Sales of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, “1984”, have been surging recently. If you haven’t read it in a long time or never read it, you will find some remarkably clear echoes of the current political situation in this country. It’s not that we have a totalitarian regime of the kind that Orwell so chillingly described in 1949. After all, Orwell, a disillusioned former communist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, was reacting to the excesses of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.
Rather, for those who worry that Donald Trump has little regard for the U.S. Constitution or for basic American values, Orwell’s story highlights tactics used to control the population and maintain a system built on a carefully constructed alternate reality.
During the presidential election and continuing since the inauguration, there’s been a lot of commentary about similarities between Trump and some of the fascist leaders of the 20th century. The new president’s uneasy relationship with the truth is now being reported by the media in a way that the press was reluctant to do through much of 2016.
The problem with that approach is that it tends to present a series–albeit a steady stream–of separate incidents. Calling Trump a pathological liar may feel good but it doesn’t really help explain his political success. More importantly, we are left to constantly react to the most recent outrage instead of thinking about and trying to counter his actions in a more systemic way.
I want to focus specifically on two concepts from “1984” that are often blurred together in our current political dialogue but which play distinctly different roles in Orwell’s narrative. The first is propaganda, a term which has not yet become part of the narrative to Trump’s approach to politics and governing. Propaganda is different from lying, the second concept, in the sense that it is about trying to create an official set of truths while lying is an effort to discredit reality.
Think about some of Trump’s assertions that are often described as baseless, blatantly failing innumerable fact checks. One of the most egregious was his claim that he would have won the presidential popular vote but for millions of people illegally casting votes for Hillary Clinton.
While that could be merely an effort to assuage his fragile ego, it can also be seen as something far more ominous. If massive voter fraud is accepted as a “reality”, it’s easy to imagine restrictions on voter access–voter suppression by any other name–as an appropriate, even necessary, response.
Another example of an alternate reality being adopted as justification for official policy is the recently enacted ban on Muslims entering the United States. From his claim during the campaign that he actually saw Muslims cheering the destruction of the World Trade Center to his hyping of a national security threat to this country from Syrian refugees–despite neither historical examples nor any other evidence to support the concern–Trump laid the basis for a policy that probably violates the Constitution and certainly tramples traditional American values. Support for the ban among citizens who voted for Trump has been built on the foundation of a fictional world view fed to them.
That is exactly how Trump created support for the wall between Mexico and the United States. It was no slip of the tongue or spontaneous comment at his campaign kick-off, but rather a deliberate effort to create an issue for potential voters that he could continue to refer to and deliver on as president.
Other examples abound. Trump’s assertion of rising crime rates in American cities, despite data that shows just the opposite, allows him to demonize areas with large concentrations of Democratic voters and may well set the stage for a federal intervention that Republicans would normally have opposed but may not under Trump.
Think of your own examples and stay alert to others that will inevitably become part of the Trump governing strategy. At the same time, Trump’s lies need to be seen as a political tactic, not just a character flaw.
One of the most commented-on examples from the campaign was his denial that he had mocked a New York Times reporter who has a disability. The incident was recorded and readily available for all to see, but Trump has remained steadfast in claiming otherwise. In this instance, the President is using lying as a tactic to “erase” a potentially damaging incident. By repeating the lie over and over again, he is telling his base that his definition of reality is the one that they should believe — and many of them apparently do.
His constant refusal to release his tax returns is basically just another lie, actually a multi-layered one, to purge from reality his business and financial dealings. Trump first asserted that he couldn’t release his returns because he is under IRS audit, despite there being no policy requiring that. He also has claimed that there was nothing to be concerned about, nothing relevant to his qualifications to be president and nothing that posed conflict of interest issues. Finally, his team has now asserted that the American public doesn’t really care about the tax returns anyhow.
One more concern. In the Orwellian world, a keys to the government maintaining control was always having an external enemy. War was a mechanism to help control the population. Throughout history, there have been lots of examples of that phenomenon. Trump already gives every appearance of seeking a convenient foe, whether Iran, China or a country yet to be determined.
In Orwell’s story, the government has a Ministry of Truth that is concerned with pumping out propaganda, rewriting past history to conform to whatever the leaders are currently asserting and making sure that no one deviates from the official line. In Trump’s inner circle, you can readily see Kellyanne Conway, she of “alternative facts” and the Bowling Green Massacre, and Sean Spicer as agents of the Ministry of Truth.
Trump is a narcissist, a liar and a power-hungry person who doesn’t tolerate other points of view. Ultimately, what is even more important, however, is that he is very dangerous, a threat to the basic tenets of American democracy. We need to stop fixating on his personality traits and pay much more attention to the actions that he is taking to undermine our system of government. “1984” may not provide a complete blueprint for doing that, but it sure does offer a lot of guidance.