By Trevor Busch
We may have taken the first steps along the garden path that leads to an Orwellian nightmare with the ascension of President Donald Trump, judging by the whirlwind of controversial executive orders that have been signed into law in mere days — not weeks — since The Donald took office.
And while this early in the game jurys should remain coy about their conclusions — at least for a few weeks yet — one suspects the verdict on the tenor of a Trump administration will be made plain for Americans and global citizens alike by mid-2017. That is, if Trump’s flagrant disregard for much of the world’s concerns haven’t led us into a global conflict by then. Sadly, being one of this superpower’s closest allies and neighbours when a new administration starts pushing buttons winds up with us having a giant target painted on our back, regardless of where we stand on a variety of issues.
One of the more remarkable developments to arise out of the formulation of Trump’s New Deal in recent days is the advocation of “alternative facts” to replace actual truth — surely one of the most titanic gaffs to ever pass the lips of a White House staffer, Kellyanne Conway — which should have have sent a chill down the spine of anyone that enjoys the freedoms currently defended by most Western democracies. What is perhaps more disturbing is that individuals like Conway appear to see nothing wrong with employing knowingly-deceptive language and misinformation to advance an agenda. Hitler and Goebbels would be proud.
It is heartening, however, to realize that despite hints of an autocracy taking shape in Washington and much of the world drifting toward fascism, authoritarianism, isolationism and protectionism — some of the seeds of WWII — there are still people out there who treasure their freedoms and those of others, and are unwilling to surrender themselves to the goose-stepping ministrations of a cabal of ultra-weathy oligarchs bent on profit, power and priviledge at the expense of the very masses that continue to support them so unquestioningly.
We saw hints of this not long after Trump took office. Hard on the heels of Conway’s “alternative facts” discussion, widely described as Orwellian, sales of George Orwell’s dystopian polemic Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) shot straight to the top, increasing by 9,500 per cent and becoming the number one best seller on Amazon.com. Penguin, the book’s publisher, ordered a 75,000 unit reprint to meet demand.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was written at a time when Josef Stalin’s Soviet dictatorship was poised on the cusp of global domination, and a palpable fear of communism had reached a high pitch in the West. The tragic story of our hero Winston Smith, the last “liberal” man caught up in a nightmarish world of dictatorship and thought control, where the Party holds and dispenses all truths, Nineteen Eighty-Four is designed to be as bleak as its last pages.
After the Party has murdered Smith’s “deviant” attitudes and behaviours — even his romantic love for another — through fear, torture and indoctrination, he is no longer the man he was before. Smith has become the “New Man”, and his love of “Big Brother” and the Party has replaced all that we readers, as members of free and just societies, would have recognized. In Smith’s world, the Party doesn’t just destroy its enemies, but has an obsession with “curing” its victims. O’Brien, an Inner Party member and Smith’s chief torturer, at one point admits to Smith that to shoot anyone that the Party hadn’t already “cured” would be considered a failure of the highest order, and politically dangerous to the foundations of the regime.
There seems to be a growing sympathy in many democracies to dispense with anything that would require citizens to actually participate. The idea that government should just “take care of things” so that everyday people don’t need to “be involved” with voting or any of their other democratic duties is a concept so drastically flawed and rife with apathy it beggars the imagination.
And yet growing numbers seem to be embracing it without realizing the fatal Catch-22 — things will not continue to remain the same in your democracy if you abdicate all of your rights in favour of something less democratic.
In Trump’s America, the former reality TV star has taken a page from show business by applying his famous slogan, “You’re fired”, to virtually anyone that now opposes him, which would seem to throw the democratic system’s checks and balances into disarray. The intelligence community claims it has compromising information about me? You’re fired. A “so-called” federal judge is blocking my immigration order? You’re fired. One suspects they won’t be the only ones in Trump’s crosshairs before four years is up.
The attraction of undemocratic forms of government to seceding generations of people around the world is a disturbing avenue of thought that seems to rear its head in democracies where people have never experienced its excesses. The idea can seem attractive, but it has rarely — if ever — matched the reality. The eventual failure of dictatorships – despite what George Orwell or Aldous Huxley might have had us believe — have been proven to be written into their very DNA. They are violently opposed to change, blind to their own failures, and tend to offer little in exchange for their single-minded dominance and limited freedom of thought and expression. So why does the idea never seem to go away?
However Trump’s regime manifests itself, up to and including a drift toward extreme right wing ideology, it won’t be the totalitarianism of the past, with banners and rallies and marching and uniforms and Jew-baiting. It will be a new authoritarianism, a kleptocracy that speaks in the name of the people but acts to the advantage of the few. Trump is the ultimate robber-baron, upending values and institutions in a quest to secure greater wealth and prestige for himself and his cronies at the expense of everything else — peace, order, morality — it’s a fire sale and everything must go.
Today, the real threat to democracies seems to be the stripping away of democratic principles and values in place of something less, while still preserving the democratic pomp and circumstance like window-dressing for the public. There are strong arguments to be made that this is exactly what the Trump administration is attempting to achieve in Washington.
Diversity of political thought and expression should never be viewed as a negative in any democracy. In fact, it can often make democracies much stronger – being confronted by the left makes those on the right much more concious of their policy choices and the decisions that they make. That, in a nutshell, is perhaps the greatist advantage of a multi-party system.
Anyone who has read Orwell’s classic argument against authoritarianism and dictatorship, Nineteen Eighty-Four, also has an idea where the slippery slope could lead. In the novel Orwell’s Smith, in a relative side-plot, bears witness to the government’s attempt to reform the language to eliminate subversive speech, and ultimately, subversive thought, called Newspeak.
By paring down the English language to a few base words, the government of Orwell’s fictional Oceania believed it could control thought by eliminating the vocabulary required to have subversive thoughts, taking into account the idea that most people “think” in words, or language.
Smith himself works at the Ministry of Truth (that concerns itself with lies), busily and with terrifying bureaucratic efficiency altering the past to conform with the political dictates of the present. Smith lives in a world where there is no past, no present and no future but that of the Party.