On December 15, the Washington Post reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was striking certain words from the budget reports it creates for the Trump administration, including fetus, transgender, and diversity. References to George Orwell’s 1984 flew thick and fast.
“It’s absurd and Orwellian, it’s stupid and Orwellian,” a former CDC official told the New York Times.
“Is this 2017 or 1984?” demanded the Washington Examiner.
But it’s not the first time that the Trump administration has been accused of borrowing its tactics from the dystopian totalitarian government of Orwell’s literary classic.
Shortly after Donald Trump took office in January, he insisted that the crowds at his inauguration had been bigger than the crowds at any previous inauguration, despite demonstrable proof to the contrary; not long after, senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway explained that Trump and then-press secretary Sean Spicer had simply been offering the world “alternative facts.” Chair of the House Science Committee Lamar Smith later declared Trump to be the sole source of “unvarnished truth.”
In the meantime, 1984 shot up the best-seller lists. New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani declared it to be “a 2017 must-read.”
Movie theaters across the country decided to screen the film adaptation of Orwell’s novel as an anti-Trump protest. “It's a great book and it connects with a lot of things that are happening right now," said Dylan Skolnick, the director of Long Island’s Cinema Arts Centre who helped organize the protest screenings.
Early in the year, I was skeptical of the idea that Trump’s blatant lies were truly Orwellian. “The Trump administration’s version of reality does not function by erasing other, more fact-based descriptions of reality,” in the way the way that Orwell’s Big Brother erases and destroys empirical measurements of reality, I wrote:
In fact, it needs other people — the media, the left, the Democratic Party — to describe reality as they see it. Because when it’s in conflict with other parties, the Trump administration can cast itself as a soldier in a kind of cultural war, and that war, and the resentment it engenders, is what gives its version of reality power. …
Trump’s supporters don’t believe him because he holds all the power and not believing him is existentially dangerous; they believe him because those who oppose Trump don’t. It’s not Trump’s enormous perceived power that gives him control over reality — it’s his perceived lack of power.
So while Trump’s attempt to control the way his supporters perceive reality may be Orwellian in its aims, it is contra-Orwellian in its practices. It’s a power play that can only be made when one’s grasp on power is in question.
Now I’m not quite so sure. The CDC word ban changes things.
We live in a political landscape where truth is often determined by team allegiance
To be clear, the Trump administration is not itself ordering this word ban, as was widely suggested when the news broke. And the suggestion that the CDC would no longer be allowed to use words like science-based or evidence-based, as the Washington Post first reported, seems to have been exaggerated.
Instead, the CDC itself is choosing to restrict its language to increase its chances of getting its budget through a Republican administration. A former CDC official explained the strategy to Vox:
“The CDC is facing real budget restriction in FY 2019,” the ex-official said. “There’s going to be no budget line for global health security at this point, among many other likely cuts that are coming. And the budget office is in the position of having to get more funding. They’re going to do that by saying things that will resonate with their audience” — an audience of conservative Republicans.
The CDC, in other words, is playing politics, voluntarily modifying its rhetoric so that it can get the money it needs to do its work. “Is this the end of the world? No,” the ex-official said. “Just because the budget office is trying to use more favorable language to acquire funds doesn’t mean in any way this will affect the integrity of the agency.”
But if what we’re worried about here is Orwellian reality control, that’s not exactly comforting.
As Vox’s David Roberts has explained, it’s increasingly normal in America for people to base their beliefs on what is advantageous for their own political tribe: to believe that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim from Kenya, or that prominent Democrats are running a child sex ring out of a pizzeria, or that all the sexual assault accusations facing the other party are right but all the ones facing this party are false.
Traditionally, that’s why we have politically neutral authorities: nonpartisan media outlets and evidence-based academia. But as Roberts points out, the right has steadily argued for decades that both the press and academia are biased toward the left, to the point that its base now refuses to accept that the press and the academy could ever be legitimately neutral authorities.
“If one side rejects the epistemic authority of society’s core institutions and practices, there’s just nothing left to be done,” Roberts says. “Truth cannot speak for itself, like the voice of God from above. It can only speak through human institutions and practices.”
The CDC’s participation takes us another step closer to the Orwellian crisis point
Up until now, we have seen the press and academia work to try to hold the Trump administration accountable for its misdeeds and its lies. Even though portions of Trump’s base have agreed with the administration’s description of reality — 15 percent of Trump supporters agreed with him that the crowds at his inauguration were bigger than those at Obama’s — the institutions that are supposed to offer an evidence-based check on “alternative facts” have continued to do so. The National Park Service proved that Trump’s inauguration crowds were smaller than Obama’s, and the press reported it.
What distinguishes the reality control of Orwell’s Big Brother is that evidence-based checks on his power do not exist. It’s not just Big Brother’s base that believes him. It’s everyone, because there is no other alternative. That’s what the Ministry of Truth is for: Those who work for the Ministry spend their days destroying all records of the past that contradict Big Brother’s latest announcement. We have always been at war with Eurasia. There is no such a thing as a fetus. Big Brother’s story becomes the only story.
As long as we still have evidence-based institutions that are willing to contradict Trump’s alternative facts, we are not quite at the Orwellian crisis point.
But the CDC is supposed to be one of those institutions that serve as a check on the president’s ability to define reality as he sees fit. The fact that it has voluntarily changed its language in order to mesh more neatly with Trump’s version of reality should not be dismissed as a bit of savvy political game-playing. Instead, it’s a worrying step closer to Big Brother.