Few writers have been as regularly invoked or woefully typecast as George Orwell. Born Eric Blair in 1903 British India, Orwell was among the most discerning thinkers of the 20th century. An incisive voice in literature, history and journalism, Orwell was as much of a polymath as he was a prophet. Though the term “Orwellian” conjures up harrowing images of the surveillance state as an unwieldy leviathan, Orwell was more than just prescient on the perils of invasive government. Indeed, Orwell’s insight into politics and government (he loathed fascism, communism and empire) was perhaps only eclipsed by his mastery of the English language, a love of words and plain-spoken prose that he deployed against agitprop, historical nonsense and circumlocution. See his landmark essay, “Politics and the English Language,” where Orwell fretted that seemingly empty political rhetoric had corrosive long-term implications and that “all issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.”
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Orwell understood that both Fascism and Stalinism were threats.[/pullquote]
Orwell astutely knew how phoniness and obfuscation could gnaw insidiously at the body politic, and he now seems to have been something of an oracle, and on a bevy of issues. A one-time imperial officer in British-occupied Burma, Orwell soured on imperialism, coming to loathe the reactionary empire in which he came of age. He had also enlisted on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, where he took a sniper bullet to the throat, courtesy of Franco’s fascists, whose ideological benefactors included Hitler and Mussolini. (He recounted this experience in his majestic work, “Homage to Catalonia.”) Hence, he needed no primer on the savagery of despotic regimes, and similarly, he took aim at the evils of Stalinism, incurring the wrath of the British left who failed to see that Communism was but another vicious side of the same totalitarian coin. The carnage of the 20th century informed his own views on what is referred to in our historical lexicon as nationalism. An avowed socialist who understood how factious ideologies were often gateways to tyranny, Orwell inveighed against injustice, right and left, thus leading him to declare “hitherto, the rights and wrongs had seemed so beautifully simple.”
America is submerged in fiction, and our slide into buffoonery writ large stokes perhaps more fear than Orwell’s own dystopian portents about the “thought police” or “doublethink.” As I wrote about last September, the rise of Donald Trump heralded the emergence of our own authoritarian Superman, a politician who could turn historically political kryptonite into his own electoral gold dust. Trump’s appeal unleashes the darker recesses of the American imagination, and his “Make America Great Again” slogan is nationalistic cant, an appeal to a bogus nostalgia as fantastical as it is frightening. But 6 months ago, Trump was no slice of whimsy, no jester-like aberration, although he was frequently written off as such. Now, he’s steamrollering toward the Republican presidential nomination.
Orwell may have provided ideological sustenance for civil libertarians everywhere, but the breadth of his observations amounted to far more than just fore-warnings about “Big Brother.” From his perch as a radio broadcaster for the BBC, and in the immediate post-World War II years, Orwell diagnosed the perils of nationalism, an all too apt analysis for the deluded bombast that is Donald J. Trump. In a diary entry from 1942 about the state of wartime British society, Orwell, alas, proved far too Orwellian about our own nation’s disturbing aversion to truth and other inconvenient facts. In a quote unearthed by Christopher Hitchens, Orwell lamented,
We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends.
In May, 1945, five months after the Red army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, Orwell delivered an analysis of postwar Europe entitled “Notes on Nationalism.” As Trump claims the mantle as our nativistic peddler-in-chief, Orwell’s examination of nationalism is ominously resonant. In identifying nationalism’s more salient components, Orwell highlighted nationalism’s penchant for “identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”The Trump Triumvirate”: obsession, instability and indifference to reality.[/pullquote]
Yet Orwell’s analysis revealed deeper insights about power, patriotism and the instability associated with nationalistic sentiment. When Trump brags about loving America and mourns how we ostensibly “don’t win anymore,” he argues for an American exceptionalism which is unassailable, and thus fans the flames of a more sinister discontent. Trump’s narcissistic bravura aside, his message extends beyond phony patriotism, and amounts to a malignant psychological shift toward self-deception and unabashed ignorance. Not to mention an insatiable lust for power. As Orwell delineates, “Patriotism is of its nature defensive… Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.”
The resonance of Orwell’s essay speaks as much to to his gift for prophecy as it does the persistence of history. Orwell specified the three main traits which characterize nationalism, which, in our current era of anti-intellectualism and paranoia, might be relabeled The Trump Triumvirate. Those three defining ideas are obsession, instability and indifference to reality.
To be sure, Orwell didn’t just diagnose the ideological tapestries of political movements. His analysis revealed a piercing insight into authoritarian political psychology. For all of his “tell it like it is” bravado, Trump’s new nationalism perpetrates the lies which Orwell identified as endemic to nationalistic thinking. Nationalists construct a reality which they choose to believe in and then defend that reality at all costs, with a reflexive aversion to criticism and a blatant disregard for the facts. When challenged, the movement and its followers assert the superiority of their own fictitious framework and often react with hostility as well as violence.
As his rallies have turned repeatedly violent, Trump has waxed eloquent about “the good old days,” when protesters would be carted out on a gurney. At the recent GOP debate in Miami, Trump strained credulity when he tried to explain that the violence was a natural rallying cry of an agitated citizenry, for which he bore no responsibility. What’s worse, Trump even seemed to suggest the protesters had it coming. As he explained to CNN’s Jake Tapper:
They see what’s going on in this country, they have anger that’s unbelievable. … We have some protesters who are bad dudes, they have done bad things, … They are swinging, they are really dangerous and they get in there and they start hitting people. . . . And if they’ve got to be taken out, to be honest, I mean, we have to run something.
Apart from that old right-wing saw of “blaming the victim,” Trump’s nationalistic fervor also crystallizes the indifference to reality that Orwell saw as a core tenet of nationalism. After all, many of Trump’s own supporters have visibly attacked protesters, egged on by Trump himself, who admonished his throng to “knock the crap out of them, would you?” So long as anti-Trump protests have the chtuzpah to inject the nuisance of reality into his own dictatorial fantasy land, there will likely be no limits to the violence, or to its justification. As Orwell reveals, fair is foul and foul is fair in the nationalist mind-set. He goes on:
It is the same with historical events. History is thought of largely in nationalist terms, and such things as the Inquisition, the tortures of the Star Chamber, the exploits of the English buccaneers (Sir Francis Drake, for instance, who was given to sinking Spanish prisoners alive), the Reign of Terror, the heroes of the Mutiny blowing hundreds of Indians from the guns, or Cromwell’s soldiers slashing Irishwomen’s faces with razors, become morally neutral or even meritorious when it is felt that they were done in the “right” cause.
Last week, Trump found a way to lambaste protesters while celebrating the “law and order” bona fides of the police, a pungent irony given that he spoke roughly 10 miles away from the epicenter of the racial protests of Ferguson. Not since Patrick Buchanan riled the 1992 Republican convention in Houston with talk of a “cultural war” and “taking the country back,” has such nationalism played such a starring role in our discourse. Such rhetoric, which cascades from the mouth of our original “birther,” isn’t simply odious, it’s revisionist history. Trump romanticizes a past that’s wholly invented, and one which marginalizes the racist, sexist and xenophobic oppression which has long been at the center of the American narrative. Orwell describes this tendency thusly:
Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should — in which, for example, the Spanish Armada was a success or the Russian Revolution was crushed in 1918 — and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible. Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied.
“The primary aim of propaganda is, of course, to influence contemporary opinion, but those who rewrite history do probably believe with part of their minds that they are actually thrusting facts into the past,” Orwell declared, and Trump’s affection for a time when people “knew their place,” is language that is pancontinental, winking at demagogues such as the late segregationist George Wallace and the xenophobe Jean-Marie Le Pen, godfather of of France’s National Front. (For the record, Le Pen endorsed Trump.) Delusional behavior and shrewdness need not be mutually exclusive, however, and Trump is particularly adept at fomenting a populist resentment that has long stigmatized “the other” as the culprit of economic stagnation. Orwell’s anxiety about nationalism was rooted in the ideologically ravaged landscape of old Europe, but remains well-founded in our own age of Donald Trump. But as Orwell asked 71 years ago, will we make the “moral effort” necessary to resist it?