Who Controls the Past Controls the Future

What Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” can teach us about the Trump administration

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, stood in front of the American public for the first time and claimed the inauguration ceremony had drawn the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration”—a demonstrable falsehood. The next day, Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer’s blatant lie, saying the administration had presented “alternative facts,” setting a clear tone for the new executive branch’s relationship with the truth.

Conway’s statement generated frenzy across the media, with many decrying her words as “Orwellian.” Just four days after Conway’s remark, sales of George Orwell’s classic, “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” had increased by 9,500 percent.

What does the Trump administration have to do with post-WWII dystopian literature? An unsettling amount, actually.

In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Orwell crafted a world in which a totalitarian government exercises complete control over not just people’s actions but their thoughts as well. The government—or, The Party, as it’s known in the novel—manufactures its own facts, demands unquestioning obedience, and demonizes foreign enemies. Sound familiar?

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

The Party’s slogan is also one of the main themes of the book, and it’s where many find parity between The Party and The Donald. In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” The Party maintains complete control over all facts and information. When The Party changes its position on something, the historical record is changed in concord.

When Kellyanne Conway cited the nonexistent “Bowling Green Massacre” to justify Trump’s immigration ban, many saw the writing on the wall. The Trump administration, like The Party, has no qualms with fabricating past events to justify its current objectives.

The government—or, The Party, as it’s known in the novel—manufactures its own facts, demands unquestioning obedience, and demonizes foreign enemies. Sound familiar?

Fortunately, our country has a free press to call the president on his bullshit. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is currently engaged in a smear campaign against the media in an attempt to snuff out unflattering coverage. Trump’s mission to discredit the media seems to have had some effect. Trust in the media is at an all-time low, and without the free press to check the president’s lies and uncover his dirt, he has free reign to spout whatever nonsense he so desires.

In “Nineteen Eighty-Four” the populace is continuously satiated with fabricated news of improvement, productivity, and success. Even though the world around them lies in ruins and their living conditions are poor, the people wholeheartedly believe that things were better than they used to be. This fuels the rampant patriotism that keeps The Party in power.

Trump’s relationship with his supporters is similarly abusive. It seems as though every other day Trump announces a new factory being built in the United States, or a new deal that will help out American workers “bigly.” His base eats this up and uses it as evidence that Trump is looking out for them, even though he’s done nothing to address the fundamental problems affecting Americans such as growing income inequality and government corruption.

The Party demands total obedience from its constituents. It achieves this through relentless patriotism fueled by hate for the opposition. Every day, citizens take part in the “Two Minutes Hate” wherein they must gather and express their hate for the nation’s enemies, yelling out vile obscenities and curses—and no, this is not a Trump rally we’re talking about.

Trust in the media is at an all-time low, and without the free press to check the president’s lies and uncover his dirt, he has free reign to spout whatever nonsense he so desires.

In the same way, Trump has marketed fear in order to secure his position of power. He’s galvanized his supporters by casting illegal immigrants “thugs,” and Muslims as the sinister villains we need to defend against, and in doing so, he’s been able to keep his base energized and motivated in support of him.

The strength of The Party, and the strength of Donald Trump, comes not from its propensity to distort the truth, but from its constituency’s willingness to believe it.

In his 1987 book, “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” Trump ominously described what he called “truthful hyperbole,” or “an innocent form of exaggeration—and … a very effective form of promotion.” His book claimed that “people want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.” That, in essence, is how Donald Trump secured the presidency, and is the mechanism by which his presidency has operated thus far.

The Party didn’t take away people’s freedom; the people gave it up out of fear and indifference to the truth. It’s easy to accept lies if they’re convenient and easy. As Orwell put it, “They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird.”