YES, I know: we’re all getting a little sick and tired of hearing or reading references to George Orwell by people who have not read him or have only a distant memory of Animal Farm in school.
When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, sales of 1984, Orwell’s last and greatest novel, increased dramatically.
The New York Times hailed it as a best-seller at the time of Trump’s inauguration and the New Yorker ran one of the most ridiculous articles I have ever read in a serious publication. Staff writer Adam Gopnik, in order to demonise Trump, managed to incorporate both Orwell’s dystopian novel and Caligula’s decision to appoint his favourite horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate, squeezing in Breitbart and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for good measure.
To get the flavour of what was taking place during the early days of the administration, Gopnik urged his readers ‘to go back . . . to 1984’, which he conceded he had never much liked, but which now fitted the historical moment like a glove. Gopnik admitted to coming to appreciate the book.
What caused him to change his hitherto negative assessment? Need you ask? Why, of course, ‘the Presidency of Donald Trump’. Gopnik continued: ‘Because the single most striking thing about [Trump’s] matchlessly strange first week is how primitive, atavistic, and uncomplicatedly brutal Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is turning out to be.’
Conservative folklore has it that many of those who purchased 1984 after Trump’s election and actually began reading it, especially progressives and those suffering from acute, possibly inoperable, Trump Derangement Syndrome, were dismayed by what they read. They discovered that those brutalising society, spying on people, and liquidating and crushing those immensely brave men and women who spoke out against Big Brother, belonged to a political party called INGSOC, Newspeak for ‘English Socialism’. They also found that the protagonist, Winston Smith, spends his days rewriting history and erasing history that does not conform to the current narrative. Does that sound familiar, dear readers?
Oh, the horror! And what a disappointment it must have been for those delicate wallflowers fighting for social justice in their safe spaces to discover themselves in the pages of a book all the right people were reading or claiming to because, well, yes, it was all about that fount of all evil in the 21st century, Donald Trump.
Whatever your opinion of Trump, he’s not Big Brother and is the very antithesis of an ideologue. His clumsy braggadocio is as far removed as possible from the ascetic totalitarians in 1984. You may find his boorish antics and schoolyard bullying upsetting. I certainly do and remember praying – yes, actually praying – that he would be forced to drop out of the race for the nomination in 2016 after his crass comments about women came to light. I thought he was the least likely contender to beat Hillary Clinton, a truly Orwellian figure if ever there was one. How wrong I was. Yet I voted for him and will do so again in 2024 if he is nominated.
Meanwhile, irrespective of how bored some people are with hearing Orwell’s name or of having 1984’s meaning distorted, he continues to resonate louder than ever as the world, especially the English-speaking Western world, becomes more Orwellian by the day.
Just the other day Puffin Books admitted it was rewriting Roald Dahl’s children’s classics to remove language deemed offensive. https://www.conservativewoman.co.uk/puffins-sinister-censorship-of-roald-dahl-is-an-attack-on-reality-itself/ Although the publishers have since agreed to continue publishing the unexpurgated originals alongside the bowdlerised versions after a public outcry which included the Queen Consort, no less, the inclination to rewrite Dahl is clearly Orwellian, suggesting a fairly reasonably close affinity with the work carried out by Winston Smith in 1984.
And then there was Merriam-Webster, America’s dictionary of choice, adding the word ‘offensive’ for its entry for ‘preference’ and ‘sexual preference’ after Judge Amy Coney Barrett used the terms during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2022. That the addition was made immediately after she uttered the terms may well have been a coincidence, but one can hardly be blamed for suspecting an Orwellian moment.
These are just two incidences that have a 1984-ish feel, the first eliciting shock but also some hilarity, the second rather creepy. But such incidences are now legion and increasingly beyond enumeration. Most of them receive too little or no attention at all. What they all have in common are their links to the writings of George Orwell.
So next time you read allusions to 1984 or hear the word Orwellian and say to yourself ‘enough already’, be reminded of police showing up at homes to check the thinking of those domiciled there; a British copper asking a middle-aged Catholic woman if she is praying silently outside an abortion facility; working- and middle-class people being subjected to mandatory humiliating and divisive Critical Race Theory indoctrination at the workplace; conservative academics self-censoring for fear of being fired; statues being toppled and streets being renamed, and entire history curricula being rewritten. Most of all, be reminded of the following passage from 1984 and then ask yourself if Orwell is becoming hackneyed:
‘Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.’
We are not close to being there yet, thank God. But we seem to be headed in that direction.