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Pure Wind: Using '1984' To Understand Election 2016

Julie Wittes Schlack: George Orwell’s seminal work anticipated not just the surveillance state, but the destruction of language that enables the manipulation of thought. In this photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Julie Wittes Schlack: George Orwell’s seminal work anticipated not just the surveillance state, but the destruction of language that enables the manipulation of thought. In this photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

Seen in the context of the current battle between Apple and the U.S. Government, "1984," George Orwell’s speculative novel about a state in which everyone is continuously monitored by Big Brother, is remarkably prescient. But what is perhaps most resonant in the harrowing adaptation of this novel currently at the American Repertory Theater is not the ubiquitous presence of the surveillance technology controlled by the state. It is what George Orwell had to say about language and how it shapes us.

“It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,” says Syme, a loyal servant of the Party, early in the play. He goes on to extoll the virtues of language that’s increasingly simple and lacking in nuance. Who needs the word “bad” (let alone “flawed” or “erratic” or, heaven forbid, “multi-dimensional”) when you can simply describe someone or something as “ungood.” When your aim is to police thought and enforce submission, the more blunt and binary your vernacular, the better. After all, as Orwell noted, “… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Assert anything often enough and with enough vigor, Trump believes, and people will accept it.

Like all great demagogues before him, that’s a principle that Donald Trump understands and embraces.

“I’m a better person than the people I’m running against,” Trump declared Sunday. “I’m really good at the trade,” he crowed to a South Carolina crowd of thousands last week. “I’m really good at the borders.” Assert anything often enough and with enough vigor, Trump believes, and people will accept it. But he goes a step farther than his equally cynical brethren in this and past political races. Trump has intuited that by constantly repeating that he’s a winner, that people love him, that his poll numbers are better than anyone else’s, he can marginalize the non-believers. If the majority of people say that he is the best, then that is the de facto truth, just as in Orwell’s Oceania, if the party says 2+2=5 and enough citizens repeat it, the dissenter — the statistical outlier — is, by definition, insane. After all, in Oceania and presumably in TrumpWorld, “Sanity is statistical.”

“Today there were fear, hatred and pain, but no dignity of emotion, no deep or complex sorrows,” Orwell wrote in yet another pithy summation of Oceania’s ethos. He could have just as easily been describing ours. Political discourse — particularly in the Republican primary — throbs with rage, reproach and hyperbole. Not just hyperbole, but the biggest, boldest hyperbole the world has ever seen.

The first-edition front cover of the novel "1984," by George Orwell.
The first-edition front cover of the novel "1984," by George Orwell.

“I love Mexico, I love China, I love many of these countries that rip us off because we have leaders that are incompetent and don't know what they're doing,” Trump frothed in his South Carolina victory speech. “China in particular — that's the big one. The greatest abuse of a country that I think I've ever seen financially — China. …What they've done to us is the greatest single theft in the history of the world. They've taken our jobs, they've taken our money, they've taken everything.”

Who “they” is and what they’ve taken does, of course, depend on the day, the state, the audience. For Trump, China, Mexico and, of course, Muslims everywhere are victims of what is called in "1984," the Two Minutes Hate, which Orwell describes this way: “.. the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.”

A few weeks ago, the Ted Cruz campaign ran an ad featuring a 1999 television interview in which Trump declared himself to be “strongly pro-choice.” In response, Trump’s campaign sent Cruz’s a cease-and-desist letter charging Cruz with defamation for running an ad “replete with outright lies” for suggesting that Trump is, well, pro-choice. In other words, Trump pointed to Cruz’s use of documentary footage showing him declaring his support for abortion rights as evidence of his opposition to those rights. It’s the living, lying, definition of Orwell’s “doublethink,” which is “to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them ... to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again.”

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

George Orwell

Of course Trump isn’t alone in his embrace of doublethink, another requirement of which was “to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy.” Cruz, the master of the filibuster, the challenger to the “Washington cartel” funded by the Wall Street and Texas cartels, does a mean job himself of touting his own purity as justification for leaping into the cesspool.

Indeed, all of the candidates are master trumpeters of the meaningless statement, exemplars of Orwell’s observation that “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Thus Trump can promise to make America great again. Cruz can straight-facedly assert that he will eliminate the IRS. Nikki Haley can declare that “If we elect Marco Rubio, every day will be a great day in America.” Yup. Every day.

In a moment of disarming candor during his South Carolina victory speech, Trump summed it up this way: “There's nothing easy about running for president, I can tell you. It's tough, it's nasty, it's mean, it's vicious, it's beautiful.”

He’s doubleplus right, right?


The American Repertory Theater presents “1984” through March 6. 

Related:

Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery. By day, she leads the product innovation team for C Space, a Boston-based consumer collaboration company.

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