Trump Republicans are recreating George Orwell’s 1984

140 House Republicans have demonstrated their continued support for the former president and his lie that the 2020 election was rigged. Some have gone further along the path of perfidy and have stated that the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 didn’t happen, that the rioters were merely tourists walking through the hallways. In the words of commentators working for CNN (but not Fox News or NewsMax), they are rewriting history. “The Rewriting of History” is a phrase from George Orwell’s 1984. In Orwell’s prophetic novel, written in 1948, the Party (IngSoc) rule Oceania, a landmass including what are now the United States and the United Kingdom (the latter satirically renamed Airstrip 1). They constantly alter news broadcasts, media reports and historical records to support the current version of truth. They survey the people through ubiquitous television screens. Most citizens submit to the domination of their leader, Big Brother, and the authoritarian militia that stamp out any rebellious elements. O’Brien, the senior functionary who captures and tortures Winston Smith, the protagonist of the novel, tells him that the reality of 1984 is a boot stamping on a human face, forever. This is the reality imagined by the mob who stormed the Capitol.

The terror of 1984 is not just the torture: the cage of starved rats that will devour Winston if he does not comply. Eventually, Winston gives in and agrees that he loves Big Brother. He is defeated. But the greater terror is of a world where people voluntarily give up their freedom because of fear. You can see the fear in the faces of the Republican representatives as they deny the truth.

Trump is Big Brother. He has an uncanny attraction to millions who cannot bear their individual lives and would rather join with him in an inchoate, ignorant, violent mass of “us” against “them”, “them” being liberals, Blacks, Democrats and others who, they believe, would take way their primal American freedoms. He is kept in place, six months after he lost the office of president, by an oligarchical media who, for financial and ideological reasons, perpetuate the big lie – that Trump really won the 2020 election.

In Orwell’s novel, the combination of state and ideological power maintains the status quo. In the USA today, Trump Republicans are a minority, but they are convinced they are right. Their identity and security lie in their certainty that they are the winners and that with Trump they will finally gain liberty. The opposite, of course, is the case.

The Age of Anxiety

The phrase “Age of Anxiety” has been around for a while.  The title of Auden’s 1947 poem is much better known than the poem itself, and even Jamie Cullum’s song was written before the advent of the pandemic.  But we are now in a new age of widespread distress.

Many writers have tried to describe the feeling of general anxiety about one’s being-in-the-world.  Emile Durkheim coined the term anomie to describe the loss of common norms and values that accompany social dislocation.  John Bowlby argued that disturbed children lack a sense of a secure base. A sense of ontological insecurity must underlie the anxiety of those who devote themselves to “strong” leaders who they believe will help and protect them.  George Orwell’s Big Brother was a satirical yet foreboding invention.   Hannah Arendt wrote about Nazi totalitarianism: “In an ever changing, incomprehensible world, the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.” But this is not true only of the “masses”. The spectacle of Rudy Giuliani sweating with anxiety in his devotion to Trump is a sad contrast to the man who gained appreciation for his leadership of New York after 9/11.

Meanwhile, the actual pandemic, and attempts to manage it, have severely disrupted and curtailed social life.   Defending ourselves against an invisible viral enemy that can strike at any time, we isolate from each other.  Everyday companionship can be gained, if at all, only through a phone or computer screen.  Household income falls, or even ceases.  The lives of millions of people without secure accommodation, heating or food become even more precarious. 

The pandemic, like the fear of totalitarianism, is destructive of all living together. Fortunately, the discovery of a vaccine, and the election of Biden, signal a respite in anxiety.  But recent events in the US and UK have shown that authoritarianism was not buried in the history of the 1930s but is immanent in an apparent democracy.  This plague, wrote Albert Camus, never dies.  “It waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers for the day when it will once again rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”