In the months since Donald Trump took office, his administration and its allies have declared the president to be the sole reliable source of truth; presented clear, easily disproven falsehoods as the truth; and suggested that what used to be quaintly called “lies” are in fact “alternative facts.”
Within the same time period, 1984 — George Orwell’s tale of a dystopian world in which the government declares itself to have a monopoly on the truth — shot up Amazon’s best-seller list.
And now, 200 theaters across the world are screening the movie version as a protest against Trump.
“It's a great book and it connects with a lot of things that are happening right now," said event coordinator Dylan Skolnick.
As Michiko Kakutani pointed out at the New York Times, much of 1984 focuses on the mechanics of how the government compels its citizenry to believe its blatant and shameless lies: its control over all written records, its determination to strip away all shades of meaning and ambiguity from language, its deliberate training of its people in the technique of doublethink. This is what makes it incredibly attractive in the age of Trump: This, you think, must be how he’s doing it. (Incidentally, 15 percent of Trump supporters told researchers they believed he was telling the truth in his false claims about his inauguration crowd size.)
But as Jo Livingstone wrote at the New Republic, 1984 is not a perfect fit for our current moment.
“Trump’s administration doesn’t even try to cover up its lies,” Livingstone writes, pointing out the sharp contrast with the endless labor that the Party of 1984 pours into covering up its own lies. (Orwell’s hero, Winston Smith, is actually employed by the Party specifically to do this very work, and it is a grueling full-time job.) Instead, Livingstone says, the Trump administration “assumes that ideological divides among the American citizenry will ensure that the lies don’t matter.”
In other words, the mechanism the Trump administration uses to convince supporters that its falsehoods are the truth is entirely different from the totalitarian, Stalinist tools of 1984.
To see why 1984 feels so relevant to the age of Trump — and to see what keeps it from being a perfect fit — take a look at this passage from the book. Here, our hero Winston has been taken into custody by the Thought Police, all his subversive thoughts and ideas found out at last. The Thought Police are in the process of reeducating him, of teaching him to believe what the Party tells him so that he can truly love Big Brother:
“Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is the truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.”
He paused for a few moments, as though to allow what he had been saying to sink in.
“Do you remember,” he went on, “writing in your diary, ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four’?”
“Yes,” said Winston.
O’Brien held up his left hand, its back toward Winston, with the thumb hidden and four fingers extended.
“How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?”
“And if the Party says that it is not four but five — then how many?”
By the end of the book, Winston will come to agree that if the Party says so, then two plus two is indeed five. The Party has wielded its power over him and broken his spirit, crushed it completely, until there is nothing left in him but the desire to appease them by believing everything they tell him to believe — just as Trump’s administration seems to want the American public to do.
When Trump creates an alternative reality, his supporters don’t believe it because of his enormous power. They believe it because they don’t think he has enough power.
But the Trump administration does not have the same power to crush its citizenry as the Party of 1984 does. It does not control the written record of reality or the thoughts of its citizenry. If the Trump administration tells the US that two and two make five, most of the country can point to a CNN chyron that says, “Trump falsely claims that two plus two is not four (it is).”
And the Trump administration knows the chyron is coming. As Livingstone writes, “When [Kellyanne] Conway cites ‘alternative facts,’ she implicitly admits that there is more than one way to see things — she simply doesn’t care.” Most of the country is going to react to a blatant, provable falsehood by saying, “That’s a lie,” but that doesn’t seem to concern the Trump administration. It certainly doesn’t concern them the way it does Orwell’s Party, which responds to denials of its power with ruthless torture and brainwashing.
The Trump administration’s version of reality does not function by erasing other, more fact-based descriptions of reality. 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.
Fifteen percent of Trump’s supporters are willing to say that they see record-breaking inauguration crowds where there are none because they feel they’re making a political statement when they do so. “Clearly,” wrote the researchers studying the phenomenon, “some Trump supporters in our sample decided to use this question to express their support for Trump rather than to answer the survey question factually.”
If Trump were the omnipotent and omnipresent Big Brother of 1984, it’s not clear that his reality-distorting rhetoric would be at all effective. But when Trump and his administration are positioned as embattled underdogs who are fighting a bullying liberal elite, believing them against all evidence to the contrary becomes a political act.
“Donald Trump isn't the bully,” writes one conservative commentator. “He only insults and abuses people in power who have attacked him. They're the fucking bullies. The left, with their smears, their witch hunts, their slanders, their insults, their riots, their violence, and their weaponizing of the federal bureaucracy.”
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.