“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Substitute the time of year and George Orwell may have described the exact conditions under which Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. Unfortunately for President Trump, the similarities between his administration and 1984 do not appear to stop at the mere coincidence of prose in Orwell’s last and most enduring novel.
No, Trump is not Big Brother. No, the United States is not Airstrip One. No, Guantanamo Bay is not Room 101 (though its shady detention camp still ought to raise some eyebrows). Nonetheless, if recent developments are any hint, the mood of the novel bears much resemblance to our current state of affairs.
Some weeks ago Amazon reported it had run out of its stock of 1984 due to a spike in sales. This was shortly after Kellyanne Conway, the current Counselor to the President, described blatant lies as “alternative facts.” To many, it was as if a phrase had been ripped from the lexicon of Newspeak (the neutered version of English that governs the world of 1984) and legitimized for use in the 21st century.
Why do we return to 1984 in this time of uncertainty? Why do we see that text, and its author, in an almost saintly light? What is it about Orwell and his work that attunes our ears to the rumblings of authoritarianism? Perhaps, unsurprisingly, it has to do with how we perceive language and political language in particular. Ironically it also has to do with how we misconstrue England’s most recited intellectual of the last century, who, after a painful bout of pneumonia, died in 1950 at the age of forty-six.
An Englishman who was born in Bihar and who served as a colonial policeman in Burma, Orwell constantly concerned himself with the practices and vocabulary of the British Empire. As a result, he was conditioned to politics like a metal detector to land mines. He savaged imperialism and pummeled totalitarianism whether it wore the mask of fascism or Stalinism. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” these two obsessions intertwine. In it Orwell laid out several guidelines for what he thought was clean-cut writing; but more importantly, he critiqued how politics, as a social force, twists definitions to suit its specific and often sly ends, and how politicians and even protesters, by extension, become the twisters. He put it eloquently enough:
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
This observation lies at the heart of 1984, a dystopian novel that, for all its catchy Goodreads quotes, is about the abuse of language as a means of absolute control—the central issue Orwell grappled with throughout the entirety of his literary life.
Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, works in the Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue, the propaganda center for the entire country. He is, in effect, a journalist or historian, but in reverse—he does not uncover so much as he deliberately rewrites. He gathers information written in standard English and ‘translates’ it into Newspeak, a grueling and thankless task that renders the original meaning sterile. As one of the many pens of the Party, Smith wields a modicum of authority over the populace of which he himself is a member—he is trapped in a paradoxical existence of compounded conformity.
For a state to be Orwellian, then, necessitates two ingredients: language as a tool of deception to obfuscate critical thought and a surveillant autocratic government that coerces national loyalty. It is not simply the latter of the two.
Donald Trump’s preference to be an iron-fisted president is well-known. Since assuming office he has made liberal use of executive orders as if he was a one-man legislature, threatened members of an independent judiciary and free press, destabilized rock-hard alliances with fellow democracies, and sown uncertainty and ridicule with his cabinet picks and policy proposals. His bent towards authoritarianism, however diluted, however buffoonish, however narcissistic, is central to his appeal as an outsider to Washington.
But it is Trump’s unique and often satirized use of language that remains key to his success. Trump, while billed as the first ‘Reality TV president,’ is the first candidate to have risen to the presidency in large part because of his exploitation of social media as a platform. Nowhere is this better observed than in how Trump uses Twitter. Its limit of 140 characters per tweet leaves his messages punchy and brief but certainly not Hemingway-esque. During the campaign, Trump often condensed his opinions, which were almost overwhelmingly negative, into acidic verbal pokes. They made him seem childish. But by capping his tweets with exclamations like “So bad!” or “Not good!” he barely left any room for interpretation for those who gobble up his output—they were designed to be read as declarations of truth regardless of their veracity. Now that he is in the White House with Steve Bannon by his side and Sean Spicer as his mouthpiece, Trump’s bombastic and accusatory lies reach a far wider and more gullible audience.
Despite all this, Trump isn’t omnipotent. Over the past weeks, we have seen him test the limits of the checks-and-balances built into the American political system. Our own convictions may yet hold the worst of his ambition, and those who enable him, at bay. Trump is not Orwellian. But his toxic combination of deliberately castrated language and centralized authority does echo the anti-intellectual circumstances of 1984, an attitude which Orwell summed up in a single sentence: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”
And democracies are built off words—not a motto, not a catchphrase, not a tweet, but a lot of words.
All the above may be a superficial interpretation of Orwell’s novel. But one of Orwell’s most admirable qualities is that his work is, in a word, plain. Laymen require no privy knowledge to understand the text, though it can increase their enjoyment of it. They only require basic decency and an attentive mind to grasp the exalted common sense Orwell championed. There is no excuse not to be informed and aware of misinformation, nor is there justification to use language for inaccurate representations of any kind. If you need a reminder, go back to 1984. It’s still in print after all.
Featured image courtesy of Salon.