With Donald J. Trump in the White House and Republican Party still in control of the U.S. Congress, we are constantly hearing and reading references to “1984” and about actions and statements that are “Orwellian”.
I’m reminded of Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) who investigated many of Richard Nixon’s abuses of power that encompassed the vast Watergate scandals. He decided to run in the 1980 Democratic presidential primaries on the campaign slogan “He saved us from 1984.” A reporter for NBC, CBS, or ABC – I regrettably can’t recall who he was – went around the crowd at one of Church’s rallies asking everyone he came to what was meant by the slogan on Church’s campaign banner. He never found one person who knew. Church lost.
So, what is meant by “1984”? Today, there are enough who recognize the current “1984” similarities for Amazon.com to place the book on its bestseller list. An unchecked authoritarian in the White House is causing a rebirth of interest in George Orwell’s 1949 novel on totalitarianism, “1984”.
The book is often characterized as a satire, but that implies to me that it would approach a serious topic with a touch of humor, such as in Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”. “1984” is terrifying and downright grim. Feature films and TV dramas of the book are hard to watch: they’re so depressing – especially Richard Burton’s final film, which was appropriately released in 1984.
Mr. Trump, on the campaign trail and in his inaugural address, identified the United States as a dystopian nation with rising crime rates, astronomical unemployment rates, and out-of-control immigration that threaten our very survival – and claimed that only he can save us. The facts, of course, are verifiably the opposite.
Orwell created the even-more dystopian mega state of Oceania in which the citizens are controlled by the Party. Two-way telescreens are in every home and elsewhere so that “Big Brother is Watching You.” The telescreens also provide propaganda messages using the Big Lie and promoting mass hysteria. Your neighbors, friends, co-workers, and people whom you do business with day to day may be covert members of the Thought Police. Perpetual warfare is used to induce unquestioning patriotism and loyalty to the Party.
The main character in the novel is Winston Smith, who worked at the Ministry of Truth. He had mastered the art of writing “newspeak” – the official language of the Party. His job was to re-write records. The Party line was continually changing: the enemy they had been waging war with might become an ally against a new enemy; one dogma might be replaced by an opposite dogma. The people had to be made to accept each new position without thinking anything had changed. Winston Smith specialized in promoting “doublethink” and changed the “historical” records. Propaganda replaced information.
In the Orwellian Oceania, history had to match the wishes and aims of the Party. Likewise, in Trumpian USA, “alternative facts” rule the roost. Fake news that serves its agenda is okay, but anything that does not is “fake news” by a dishonest news media that is not controlled by the administration. Fox “News” was founded as a Republican propaganda network and should assist this administration nicely. Instantaneous, mindless tweets react to all unflattering reports and take on a “reality” of their own.
Consider the following Trump appointees: Supporter of government shutdowns and opponent of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid Mick Mulvaney to the White House Office of Management and Budget; Alabama senator and voting rights opponent Jeff Sessions to the Department of Justice; charter school promoter and Republican donor Betsy DuVos to Education; Affordable Care Act, Medicare, and Social Security opponent Tom Price to Health and Human Services; longtime opponent of environmental protection and climate-change denier Scott Pruitt to the E.P.A.; and Department of Energy opponent Rick Perry to Energy.
Keeping Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in mind, is it conceivable that these departments will be fulfilling the purposes of their existence under these leaders? When career members of the state department objected to Trump’s hasty immigration ban by executive order, Trump’s press secretary said that they need to get with the program or leave.
A perfect example of an Orwellian committee for several years has been the House Oversight Committee headed by Republican partisan Jacob Chaffetz of Utah. To create a negative public perception of Hillary Clinton, using various committees, Congressional Republicans held eight separate investigations of the secretary of state’s involvement in the Bengazi uprising – each investigation followed one, or coincided with another, that didn’t have the incriminating findings that were desired. Chaffetz was a chief cheer leader and couldn’t wait his turn. They succeeded only in getting many in America’s heartland to hate and/or mistrust Ms. Clinton and help elect Mr. Trump – but that was the whole point.
Now that there are multiple, legitimate concerns about Mr. Trump’s financial and political connections to Russia and his business conflicts of interest with his role as president, many Americans are demanding Congress to investigate. They are demanding that Chaffetz subpoena Trump’s tax records and hold investigations into Trump’s relationships with Putin, Russian intelligence, and the Russian economy – his staff’s, his businesses’, his campaign’s, and his administration’s. In typical Orwellian fashion, for the sake of the Party, Mr. Chaffetz refuses “to go on a fishing expedition.” Don’t you love it?
In the world of Winston Smith, there was a break in each workday for a two-minute hate period on the telescreens. A picture of the enemy of the Party was displayed on the screen, and a government speaker would provide a voiceover firing up the viewers into fits of rage. We saw a variation of this in last year’s Republican campaigns and nominating convention. A mere mention of the name of Hillary Clinton would bring a reactionary chant of “Lock her up.”
When Winston Smith began to privately question the totalitarian state and violated Party laws by having an illegal, secret love affair with a like-thinking woman, he and she were turned in by a “friend” who was a member of the Thought Police. Winston, and she, was tortured for days until he “confessed” to his “crimes”. President Trump has advocated restoring torture as acceptable intelligence-gathering procedure, but Sec. of Defense James Mattis, at least temporarily, has dissuaded him from authorizing it.
It’s easy to see why the reading public is once again fascinated by Orwell’s “1984”. It’s timely and has lessons that have been learned and forgotten and need to be learned again. But a word of warning – books that you really enjoy, like Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove”, are books that you don’t want to end. This one, you’ll be glad when you get there – and that may be true of the Trump administration, too.
By David Offutt
A version of this essay was published February 25, 2017, in the El Dorado News-Times as a guest column.