Unless you live under a very large rock, you are probably aware that a certain real estate mogul is the Republican candidate for president of the United States. Many colorful adjectives have been used to describe The Donald. Blustering, self-aggrandizing, narcissistic, narrow minded, racist, and misogynistic to name a few. Along with these, I have heard the eponymous adjective Orwellian used to describe Trump’s policies and leadership style. While I agree categorically with the use of most of these adjectives, I wasn’t sure about Orwellian. I figured I would reread Orwell’s 1984 to decide for myself if I thought that descriptor fit.
I found a battered paperback version of the book. Released in 1984, this edition contained a timeless preface by Walter Cronkite, which was as profound as the novel that follows. In this preface written 32 years ago Cronkite writes,
(Orwell’s) warning vibrates powerfully when we allow ourselves to sit still and think carefully about orbiting satellites that can read the license plates in a parking lot and computers than can tap into thousands of telephone calls and telex transmissions at once and other computers that can do our banking and purchasing, can watch the house and tell a monitoring station what television program we are watching and how many people there are in the room.
This was long before those computers sat in our pockets and purses, capable of relating our exact location at any moment in time, recording our voices and the goings on around us. Before we came to expect and rely upon their ability to do so.
Cronkite grabbed my attention. He swiftly disabused me of any notions I may have had that this was an antiquated text, inapplicable to our current society. Onward to the novel itself then.
In case you haven’t read 1984 or, like me, it has been a really long time, here is a short plot summary. Skip past the indented text to avoid spoilers.
Our everyman’s name is Winston Smith. Smith lives in a totalitarian state governed by The Party. Big Brother is the mascot of The Party. He is an image and the doctrine of The Party is attributed to him, but he is probably not a real person. Under The Party’s rule nothing is illegal, but almost everything is discouraged. Especially close familial and interpersonal relationships, individuality, and belief in anything that is not Party doctrine. Citizens live under constant surveillance and in constant fear that they will be accused of thoughtcrime, which is exactly what it sounds like. Citizens are encouraged to denounce each other as thought criminals. In addition, the nation state is engaged in an unending war that makes citizens content with privation. The most insidious aspect of The Party’s control however is their campaign of gaslighting the entire populace. Reality is subject to change at any moment and all people are expected not just to parrot the new reality, but to believe it.
Winston is dissatisfied with this state of affairs and wants terribly to connect with other people that believe, as he does, that the rule of the The Party is unjust. He commits an act of rebellion, the keeping of a diary in which he records his unsanctioned beliefs, but notably, writing in the diary is not the crime. The crime is the thoughts that he harbors. He considers himself guilty of thoughtcrime before he touches pen to paper and he knows that the proof offered by the written word is unnecessary for the thought police. Proof is unnecessary. Accusation of thoughtcrime is proof of thoughtcrime.
Shortly after Winston begins writing in his diary he begins a furtive secret affair with a coworker. The affair is also a crime, as much as anything is in this society with no official laws. His lover, Julia, is a younger woman who objects to the party rule only in so far as it interferes with her pursuit of happiness. At one point, Winston tells her “You’re only a rebel from the waist downwards.” Her response? “She thought this brilliantly witty and threw her arms around him in delight.” She is not vapid, as evidenced by her ability to see chinks in The Party’s teachings. She is just more practical than philosophical. She does not claim to have a monopoly on absolute rights and wrongs, morals, or injustices.
Eventually they are betrayed. They are imprisoned, tortured, and finally broken. There is no happy ending.
So, is Donald Trump Big Brother? Does he wish to bring America under totalitarian rule? Institute an equivalent of the thought police?
There are certainly some similarities.
- Both Donald Trump and The Party encourage citizens to fear foreigners. The Party in 1984 uses fear of foreigners in two ways. First as creation of a scapegoat – it is their fault that you have to make do with less. And secondly, to isolate its populace in an effort to control the messaging. This is part of the gaslighting strategy it engages in to be able to dictate reality to people. I will stop short of accusing Trump of trying to isolate American citizens from information only because I believe he knows the internet makes this a virtual impossibility, but scapegoating applies.
- Both Donald Trump and The Party believe that their version of reality should be swallowed without question. That contradictory statements should be simultaneously believed (doublethink).
- Both Donald Trump and The Party believe they can sniff our criminality in the absence of evidence. The Party identifies people guilty of thoughtcrime based on no physical evidence and Trump apparently can intuit that Barack Obama has terrorist leanings. From an interview on June 13, 2016, “Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind — you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable.”
I am going to suggest that the descriptor Orwellian is applicable to Mr. Trump, but I will also suggest that he lacks both the intelligence and the mandate to do too much real and lasting harm to our individual liberties. I am hopeful that Mr. Trump will not become President Trump. But even if he did and even if my faith in the common decency of my fellow humans proves unfounded, I believe that our access to information is what will save us from the fate described in 1984. It is simply not possible for the United States government to control our perceptions of reality in the ways The Party does in 1984, because we all have access to printed and digital accounts of our history.
Reading 1984, I was not afraid that the United States could go down that path, but I was reminded that a state very similar to that one exists in the world today. North Korea bears so many of the hallmarks of Orwell’s Oceania. A highly stratified society, a supreme and inviolate ruler, a complex philosophy that citizens are obligated to adhere to that holds up the leader as a godlike figure, fear and suspicion of foreigners, isolation from the outside world, unending wars (hot and cold) that require privation of the citizens, citizens are encouraged to inform on each other and can be jailed or killed on flimsy or no pretense. This book written on the eve of the Korean war foretold the fate not of the Europeans the author was primarily concerned with, but of the people who landed north of the demilitarized zone. While I don’t believe that we will succumb to totalitarian rule, the fact that it exists elsewhere in the world is cause for alarm and cause to respectfully acknowledge the validity of the warning that Orwell gave us 67 years ago.
I am keeping on ongoing list of all of the books I have read in 2016 here. Always looking for suggestions!