How Trump turned 2016 into George Orwell’s 1984
No one would ever argue that the election of Donald Trump equals the dystopian result in George Orwell’s 1984. But there sure are a lot of frightening similarities.
For those who haven’t read the 1949 book or seen a movie version since high school or college (or if you missed it completely), the story is set in a bombed-out world divided into three superstates after a global war. The story’s protagonist, Winston Smith, lives in Airstrip One (what used to be Great Britain) in Oceania, England having been swallowed up by North America. He’s in the middle tier of citizenry, a member of the “Outer Party” (the elite top two percent make up the “Inner Party,” and the other 85 percent, the workers, or “Proles,” are the vast uneducated masses). Winston has a bureaucratic job altering and rewriting history to fit the Party’s narrative as part of the Ministry of Truth—basically the propaganda department.
Orwell wrote the book after World War II in response to the Cold War and the idea of a totalitarian state. 1984 came after Animal Farm, his definitive fictional work on the Russian Revolution, Communism, and totalitarianism. But 1984 and its ideas grew in popular culture so that its references have become commonplace.
So many phrases and ideas from the story are now a part of our everyday language. Even those who haven’t read the book know that “Big Brother is watching you” refers to an authoritarian government, like the omnipresent telescreens in public places and in the homes of every Party member. We recognize terms like “thought police” and “doublespeak” from context without realizing their origins. When we forget something, it goes down the “memory hole,” to be lost forever, just like the papers Winston Smith uses to rewrite history or the people who are vaporized into non-persons. If anything goes down the hole, it never existed. From the novel:
“Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it: in Newspeak, “doublethink.”
Language from 1984 also resonated in the 2016 election. The fake news, euphemisms, lies, and “post-truth” we experienced from President-elect Donald Trump and his campaign surrogates, the false planted stories in social media from Russian agents or wherever all bring to mind the “Newspeak” used in the novel. The national media’s normalization of terms and ideas from the Trump campaign only further blurred the truth, and we’re left with a country picking and choosing “post-truth” facts and believing outright lies.
Welcome to Donald Trump’s America.
Words in 1984 often mean the opposite of what they appear to mean. The Ministry of Love is the home of the authoritarian law and order arm of the Party. The Ministry of Plenty is in charge of rationing. The Ministry of Peace orchestrates the ever-present war. Words also get shortened to dilute their meaning: Using a phrase like “Minitru” for the Ministry of Truth doesn’t create the full negative connotation of the definition, in the same way that “alt-right” is a way of neutralizing and declawing the terms white supremacist or white nationalist.
When Trump uses projection to criticize an opponent, whether it was a fellow Republican, Hillary Clinton, the media, or anyone or anything on the receiving end of his tweets and bombastic tirades, he is transferring his own shortcomings to them: they are at fault, not him; they are guilty, not him. This is his version of Newspeak.
And his voters believe him, just as the citizens believe the Party in 1984. From the novel:
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.
A story from The New York Daily News gives several examples of parallels between 1984 and the Trump campaign.
Doublethink is an inherently contradictory part of Newspeak and 1984 Party politics. According to the novel, doublethink is, “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it.”
In other words, it’s pretty much the basis of Donald Trump’s campaign.
The Proles — the lower-class people who make up the majority of Oceania’s population — are largely ignored by the government. They don’t face the same kind of indoctrination that the Inner and Outer Party members do and for the most part they’re kept under control by rumors spread by the Thought Police and easy access to various vices.
“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,” Orwell wrote. They’re also placated with easy access to Party-produced porn and certain crimes — including prostitution, drug-dealing and racketeering — go pretty much unchecked in the prole portions of town. Basically, the idea is to keep the proles placated and distracted, so that they don’t pay any attention to the political machinations moving the world around them.
Today, in a world where a naked Kardashian selfie can attract more attention than the State of the Union, it’s not hard to see some parallels.
A commentary from WBUR, one of Boston’s public radio stations, during the Republican primaries now seems eerily prescient about Trump’s appeal and success. TV footage and recordings of Trump’s words and contradictory positions didn’t matter if he disowned them later, over and over again. A lie told one day could be denied the next day, over and over again.
As Orwell noted, “… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
Like all great demagogues before him, that’s a principle that Donald Trump understands and embraces. …
Assert anything often enough and with enough vigor, Trump believes, and people will accept it. But he goes a step farther than his equally cynical brethren in this and past political races. Trump has intuited that by constantly repeating that he’s a winner, that people love him, that his poll numbers are better than anyone else’s, he can marginalize the non-believers. If the majority of people say that he is the best, then that is the de facto truth, just as in Orwell’s Oceania, if the party says 2+2=5 and enough citizens repeat it, the dissenter — the statistical outlier — is, by definition, insane. After all, in Oceania and presumably in TrumpWorld, “Sanity is statistical.”
There have been several movie and made-for-TV versions of this book. There were TV versions in 1953 (CBS) and in 1954 (BBC). The original film was in 1956 and featured Edmund O’Brien as Winston Smith.
This clip is from the 1984 version (yes, one was made in … 1984) featuring John Hurt as Winston Smith. This is from the daily “Two Minutes Hate” in which all Party members must participate in an exercise designed to harden them against the enemy. This enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein, supposedly the leader of the underground Brotherhood, is shown onscreen, his words drowned out by a crowd growing more and more agitated, crying, “Kill him!” and “Death!”
Really, how different is that from the chants of “Lock her up!” and “Hang the bitch!” from crowds at the Republican National Convention and at Trump rallies? How different is that from demands from Trump surrogates to execute Hillary Clinton? All for using a private email server?
There were so many lies told during the 18 months of this election—Politics USA reported that 91 percent of Trump’s utterances were false—that fact-checkers couldn’t keep up with him. Media played his words verbatim without any context, and those words have been accepted as gospel by true Trump believers. When people point out Trump’s lies now, TrumpleThinSkin reacts with a childish, insulting tweet. The truth-tellers are vilified and threatened. How long before one of Trump’s rabid supporters turns to violence?
When the president of a United Steelworkers local at the Indiana Carrier plant said on TV that Trump “lied his ass off” to Carrier workers about jobs, the union president began receiving threats. The recent example of “Pizzagate” had a would-be vigilante carrying an unlicensed AR-15 assault rifle into a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor to “self-investigate” a “child sex-trafficking ring” supposedly led by Hillary Clinton. The scenario is so ludicrous that it reads like a bad TV script, but the only reason tragedy was averted was that the loser gunman fired his rifle but didn’t hit anyone—the restaurant’s employees had fled in terror. Yet those conspiracy theories about the supposed sex ring were widely spread on social media before the election and were even retweeted by the man Trump chose to be his national security adviser.
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” Orwell wrote.
Pure wind, with no substance. It’s going to be a long four years.
Originally posted on Daily Kos on Dec. 11, 2016.