George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984” is back in vogue and selling like hotcakes. I should be happy about this, because I think it’s one of the books (in addition, of course, to the founding documents and a solid history of one’s own nation) that every citizen of a democracy should read.
Instead, I’m dismayed to find that “1984” is back mostly because Americans in the Age of Trump believe it is the roadmap to the destruction of their own country. This is not only inane, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of one of the greatest books ever written in the English language.
“1984” is definitely a cautionary tale, and it has much to tell us—but it’s not about Trump’s America.
How ‘1984’ Changed My Life
I first read “1984” when I was 16, and it changed my life. Indeed, it’s fair to say that you’re reading this column right now because I was assigned “1984” in high school. Back then, I was a budding scientist intent on studying chemistry, a career goal that survived into my first year of college. But “1984” terrified me. After I finished it, I re-read it. And then read it again.
“1984” wrenched me away from the comforting certainties of science, and exposed me to the realities of the Cold War world. I knew about the Soviet Union, of course—I grew up near a nuclear bomber base—and I knew as a general matter that our Communist enemy was a repressive state. But “1984” showed me what repression really means: the negation of the individual, the adoration of the state, the mass party, and the leader.
Kids learn about Hitler’s Germany, of course. But to me, the Nazis were an aberration, defanged by the heady and prosperous 1960s into the bumbling fools of “Hogan’s Heroes.” It was destroyed quickly by my father’s generation, at a horrendous price, but to me, it was part of a distant history.
What ‘1984’ Taught Me About Brokenness
With “1984,” however, it finally occurred to me how a dictatorship could sustain itself indefinitely, grinding away at human souls like a massive and slow windmill.
The book scared me as well because it pulled me from adolescent romanticism into the tragic and flawed world of adults. When “1984”’s Winston Smith finally betrays his lover to the Party, I was stunned. I was a teenager, with a teenage boy’s certainty that love conquers all. (It was not until adulthood and marriage that I understood the truly hideous nature of the Anti-Sex League. As a teen, I just assumed that all repressive people—like, say, my parents—try to stop young lovers from having sex.) The last line of the book—four of the most terrifying words in any modern novel—electrified me, and confronted me with the possibility that every human being could be broken, and made to say and do things from which there is no return.
All this reminiscing is prelude to noting the pure ridiculousness of equating the Trump presidency with anything remotely like the Oceania of “1984.” The analogy fails on so many levels, it is difficult to know where to start.
Orwell’s Collectivist Nightmare Differs From Our World
First, the Inner Party of Orwell’s totalitarian state is founded on a collectivist nightmare called “Ingsoc,” dreamed up by intellectuals who believe they are superior to their fellow human beings. The book’s villain, O’Brien, implies he actually helped write a book called the “Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.” It’s a forbidden text by a dissident named “Goldstein,” one that “1984”’s more daring citizens furtively pass around among themselves. (O’Brien might even be Goldstein, although this is not clear in the book.) In any case, O’Brien knows the book chapter and verse, even better than the traitors do.
Trump and his populists are many things, but they are not intellectuals. Their movement is about as organized as a yard full of fireflies. None of them are in danger of writing a book of any depth or meaning that might fuel a movement.
It is true that Trump advisor Steve Bannon has referred to himself as “a Leninist.” But as someone who knows a thing or two about Leninism, I have to say that I’m not sure Bannon understands the term. Leninism, which decayed into the Stalinist nightmare that was the prototype for “1984,” was a method of strict party organization. It wasn’t about smashing the state—it was about creating disciplined and focused revolutionaries who wanted to capture the state and then further an ideological revolution.
Orwell’s World Is About Discipline And Vision
Orwell’s Oceania is a Leninist state because it thrives on hierarchy and discipline, with the Inner Party controlling the less-reliable Outer Party, who serve as the workers and bureaucrats of the totalitarian state. Beyond the government blocks in which these repressed drones live, there is the old city—the remnant of one of the many great wars fought in the novel’s past. The old city is full of the “proles,” or the proletariat, the ignorant masses who are left alone to putter about in poverty. Indeed, Smith believes that the proles are the only hope for overthrowing the regime, but he soon finds that proles enjoy… well, being proles.
Trump and his coterie are not the Inner Party. They have neither the discipline nor the vision. They are, in fact, more like the proles themselves, albeit having accidentally gained the levers of power. None of them could explain a governing—or repressive—theory of power beyond a crude American nativism that would hold water for more than 10 seconds.
Nor is Oceania’s Party nearly as conflict-averse as Trump’s team. Whatever else can be said about Trump’s campaign platform, it was consistent on two themes: friendship with Russia and disengagement from major military conflicts. By contrast, the three major blocs in the destroyed world of “1984” keep their populations subjugated through constant war with each other. Trump ran on a platform of violence against certain groups, but on a retrenchment back home and staying out of the soup of the other major powers. (Well, except China. Maybe.)
Trump Is Closer To Corporatism Than Totalitarianism
Trump, insofar as he is a danger to civil liberties, shows reflexes closer to authoritarian corporatism rather than totalitarianism. He and his advisers are more interested in the obedience of the common citizen as part of a group enrichment of particular classes and corporations than with any overriding ideological loyalty. They play to the proles, rather than neutralizing them. They have no real interest in what anyone actually believes, so long as it translates into temporary political power and personal enrichment.
Orwell’s party, by contract, expropriates everything, owns everything, and controls every last detail of daily life. Their centrally planned economy doles out rations of chocolate and gin like precious resources. It is the high Stalinism of 1950, not the Chavez-lite nationalism of 2017.
And finally, there is Big Brother himself, omnipresent and glowering, always watching, always judging, rarely speaking, a figure—again, modeled on Stalin—of superhuman virtue, intelligence, industry, compassion, and bravery. Father, protector, nemesis, demi-god, the actual Big Brother is never seen in person, a Wizard of Oz whose curtain is never pulled back. His mystique is central to the fear and awe he inspires among his subjects.
Trump Is No Big Brother, Despite His ‘Alternative Facts’
Trump is a lot of things, but he’s not Big Brother. He can’t stay quiet or keep off of Twitter for an hour. We know every tic, ever stray hair on his head, every odd gesture of his hands. We know his views at length because he talks about everything, in random order, incessantly. If this is our Big Brother, we have little to fear from a new “1984.”
One similarity, I suppose, with “1984” is the way Trump and his surrogates have launched a full assault on the English language and the notion of truth, deploying terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts” and other clunky mouthfuls that sound as much like the detritus of a college dorm argument or a psychotherapy session as they do messages to an actual political community.
It is true that in “1984,” facts were utterly malleable, and language a weapon used to extinguish abstract thought. But again, compared to the titans of Orwell’s Party, the Trump team’s major players are pikers on this score. Whatever came out of Sean Spicer in his first press conference, it wasn’t Newspeak; it was a disjointed, fragmented language, like a poorly done speech heard through a too-loud speaker with a short in the wiring cutting out now and then.
You Should Be Scared About ‘Brave New World,’ Not ‘1984’
None of this is the regime that will create Oceania.
No, if you really want to think about the dystopian novel that should scare you in 2017, you must go to the another school of dystopian literature, away from the gray totalitarianism of “1984,” and enter instead the sex, drug, and leisure soaked society of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
It is here, in Huxley’s grim but orderly vision of the future, that Americans should see themselves as closer to their own doom. Huxley’s World State is run by benevolent—or so they see themselves—tyrants enforcing a genetically engineered caste system, in which the populace is repressed not by violence but instead anesthetized by easy sex, ample supplies of euphoria-inducing drugs, and meaningless entertainment. Pleasure and hedonism, not violence and party discipline, are the mechanisms by which society is induced to submission.
We Should Fear Hedonism, Not Just Totalitarianism
The world of “1984” destroys Winston Smith by torturing him until he is capable of loving nothing but the state. In “Brave New World,” the hero—a man raised outside of the World State’s “civilization”—resists the pleasures of the new order, until he eventually submits and ends up filled-with self-loathing. He then saves the authorities the trouble of dealing with him by hanging himself.
The nightmare of a society debased by its own affluence and hedonism, increasingly turning both to drugs and suicide, is far closer to America under Trump. There is no need for Big Brother when people willingly withdraw from public life. Winston Smith took every spare moment to read, to write, and to meet his secret lover. But in a country where Americans fill their spare time with substance abuse, pornography, and moronic television shows, there are few Winston Smiths to be found—and no need for them in a state that doesn’t much care what anyone does, so long as everyone stays away from politics.
Of course, neither of these dystopian nightmares are upon us yet, nor are they inevitable. One of the most endearing (and infuriating qualities) of Americans is that they don’t like to be told what to do. We retain a fierce streak of independence, even when it leads us astray. But make no mistake: we are killing our own sense of industry and independence on both the right and the left—yes, across the American political spectrum—and thus are far more at risk of sliding into the affluent but illiberal “Brave New World” than the regimented and disciplined world of Oceania.
And if we’re lazy enough to become the decadent but efficient society Huxley foresaw in “Brave New World,” we could eventually fall to the conquest of more disciplined and martial nations. If that happens, then we do indeed risk emerging from the wreckage as the impoverished maximum security prison of “1984.”
In the meantime, we had best think about how to recover our sense of dignity, stoicism, and self-respect before we court both of these terrifying outcomes.