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'Big Brother' Donald Trump's personal '1984'

If someone were to mention 1984 to Donald Trump, he wouldn’t think of George Orwell’s novel. He would think of the 12-month period, already 36 years ago, when he was in his prime, 37 years old, still on his first marriage and bouncing his third child, Ivanka, not yet 3 until October, on his knee. His real estate empire was flourishing. He had just moved his family into the magnificent Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, completed just the year before. His presence in Atlantic City was growing with the opening of the $220 million Trump Plaza. His New Jersey Generals were challenging the monopoly of the National Football League. Roy Cohn was his personal attorney and, more importantly, his mentor, coaching him to never, never, never apologize and always, always, always deny.

So much has happened to Trump since those halcyon days. Or, more to the point, Trump has made so much happen. We are all reeling as a consequence. Future historians will have a large job to sort out the good from the bad, the personal from the political, the tragic from the comic.

In January 2017, after Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” to claim that Trump wasn’t lying when he inflated the number of the crowd hearing his inaugural address, “1984” rose to No. 1 on Amazon’s book sales and during the year, sales of the Signet Classics edition increased 100 times. Conway’s phrase accords well with “doublethink” in 1984, the word of Newspeak describing the condition of accepting two contrary beliefs as true.

Orwell’s novel, first published in 1949, portrays a world of three totalitarian nation-states constantly at war with each other. Oceana is the nation-state that contains the Americas, Great Britain, and its commonwealth. Big Brother, a manufactured non-entity whose picture is everywhere and whose slogan, “Big Brother is watching you,” reminds the citizens of Oceana of the state’s constant surveillance, presides over a climate of hate and fear. Central to Big Brother’s dictatorial control is the language that has replaced English, Newspeak, “designed,” Orwell writes, “not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.”

The three tenets of doublethink are “war is peace,” “freedom is slavery,” and “ignorance is strength.” These presumed opposites reflect central truths of Oceana: feeding a war sustains an economy; not controlling individual thought produces social anarchy; deferring to authority is paramount. The consequence of these tenets is a living death, devoid of hope, comfort, pleasure, and love. Those very words have no meaning in Oceana. Newspeak does not allow them to exist. In this way, language corrupts, limits, and erodes thought.

Trump is not a reader of anything, so the closest he would ever come to Orwell’s novel would be one of his lackeys briefing him on it. He seems instinctively, however, to have modeled his presidency after Big Brother. His lies since he took office now number in five figures and grow by the dozens daily. The ones he has repeated the most include calling Democrats “radical socialists who want to model America’s economy after Venezuela,” claiming the U.S. is “the highest-taxed nation in the world,” arguing that “fake news” dominates journalism, and that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election “is a total fabrication.” Just recently Trump fired his acting director of national intelligence after his aide briefed a bipartisan congressional committee on Russia’s efforts to re-elect him and slotted in a loyal follower who has no qualifications for the job. He wants obedience, not objectivity.

Central to Trump’s iron-fisted control is his manipulation of his minuscule vocabulary. He uses language like a traffic signal with the red, green, and yellow lights of “disgrace,” “beautiful,” and “we’ll see what happens.” (“Unbelievable” can be either red or green.) He keeps it simple, defines everything as winning or losing, and labels everyone as a loyalist or a betrayer. His degradation of language finally empties it of all meaning.

That doesn’t matter to Trumpites. They don’t need to believe in his words. They need only to believe in him. They are frighteningly close to Orwell’s definition of an Oceana party member: “a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph.”

Trump would like to be Big Brother. But he isn’t. Not yet.

Dennis Read lives in Ashland.