In 1949, George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four to warn of the dangers of totalitarian governments — the sort that he saw cropping up in Spain and Russia during that period. He wrote of a harsh world where truth becomes fungible. The all-powerful, all-seeing Big Brother controls everything. Thought police weed out dissension. Facts and history are altered to meet the needs of the party in power.
Little did Orwell know he might be describing the United States in the second decade of the 21st century.
Over the course of the past year, the Republican party has chosen to downplay the events of January 6. A recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found about two-thirds of Republicans viewed the attack as not violent or only somewhat violent. Yet overall, about two-thirds of Americans described the day as violent or very violent.
Immediately after January 6, Republican leaders denounced the insurrection. On January 19th, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said, “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the President and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.” House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy said, “The President bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump.”
But before long, the back-pedaling began. The landscape of reality for Republicans quickly began to change. Impeachment efforts were blocked. So were attempts to establish a bi-partisan commission to investigate the attack. McCarthy is now refusing to testify before the January 6 commission, despite previously having agreed to do so.
Throughout 2021, Republican members of Congress downplayed the events of January 6. For example, Georgia Rep. Andrew Clyde (R) characterized the attack as a “normal tourist visit.” And now the Big Lie — the claim of a stolen election — continues to gain traction. Of course, the former President is beating the drum the loudest. But plenty of others are joining the parade.
Republican legislatures are working hard to limit voting rights, all under the guise of preventing another “stolen” election. According to a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, 30 percent of Americans say there is solid evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. Among Trump supporters, 69 percent say Biden’s election was not legitimate. Numerous court cases and state election audits have proven otherwise.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell dives deep into the nature of truth and how a party in power can change it. A substitute language, Newspeak, is created to stamp out the truth of what is happening.
“There is need for an unwearying, moment-to-moment flexibility in the treatment of facts. The keyword here is BLACKWHITE. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to BELIEVE that black is white, and more, to KNOW that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. “
Orwell saw a society in which the party was all-powerful. History was altered to support that.
“…the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it… All the beliefs, habits, tastes, emotions, mental attitudes that characterize our time are really designed to sustain the mystique of the Party and prevent the true nature of present-day society from being perceived.”
In a Washington Post opinion piece, Ellie Silverman notes the deep divides in America. She cites remarks by Cassie Miller of the Southern Poverty Law Center: “It suggests that we’ve actually moved beyond just partisanship. Americans are living in two wildly different realities and are viewing each other increasingly as enemies that they have to contend with.”
The bending of truth is nothing new to Trump world. Think back to remarks by Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, defending false statements about Trump’s inaugural crowd. She termed the lies “alternative facts.”
One would think the blatant alteration of facts would backfire. But it doesn’t. The facts don’t matter. It’s the emotion that counts. In a Washington Post essay, Philip Bump uses as example NPR host Steve Inskeep’s challenge to Trump regarding the audit of the vote in Arizona.
“Put succinctly, you can’t combat irrationality with reason.
When Trump defended his position by mentioning the vote result in Arizona, Inskeep pointed out that the partisan review of ballots in that state’s Maricopa County had not changed the actual result.
To a rational person, this is damning: Trump’s allies pushed for an “audit,” got one, and Trump still lost. How can you rebut that? But the point of the audit was always to codify doubt. The audit accomplished what it was intended to accomplish: Give Trump and his allies something full of “questions” to which he could point as evidence that something sketchy happened.”
Codify doubt. Create confusion. Fuel conspiracy theory. That’s the real purpose of alternative facts. This blurring of reality happens at all levels — think local school boards, social media, conversations around the family table. And now, the Republican National Committee has cast the violent January 6 insurrection as “legitimate political discourse.”
Thomas Friedman recently wrote in The New York Times about the crisis we now face. He fears we are headed for a very dark place because once “there is no more truth, only versions, and no more trust, only polarization — getting them back is almost impossible.”
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four did not end well for its protagonist, Winston Smith. Let’s hope our ending is better.
(Updated February 8. 2022)