A few months ago I would not have predicted that George Orwell’s 1984 would become essential reading. I remember downplaying the novel on a college panel in 1984 as a “paranoid scream.” While I thought it described Stalin’s Soviet Union, I didn’t think it applied to western democracies.
Now I find myself returning to parts of the novel, especially the passage,
The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.
This has been circulating on twitter and elsewhere because it helps people understand what Donald Trump is up to with his incessant lying.
Take the recent case of Trump ordering press secretary Sean Spicer to insist that Trump’s inauguration crowds were larger than Barack Obama’s.
This reminded Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen of how Stalin would humiliate his foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, one time even making him vote on the imprisonment of his own wife. Cohen writes,
The humiliation of Spicer, apparently ordered to babble lies about crowd size, was highly significant. He chastised the media for “deliberately false reporting” on the size of the inaugural throng. It did not matter that photographs showed that Barack Obama’s inaugurations outdrew Trump’s. Spicer maintained otherwise. He denied the undeniable and insisted on the farcical — and then fled without taking questions.
The following day, Kellyanne Conway pulled another Spicer, saying on Meet the Press that the Trump administration has “alternative facts.”
We’re starting to see a pattern here: for Trump, loyalty is more important than truth. In fact, getting those under him to propagate obvious falsehoods—to see the world as he wants them to see it—is a way of testing their loyalty. So far it’s working as the Republican Party, awed by the power he commands, falls in line.
People have accused Trump of “gaslighting,” after the 1944 Charles Boyer-Ingrid Bergman movie about a husband who deliberately drives his wife mad by denying apparitions that he secretly sets her up to see. In this case, however, Trump isn’t trying to make us crazy. Rather, he wants us to feel his power. Martin Lofgren of The Washington Monthly explains:
Aside from reinforcing the Trump base, the next four years of non-stop gaslighting could erode the basic standards of discourse in a healthy civil society. The truly horrible thing about propaganda in authoritarian regimes is not that it convinces the true believers, but that it demoralizes opponents by saying in effect: “Yes, we know that you know we are lying, but we don’t care! We do it because we can and you can’t stop us!”
While journalists go through the laborious process of ferreting out truth, Trump exudes power by simply not caring. In fact, it becomes a sign of loyalty to believe him rather than “your lying eyes.” The more bullshit you swallow, the more you show that you’re a believer.
This is also how it works in 1984, why the ministry loudly trumpets that
–WAR IS PEACE
–FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
–IGNORANCE IS PEACE
Boldly flaunting an absurdity is proof of your power. Critical thinking and logic are irrelevant, and those who insist on them seem destined for the dustbin of history.
As always, Orwell says it best. Here is Big Brother explaining to Winston Smith why he does what he does what he does:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.
Those members of the GOP who feel this urge towards power are intoxicated by Trump. He appears to have discovered a magical key and, as long as he can impose his will, they will go along. Those who have wavering principles feel uncertain and fear the consequences of standing up to him. Consequently, they rationalize and offer up only token resistance. Never Trumpers are small in number and are being driven from the party.
That’s why literature is so important at this moment. Because all great poets, novelists, and dramatists demand truth, they will help build the spines of the opposition.
Further note: After writing today’s post, I came across this Associated Press article:
Sales are soaring for George Orwell’s 1984.
Orwell’s classic dystopian tale of a society in which facts are distorted and suppressed in a cloud of “newspeak” was in the top 5 on Amazon.com as of midday Tuesday. The sales bump comes after the administration’s assertions that Trump’s inaugural had record attendance and Trump’s unfounded allegation that millions of illegal votes were cast against him last fall.
Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway coined an instant catchphrase Sunday when she called Trump’s claims about crowd size “alternative facts,” bringing comparisons by some on social media to “1984.” Orwell’s book has long been standard classroom reading.
One other note: Last May, before I came to my current understanding about Trump’s lying, I followed the lead of Charlie Pierce of Esquire and applied Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting to Trump. The book opens with a photographic airbrush of history:
In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on to the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was the great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.
Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close by him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.
The propaganda section make hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.
Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history, and of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on that balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.”
With my new understanding, I see that such actions are not primarily about deceiving people. It’s more to signal to them what it’s in their interest to believe.