having a range of at least a hundred miles. That Mr. Thompson would actually authorize someone to attach his name to such a device speaks volumes about his character.
Yet he never once showed or affected the brazen attitude of Adolf Hitler. From the attitude that he did take at this demonstration, he might as well have been attending the launch of what would have been the first artificial satellite. Indeed, his described attitude and demeanor recall those of President Richard Nixon in his conversations with the crew of Apollo 11.
This was, of course, consistent with the general tenor of several speeches that several government officials and commentators made about the Xylophone, all describing it as a "benign instrument of peace"—or, as Robert Stadler called it,
|“||a device that will have a profoundly liberating effect on the mind of man.||”|
The three-hour speech
Mr. Thompson is most active in three of the last four chapters of the novel. After the defection of Henry Rearden and most of his regular workforce, Mr. Thompson announced, beginning on November 15, 2019, that he would make a major speech on "the world crisis" on every radio frequency and television channel. He traveled to New York City and prepared to broadcast, presumably, from Madison Square Garden. James Taggart and his sister Dagny were also present, as were Robert Stadler from the State Science Institute, Fred Kinnon (head of Amalgamated Labor of America), and a few dozen other officials who appear prominently in the narrative.
At the last minute, the broadcast engineers informed Mr. Thompson, with considerable trepidation, that they could not get him on the air. Every channel was somehow jammed, and the jamming was more powerful than any they had seen before. Mr. Thompson angrily threatened to fire everyone if the problem was not corrected, but that produced no result.
Then a voice did speak on the air, saying,
|“||Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Thompson will not speak to you tonight. His time is up. I have taken it over. You were to hear a report on the world crisis. That is exactly what you are going to hear.||”|
For the next three hours, Mr. Thompson, his entourage, and the other assembled officials and guests listened as a man calling himself John Galt claimed total responsibility for the rash of disappearances of talented individuals from all sectors of the American economy. Mr. Thompson knew the name John Galt only from a slang catch-phrase question that the American people had been asking one another for the last twelve years. Now, for the first time, he realized that John Galt was a real person, and that he had an agenda. John Galt spent three hours explaining that agenda, and at the end of it he called for a general strike. "Stop supporting your own destroyers!" he said. John Galt's last words were the intonation of an oath that he encouraged his followers to take:
|“||I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.||”|
With those last words, John Galt released the airwaves. Mr. Thompson knew this because the patriotic-themed music that had been playing prior to the interruption abruptly resumed. Wesley Mouch urged Mr. Thompson to order the music stopped, lest the people believe that the government had authorized the three-hour speech. Mr. Thompson asked scathingly whether Mouch would prefer that the people actually hear that the government had not authorized that speech. In a rare display of the capacity for logic, Mr. Thompson clearly recognized that if the government had not authorized the speech, that could only mean that John Galt had hijacked the airwaves, an idea that Mr. Thompson could not permit to gain any currency. (He knew perfectly well that John Galt had done exactly that. But to admit that to the public would be to confess that he was weak, and that he must never do.)
In fact, Mr. Thompson had never in his career in politics met the man with whom he could not negotiate some kind of deal. In the world in which he moved, everyone had a price, and anyone might sell his own mother for that price. He had already decided to negotiate an end to the strike with John Galt, and somehow induce him to bring back all the vanished inventors and industrialists. (Galt himself was an inventor; he had talked of building a prototype electrostatic motor.)
Eugene Lawson reacted in horror, saying that the speech was "the most vicious speech ever made," because it would "make people demand to be happy." Mr. Thompson dismissed such talk as irrelevant. He was never an ideologue, and always a negotiator.
Yet he was stumped, and he knew it. He actually wondered aloud whether someone would tell him and his friends what to do. Dagny Taggart took this opportunity to tell Mr. Thompson and his friends,
|“||Give up and get out of the way. Leave men free to exist.||”|
Robert Stadler, in a frightened voice, warned Mr. Thompson not to listen. But Miss Taggart finished her point, from which she did not waver, and left the hall.
Stadler then rounded on Mr. Thompson and actually called him "a bloody fool" who did not "know what [he was] playing with." Stadler's solution was to kill Galt, a thing that Mr. Thompson would not authorize. But Mr. Thompson did concede Stadler's point that Dagny Taggart knew more than she was telling, and might even know who John Galt was and how to find him. The only evidence to support this idea was her agreement with Galt's ideas. Nevertheless, Mr. Thompson ordered that Dagny Taggart be placed under covert surveillance.
Capture of John Galt
Mr. Thompson did not content himself with the surveillance. On December 5, 2019, he announced to the country that he was ready to "negotiate." But John Galt did not answer.
On or about February 15, 2020, he paid Dagny Taggart a personal visit (apparently without his Secret Service entourage, a thing one would not normally expect a Head of State to do, considering that four of Mr. Thompson's predecessors in office had been assassinated, the latest being John F. Kennedy). In that visit, he warned Dagny that the government was now definitely split into competing factions, some of which would as soon kill John Galt as look at him. He suggested that if he, or at least his own faction, found Galt first, Galt would live; if not, he would die.
Shortly thereafter, the surveillance paid off. Apparently John Galt was employed by the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, though whether Mr. Thompson learned that John Galt was a track walker in the New York Terminal, the novel never says. On February 22, Dagny traced Galt's whereabouts and went to see him, with her tail in tow. The stakeout team called for backup, and John Galt was arrested. But an attempt by the arresting officers to inspect or seize some unspecified equipment or furnishings in one of the rooms in his second-floor walkup ended in failure. When they tried to force the door, everything in that room turned to ashes, though the damage was limited to that room and no one was injured.
Mr. Thompson had John Galt held in the penthouse suite of the Wayne-Falkland Hotel in New York, in surroundings far more sumptuous than those wherein he had been taken. At his orders, John Galt received the best service that the Wayne-Falkland could deliver.
This was an attempt at a practice commonly called "buttering up." Sadly for Mr. Thompson, it failed. Mr. Thompson offered Galt plenipotentiary powers over all economic activities, thus making him the Economic Dictator of the country. This also implies that Mr. Thompson was ready to fire Wesley Mouch, a procedure that most commentators today call "to throw someone under the bus." For which Mr. Thompson had more than a good excuse: nearly every policy and directive that had come off Wesley Mouch's desk had ended in abject failure. The defection of Hank Rearden was only the latest such failure, and that was why Mr. Thompson had to be a hands-on manager once again.
Galt laughed in his face, saying that he found the proposition absurd. To illustrate, Galt said that his first order would be to abolish all income taxes and fire all government employees, two things that Mr. Thompson would not do.
Mr. Thompson then asked James Taggart, and then Chick Morrison to try to persuade Galt to yield. Galt would not. Mr. Thompson also asked Fred Kinnon to talk to Galt; Kinnon came away almost enjoying the exchange, because, though Galt was his implacable enemy, Kinnon preferred "a guy that talks straight."
Then Floyd Ferris came to talk to Galt, and that proved disastrous. Ferris actually spoke of using mass executions to reduce the number of mouths that had to be fed. Even before Galt could reply to that, Mr. Thompson rounded on Ferris, told him he was crazy to talk that way, and apologized to Galt and said that Ferris did not mean what he said. Galt, however, took Ferris at his word and said that he would never hold his own moral stature at the mercy of the actions of a man like Ferris. Mr. Thompson ordered Ferris out of the room immediately.
Incongruously, Galt asked to see Robert Stadler. Mr. Thompson knew that Robert Stadler was no friend of Galt, and he said so. Nevertheless, Galt insisted. So Mr. Thompson summoned Stadler and had him ushered in. About five minutes later, Stadler was banging on the door of the suite with both fists and begging to be released from the room. With that, the attempts at negotiation were ended.
BUt Mr. Thompson then did something that probably proved fatal to the country, though he would probably never learn this. He threatened to use Stadler as a hostage. Stadler was at first horrified, and then, with a gleam in his eye that Mr. Thompson perhaps never caught, left the Wayne-Falkland Hotel and the city of New York. Mr. Thompson never saw Robert Stadler again. Whether he would ever connect Stadler's disappearance with the catastrophe that followed, three days later, the novel never says.
The Big Broadcast Flop
Mr. Thompson had by now placed himself in a potentially embarrassing position. For weeks he had ordered his friends in the mainstream media to keep up a steady drumbeat of stories of a negotiated settlement to the John Galt Strike, and the drafting of a "John Galt Plan for peace and prosperity." But John Galt was no closer even to beginning to draft such a plan than he had been before his arrest.
Mr. Thompson now took a gamble. He ordered a major broadcast announcement of the John Galt Plan, and then ordered his men to have John Galt dress for the occasion (in a tuxedo, no less) and then march him before the cameras at gunpoint. Surely, he must have reasoned, John Galt would not risk personal embarrassment by denying any such plan before millions of people! Not when Mr. Thompson still stood by all the offers he had made him.
John Galt surprised everyone. When his turn came to address the nation, John Galt moved so swiftly that a clear image of him with a gun pointed at him was shown on camera to millions of people. The image appeared only briefly, but the damage was done. Worse yet was what Galt said next:
|“||Get...out of my way.||”|
Galt managed to say this full sentence before the engineers could stop transmission.
As Galt was led off the stage, Mr. Thompson and his advisers convened in a side room next to the Grand Ballroom of the Wayne-Falkland, where the abortive broadcast had just concluded. Mr. Thompson listened as Chick Morrison rushed out of the room, waving his arms and saying that he had resigned, and as Floyd Ferris now proposed that the time for negotiation had passed and that the government had to compel John Galt to take the system over and save it. Ferris then elaborated on his statement, by saying "how valuable an institution the State Science Institute really is." Ferris was talking, quite simply, of interrogating John Galt under torture by electric shock.
Mr. Thompson was out of options now. He said to the assembly, "I can't help it! Do whatever you want!" This was far different from his earlier statement to promulgate Directive 10-289 and leave the details to others. This was a total and complete abdication of his executive responsibility, and even a disclaimer of his own effectiveness.
The novel provides no details of his final disposition. He cannot have derived much comfort from hearing that Project X had detonated and destroyed itself, a hundred-plus-mile radius of land in Iowa, and the Taggart Bridge. He might never have known what became of Robert Stadler, much less connected Stadler with the Project X disaster—because the destruction within that hundred-mile-radius circle was so complete that absolutely no news came out of that circle for weeks.
Mr. Thompson would derive even less comfort from watching the nation that he was elected to command, descend into total anarchy. Especially since, in the end, he had no friends, and no one to save him.
Mr. Thompson never had to give a public statement of resignation. His status became irrelevant. The government collapsed totally, with actual civil war breaking out in California and within and/or between other States. (The disaster at Project X was in essence a result of a civil war that had broken out in Iowa.) One may safely infer that a coalition of militias took effective control of various regions in the country, and Mr. Thompson was in essence a commander without a command.
One need not infer that Mr. Thompson was punished in any way, other than being told, in no uncertain terms, that he would never even be allowed to stand for election to "any office of honor, trust or profit in the United States, or any of them." The Legislature was in no position to try him, for it had abdicated all its powers to Mr. Thompson and his Bureaus in November 2017. Perhaps Judge Narragansett tried him, shortly after he and his fellow strikers emerged from their secluded community of Galt's Gulch, an installation the existence of which Mr. Thompson never once, as far as the novel implies, learned or suspected.
Spoilers end here.
Mr. Thompson is, of course, a villain in the novel. Yet, considering his position as Head of State, he is a distinctly minor villain.
More to the point, he is an allegory of every politician who makes pretty speeches but won't accept responsibility for anything. He does not even manage the drafting of Directive 10-289; he delegates that to Wesley Mouch, who appears to be a "czar" like those in the Obama Administration. And in the end, he abdicates government completely to Floyd Ferris and the faction that he leads. (The Cuffy Meigs faction destroys itself and a hundred-mile-radius disk of Iowa countryside in the detonation of Project X.)
This illustrates a problem that some observers have with American politics today: if everyone is responsible, then no one is. This recalls the defense given often at Nuremburg:
|“||I was just obeying orders.||”|
Though Rand stated that she drew a loose inspiration for Mr. Thompson from Harry Truman, Mr. Thompson did not govern in a style typical of Truman. Truman is famous for placing on his desk the following message that greeted everyone who met the President while he sat behind it:
|“||THE BUCK STOPS HERE.||”|
One can scarcely imagine Harry Truman behaving in so frankly cowardly a fashion as Mr. Thompson does at the very end of the narrative.
Finally, Mr. Thompson is a type of the "pragmatic politician," one whose notion of truth goes no further than "what works." In fact, the very word pragmatic comes from the Greek word pragma, which can mean anything from a business matter to a lawsuit. This in turn derives from the Greek word praxis, meaning "what one does," from which derive the English words practical and practice.
A pragmatic politician, then, does whatever works, or seems to work, at the time. Such a politician has no core convictions, and perhaps no real sense of who he is and what he will or will not fight for. And so when Mr. Thompson meets a single-minded man like John Galt, he cannot work effectively with that person. How, after all, does one negotiate the non-negotiable? Mr. Thompson finds out that the assumption that no man ever has a totally non-negotiable principle is anything but safe.
In the novel, Rand refers to Mr. Thompson as the "Head of the State." She also refers to the Congress as "the national legislature" or simply "The Legislature." Rand since said that she actually meant to project a future in which the Constitution had been formally abrogated. One other minor villain, Lee Hunsacker, complains that his grandfather had been a "member of the national legislature," and he ought to have had the same "chance" that his grandfather had. But that is a relatively weak argument to countervail Rand's express intentions, not to mention the failure of Bennett Cerf and other officials at Random House publishers to substitute the "correct" terms when Atlas Shrugged was in galleys.
This scenario assumes that Mr. Thompson went to the trouble to set up a runaway Constitutional convention. In contrast, Barack Hussein Obama has governed largely in an imperial, or at least imperious, fashion, paying only minor lip service to the forms of the Constitution while completely ignoring their substance. Sadly, the Supreme Court has thus far allowed this sad state of affairs to continue—except for a few rulings, like Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, with which Mr. Obama is very much displeased. Several activists decry the willingness of the federal courts to continue, as they see it, to facilitate Obama's ignoring of the Constitution.
Notes and references
- "History of Atlas Shrugged," The Ayn Rand Institute, n.d. Accessed May 5, 2009. <http://atlasshrugged.com/the-book/genesis-of-the-book/>
- Among other things, though the no-third-term amendment to the Constitution of the United States made an exception for Truman as the then-currently sitting President, Truman declined to offer himself as a candidate in 1952, though he retained a perfect right to do so. That Mr. Thompson would have considered acting with such forbearance is incompatible with his actions in this novel.
- Lawrence R, "Atlas Shrugged FAQ: Why are the US President and Congress referred to as the 'Head of the State' and 'national legislature'?", Objectivism Reference Center, retrieved February 18, 2012
- Hayward S, "Con-Con-Con Job?" Power Line Blog, 11 August 2011. Retrieved 18 February 2012.
- Definitions of "pragma" and "praxis", from Newman BM, A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, included in Aland B, Aland K, Karavidopoulos J, et al., The Greek New Testament, 4th ed., Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993.