In 1949, George Orwell published his now legendary novel, 1984. It is set in a mythical totalitarian country named Oceania, which has one political party, four Ministries, and a leader called “Big Brother.”
The party has three slogans: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength. The four Ministries are Truth, which looks after information, entertainment and education; Peace, whose portfolio is war; Love, which maintains law and order; and Plenty, responsible for economic affairs.
The Ministry of Love, Orwell wrote, “was the truly frightening one. There were no windows in it at all…It was a place impossible to enter except on official business, and then only by penetrating through a maze of barbed-wire entanglements, steel doors, and hidden machine-gun nests.”
The psychoanalyst and philosopher, Erich Fromm, commented at the time: “(The book) is the expression of a mood, and it is a warning. The mood it expresses is that of near despair about the future of man, and the warning is that unless the course of history changes, men all over the world will lose their most human qualities, will become soulless automatons, and will not even be aware of it…(We must recognize) the danger…of a society (which) will have lost every trace of individuality, of love, of critical thought, and yet…will not be aware of it because of ‘doublethink’.”
More than 70 years later, would you say that the mob that invaded the US Capitol on January 6, trashed offices, uttered threats, and caused deaths, displayed any trace of individuality, love or critical thought, and was aware of its soullessness? Was there a “Big Brother” (a phrase coined by Orwell) behind it? If so, who?
Donald Trump, you say. But why blame only one person? Yes, Trump deepened and widened divisions, but weren’t they already present and visible? Did many – perhaps most – Americans prefer, ostrich-like, not to see them? Or, if they did see them, to wave them aside as temporary nuisances?
But they are not temporary and they are not nuisances. They are increasingly embedded in American society, and they are toxic. Together with his votaries and enablers, Trump (by no means the stupid man I hear people say he is) has been masterly in exploiting them.
“What Trump stumbled on,” wrote Fintan O’Toole in The Atlantic, s month before the storming of the Capitol, “was that the solution to the (Republican Party’s) chronic inability to win a majority of voters in presidential elections was to stop trying and instead embrace and enforce minority rule.
This possibility is built into the American system (and) Trump transformed (it) from (a) tactical (tool) to (a) permanent, strategic (necessity).”
He ended: “The historic question that must be addressed is: Who is the aberration? Biden and perhaps most of his voters believe that the answer could not be more obvious. It is Trump. But this has been shown to be the wrong answer. The dominant power in (America), the undead Republican Party, has made majority rule aberrant, a notion that transgresses the new norms it has created.
From the perspective of this system, it is Biden, and his criminal voters, who are the deviant ones. This is the irony: Trump, the purest of political opportunists, driven only by his own instincts and interests, has entrenched an anti-democratic culture that, unless it is uprooted, will thrive in the long term.
As a devout Catholic, Joe Biden believes in the afterlife. But he needs to confront an afterlife that is not in the next world but in this one – the long posterity of Donald Trump.”
Orwellian inversions and nightmares bedevil today’s America. Trump leaves Washington, but – double impeachment or not, covid19 or not – Trumpism endures everywhere. Fair elections are fraudulent. The minority is the majority. Autocracy is democracy. Institutional assault is patriotism. Planned riots and attacks represent law and order. Trumpery is good governance. Truth is fake.
America is at odds with America. Confrontation and hate are spreading and could become the norm. Appeals for an “America united”, and the repetition of noble phrases like “We’re better than this,” will not alone make them go away.
I remain confident, however, that America is fundamentally strong enough to overcome the rising barriers, and that, for instance, the contemporary manifestations of Orwell’s Ministries of Love and Peace can be demolished, or at least securely contained. But it will be a long, hard slog. We have all been warned.