Reading 1984 in the age of Trump
The definition of "power" in America today is best encapsulated by a sentence written 70 years ago:
Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.
This sentence was written by an Englishman named Eric Arthur Blair, who had found some success several years earlier with the publication of a scathing anti-Communist barnyard allegory that he published under the pseudonym George Orwell. His new dystopia — terrifyingly explored in 1984 — was not aimed at a political party in particular (contextually, it was a reaction to both Nazism and Stalinist communism). Instead, his slim novel was a grim excavation of political inevitability. "It would be most unfortunate if the reader smugly interpreted 1984 as another description of Stalinist barbarism if he does not see that it means us, too," warns Erich Fromm in an afterward of the book, which sold out online last week amid widespread concerns surrounding the new Trump administration.
Orwell has long been hailed as a visionary, with 1984 popping up on bestseller lists with an unnerving frequency since it was first published in 1949. The prophetic novel weighed on the minds of some of the 20th century's greatest artists: David Bowie wanted to make a musical out of it (it became Diamond Dogs) and Terry Gilliam reinterpreted it as the fantastic cult-classic Brazil. It has been debated and dismissed, hailed and despised, and taught in classrooms the world over.
I am hardly the first person to say that Orwell's masterpiece is a must-read that holds stark lessons for our current age, although perhaps it is slightly less obvious in the Trump era than it was during 1984's most recent run up the bestseller lists, during the NSA leaks of 2013. With a searing blue eye on the mass-market paperback's cover, 1984 is synonymous with the surveillance state. Its most quotable line is "Big Brother is watching you." Is it any wonder that in 2013, amidst stunning revelations of U.S. government snooping, The New Yorker wondered, "So are we living in 1984?"
In truth, though, 1984 isn't so much about the government spying through "telescreens" as it is a warning about the power of words and the malleability of truth. (That is the great irony of literature and philosophy — all truths must be conveyed in the least trustworthy of mediums: language.) With the stench of party propaganda still fresh in the late 1940s, Orwell warned "all history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary." Histories — and facts themselves — were proven to be flexible. Two and two does equal five, if the Party says it does. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia, if the Ministry of Truth declared it so.
Today, President Trump and his press secretary deal in "alternative facts" (in the truly Orwellian language of the supremely talented Grand Minister of Spin Kellyanne Conway), half-truths, and outright lies. They peddle falsehoods that don't really matter ("This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe"), and others that really do ("In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally"). Conway even dismissed the Women's March protesters in a kind of modern-day Newspeak for being "misinformed."
In President Trump's America, there is no indisputable truth — other than what President Trump says is the truth. As Orwell teaches, "Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present, controls the past." In our present, Trump alone is the arbiter of what is real and true, what happened and what didn't. Don't trust your lying eyes. Trust Trump.
As a result, just a week into Trump's presidency, Americans are already practicing what 1984 calls Doublethink, the blind acceptance of contradictory truths or ideas. The president's inauguration speech, for example, described what The New York Times called a "uniquely dark vision of the United States" — a vision at odds with most Americans' realities. "Many of the claims he used to paint his picture of 'American carnage' were false," Think Progress wrote, citing President Trump's misleading descriptions of jobs, welfare, infrastructure, education, and crime.
More Doublethink: "When Trump repeats the ridiculous story about the three million illegal voters — a story that no one who knows, that not a single White House 'staffer,' not a single Republican congressman actually believes to be true — he does not really care if anyone believes it, even if, at some crazy level, he does, sort of," The New Yorker explained.
On Friday, Trump signed an executive order banning travelers from seven predominately Muslim countries on the grounds that he was protecting the United States from the threat of terrorism. But "no person accepted to the United States as a refugee, Syrian or otherwise, has been implicated in a major fatal terrorist attack since the Refugee Act of 1980 set up systematic procedures for accepting refugees into the United States," CNN wrote. "Before 1980, three refugees had successfully carried out terrorist attacks; all three were Cuban refugees, and a total of three people were killed."
But as they did in 1984, lies can easily become truth — at least in the minds of much of the populace. "Reality is inside the skull," Orwell writes.
In fact, "for the months leading up to the presidential election, and in the days since President Trump took office, ultraconservative websites like Breitbart News and Infowars have published a cycle of eye-popping stories with misleading claims about refugees. And it is beginning to influence public perception, experts say," as The New York Times detailed. Take, for example, stories written by Breitbart's Julia Hahn over the last two years: "Hahn has written hundreds of inflammatory and misleading articles about immigrants — with headlines like 'Criminal Aliens Sexually Assault 70,000 American Women' and 'Muslim Immigration Puts Half a Million U.S. Girls at Risk of Genital Mutilation,'" wrote The Southern Poverty Law Center. "Hahn has repeatedly cited information from the Center for Immigration Studies — a purveyor of anti-immigrant propaganda that was caught [recently] promoting an article by a notorious anti-Semite." (Hahn is expected to take a job in the White House soon.)
There must always be an enemy; Oceania has always been at war. "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever," 1984 warns.
This much is now clear: The Trump White House is the Ministry of Truth. In Trump's first week, the dissemination of facts was strategically muted out of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health and Human Services, and the Department of Agriculture. How long does it take to forget climate change, or at least to distrust it again?
Orwell has an answer:
Anything could be true. The so-called laws of nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. … The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a "real" world where "real" things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? All the happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in all minds, truly happens.
"Facts, at any rate, could not be kept hidden," believes 1984's protagonist, Winston. It was his greatest mistake. In the end, after all, he loved Big Brother, too.