Donald Trump is more carnival barker than president, and George Orwell was more prophet than writer. Three Orwell works in particular: 1984, Animal Farm, and the essay “Politics and the English Language,” are horrifyingly relevant in modern politics. Each week, we get a new indication that we are falling into the very same traps the author warned us about so many decades ago.
This is not to say that America will spiral into a totalitarian wasteland or “They” are about to kick your door down. But that being said, President Trump and many of his tactics can easily be described as Orwellian. This is not normal and should not be accepted by any American.
Trump routinely attacks the free press- a news outlet which refuses to fawn on him is labeled “an enemy of the people” which produces “fake news.”
The reason he does this- he’s said so himself- is so his base will refuse to believe media criticism of him.
As far as many are concerned, Donald Trump has done more to protect the environment than any other president and done much more than Barack Obama to reduce mass shootings. It may be clear to anyone who looks that Trump has gutted environmental protections and repealed the Obama law that made it harder for mentally ill individuals to buy guns.
But too many of us are refusing to look.
This tactic is not outright censorship- we are much better off than Orwell’s dystopia in that we have a free press at all. Still, Trump has convinced enough people to reject their reporting in favor of obvious lies- and idolatry of the liar- that part of the foundation of democracy has been dangerously weakened.
Trump was met with thunderous applause when he told supporters, “What you are hearing, what you are reading, is not what’s happening.”
1984 features this eerily similar line: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your own eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
As an aside: some government agencies are now told not to include certain words and phrases in their reports. They include, “climate change,” “diversity,” “evidence-based,” and even “science.”
And while Trump has stopped well short of enacting laws that limit free speech, he has frequently attacked critics’ rights to free speech. He has threatened to imprison a journalist and declared he may sue “Saturday Night Live” for satirizing him.
In his novel, Orwell coins the term doublespeak, which is political language designed to obscure the truth.
A few real-life examples from Trump and associates: lies spewed by the president and his press secretary become “alternative facts.”
The 60% of his workday Trump wastes on activities like social media surfing and naps are known as “executive time.”
In a major mistake made by both parties and all major news outlets, neo-Nazis and other white supremacist cretins get to be called the “alt-right” as opposed to what they are.
Moreover, the Mueller investigation resulted in 37 indictments of people close to Trump and in last week’s testimony Mueller strongly suggested Trump committed obstruction of justice and explicitly stated he had not been exonerated. Or as the president puts it (and many believe it): “TOTAL EXONERATION!”
In Orwell’s dystopia, a handful of people with the same agenda have unilateral control of their country in a startling illustration of the consequences of too much power in too few hands.
So it is particularly disturbing to see many members of our government shilling for Donald Trump. People whose job is to check the president instead cave in to him, mindlessly enabling Trump even when he is clearly wrong.
This was brought to light very recently, when just 4 of 199 House Republicans voted to condemn Trump’s racist tirade against a group of black and Latina congresswomen. The others were apparently just fine with our president telling our fellow Americans to “go back home.”
When Robert Mueller all but said Trump committed obstruction of justice, the House Republicans present expressed no concern about this crime, opting to attack Mueller’s- a veteran with a sterling record who also happens to be a Republican- integrity instead.
Our system of checks-and-balances- another crucial safeguard of American democracy- is under attack by the very people elected, trusted and paid to defend it.
George Orwell’s famed essay, “Politics and the English Language,” raises several points, and one in particular strikes at a serious, widespread problem in American politics: the mindless repetition of meaningless phrases over real policy discussion.
“Make America great again,” (coined by Ronald Reagan nearly 40 years ago) is one example of a phrase repeated so frequently and mechanically it has been stripped of any substance. It’s not tied down to any concrete action or legislation, it just sounds good and makes people clap.
But Donald Trump is far from the only politician guilty of this. In fact, the tactic is frequently used by politicians all over the political spectrum and has infected our discourse for decades.
Consider the Democratic favorite “equal opportunity.”
Were you to ask the politician spouting about “Equal opportunity,” what specific goals he had, what exact opportunities he wanted to make equal and for whom, and how he planned to do this, you would likely be met with a blank stare.
Meanwhile, myriad Republicans have graced us with sanctimonious talk about their, “values.” But we are never told what exactly these values are. They seem to result in homophobia and a fear of anything sexual, from birth control to suggestive pop songs- but what are the names of these values? What makes them values at all? Why should they should be imposed on the entire country?
All these phrases and countless others are thoughtless filler. When we citizens hear them, we are learning nothing about what these people intend to do with our country- but this happens so often that we accept it without thinking about it very much.
As Orwell writes, “this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at least favorable to political conformity.”
It was 1984 that jumped to the best-seller list after Trump’s election, and it’s 1984 that scholars most frequently compare our current situation to. But Animal Farm is at least as prescient.
This is a fable about animals who overthrow their human owner, forge their own society, and end up more oppressed than they were before, thanks to deceitful, hypocritical, iron-fisted leaders. It is a parody of Soviet Russia, but many of its core themes apply to Trump’s America.
First, the brutal leaders in question (the pigs on the farm) are a small group manipulating a larger group into believing that all is as it should be, and that the few in power have the many’s best interests at heart.
The other animals never question what the pigs tell them, just as Trump’s base seems to accept his assertion that he’s a business genius despite multiple bankruptcies and refusal to show his tax returns. That he is not a misogynist after being caught on tape bragging about how fame entitled him to grope women. That he is not a racist despite pandering to racists at every turn (and being fined for housing discrimination). That while he most certainly has a plan to address multiple foreign policy crises, we do not need to know what that plan is.
Another sin of the pigs in Animal Farm is to alter the promises they make. “No animal shall drink alcohol,” for instance, becomes “No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.”
Candidate Trump assured us, “Mexico will pay for the wall.” When President Trump failed to conjure the pesos for his magical barrier, “Mexico will pay for the wall,” morphed into “Mexico will pay for the wall at a later time,” then to “Mexico will pay for the wall via tariffs,” and when that failed, to “I’m shutting down the government if Congress won’t fund my border wall.” (Meaning We the People are now paying for this vanity project).
The pigs’ most famous alteration, where “All animals are equal,” becomes “All animals are equal but some animals are MORE equal than others,” could easily be compared to Trump’s anti-Muslim immigration laws; racist, inflammatory rhetoric toward Latinos; his alleged quote “Black people are too stupid to vote for me;” roll backs of protections for gay and transgender Americans; the aforementioned “go back home;” and slashing of our safety net to fund tax cuts for billionaires.
Animal Farm concludes with, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man and man to pig and pig to man again, but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
What gets the most attention in this passage is the pigs had become identical to their human oppressors. But maybe we should look more at the suggestion that the humans had become pigs long ago.