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Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2016

James Lamming explores the relevance of George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' in the era of Trump

Over the past fifteen years, the political writings of George Orwell have become increasingly relatable, and pertinent to our current situation. At the turn of the century, the relevance of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm had begun to fade in Europe and America; the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had clearly sounded the death knell for its own oppressive brand of communism, while the elections of Blair and Clinton seemed to herald what Francis Fukuyama hoped would be the “end of history” and the transition of all societies towards liberal democracy. Since then, 9/11, Erdogan’s Turkish power grab, and Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations have all elicited comparisons with the horrors of Big Brother, Newspeak and the Ministry of Love. However, no recent event has provoked quite so much Orwellian analysis as the 2016 presidential election; the Atlantic, USA Today, and the Huffington Post have all run opinion pieces on the subject. So, why does the impending Trump presidency have so many journalists running for their copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four?
The reasons are clear: Trump, more than any American politician is the past fifty years, resembles an Orwellian caricature. The similarities between Big Brother’s government of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Donald Trump’s presidential plans are at times distressingly clear. As Bill Weld, Libertarian Gary Johnson’s running mate, noted earlier this year on American talk-show Morning Joe, Trump’s rallies resemble the Two Minutes Hate imposed by dictator Big Brother. In the novel, these gatherings serve to create national solidarity through hatred of the Other, foreign soldiers and alleged enemies of the state. Consider the following quote in Orwell’s chillingly relevant prose:
“Before the Hate had proceeded for 30 seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room … In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the top of their voices … The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate — that’s the name of the exercise — was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in … And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.”
When one considers the cries of “build the wall!” and “lock her up!” which echo round the walls of every Trump rally and the frequent scapegoating of Muslims and Mexicans, these gatherings seem less like Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate, and more like Trump’s Two Hours Hate.
There is also Trump’s tendency towards historical revisionism. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, protagonist Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth, which ironically deals with the biased rewriting of history and Newspeak propaganda slogans. Just as the Ministry of Truth rewrite the past to accord with the predictions of Big Brother, so Donald Trump is quick to gloss over past contradictory statements on Iraq, Clinton, abortion, healthcare, Libya, immigrants etc. by flat-out denying having ever said them. Indeed, the three slogans “WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” painted in great letters on the Ministry of Truth would not be totally out of place on the walls of Trump Tower. Many think that Trump’s use of such Orwellian lies heralds a new, “post-truth” era, where objective truth has become less important than strong emotion and irrational belief. In his autobiographical essay Looking Back on the Spanish War, Orwell saw this same disturbing phenomenon at work:
“I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories …This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the
feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.”
It is easy to read such a paragraph and marvel at its apparent prescience of the current post-truth, Trump era. People are often quick to hail Orwell as a prophet of the modern age, and even quicker to use Nineteen Eighty-Four in particular as a predictor of one-off events. Journalists write that Orwell “predicted” the proliferation of CCTV cameras, or the online misdemeanours of the NSA. Perhaps this is because of the title. Many people thought that Nineteen Eighty-Four was Orwell’s dramatic prediction of the state of the world in the year 1984 itself. Here, words taken down on Orwell’s deathbed by his publisher, Frederic Warburg, are the best rebuttal:
“It has been suggested by some of the reviewers of Nineteen Eighty-Four that it is the author’s view that this, or something like this, is what will happen inside the next forty years in the Western world. This is not correct. I think that, allowing for the book being after all a parody, something like Nineteen Eighty-Four could happen. This is the direction in which the world is going at the present time, and the trend lies deep in the political, social and economic foundations of the contemporary world situation.”
In other words, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a warning, a shot across the world’s bow, cautioning us to change our ways. The more relevant and relatable Orwell’s work becomes, the more apparent it should be that something is wrong. Suddenly, many people can glimpse the totalitarian shadow of Nineteen Eighty-Four looming large in Donald Trump’s imminent four year term. Much like Big Brother, his authoritarian streak is no secret, nor his nationalist leanings. Perhaps somebody should remind the president-elect that Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel, not an instruction manual.

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