The rise of Donald Trump bears eerie similarities with George Orwell’s dystopian satire, 1984. Both during and after the election, we have witnessed authoritarian impulses we thought were long buried – or simply facts that belong to fiction. Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949 after the Fascism of Nazi Germany, and during Stalin’s Soviet Union remains as relevant as ever in showing us how unapologetic ignorance, deceit, and fear-mongering work to undermine democracy. Sleight of Pen‘s English Tutor William Tandany outlines the key parallels between Trump’s America and Orwell’s dystopian satire.
In 1984, amongst Orwell’s central concerns is how the Party is able to manipulate ideology and consensus in order to not only create a more subservient society, but also provide themselves with legitimacy and authority. Within, seeming contradictions of objective reality such as “2+2=5” are readily accepted insofar as it benefits the party to do so. As a result, inconvenient facts which undermine the Party’s legitimacy are easily swept under the rug with the help of a network of mental techniques designed to help individuals ‘cheat’ their perception of reality. In the novel these are called doublethink and blackwhite which both refer to the idea of holding two contradicting ideas as true at one time.
The imprints of these Orwellian concepts can readily be found in the everyday occurences of the Trump regime. Fact-denials such as these have become a common feature of Trump’s regime with political spins ranging from alterations of petty details to complete rejection of established truths.
Perhaps the most urgent and dangerous example of 2+2=5 and a blackwhite fact denial is the Trump administration’s blatant disregard for the scientific evidence of man-made climate change.
Petty ignorance of recognised scientific consensus isn’t to blame here when clearly a majority of Trump’s nominated administration has financial stakes in the fossil fuel industry.
The outrageous term ‘alternative-facts’ was recently introduced by Trump’s strategist Kellyanne Conway to cover for White House Press secretary Sean Spicer’s lie about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. Whether this stunt, a kind of modern doublethink equivalent, was a shrewd political tactic designed to engender public doubt upon the free media* or if it is yet another episode of fantastic PR blunders by the Trump team, remains yet to be seen.
Xenophobia and anti-intellectualism
In 1984 Winston learns from reading Goldstein’s manifesto that the “prevailing moods of fear, hatred, adulation and orgiastic triumph” are deliberate constructs of the Big Brother regime. Indeed such an atmosphere breeds an uncritical, anti-intellectual and fearful public, ready to abide by whatever the omnipotent Party bids. Racist propaganda of Eastasian or Eurasian enemies, absurd “2-minute hate” rituals combined with the intellectually repressive Newspeak and Thought Police is what successfully maintains these sentiments, also serving to deflect any discontent away from the Party and on towards foreign enemies
The prevailing rhetoric present in Trump’s speeches, statements and policy has been one which taps into the public’s base anxieties, irrational beliefs and xenophobic tendencies.
Immigration has certainly been at the nexus of Trump’s controversial statements and propositions. Yet, as has been demonstrated substantially throughout political history, xenophobia and suspicion of immigration has always been a convenient sentiment to exaggerate in order to divert the public’s anger from deeper issues. The swiftness with which Trump blames illegal immigration as the source of crime and domestic unemployment allows his mandate to ignore the underlying root causes such as inadequate social security resources, inaccessible education, non-existent labor rights and other infrastructural deficiencies which might be more to blame.
Similarly, the unconstitutional “Muslim ban” as a measure to counter domestic terrorism is a nifty political smokescreen which gives the administration space to ignore America’s mass shooting pandemic and fetishisation of firearms.
Both examples recall a particular scene in 1984, where crowds gathered at victory square hurl incomprehensible abuse at the image of an Eastasian soldier, with no concept of the average Eastasian man besides the grotesque caricature the Party provides. The raucous applause and patriotic zeal emanating from crowds as Trump, appealing to the same xenophobic and nationalist impulse as Big Brother, promises to “bomb the families of terrorists” becomes uncanny indeed.
Room 101 and the Ministry of Love
The fear of physical pain lies at the fundamental core of the fears and anxieties present in the 1984 universe. When trying to understand the significance of torture in 1984, one scene in particular stands out. As Winston waits in anxious despair in the holding cell of Minilove, a fellow prisoner soon-to-be dispatched to the mythical Room 101 breaks down in a frenzy of despair, fear and hysteria, “Do anything (else) to me!” he desperately cries “I’ll tell you anything you want” he implores, and finally “I’ve got a wife and three children… You can take the whole lot of them and slit their throats in front of my eyes!” Torture, or even the fear of physical pain, only begets fear, terror and hysteria.
The revitalisation of Guantanamo Bay as one of Trump’s election promises comes with the promise to reintroduce water-boarding, a form of torture broadly criticised by security experts as ineffective. The eagerness of the Trump administration to embrace torture as a means of bolstering internal security and intelligence gathering may not be motivated by the same totalitarian repressiveness as the Party, but it will likely produce the same results. That is, an inmate so afflicted with fear, pain and hysteria that they will likely say and confess anything to make it stop, creating misleading testimony that will be used to inform future operations doomed to fail. A predictable cycle emerges: interrogated inmate produces false testimony, military operation is executed based on that information and then officials interrogate more inmates under torture when the plan fails.
Nonetheless, being comfortable about the use of torture (not to mention public endorsement of it) has been a common trait amongst authoritarian and fascist regimes, notably Mussolini, Franco and Pol Pot, who made no secret of the practice during their regimes. It seems, more and more, that the Trump regime is falling to those same standards.
*Commentators have started referring to this as ‘post-truth’. A “post-truth” society is one where people are skeptical of what they hear from establishment outlets, relying instead on whatever information they can find on the internet to back up what they already believe in.
William Tandany. William is an English tutor for Sleight of Pen, and the brain trust for all things related to politics and international affairs. He is currently studying geopolitics at The University of Sydney.