Donald is Not my Big Brother:
Orwell, Trump, and Totalitarianism
I don’t read the news for honesty these days. During the height of the Bernie frenzy, I scrupulously parsed over article after article about the Sanders campaign, Hillary’s involvement with various members of the liberal guard, the ascendency of Trump over conservative cronies the likes of Rubio and Cruz, etc. I refreshed page after page of rolling data with each caucus, Alabama to Alaska, Ohio and California, reveling in Sanders minor win in New Hampshire as if the White House was positioned in Concord and maple syrup to be our new national beverage. Finally, the people had spoken and the media’s seriousness (most of the time) towards an alternative candidate would hold water.
When Sanders, as left-leaning as American politics allow these days, gained enough public recognition to swing America back towards the pre-war socialist policies of FDR, the media was forced to legitimize Sanders as a threat to “the most qualified candidate in American history” reifying the import of both the Keynesian left and Bernie Sander’s platform. Major news sources began to deviate from the narrative of a “coronated” Hillary Clinton. She had been sensationalized as the Chosen One, the political doyenne who would vanquish the regressive platforms of a police lineup worth of politicos one election away from wearing emblazoned logos of their beneficiaries like little balding NASCAR racers. With the option of Sanders, perhaps now the left would be a more responsibly active one, a left that expunged the centrist Third Way platform of Clinton’s dolled up conservatism: an agenda slyly supporting the dominance of corporations and global militancy whilst employing a Machiavellian’s draw towards feminism and multiculturalism - really, a more up-to-date Republican. With the first healthy alternative to the democrat’s fallacious values since the ‘90s, the media would cease to oscillate between their salt and pepper candidates of red and center. Major outlets were forced to spice up the political cuisine, feeling the Bern.
But when Sanders did eventually capitulate to Clinton, my hopes and interest in the news faltered. I felt history creeping back to its safeguarded comforts, familiar names, established ideas, the palliative treatment of symptoms, and a thickening scrim over social reality. By the time Trump defeated Clinton, there was no hope for a sea change in the framing of news reporting and the mass media. The bias would be obvious. Total war.
Much of this distaste in the news came from witnessing the inevitability of a retrograde platform becoming part of my reality, having to read headlines that our Republican president was possibly colluding with Russia, that a ban against Muslim countries was put into effect, that a new series of proxy wars in North Korea and Syria seemed on the frontier. Yet so much of my defeatism stemmed from the media’s subjective bias in the pre-election news, portraying anti-Clinton sentiments as naïve, asinine, or fascist. Very little journalism came out addressing economic issues that Democrats like Clinton only regarded with perfunctory rhetoric, one of the main reasons (not racism) most white Americans voted for Trump instead. Interestingly, most of Clinton’s campaign ran under the assumption that Trump could never win, a tactic which promises to linger in the liberal media. Rather than publish stories about a remorseful left quick to learn from its mistakes, the public is now forced to be entertained by Trump’s farrago of a presidency – sated egos abounding with smug cynicism in spades.
Most news outlets fail to present political journalism without an obvious bent to the left, usually a false left, implementing adjectives and buzzwords that think for us, and framing journalism with our conclusions outlined from the get-go. It’s easy to tote the virtues of the Democrats when juxtaposed with their diametric counterpart, but unless we question our options we’ll be forced to cover our lawns and bumpers in the slogans of adulterated politics. If not for the falsity of what it means to be liberal or the commandeering of the democratic party by centrists also dubbed The Third Way, my distrust in the media would be mollified. If the news continues to feel justified in utilizing blatant political preference to sabotage the Trump campaign then it had obviously failed.
Never would I prefer Trump to Clinton, but it is largely the unilateral support of Hillary Clinton as a pseudo-champion of human rights and her blasé attitude towards a withering middle class that pitted the still influential white demographic against the rest of the country. The media stirred the hornet’s nest in its self-satisfied presumptions, confident in the influence of the Obama paradigm and indirectly fueling flames of contempt against the democratic party’s economic failures, failures exacerbated by a shift towards identity politics and white guilting. The media’s unquestioning support of a candidate infuriated much of those who too were disenfranchised and suffered from a classism ignored by politics, a classism that to be acknowledged would necessitate actions against those who elect and fund politicians like Obama and Clinton.
Much like Orwell’s doublethink, Clinton appeared concurrently as transparent as any underhanded extension of the establishment and as opaque as any conspiratorial hegemony. This is especially resonant for a nation with the Recession still fresh in its memory, indignant at the lack of reprisals that the government failed at incurring, backing suspicions that the state may be complicit because of its lack of condemnation or recognition. It’s in cases like these that Sanders and Clinton stand out in stark opposition. Rather than examine Hillary for what she was (an agenda-less continuation of values that the country felt uneasy with) the media of the left unremittingly played the apologist, licking its wounds, not asking what it had done wrong but why America was so wrong. Unwilling to amend, it would amend America. It failed to eschew the trend in the political left of shame and conformity. Yet humiliation and guilt is not what wins over constituents and fortifies empathy and liberal thought. In several ways, Hillary Clinton as a neo-liberal bolstered by the mass media resembles Big Brother more than any Donald ever will.
In light of Kelly Conaway’s phrase alternative facts and the circumlocution of Sean Spicer somehow sidestepping every journalist’s attempt to obtain a truthful sentence, George Orwell’s 1984 has been on the lips and Amazon shopping carts in record numbers. But the sense that we’ve suddenly shifted from our halcyon Obama years into an Orwellian phantasmagoria of doublethink and newspeak is a cynic’s romanticization of reality that envisages us on a crash-course with 1930’s fascist Europe. On closer examination, it’s a bit darker than this fetisization of history.
In high school and college, I always preferred the subtleties of Huxley’s Brave New World over outdated dystopias envisioning a future ruled by a hammer and sickle and not pills and pleasure. Having recently read the novel and walked the halls of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, I can safely say that a universe where the torture chamber of Room 101 appears around the corner isn’t the dystopia we have to worry about. Things are bad, but they aren’t that bad. At least not on the surface.
What unites Trumpisms to Big Brother is distilled down to their treatment of truth. In many ways, comparing contemporary America to a totalitarian usage of truth irresponsibly completes our helplessness and empowers the ability of the state to obfuscate. In fact, technology makes it increasingly facile to reveal the injustices of the system with smart phones capturing police brutality and accessing mid-argument facts on the internet. Fascist comparisons also ignore our access to a functioning democratic selection of party leaders that did make the election of a democrat like Bernie Sanders a possible candidate for the Commander-in-Chief and are ostensibly is not rigged because of the election of the dark horse Trump. The outcry against alternative facts has been an early indication that this phraseology fools no one, precluding the Trump administration from attempting such underhanded tactics for the next four years. But when you offhandedly mention 1984 on the street, your average liberal will be quick to retort with cynical glee that such a dystopia is just around the corner.
By expressing emotionally charged comparisons to 1984, we aren’t making practical hyperbolic comments to sway thought nor recognizing some (nonexistent) fascist America. Rather, by articulating sweeping generalizations that compare America to a dystopian novel we make prosaic and cheap associations that ignore bigger, less sexy issues that have existed before, during, and after the publication of 1984: the disconnect and unconcern with truth between the mass media and the public. What Orwell always had a knack for was establishing connections between language and thought, an elaboration of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: the theory that one’s languages shapes one’s thoughts.
For anyone who didn’t even bother to use SparkNotes in high school, Nineteen Eighty-Four or 1984, is the story of one mild-mannered Englishman named Winston Smith living in the embodiment of a truly totalitarian state called Oceania. Two other nation-state, Eastasia and Eurasia, compete with Oceania in a state of perpetual war, not concerned with dominating the other states but suffusing the population with a debilitating sense of fear and conflict. Oceania’s economy purposefully degrades the living conditions of its citizens whilst rewriting the past every day so that life is continuously perceived to be better-off than before, a memoryless culture. The economy is fueled by weapons production, an interminable money pit functioning as an outlet for the alienated labor of the state. Winston works for the bureaucracy, taking part in revising past news reports and government statements and finds something deeply disturbing about the way in which thought and truth are treated: that the state governs what you think and what stands as truth, a disavowal of an objective external reality. As he is told by his torturer near the novel’s end:
…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…Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party (Orwell, 252)
Mirroring existentialism, the Party instead fails to take into account the Kantian double nature of the interplay of perception between subjective reality and an objective reality.
He attempts to resist by falling in love with a woman named Julia (love and carnal pleasure being forbidden) and collects knick-knacks from England’s past that keeps Winston grounded in an objective history that the state attempts to erase to totalize control over memory. Eventually captured, Winston is brought to the Ministry of Love and through physical and psychological torture comes to hate Julia, brainwashed to “[win] the victory over himself. He [loves] Big Brother” (Orwell, 300) the novel’s final line.
To connect Orwell with our age and something called inverted totalitarianism, it’s important to mention the novelist Thomas Pynchon, who wrote the introduction to newer editions of 1984:
...more or less consciously, [Orwell] found an analogy between British Labour and the Communist Party under Stalin - both, he felt, were movements professing to fight for the working classes against capitalism, but in reality [were] concerned only with establishing and perpetuating their own power. The masses were only there to be used for their idealism, their class resentments, their willingness to work cheap and to be sold out, again and again (Orwell, vii.)
In the post-Stalinist paradigm that Orwell never lived to see, Pynchon regards 1984 not as a mere update of the Animal Farm allegory. Rather, 1984 stands as an example of how the state and all states will continue funneling power into predictable channels and perfect a mutable ideology into a singular and indomitable entity, one not restricted to traditional views regarding dominance and power. Contrary to the involuted plot of Pynchon’s magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, his intentions were simple: to evince how the sort of totalitarian ideology of 1984 was going on now, how America used capitalism, conditioning, and alienation to create a new version of acceptable conformity phrased by Herbert Marcuse as “introjected heteronomy” across the planet, masquerading under the guise of democratic freedom. Even with democratic processes, we’ve been slowly spoon-fed a new tame political system that successfuly harbors antiquated thinking in the Republican party and “progressive” thinking in the Democratic party which functions as the “empathetic” or “smart” option. In actuality, they are propagandist’s shelters in the storm, the only alternative to stand alienated in the wind and rain until one becomes too cold or lonely and picks one or the other with a new found vehemence. The problem is the faith in freedom or choice that is nonexistent. As Marcuse famously quipped in One-Dimensional Man, “The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual” (Marcuse, 7). In other words, inverted totalitarianism.
Chris Hedges defines this type of social control in his book Empire of Illusion: "Inverted totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds expression in the anonymity of the Corporate State. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism, and the Constitution while manipulating internal levers" (Hedges). It’s no mistake that Pynchon’s follow-up to Gravity’s Rainbow, Vineland, exists in Reagan’s 1984, the neo-liberal Big Brother who reversed Keynesian economics and who America can’t seem to erase from influencing its memory, indirectly celebrated in the globalist policies of Clinton and her continuation of this inverted totalitarianism.
You don’t have to go far to see how truly unfree we are. Outside the role that 99% of Americans are tethered to their destined role as bourgeois fodder, disenfranchised minorities are ceaselessly stymied from being treated humanely or with compassion by the state. One need go no further than the footage of police brutality against racial minorities, to witness the reinstitution of anti-LGBTQ regulations, and to regard the internecine return to the dying industries of coal and oil maiming a withering Earth. These gestures serve one principal purpose among many lesser ones: for Trump to win votes through these representational victories for Republican America. For politicians, all that matters at the end of the day is winning, a treatment of politics that unironically parallels the triumph of business and capital: an increase of revenue. These votes come from tapping into the slackened thirst for religious probity, reinvigorating once booming industries synonymous with a white America, and maintaining the unconscious(and conscious) white supremacy over the minorities who want an equal say in politics and social standards. So why does this essay focus more on criticizing the left than the right? Why does the left deserve more vitriol than the now empowered right? Because while Republicans have become a party of proto-fascists, the Democrats have shown that they’ll set up shop between the antipodes of the despotic right and the unrepresented left, an amalgam of the two that ensures total dominance and a future as unavoidable as the resting place of rain in a valley.
Too much of the younger generation’s liberal rise and the slow erosion of disenfranchisement among the dispossessed makes the Republican party’s dominance slim to none. Demographic shifts are fated and America will only become more blue with the dying out of the right-wing baby boomers, whites becoming a minority, and the ongoing trend of leftist secularism making religion less influential. As far as a classic sense of fascism is concerned, Turkey, China and Russia should be on our peripheries, not Trump.
To be sure, I by no means see Trump as benign, he is to be resisted at all costs, he is a menace and might be sufficient to destroy the world in what little time we have left. But it should be understood by the liberal intelligentsia that whoever is to follow, the anti-Trump figurehead would likely win, likely to be loved. Very easily an apparatchik of truly byzantine character could abdicate the ineffectual Trump, undoubtably a Democrat. The war intelligent Americans should be making is a war not against an oppositional party but both parties: a two-front war. We should be lifelong belligerents in fighting against a party that parcels off our interests, and in fighting for a party that we want and deserve not that we’re presented. Even Thomas Jefferson disavowed his allegiance to any singular party claiming, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all” (Jefferson).
What Winston Smith hears time and time again is that what makes the hold of Big Brother so strong, literally infinite, is to “deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take into account […] the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary” (216). Objectivity is something we too easily deride. The reasons are obvious: it remains unknowable in any objective sense. The discoveries of the post-structuralists’ mainly Jacques Derrida’s, made it so that no language is grounded in objective reality, all language is seen as constructs deviating from some handful of primitive symbols, a dictionary worth of imitations that have no original. Michel Foucault added to this theory by theorizing that a sense of truth is always the most practical way in which the state can maintain its hegemony, that truth is another way of saying collective enslavement. The ‘60s and ‘70s undermined a search for objectivity and that life from then on out would always be “free play.” Such has been the position of much of our era called postmodernism, concerning itself with calling out power, abstaining from any attempt to institutionalize a resistance to power, lest it promote further human suffering.
Yet, we cannot forget the important fact that we always exist within systems and always tacitly support them in some way. The unfortunate repercussions of a postmodern mindset imbues a growing cynicism and solipsism. For all of postmodernism’s efforts in merely exposing the dehumanizing effects of utilitarianism and systematizing instincts, it has led us here. The left has always been the resistance to such authoritarian forces, and it shouldn’t be the central concern to alter the thinking of the right, but to focus on the responses of the left, which has been for the most part passive and disengaged. It’s no surprise that the defeatism that this generation underwent in youth matured into the baby-boomers responsible for much of the fear and greed soughing through our minds every day. There is an overlying sense of purposelessness, of finding stopgaps in youth until finally conceding to the forces of capitalism, “into the secret that life is soldiering, that soldiering includes death” (Vineland, 216). I can’t help but feel that art through postmodernism has lost the inertia to humanize ourselves and others, becoming a meretricious distraction before we throw ourselves into the machine, to make us more comfortable while behind the wheel of capitalism’s steamroller.
In philosophy, there is the concept of fallibilism, a belief that nothing is truth, and all suppositional facts should be taken with a grain of salt. This would be a very postmodern belief, except for the fact that fallibilism also makes a point to posit unsteady facts rather than simply mock or satirize them. Rather than treating our subjectivity as the grist to nihilistic arguments, it could be used for the attempt to improve life, whether it be to dismantle power structures or to make a more efficient way to eliminate privation in third-world countries. To take fallibilism into the quotidian is to cast everything into doubt, but it does not preclude an attempt at taking tenable positions about values or beliefs. It reconciles much of what postmodernism believes about paranoia and subjectivity and a traditional belief in insistently improving society. Too often our opinions revolve around a sublimated hedonism that makes anodyne remarks about liberal politics, conforming to the beliefs of those around us, maintaining the faith that we’re correct in our thinking, precluding revisions to our beliefs, promulgating a visionless and close-minded way of thinking and acting. We don’t need to make a religion out of purpose but we also don’t need to simply shrug our shoulders and feel compelled quote-fingers throughout the majority of our paranoid confabulations.
The true left has a chance of a platform of epic proportions in 2020. Perhaps 2020 will be the election where centrists options like Clinton and Republican options like Trump expose their fecklessness, leaving the stage open for a far-left candidate to begin a golden age of liberal thought. But it seems probable for any middle of the road candidate to cast him or herself as the new embodiment of spurious left-wing thinking with such an extreme example of right-wing incompetence centerstage. And while much of Orwell’s predictions about a possible fascist state seem far off or implausible, the closest his prophecies have become prescient is through the calcifying of mass opinion through technology, entertainment, surveillance, and economic complicity.
The constant division between a novel like Huxley’s Brave New World and 1984, has been that of a dystopia rooted in pleasure rather than pain. Orwell’s milieu of the 1940’s observed the left’s acceptance of Stalin’s communist ideology and anti-capitalist dogma, an alternative to the tyranny of capitalism by a world leader who also defeated the definitive fascist, Adolf Hitler. Having witnessed the deceit of communist parties during his role in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell realized that Soviet Russia, as an attractive substitute for American capitalism, celebrated a one-dimensional mode of thought that never allowed for alternatives that at least capitalism and democracy didn’t rule out. What Orwell didn’t live to witness was that a monochrome Soviet stultification would not engulf the world. Instead, it was much easier to influence thinking through entertainment, imbedding thought through vulnerable moments of pleasure - conditioning opinion in ways that didn’t require superfluous labor or an alignment to a political system. Marcuse points out, “the free rather than the labor time determines its content” (Eros and Civilization, 222).
As conspiratorial as it may sound, it’s only natural for people that run companies to be pro-capitalistic when it promotes their own advancement in the social hierarchy. To be apolitical, to be neutral is enough to be pro-power, pro-ideology. Apathy, the mantra of Generation X, has and is the ideal of the state, a condition that was largely responsible for the election of President Trump. What 1984 does tell us about contemporary America isn’t a fear of creating alternative facts. More importantly, it’s a discrediting of all facts, that everything is so biased, so built out of a desire for power, that the average American doesn’t believe what is true, but what is preferred: exactly why so many Americans believe or don’t believe the propaganda of the media before the unpalatable truth that isn’t in the favor of any one party, person, or ideology.
One only needs to see how the internet, something which would seem to augur a bonanza in intellectualism and expression has now come to represent violent pornography, erroneous news sources, and hate-fueled commentary, not to mention the timesucks of stupefying opiates on YouTube and the obsession of virtual identities that can be monitored and regulated through a site’s limitations. The point being, increased freedom in a capitalist society doesn’t have us converge as we rise but compounds thought in a way eerily similar to the groupthink of Big Brother’s totalitarian society, analogous to inverted totalitarian dominance through perceived freedom and access to democracy.
This is exactly how I found myself participating in the media after the election. The media bombards us psychologically in two fields: in the way we are given ineffective solutions to capitalism and the way the media gives us access to the sedatives of entertainment and pop culture that make us apathetic to being active participants in change. The conflation of the two results in a hardened cynicism that manifests as irony and derision towards the idea of initializing change.
When Conaway called into question the verity behind the mainstream media’s facts, she was in a small way correct. So much of the mainstream media’s language is simply about making Trump look bad in ways that are unprofessional and irresponsible. If we’re the kind of country that can’t form its own opinions without the Democratic Party leading our every opinion, then we’re the kind of country that doesn’t deserve democracy. The threat of Trump seems to be so significant for some, that the argument could be justified that an explicitly Democrat-biased news outlet is preferable, that it’s for some greater good. This is to say that a reverence for truth depends on whichever way the wind is blowing, something far worse than merely saying there is no truth like the postmodernists did. What we should aim for is a golden mean between the two.
The first thing you must realize is that power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. You know the Party slogan: "Freedom is Slavery". Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone — free — the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal. (Orwell, 267)
A lack of divergent thought plagues modernity and the individual’s belief in his own ideas is squashed as so-called liberal thought concerns itself with the Democrat’s agenda, lest the individual is swept in the tides of nothingness called the void. Collectively we stand against Trump, and for this I am hopeful. Yet, for us to have not stood beside Bernie, for that to be questionable makes our recalcitrance to Trump pointless. The threat today is obvious and technology and the media has found a way to ignore truth for a common interest. 1984 treats truth how it may be treated in the future, one that is fed to us like an infant’s breakfast, simplifying facts and resorting to ad hominem arguments.
The age of Trump has so far been one that seems to view fascism as Orwell saw it: obvious, brute-forced, and ignorant. What seems much more likely is that this is the effectual death rattle of baby boomer’s white America. Twenty years from now, much of what we are fighting about will be won because of changing demographics and trends of globalization. What should be remembered is that Trump’s replacement will have an effortless time appearing angelic and humane and our response to that should not be with the sudden acceptance the media will present us, but with an understanding that true dictatorship is not violence, it’s thoughtlessness.