Trump’s Authoritarianism: Rethinking Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Strategizing the Resistance
By Henry Giroux
With the rise of Donald Trump to the office of president of the United States, politics has descended, like never before, to a theater of the absurd. Unbridled anti-intellectualism, deception and “vindictive chaos” offer the rhetorical tools for repeating elements of a morally reprehensible past in the guise of “making America great again.” Advancing an aggressively alarmist agenda bolstered by “alternative facts,” the Trump administration has unleashed a type of anti-politics that unburdens people of any responsibility to challenge, let alone collectively transform, the fundamental precepts of a society torn asunder by blatant misogyny, massive inequality, open bigotry and violence against immigrants, Muslims and poor minorities of color.
In the new age of Trump, justice becomes the enemy of democratic leadership and the capacity to name this collectively agreed-upon reality recedes with each assertion of fakery in infinite repetition. When evidence, science and reason are purged of their legitimacy, politics capitulates to the venomous ideals, policies and practices one associates with a totalitarian past. Despite his populist posturing, Trump’s contempt of democratic processes is matched by his commitment to the market and economic policies that favor the financial elite. In short, as the Washington Post observed, Trump is a “unique threat to democracy,” and a triumph for the forces of nativism, racism and misogyny.
Trump’s ascendancy has made visible a plague of deep-seated civic illiteracy, a corrupt political system and a contempt for reason that has been decades in the making. It also points to the withering of civic attachments, the decline of public life and the use of violence and fear to shock and numb everyday people. Galvanizing his base of true-believers in post-election rallies, the country witnesses how politics is transformed into a spectacle of fear, divisions and disinformation. Under President Trump, the scourge of mid-20th century authoritarianism has returned, not only in the menacing plague of populist rallies, fear-mongering, hate and humiliation, but also in an emboldened culture of war, militarization and violence that looms over society like a rising storm.
Reviving the memory of a dystopian past strikingly represented in George Orwell’s fiction, is a way to understand, perhaps the only way left for us to fully grasp, the present descent of the United States into an authoritarian nightmare. Focusing on their engagement with authoritarian visions, language, truth and lies offer a critical arsenal of defense against a Trump era of tweets and news fakery, and the more generalized and more lethal attacks on reason, science and liberal modernity.
Number one with a bullet
The intersection, if not merger, of popular culture and American politics was evident in the frenzied media circus that took place after Trump assumed the presidency, a fact not lost on the American public. Orwell’s novel 1984 surged as the number one bestseller on Amazon.com both in the United States and Canada. This followed significant political events worthy of a Star Trek episode. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s advisor, in a move reminiscent of the linguistic inventions of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth coined the term “alternative facts” to justify why press secretary Sean Spicer lied in advancing disproved claims about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. With apologies his late father — a pastor — Bill Moyers, has called Conway, the “Queen of Bullshit.”
But before we credit Trump with using the great novel as his codebook, it is important to note that George Orwell’s terrifying vision of a totalitarian society has been a waking dream in the United States for many years. 1984 provided a stunningly prophetic image of the totalitarian machinery of the surveillance state that was exposed in 2013 through Edward Snowden’s divulgement of the mass spying conducted by the National Security Agency. Orwell’s genius was not limited to this predictive capacity alone. His fiction also explores how modern democratic populations are won over by authoritarian ideologies, revealing how language functioned in the service of deception, abuse and violence. He warned in exquisite and alarming detail how “totalitarian practice becomes internalized in totalitarian thinking.” For Orwell, the mind controlling totalitarian state took as its first priority a war against what it called “thought crimes,” nullifying opposition to its authority not simply by controlling access to information but by undermining the very basis on which challenges could be waged and communicated.
In recognizing how language fundamentally structures as much as it expresses thought, Orwell made clear how language could be distorted and circulated to function in the service of violence, deceit and misuse, and in doing so utterly collapsed any distinction between good and evil, truth and lies.
According to Orwell, totalitarian power drained words of any meaning by turning language against itself, exemplified infamously through his Ministry of Truth which dissolved politics into a pathology by promoting slogans such as: “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.” Hannah Arendt added theoretical weight to Orwell’s fictional nightmare by arguing that totalitarianism begins with a contempt for critical thought and that the foundation for authoritarianism lies in a kind of mass thoughtlessness in which a citizenry “is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also its capacity to think and to judge.”
Alternative facts (outright lies)
Trump’s “alternative facts” or more precisely, outright lies, is an updated term what Orwell called “Doublethink,” in which people blindly accept contradictory ideas or allow truth to be subverted in the name of unquestioned commonsense. Almost within hours of his presidency, Trump penned a series of executive orders that compelled Adam Gopnik, a writer for The New Yorker, to rethink the relevance of 1984. He states that he had to go back to Orwell’s book “Because the single most striking thing about [Trump’s] matchlessly strange first few weeks is how primitive, atavistic and uncomplicatedly brutal Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is turning out to be.”
Unfortunately, the machinery of remolding, manipulation and distortion has gained enormous traction under the Trump administration. In this Orwellian universe, there are only winners and losers. Under such circumstances, “greed, vengeance and gratuitous cruelty aren’t wrong, but are legitimate motivations for political behavior.” This is a discourse that reinforces a future in which totalitarianism thrives and democracies die.
As Orwell often remarked, historical memory is dangerous to authoritarian regimes. In Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, it is a crime to read history against the grain. In fact, history is falsified so as to render it useless both for understanding the conditions that shape the present and for remembering what should never be forgotten. As Orwell makes clear, this is precisely why tyrants consider historical memory dangerous; history can readily be put to use in identifying present-day abuses of power and corruption.
The Trump administration offered a pointed example of this Orwellian principle when it issued a statement regarding the observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the statement, the White House refused to mention its Jewish victims, thus erasing them from a monstrous act directed against an entire people. Politico reported that the official White House “statement drew widespread criticism for overlooking the Jews’ suffering, and was cheered by neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer.”
This act of erasure is but another example of the willingness of the Trump administration to empty language of any meaning, a practice that constitutes a flight from historical memory, ethics, justice and social responsibility. Under such circumstances, government takes on the workings of a dis-imagination machine, characterized by an utter disregard for the truth that is often accompanied, as in Trump’s case, by “primitive schoolyard taunts and threats.” In this instance, Orwell’s “Ignorance is Strength” materializes in the Trump administration’s weaponized attempt not only to rewrite history, but also to obliterate it. Trump’s contemptuous and boisterous claim that he loves the uneducated and his willingness to act on that assertion by flooding the media and the American public with an endless proliferation of peddled falsehoods reveal his contempt for intellect, reason and truth. As the master of phony stories, Trump is not only at war with historical remembrance, science and rationality, he also wages a demolition campaign against democratic ideals by unapologetically embracing humiliation, racism and exclusion for those he labels as criminals, terrorists and losers, categories equated with Muslims, Mexicans, women, the disabled — the list only grows. As John Wight observes, Trump’s language of hate “is redolent of the demonization suffered by Jewish people in Germany in the 1930s, which echoes a warning from history.”
All governments lie
Orwell’s point about duplicitous language was that all governments lie. The rhetorical manipulation definitive of Orwellian language is not distinctive to the Trump administration, though it has taken on an unapologetic register in redefining it and deploying it with reckless abandon. The draconian use of lies, propaganda, misinformation and falsification has a long legacy in the United States, with other recent examples evident under the presidency of George W. Bush. Under the Bush-Cheney administration, for example, “doublethink” and “doublespeak” became normalized as state-sponsored torture was shamelessly renamed as “enhanced interrogation.” Barbaric state practices such as sending prisoners to countries where there were no limits on torture were framed in the innocuous language of “rendition.” Such language made a mockery of policy discourse and eroded public engagement. It also contributed to the transformation of institutions that were meant to limit human suffering and misfortune and protect citizens from the excesses of the market and state violence into something like their opposite.
But the attack on reason, dissent and truth itself finds its Orwellian apogee in Team Trump’s endless proliferation of lies: including claims that China is responsible for climate change, former President Obama was not born in the United States and voter fraud prevented Trump from winning the popular vote for the presidency. Such lies, big and small, don’t function simply as mystification; they offer justification for aggressive immigration crackdowns, for effectively silencing the EPA and for upending Obamacare. Too often the relentless fabrications serve to distract the press, focusing its energies on exposing the untrustworthiness of the person and not on the symbolic, legal and material violence that such pronouncements and harsh policies invariably unleash.
Once he was elected to the presidency, Trump took ownership of the notion of “fake news,” inverting its original usage and redeploying it as a pejorative label aimed at journalists who criticized his policies. Even Trump’s inaugural address was filled with lies about rising crime rates and the claim of unchecked carnage in America, though crime rates are at historical lows. His blatant disregard for the truth reached another high point soon afterwards with his nonsensical and false claim that the mainstream media lied about the size of his inaugural crowd, or more recently his assertion that the leaks involving his national security adviser were “real” but the news about them was “fake.”
Trump’s penchant for lying and his irrepressible urge to tell them are more than what Gopnik calls “Big Brother crude” and the expression of a “pure raging authoritarian id,” they also speak to an effort to undermine freedom of speech and truthfulness as core democratic values. Trump’s endless threats, fabrications, outrages and “orchestrated chaos,” produced with a “dizzying velocity,” also point to a strategy for asserting power, while encouraging if not emboldening his followers to think the unthinkable ethically and politically. While it may be true that all administrations lie, what is unique to the Trump administration as Charles Sykes, a former conservative radio host, observes “is an attack on credibility itself.”
Market driven politics
There can be little doubt about the ideological direction of the Trump administration given his appointment of billionaires, generals, white supremacists, representatives of the corporate elite and general incompetents to the highest levels of government. Public spheres that once offered at least the glimmer of progressive ideas, enlightened social policies, non-commodified values and critical dialogue and exchange have and will be increasingly commercialized — or replaced by private spaces and corporate settings whose ultimate fidelity is to increasing profit margins.
What we are witnessing under the Trump administration is more than an aesthetics of vulgarity as the mainstream media sometimes suggest. Instead, we are observing a politics fueled by a market-driven view of society that has turned its back on the very idea that social values, public trust and communal relations are fundamental to a democratic society. It is to Orwell’s credit that in his dystopian view of society, he opened a door for all to see a “nightmarish future” in which everyday life becomes harsh, an object of state surveillance and control — a society in which the slogan “Ignorance is Strength” morphs into a guiding principle of the highest levels of government, mainstream media, education and the popular culture.
How else to explain a US president calling journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” going so far as to claim that critical media are “the enemy of the American people.” These are ominous and alarming comments that not only suggests that journalists can be tried with treason but also echo previous totalitarian regimes which waged war on both the press and democracy itself. As Roger Cohen observes:
“Enemy of the people,” is a phrase with a near-perfect totalitarian pedigree deployed with refinements by the Nazis…. For Goebbels, writing in 1941, every Jew was “a sworn enemy of the German people.” Here the “people” are an aroused mob imbued with some mythical essence of nationhood or goodness by a charismatic leader. The enemy is everyone else. Citizenship, with its shared rights and responsibilities, has ceased to be.
A public shaped by manufactured ignorance and indifferent to the task of discerning the truth from lies largely applauded this expression of totalitarian bravado, especially when it incites hatred and violence. Trump’s call to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and his consideration of using the National Guard to round up illegal immigrants arouses applause among his followers. As does Trump’s penchant for disparaging all critics as losers reminiscent of the ways failed contestants were treated on his reality TV show, “The Apprentice.” Dissenting journalists and others are refused access to government officials, derided as purveyors of fake news, become objects of retribution while being told to shut up, and, in the course of being symbolically fired, are relegated to zones of terminal exclusion.
The resistance is mobilizing
Democracy in the US is under siege, but the forces of resistance are mobilizing around a renewed consciousness in which civic courage and the ethical imagination are being realized through mass demonstrations in which individuals are putting their bodies on the line once again, refusing Trump’s machinery of misogyny, nativism and white supremacy. Airports are being occupied, people are demonstrating in the streets of major cities, town halls have become sites of resistance, universities are being transformed into sanctuaries to protect undocumented students, and liberal and progressive politicians are speaking out against the emerging authoritarianism. Democracy may be in exile in the US and imperiled in Europe and other parts of the globe, but the spirit that animates it is far from defeated. Once again the public memory of prophecy is in the air echoing Martin Luther King Jr’s call “to make real the promise of democracy.”
There is no choice but to stop Trump’s machinery of civil and social death from functioning. It has to be brought to an end in every space, landscape and institution in which it tries to shut down the foundations of democracy. Understanding how “the possible triumph in America of a fascist-tinged authoritarian regime” is poised to destroy “a fragile liberal democracy” is the first step towards a viable and sustained resistance. What cannot be forgotten is that this an authoritarian regime that draws from a fascist history that unleashed nothing short of large-scale terror, violence and the death of civic imagination.
At the same time, any confrontation with the current historical moment has to be contoured with a sense of hope and possibility so that intellectuals, artists, workers, educators and young people can imagine otherwise in order to act otherwise. Fortunately, diverse groups, extending from union members and women’s movements to other progressively oriented social formations such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the Moral Monday Movement, the block the pipelines campaigns, along with growing resistance by teachers, actors and artists are organizing to protest Trump’s neo-fascist ideology and policies.
Optimism and sanity are in the air, and the urgency of mass action and collective power of resistance has a taken on a renewed relevance. The Women’s March on Washington was a hopeful symbol of collective opposition. Thousands of scientists have rallied against the attacks on scientific inquiry, the perils of climate change, and other forms of evidence-based research, and they are planning further marches in 2017. A number of big city mayors are refusing to allow their cities to become pale imitations of the previous authoritarian regimes. Demonstrations are taking place every day throughout the country, students are mobilizing on campuses and all over the globe women are marching to protect their rights.
What we are witnessing is a massive broad-based struggle intent on producing ongoing forms of non-violent resistance at all levels of society. Accordingly, it is important to heed Rabbi Michael Lerner’s insistence that a democracy minded public, workers and activists of various stripes need a new language of critique and possibility, one that embraces a movement for a world of love, courage and justice while being committed to a mode of nonviolence in which the means are as ethical as the ends sought by such struggles. Such a call is as historically mindful as it is insightful, drawing upon legacies of non-violent resistance by renowned activists as diverse as Bertrand Russell, Saul Alinsky, Paulo Freire and Martin Luther King Jr. Despite their diverse projects and methods, these voices for change all shared a commitment to a collective and fearless struggle in which nonviolent strategies rejected passivity and compromise for powerful expressions of opposition.
To be successful, such struggles have to be coordinated, focused and relentless. The age of fractured politics among progressives has to come to an end. Single-issue movements will have to join with others in supporting both a comprehensive politics and a mass collective movement. We would do well to heed the words of the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, who argues:
It is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced….
If there is no struggle, there is no progress…Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
We live at a time in which totalitarian forms are with us again. Hopefully, rage and anger will move beyond condemnation and demonstrations and develop into a movement whose power will be on the side of justice not injustice, bridges not walls, dignity not disrespect and compassion not hate. Let’s hope it develops into a worldwide movement capable of dispelling Orwell’s nightmarish vision of the future in our own time. The dark shadow of authoritarianism may be spreading, but it can be stopped. And that prospect raises serious questions about what educators, artists, youth, intellectuals and others are going to do today to make sure that they do not succumb to the authoritarian forces circling American society and other parts of the globe, waiting for the resistance to stop and for the lights to go out. My friend, the late Howard Zinn rightly insisted that hope is the willingness “to hold out, even in times of pessimism, the possibility of surprise.” To add to this eloquent plea, I would say, collective opposition is no longer an option, it is a necessity.
Bill Moyers & Company