After Trump was elected, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 rocketed. In January 2017, around the time Trump was inaugurated, 1984 was the no. 1 best-selling book on Amazon and it remains a best-seller. So how accurately did 1984 anticipate Trump’s presidency and what can we learn from Orwell’s novel?
Doublethink Is Real
In “The Book,” the account of the Party’s rule supposedly written by Emmanuel Goldstein, “doublethink” is defined as the ability “to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them.” According to the Washington Post, Trump has made over 20,000 false or misleading claims over the course of his presidency. But there’s a qualitative difference between claiming that you did not pay off a porn star when you did and the lies Trump has been issuing over the last few months. Now, Trump’s untruths challenge reality in a way undreamt of by Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.” Trump claims that the pandemic is “rounding the turn.” A press release from the White House even credits Trump with ending the pandemic. The President asserted that in California, “you have a special mask. You cannot under any circumstances take it off.” Trump and his followers know that none of this is true. They know that Covid-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations are all rising. Everyone, including Trump, is perfectly aware that he is telling deliberate lies, yet everyone genuinely believes them. That’s doublethink in action.
Newspeak Is Real
“The whole point of Newspeak,” says Symes, the Party philologist who is working on the 11th edition of the Newspeak dictionary, “is to narrow the range of thought.” By getting rid of the words, you can eliminate the concepts. Trump has “no intellectual curiosity” and doesn’t read memos, let alone books. Consequently, he has an extremely limited vocabulary. He speaks at a fourth-grade level. Trump is incapable of sophisticated, nuanced thought in part because he lacks the words to express these thoughts.
Rules Don’t Apply at the Top
For most of the inhabitants of Oceania, life is one long experience of shortages and privation. When the book begins, for some reason, nobody can get any razor blades. The Proles live in squalor. Food is rationed, and the rations are often cut. The chocolate ration goes down from thirty grams to twenty. And everyone in the Outer Party lives under the eye of the telescreen, which they cannot turn off. But for the privileged few of the Inner Party, these rules don’t apply. As Julia says after she brings Winston a kilo of real coffee, real sugar and real tea, “There’s nothing those swine don’t have, nothing.” She also says that while she has not had sex with an Inner Party member, “there’s plenty that WOULD if they got half a chance. They’re not so holy as they make out.” O’Brien tells an astonished Winston Smith that Inner Party members can turn off the telescreen: “We have that privilege.”
Both Trump and his associates believe that rules don’t apply to them. When Kellyanne Conway was informed that she was egregiously violating the Hatch Act (which prevents federal employees from advocating their political beliefs while on the government payroll), she responded, “Blah, blah, blah … Let me know when the jail sentence starts.” Jared Kushner was denied top-secret security clearance, so Trump ordered his chief of staff to override security officials and White House lawyers. The First Family ignored the rules concerning masks at the first presidential debate. Even more importantly, Trump has decided that the conventions and rules about democracy don’t apply. He has repeatedly threatened to jail political opponents, and he said that he might not accept election results he doesn’t like. Like the Inner Party, Trump and his family believe rules apply only to those beneath them.
Most People Don’t Care—or Do They?
In 1984, the proles, who make up 85% of the population, are indifferent to politics: “Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer and, above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds.” But this might be the one thing Orwell got partly wrong. In 2016, only 55% of eligible voters cast a ballot. Like the proles in 1984, many non-voters are too caught up in the difficulties of their own lives and believe that their vote won’t make a difference. But voter participation in the 2020 election is projected to be 66.5%: higher than in any election since 1908. The numbers for every demographic went up, and turn-out was especially high in battleground states where it mattered most. Texas broke its 1992 record by 5%; nearly 80% of eligible voters cast a ballot in Minnesota. Americans defied the many attempts at voter suppression to make their voices heard. So, unlike in 1984, a significant majority of the population is now politically engaged.
Conflict as Distraction
In “The Book,” Goldstein describes the life of a Party member: “He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party.” Trump’s supporters also live in a “continuous frenzy of hatred toward foreign enemies,” whether they be Chinese, Mexican or Central American immigrants, or European nations that are supposedly ripping off America. The “internal traitors” are the Deep State actors, whom Trump regularly denounces at his rallies. Goldstein comments that, “the discontents produced by [the Party member’s] bare, unsatisfying life are deliberately turned outwards.” The same could be said of Trump’s followers, who view anyone who looks different from them as a threat. As for “triumph over victories,” Trump regularly claims that he has done a “great” or an “incredible” job and that he is responsible for saving millions of lives. And his supporters, such as current press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, fall in line. “Trump knows all,” she said at a recent press conference, “President Trump knows best for America.” One supporter went even further: “Donald Trump is our first rockstar superhero President. He’s the real life Tony Stark. They should just call him President Iron Man!”
Xenophobia Is Essential
The “Two Minutes Hate” in 1984 is an orgy of xenophobia. First, there is the image of Emmanuel Goldstein, “the primal traitor,” whose name marks him as a Jew. Behind Goldstein are the foreign hordes threatening to invade Oceania: “behind his head on the telescreen there marched the endless columns of the Eurasian army—row after row of solid-looking men with expressionless Asiatic faces, who swam up to the surface of the screen and vanished, to be replaced by others exactly similar.” The new propaganda poster that suddenly pops up all over London features “the monstrous figure of a Eurasian soldier, three or four metres high, striding forward with expressionless Mongolian face and enormous boots, a submachine gun pointed from his hip.”
Trump also draws on xenophobia to maintain his support. He called Mexicans “rapists” in his first campaign speech. He claimed that a caravan of Central Americans walking toward the US border to claim asylum was filled with “stone cold criminals.” At a campaign rally, he attacked Rep. Ilhan Omar, who immigrated to the US as a child, as not American: “She’s telling us how to run our country. How did you do where you came from? How’s your country doing?” He consistently refers to Covid-19 as the “China virus” or the “Kung Flu.”
The Surveillance State Is Real, but Not the Way Orwell Imagined
In 1984, the slogan, “Big Brother is Watching You” appears on posters everywhere. The police snoop around outside people’s windows, the Thought Police monitor people constantly. At all times, Winston is observed by the telescreens. “You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
While, as Edward Snowden revealed, the US government embarked on a massive surveillance program, the amount of data the government collects is tiny compared to the surveillance carried out by Facebook, Google and other tech giants. There are two major differences between our situation and 1984: we voluntarily submit to tech surveillance, and the data collected is not used to enforce political conformity (at least, not in the United States; China is a different story), but to sell us stuff.
Objective Reality Does Not Matter
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of 1984 is the rejection of objective reality. As O’Brien puts it as he tortures Winston, “You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right.” But reality, O’Brien explains, exists only in the mind. Reality is whatever the Party says it is. And if the Party says that O’Brien is holding up five fingers, when he is actually holding up only three, there are five fingers. Or when the Party decides that Oceania is at war with Eastasia, not Eurasia, everyone assumes that is the case, and that all the posters, etc. showing Eurasia are wrong.
While Trump is not quite as extreme as the Party, he repeatedly makes assertions that are objectively untrue. He has claimed that he had the largest inauguration crowd in history; that global warming is a hoax, “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive” and that he will protect those with pre-existing health conditions. Many have argued that Trump is the logical result of academic philosophies that depict reality as constructed and argue that objective truth does not exist, but is produced by power. But this notion does not begin with Foucault or Derrida: Orwell predicted it in 1984.
Science Is Dangerous
Newspeak has no word for science. Since science assumes the existence of a reality outside the mind, “the empirical method of thought, on which all the scientific achievements of the past were founded, is opposed to the most fundamental principles of Ingsoc.” Because the Party subsumes everything to ideology, investigating the physical world is no longer viable, the sole exception being weapons research.
Trump and his administration have also explicitly subordinated science to ideology. In September 2020, Craig McLean, the chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency at the forefront of climate change research, asked some of the new political appointees to acknowledge NOAA’s scientific integrity policy, which prevents the manipulation of research for ideological purposes. NOAA’s new chief of staff, Erik Noble, fired McLean. Communications officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have “pushed to change language of weekly science reports released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so as not to undermine President Donald Trump’s political message.” After Trump altered a map with a Sharpie so that it incorrectly indicated that Hurricane Dorian was heading toward Alabama, Trump’s aides ordered NOAA to issue a statement backing up the President. As in 1984, science under Trump bends to politics, not the other way around.
Is There Hope?
In 1984, there is no hope. At the end of the book, Winston Smith loves Big Brother. The Party, with its single-minded drive for power, successfully “cures” Smith of his individuality and memory.
Looking at the result of the 2020 election, it is easy to say that Orwell got it wrong, that ultimately, the people will reject tyranny. Trump did not win re-election. But the frightening fact remains that, while Joe Biden got more votes than Barack Obama, nearly 70 million Americans chose Donald Trump. Biden’s margins of victory in the crucial states Pennsylvania and Nevada were razor thin: less than 1%. Biden got 49.4% of the vote in Arizona, Trump: 49.1%. Nearly half of American voters chose the closest America has come to Big Brother. The Republican Party relied on a strategy of voter suppression, which very nearly succeeded. Trump’s popularity rests in part on a loss of faith in democracy. According to one recent survey, one-fifth of Americans would happily live under military rule. Trump refuses to concede, reiterating the entirely false charge that the election was rigged, and people believe him. According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, over half of all Republicans believe this. A Monmouth University poll puts the number at 77%. No doubt, Joe Biden will take the oath of office on 20 January 2021. But Trump will leave the presidency continuing to assert, sans evidence, that Biden stole the election, and millions will continue to believe him. The resulting damage to democracy is incalculable, providing an opportunity for autocracy and totalitarianism. Orwell’s 1984 remains a frighteningly relevant warning as to what might happen then.