We agree with Betty Pope's assessment of James Taggart: she calls him a snail (188.8.131.52). It's quite fitting really. James is slimy, often slow, and seems to enjoy mucking around in the dirt. Snails may not seem threatening, but out of everyone in the book, James is one of the most obvious villains. He's definitely the villain with whom we spend the most time.
But James isn't your typical villain. He doesn't twirl his mustache and plot evil schemes. He doesn't run around actively causing destruction and mayhem. He doesn't have an epic showdown with the book's hero(es). Instead, he often appears to be out of control and unaware, or at least in denial, about what it is he's doing. He's a villain, but he's also a victim of his own wacky ideology. James gives us a picture of something that's truly sinister and frightening: the power that weak and cowardly people can wield with destructive ideas. James the snail is definitely one of the Captains of Team Looter, and he occupies the curious position of being simultaneously both very powerful and very weak. He is also both frightening and pathetic.
In order to get a handle on James's destructive ideology, it helps to understand his most important relationships. We'll start off with the one he shares (and lacks) with his younger sister Dagny.
OK, so we said before that James doesn't have an epic showdown with the book's heroes. His "showdown" with Galt consists of him freaking out in a corner, so that doesn't quite count. James does have some fights with Dagny, but they aren't really showdowns in the traditional hero versus villain sense. Neither James nor Dagny seem to win in these encounters. We learn right from the start that the Taggart siblings don't understand each other:
[James] liked to observe emotions; they were like red lanterns strung along the dark unknown of another's personality, marking vulnerable points. But how [Dagny] could feel a personal emotion about a metal alloy...was incomprehensible to him, so he could make no use of his discovery. (184.108.40.206)
They stood facing each other. He looked as if, for the first time, he was not afraid of her. He was gloating....For the flash of one instant, she thought that here, before her, in James Taggart and in that which made him smile, was a secret she had never suspected [...] But the thought flashed and vanished. (220.127.116.11-28)
This lack of understanding between James and Dagny symbolizes the lack of understanding the looters of the world have for Galt and his strikers, and vice versa.
We learn that James is a manipulator. He uses people's emotions against them and seems to enjoy causing other people hurt, embarrassment, and anger. This is another crucial difference between James and his sister: while James uses and relies upon emotions, Dagny uses logic and reason. James's career began in public relations, and he is a political mover and shaker in Washington. Dagny began as an engineer and relies upon facts and data in her work.
In fact, the Taggart siblings are polar opposites, each representing different sides of the major thematic debates in the novel. Which raises the question: how did two siblings end up so radically different from each other?
If you are looking for some sort of childhood flashback that might give insight into this, you're pretty much out of luck. We get very limited back story on James, and though we learn that his fear and resentment of his talented sister is longstanding, we don't learn exactly how and why that resentment festered as badly as it did. James is obviously jealous of Dagny, and he betrays that emotion rather spectacularly at times. Here's one example:
"My sister. My dear sister. Oh, she'll think she's so great, won't she?"
"You dislike your sister, Mr. Taggart?" He made the same sound; its meaning was so eloquent that she needed no answer. "Why?" she asked.
"Because she thinks she's so good. What right has she to think it? What right has anybody to think he's good? Nobody's any good. [...] I mean, we're only human beings – and what's a human being? A weak, ugly, sinful creature, born that way, rotten to the bones." (18.104.22.168-125)
Dagny stands for everything James hates and fears (fears because he hates it and hates because he fears it). James resents the fact that Dagny is so obviously better than him at everything, that her worldview is totally opposed to his, and that he can't ever seem to fully beat her. James is basically a bully, and he's mad that he can't get a victory over his sister; he can't cause her emotional damage.
This book puts very little stock in family connections. People here are individuals with free will, and their families (or lack thereof) have very little to do with who they are. Both Dagny and Hank are totally different from their families. We do learn that James had potential, though, during his character introduction:
His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness, as if in defiance of his tall, slender body, a body with an elegance of line intended for the confident poise of an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout. (22.214.171.124)
James could have been a confident Taggart in the same way his sister is. But he found the world of the looters hard to resist. It's no mistake that while James is compared derisively to a snail, Dagny's childhood nickname (courtesy of Francisco) was "slug." James and Dagny both started out the same in terms of their Taggart heritage, but they quickly embarked on separate paths, even as they remained connected through their railway.
James is not only a character with free will, who effectively made himself as bad as he is, but he is also the symbolic representative of the entire world of looters. Through James we see the ease with which people fall sway to bad doctrines and turn into bad people. Through James we also see the sneaky way in which the looters operate: James may not have realized what he was becoming, and Dagny doesn't realize James's true threat until very late in the game. She mistakenly dismisses him as weak, when his moral, mental, and emotional weakness is actually a powerful destructive force. How is James a destructive force worthy of his villain status? To answer that, we'll need to look at his other major relationship: that with Cherryl Brooks.
There are a lot of workplace scenes that give us insight into James's character and ideology. He's manipulative, vindictive, prone to hysterics and meltdowns, whiny, shrill, accusatory, overly defensive, and a proud spouter of "looter" ideology. James thinks that people are awful, that spiritual concerns should triumph over material ones. He believes in the superiority of a communist-type system of government over a capitalist one.
But we get the fullest view of James as a person and a representative looter through his relationship with his young wife Cherryl. Perhaps this is because he tries to "educate" her to his way of thinking. Perhaps the book is drawing a distinction between the type of shady and personalized business dealings the looters do, as opposed to the rational, fair, and honest dealings of the strikers.
At any rate, James's rants to his wife are revealing, as is the fact that he married her in the first place. His relationship with the naive young Cherryl helps demonstrate the full extent of his manipulative and often cruel personality. He thought she would worship him unquestioningly; when she didn't, he lashed out at her in hatred.
"You should have heard Bertram howl! He was a dead duck and he knew it."
He started on a rolling chuckle, but choked it off, as the haze cleared and he saw his wife's face. "Jim," she whispered, "is that the sort of...victories you've been winning?"
"Oh, for Christ's sake!" he screamed, smashing his fist down on the table. "Where have you been all these years? What sort of world do you think we're living in?"..."I couldn't help it!...I'm not to blame! I have to take things as I find them! It's not I who've made this world!" (126.96.36.199-12)
James reveals a tendency toward both hysterics and violence here. We see more of these qualities in him as the novel draws to a close. He hits Cherryl and is vicious toward her on the night of her suicide. He is also a bystander to John Galt's torture, though this is when he seems to realize the scary truth about himself and suffers a total collapse.
James's rants are born out of fear, but what exactly is he so afraid of and defensive about? In James's interactions with Dagny and with his politician and businessman cronies, we usually get more of his dialogue than his thoughts. But in his interactions with Cherryl, we get to see inside his head:
Why did it have to shrink? – he thought in panic. This was the way he had lived all his life – keeping his eyes stubbornly, safely on the immediate pavement before him, craftily avoiding the sight of his road, of corners, of distances, of pinnacles. He had never intended on going anywhere, he had wanted to be free of progression, free to the yoke of a straight line...why had he reached some unchosen destination where one could no longer stand still or retreat? (188.8.131.52)
James is terrified by the prospect of change and the necessity of making a choice. He reveals this countless times throughout the book, whether it's by forcing Dagny to make a decision for him at work, or passing directives in Washington to keep things safely standing still. The ultimate why, though – why he feels this particular way – remains a mystery. This is interesting in and of itself, though, since it highlights the irrationality of the looters' panic and fear.
The problem for James, and the looters in general, may boil down to need. As Galt tells us, looters worship need, charity, and self-sacrifice as virtues. Galt feels that these things are problematic and turn men against each other. We can see this happening in James's case:
"It's your sin if I suffer! It's your moral failure! I'm your brother, therefore I'm your responsibility, but you've failed to supply my wants, therefore you're guilty!" (184.108.40.206)
James needs Dagny, and he hates the fact that he needs her, but he is paralyzed by fear. Rather than stand on his own, James is filled with rage and longs to destroy "life" and "greatness" for the sake of destruction. Appropriately, at the end of the novel James totally collapses as an individual.