After Donald Trump’s human smokescreen Kellyanne Conway famously announced that the president was simply presenting the world with “alternative facts”, the connection was quickly made to George Orwell’s 1984. There’s good reason for this. (And while one should be happy for any resulting increase in sales of the book, we shouldn’t presume that it will be any guide to the remaining years of the Trump presidency. More on that below.)
One of the many things that Orwell got right while writing in the dreary slough of postwar Europe, amidst the early stirrings of the modern infotainment complex, was the way that totalitarian regimes warp language to fit their needs. Humans might be visual creatures, but in many ways we make sense of the world with language. Change the words one uses to define reality and you can potentially change somebody’s reality.
By inventing Newspeak, Big Brother’s maddeningly illogical circular loops of tortured verbiage, Orwell saw how authoritarian structures ranging from the Soviet Union’s propaganda mills to Frank Luntz’s verbal rebranding of extremist Republican ideology (“estate tax” as “death tax,” etc.) could twist words into heretofore unseen configurations. Just think how Newspeak creations like “unperson” and “thoughtcrime” by their very existence can make one contemplate the previously unthinkable. Even if you come out on the side of reality, simply confronting the possibility that a thought could be illegal, one has tiptoed into the slippery realm of alternative facts.
So, then, 1984 would seem like a decent handbook for the new American reality in which facts are not just ignored by the new administration’s henchfolk when inconvenient, but replaced by outright lies. That’s true only to a degree. Let’s not forget that in these oft-illiterate times, even the likes of Glenn Beck have tried to glom on to Orwell as a ready-made sage to buttress their boy-who-cried-wolf shrieks of impending fascism whenever a Democrat-led government has tried to do, well, just about anything.
More specifically, though, 1984 is not the right book for these times. This is due to one simple, inalienable quirk of black-swan electoral politics: Donald Trump. The Kremlin-like machine that lay behind Orwell’s Big Brother was nothing if not efficient. From the observation portals into everybody’s homes to the constant combing of historical archives to erase inconvenient facts, the government was all-pervasive.
There are many signs that the Trump administration would be just fine with mass surveillance and even a Stasi-like system of informing on one’s neighbors. We also know that, given a campaign that fed off white resentment and xenophobia in order to capture the presidential seal, the administration will likely have little qualms about demonizing and threatening any group in order to placate its restive supporters — the last being a critical tool for any would-be authoritarian.
But as with everything else about Trump, all of these expectations are upended by his radical unpredictability. From his shoddy lines of merchandise to the last-minute, how-about-that-guy? nature of his transition, there’s nothing about Trump and his splenetic short-attention-span nature that speaks to the cold and calculating mindset of the capable authoritarian. He hasn’t even managed (so far) to do the one thing that most putative dictators manage right off the bat, and that’s create a corps of angry, uniformed, thuggish men to act as a surrogate police force.
That’s one of the first things that the democratically elected American dictator “Buzz” Windrip does in Sinclair Lewis’s satirical 1935 novel and play It Can’t Happen Here. Although this is another of those warning novels that has spiked recently over Trump anxiety, it also isn’t terribly helpful in the current era.
For one, Lewis’s novel was written in a white-hot rush to play off American complacency about the strength of its dictatorship. A shambolic lecture barely dressed up as fiction, it can’t compare to the timelessness of 1984. Historically, the most urgent thing about It Can’t Happen Here was the very premise: A popularly elected president takes office and proceeds to turn all the supposedly impenetrable institutions of American democracy into tools for fascism. One could argue that since a xenophobic, white supremacist-tweeting demagogue has already taken up residence in the White House, that takes some of the sting out of Lewis’s book.
A closer analogy might be Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. A rare venture by Roth into speculative fiction, the novel imagines what might have happened had a nationalist like Charles Lindbergh and his neo-fascist, ant-Semitic “America First” movement (a term that Trump seems to have blindly incorporated as his own) taken power in 1940.
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When asked about the novel’s prescience by the New Yorker, however, Roth didn’t think that his President Lindbergh had much in common with President Trump. To start, achievement and competency:
It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel — Melville’s last — that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’
What all this means is that we are in uncharted waters. It’s fair to say that at no time in modern human history has a person with as few qualifications, as dire a lack of character, or as little ability to control his temper as Trump been given such a fantastic amount of power. There are certainly echoes in Trump of corrupt populists like Huey Long, venal paranoids like Richard Nixon, show-boaters like P.T. Barnum, authoritarians like Joe McCarthy, amoral stiletto artists like Roy Cohn, and fictional showboats like Lonesome Rhodes. However, there’s no direct precedent.
It certainly won’t hurt to read 1984 again. It never does. But don’t expect it to help. There’s no book that will help you understand the continual frack-quake that is the Trump presidency. The best books about what is to come have not been written yet.