Orwell’s “1984” and Trump’s America

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker in which he explains why Donald Trump’s lies, and his urge to tell them, are pure Big Brother crude, however oafish their articulation.

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Photograph by Nina Berman

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I have, I’m afraid, a terrible confession to make: I have never been a huge fan of George Orwell’s 1984. It always seemed, in its extrapolations from present to future, too pat, a little lacking in the imaginative extrapolations we want from dystopian literature. As the British author Anthony Burgess pointed out a long time ago, Orwell’s modern hell was basically a reproduction of British misery in the postwar rationing years, with the malice of Stalin’s police-state style added on. That other ninth-grade classic, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where a permanent playground of sex and drugs persists in a fiercely inegalitarian society, seemed to me far more prescient, and so did any work of Philip K. Dick’s that extrapolated forward our bizarre American entertainment obsessions into an ever more brutal future in which Ken and Barbie might be worshipped as gods. 1984 seemed, in contrast, too brutal, too atavistic, too limited in its imagination of the relation between authoritarian state and helpless citizens.

An unbidden apology rises to the lips, as Orwell’s book duly climbs high in the Amazon rankings: it was far better and smarter than good times past allowed us to think. What it took, of course, to change this view was the Presidency of Donald Trump. Because the single most striking thing about his matchlessly strange first week is how primitive, atavistic, and uncomplicatedly brutal Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is turning out to be. We have to go back to 1984 because, in effect, we have to go back to 1948 to get the flavor.

There is nothing subtle about Trump’s behavior. He lies, he repeats the lie, and his listeners either cower in fear, stammer in disbelief, or try to see how they can turn the lie to their own benefit. Every continental wiseguy, from Žižek to Baudrillard, insisted that when they pulled the full totalitarian wool over our eyes next time, we wouldn’t even know it was happening. Not a bit of it. Trump’s lies, and his urge to tell them, are pure Big Brother crude, however oafish their articulation. They are not postmodern traps and temptations; they are primitive schoolyard taunts and threats.

The blind, blatant disregard for truth is offered without even the sugar-façade of sweetness of temper or equableness or entertainment—offered not with a sheen of condescending consensus but in an ancient tone of rage, vanity, and vengeance. Trump is pure raging authoritarian id.

And so, rereading Orwell, one is reminded of what Orwell got right about this kind of brute authoritarianism — and that was essentially that it rests on lies told so often, and so repeatedly, that fighting the lie becomes not simply more dangerous but more exhausting than repeating it. Orwell saw, to his credit, that the act of falsifying reality is only secondarily a way of changing perceptions. It is, above all, a way of asserting power.

When Trump repeats the ridiculous story about the three million illegal voters — a story that no one who knows, that not a single White House “staffer,” not a single Republican congressman actually believes to be true — he does not really care if anyone believes it, even if, at some crazy level, he does, sort of. People aren’t meant to believe it; they’re meant to be intimidated by it. The lie is not a claim about specific facts; the lunacy is a deliberate challenge to the whole larger idea of sanity. Once a lie that big is in circulation, trying to reel the conversation back into the territory of rational argument becomes impossible.

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On the positive side, well, there were the women’s marches last weekend, which filled any sane heart with hope. What had seemed doubtful a short week before—that there could be unified, peaceful, indeed joyous mass action against the madness—was fully realized, and for what one hopes will be only the first of many times. It left our minds inspired with simple slogans that did not oversimplify: Community is the only cure for catastrophe. Action is the only antidote to anger. If these sound a bit like Winston’s private mutterings in 1984 — when he writes secretly, for instance, that sanity is not statistical — at least they are, for the moment, still fully public truths. Pray that they remain so.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Adam Gopnik, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1986.

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