This article is reproduced here with permission from the author,
Sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four have roared in the wake of the coinage “alternative facts” by President Donald Trump’s adviser, Kellyanne Conway. When we suspect that we are living in a dystopia characterized by clumsy propaganda, it’s the book we buy from Amazon.com. (It was the top seller at that site on last week.) There are certain elements of Orwell’s novel that can help us understand how Trump’s administration is already working on our minds.
Like the authorities in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Trump convinces his followers to forget their prior enmities and alliances. Russia has always been our friend, not our enemy. Also, Trump’s obsession with the Mexican-U.S. border echoes Big Brother’s policy of perpetual war. Lying outright to the citizenry is, yes, “Orwellian.”
But there is no Amazon.com in Nineteen Eighty-Four, because it is not a novel about globalized capital. Not even slightly! Nineteen Eighty-Four does not pastiche a world ravaged by capitalism and ruled by celebrities—the kind of world that could lead to the election of someone like Trump. Instead, it depicts suffering inflicted by state control masquerading as socialism.
The language and aesthetic of Winston’s home superstate, Oceania, are lifted directly from Russian communism. Nineteen Eighty-Four came out in 1949. Orwell commented on the world as it was. He wrote out his fears of nuclear war, and the danger of dictatorship in states where much has been destroyed. He pointed to the problems inherent in superstates and the fragile alliances that govern world politics. Mostly, he wrote in cipher about Russia.
The connection between Nineteen Eighty-Four and World War II makes it the wrong dystopia for our times. When Conway cites “alternative facts,” she implicitly admits that there is more than one way to see things—she simply doesn’t care. Trump’s administration doesn’t even try to cover up its lies. Instead, it assumes that ideological divides among the American citizenry will ensure that the lies don’t matter. That is not how the Oceania of Nineteen Eighty-Four works.
Compare our situation, instead, to The Trial. Kafka wrote it in 1914-15, a generation before Orwell. World War I was only just revving up, and much of the nineteenth century’s world order remained (the Austro-Hungarian Empire existed until 1918). In The Trial, Josef K. wakes up on his 30th birthday and is arrested. He cannot really conceive of what is happening: “K. was living in a free country, after all, everywhere was at peace, all laws were decent and were upheld, who dared accost him in his own home?”
This is the horror that Trump subjects us to. His administration retains the shell of the old American brand—the “land of the free”—but secretly danger creeps underneath all the things that seem silly, even funny, about it. Josef K. thinks the arrest must be a joke, at first. New conditions of danger dawn on Josef, who doesn’t otherwise take anything too seriously. Laughter, Kafka says, is worse than nothing. It’s the substance of complicity, what makes us afraid to look ridiculous even as we let oppression slink in through the cracks. Josef K. never does find out what crime he was charged with. But his last words are more frightening than any of my memories of reading Orwell. “Like a dog,” he says, as the knife twists twice.