By George Orwell
What it is: The classic 1949 novel about a dystopian future ruled by a totalitarian government that monitors everything, erases the truth in favor of its own propaganda, and allows its citizens no free will. You were supposed to read it in high school, dunce.
No, this wasn’t just an on-the-nose topical joke: Orwell’s 1984 really did shoot to the top of the bestseller lists after Donald Trump’s inauguration. I’m backed up on a bunch of this year’s previous bestsellers, so I figured I’d go ahead and do a post on this one now, since I’ve read it already. I’m not going to bother reading it again; I’ve got Danielle Steele novels to get through!
Much as I hate Trump, the immediate rush of readers to 1984 at first struck me as kind of hysterical. After all, we’re now on the third president that a large swath of the American population has viewed as a would-be totalitarian. As nostalgic as people may be for George W. Bush now, I recall my dad working through a paperback of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich sometime in the ’00s because it supposedly had a lot to teach us about the political situation at the time, and we know how a lot of conservatives felt about the moderate progressivism of the Obama administration. If a whole lot of people thought Bush and Obama were the next Hitler, and neither of them are leading us into an invasion of Poland, shouldn’t we hesitate before throwing around similar allegations about Trump?
But while one explanation of the Bush/Obama/Trump-Hitler comparisons is sheer partisan mania, another is that they’ve all been complicit in incremental shifts toward fascistic policies like the imperial presidency and the surveillance state. Trump may not take those trends to their most extreme incarnations (though there’s no real reason to believe he wouldn’t, if left to his own devices), but he can certainly exacerbate them beyond anything we’ve seen so far. If 1984‘s newfound popularity leads anyone to be more skeptical of “alternative facts” or the exploitation of nationalistic militarism for political gain, then it’ll have been worth any hysteria associated with it. You can’t be too careful about this sort of thing.