George Orwell was an optimist. As bleak as “1984” is to read, his cautionary tale against totalitarianism makes an assumption about people that, almost 75 years after its writing, has proven an unrealistically generous take on human nature.
The novel is remembered for telescreens, the system of constant surveillance necessary to enforce the party line, and “Big Brother is watching you!” But it is also about the link between oppression and lies. Its hero, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth writing lies, specifically rewriting old news stories so they jibe with the current political pieties. Disgraced party members must be edited out. When the eternal enemy shifts from Eastasia to Eurasia, history must be revised. Orwell suggested people need to be forced to accept lies, and that they will care if those lies are contradicted in news accounts and text books.
Turns out, they don’t. Not judging from Donald Trump and the Republican Party. In their protracted war against truth, they don’t bother altering the past. People will edit reality themselves. The continual lies pouring out of Trump’s mouth are just taken automatically as gospel, a refinement of totalitarianism George Orwell never dreamed of. Nobody has to do it for them. They volunteer.
This week, the so-called “full forensic audit” run by Trump’s Arizona allies showed that Joe Biden won by more votes than he was initially credited with.
“Truth is truth, numbers are numbers,” said Arizona Senate President Karen Fann, sharing the news.
To some. For now.
In “1984,” “Ignorance is Strength,” and that sure works for Trump, who didn’t bother trying to dismiss the Arizona report. He didn’t say it is unreliable because it was performed by his amateur supporters. No, Trump simply pretended that the report offers vindication, and any suggestion otherwise is not to be believed because it comes from the media.
“Yesterday we also got the results of the Arizona audit, which were so disgracefully reported by those people right back there,” Trump said, pointing to the reporters at a rally in Georgia. “The headlines claiming that Biden won are fake news and a very big lie. ... We won on the Arizona forensic audit yesterday on a level you wouldn’t believe.”
He’s got that part right. They wouldn’t believe it, because they don’t believe anything they’re told not to believe. No election result, no basic medical practice, is real until they’re given permission to believe it by their own orange-tinted Big Brother.
“1984” is also a love story. Winston’s passion, Julia, a cautionary tale in the corrosive power of lies. Even though she is a rebel, her doubt is limited to deceptions directly affecting her.
“Often she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her,” Orwell writes. “She believed, for instance, having learnt it at school, that the party had invented airplanes ... And when he told her that airplanes had been in existence before he was born, and long before the Revolution, the fact struck her as totally uninteresting. After all, what did it matter who had invented airplanes?”
Ditto for who they were fighting last week. Eastasia? Eurasia?
“Who cares?” she said impatiently. “It’s always one bloody war after another, and one knows the news is all lies anyway.”
The true purpose of all this lying is not to make followers believe any particular lie, often contradicted the next day anyway. It is to make them believe nothing at all, and thus be ripe to believe anything they’re told.
That is why, despite Biden’s decisive victory last November, Democrats are more anxious than ever. Because we are seeing, clearly and constantly, that the totalitarian menace did not end with Trump’s defeat. It’s just beginning.
Trump was in Georgia rallying to replace the Georgia secretary of state, who rejected his calls to “find enough votes” to overturn the election with a crony who will do so next time. This is happening all over the country, and Democratic efforts to stop it have been weak. There is a hunger in America, not just to roll at the feet of Trump, but to create a fantasy world and go live there. No price — a stable democracy, a working health care system, a reliable media — is too large to pay.
We know where this story goes. We’ve read the book.