Book Club in the Time of Trump: 1984

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What can I say that hasn’t been said about 1984 in the time of Trump? Just after his inauguration and sparked by Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer’s insistence of “alternative facts,” sales of it spiked and a classic dystopian novel became, once again, a best-seller. Part of the reason we didn’t read this right away was the anxiety that everyone had already said everything about it, from the times many of us read it in high school to The New York Times. And it wasn’t just covered in the Times, either—Washington Post took a crack at it as well, The Atlantic, Time; everyone had something to say about how or why 1984 and other books like it became our collective anthem in the wake of electing a White Nationalist with dictatorial tendencies to lead the United States. I believed we might have exhausted all that could be wrung out from 1984, and to try to say anything else would put me in the category of “unoriginal” at best.

The other reason I was so hesitant to read it was out of pure fear: the fear of unequivocal recognition, of staring straight into our own society as imagined in 1949 and having it be, almost word for world, the same. A friend of mine recently read it for the first time, though, and his ability to take that doozy of a journey and, on top of that, have the analysis-brain to text me all about it, prodded me into action. I could no longer look away from the inevitability of re-visiting 1984.

Now normally I would pose a series of questions; this is a book club column, after all. The reason I write this is to encourage you to read and talk about books with your local community in such a way that helps us resist. However, as I read and made notes on my copy of 1984—the same edition, same cover I used when I read it growing up—only one question seemed at all relevant. So I’ve decided that I’m only going to ask the one, and I hope you’ll go along for the ride on this one:

What do you think about 1984 becoming re-popularized in the era of Trump? Why might that have been the case? What does that mean for the modern resistance?

The first part of the question is frighteningly easy to answer. In the Two Minutes Hate, I see Trump rallies—and the hapless folks swept up in them. “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.” That’s at the very beginning, on page 16. Doublethink, or “to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them (32),” sounds curiously like what it takes to be a member of the current Republican Party. I have looked into the faces of people who at once love me and vote for my expulsion from public life. Winston Smith’s entire job, of falsifying newspapers past to suit the whims of The Party, hits poignantly at a time where the Trump administration has removed language about the need for a free press from the Department of Justice handbook. Big Brother’s vocabulary in public statements is easy to imitate (42); Donald Trump is unable to form a sentence above a fourth-grade level. And of course, to that same point, there is Newspeak: “You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. (45)” And then there’s the current internal war between technology-anxiety and the desire for power and convenience.

That was all bad enough. It was like reading a ledger of accusations, and we as a society have been found guilty. And then I realized that Ingsoc’s views of reality were exactly like those of the Trump voter.

“The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a “real” world where “real” things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in all minds, truly happens.” (229)

The ultimate in selfishness is disbelieving anything outside one’s own realm of personal experience. The ultimate in willful ignorance is shutting out accounts of experiences outside your particular collective. And that is exactly the siloing of American politics at present. The reason that 1984’s techniques and practices seem so resonant is because the attitudes are already present.

I want to excuse the average progressive voter from the accusation, but I find I cannot. Because for every piece on this dystopia, I should be finding a discussion on 1984’s rampant misogyny. And yet I don’t find nearly as many as I should, although they are out there. It’s ironic, considering the dictatorship is patriarchal in nature (though attempts to hide this by not using “father” and using “brother” instead) and its main control tactic is widespread, elaborate gaslighting. Which brings me to another part of my original question: what does this mean for the modern resistance?

When I picked 1984, I was operating off half-remembrances from high school and the fact that it seems to be a touchstone text now. That’s all. And the half-remembrances from high school were pretty half-baked; I have a very bad memory. I remembered always being at war with Eurasia. I remembered they broke Winston in the end. I remembered trusting O’Brien was a goddamn mistake. But I did not remember the disgusting amount of misogyny Winston seems to harbor throughout the text, and the ways in which he is treated differently because of his status as male. This makes me think that my high school teacher never properly unpacked it in class discussions. We covered communism, dictatorship, what it means to resist under impossible circumstances. I do not remember one single conversation about misogyny. And given that my feminism was waking up about then, I am pretty positive that’s among the things I would’ve remembered, had it happened.

Which makes me wonder: how many teachers still aren’t teaching that part of this book? It’s certainly present! One of Winston’s first comparisons in the book is between O’Brien and Julia. Upon Julia’s first appearance, based on nothing but her looks, Winston has a strong desire to rape and murder her, and we get the statement: “He disliked nearly all women, especially the young and pretty ones. (12)” When we first lay eyes on O’Brien, we get instead: “But at any rate he had the appearance of being a person that you could talk to, if somehow you could cheat the telescreen and get him alone. (13)“ We even see his entitlement start as a boy child in his flashbacks as he, almost without remorse, remembers how he treats his mother and sister when it came to scarce food: “He knew that he was starving the other two, but he could not help it; he even felt that he had a right to do it. (134)” It truly is all throughout. Winston is kind of the worst, and at several points during my re-read, I jotted “Winston is the most dangerous” down in the margins.

Julia is no better, even worse than a manic pixie dream girl. Just take a look at page 108: “(‘Always in the stink of women! How I hate women!’ she said parenthetically.)” When Winston literally tells her “‘I hated the sight of you,’ he said. ‘I wanted to rape you and then murder you afterwards.’ (101)” she responds by laughing “delightedly” (also 101). She’s portrayed as stupider, but wilder with her unbridled lady feelings the entire way through. And I refuse to believe that this is simply a product of its time. That argument is bullshit. I instead believe that this is part of how 1984 must be read. The resistance to the Party is deeply flawed and problematic in its own right. Racism (Winston describes actual human people as “yellow” and nearly every Asiatic face he sees as “expressionless”), misogyny and a deep tendency toward accepting cognitive dissonance long before he is broken into the ways of doublethink make Winston the most dangerous character in the book. We might mistake him for morally pure simply because of what and who he stands against. As readers, we might excuse his other flaws without once thinking about the systems of power he would put in place without any forethought were he to overthrow the government.

And that is basically how I feel about this being a touchstone for the modern resistance in the United States. How many folks are reading this and dismissing those parts of it? How many people who believe in the moral purity of the left are excusing themselves a ton of harmful attitudes? When we look into this book, are we seeing ourselves as well as the folks who, in the words of John Mulaney, opened the door for the horse? Because we should be! That is why 1984 is so terrifying, among other things. No one is excused.

Part of the power of 1984 for a Western, white and male audience is rooted in the deeply problematic idea that we are more evolved now and we are more evolved here. That this kind of dictatorial rule can happen in other places and other times, but we are smarter in the West! We are smarter in the present! And good lord, we are not! How subtly racist do you have to be to believe that earnestly? How toxic, how misogynist? In conclusion, how do I feel about 1984 becoming re-popularized in the era of Trump? For adults and not just high school English classrooms? I suppose I feel fine about it if, and only if, we understand not only what it means to always have been at war with Eurasia, but that we all presently and always (truly, this time) have harbored the possibility of giving rise to The Party in its various and terrible forms.

Next up: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche.

I wanted to give us a shorter book to get our teeth into this month, given that I’ve assigned two long-ass doozies in a row. But don’t think for a second that we’re going to let our intellect be as thin as the page count is small; we’re gonna really sink our teeth into this text, and into what it means to be a feminist in the time of Trump.

A.E. Osworth is Geekery Editor at Autostraddle, Managing Editor at Barnard Center for Research On Women’s Scholar and Feminist Online, and Part-Time Faculty at The New School, where they teach digital storytelling. They're writing a novel about GamerGate, which is really depressing. Follow them on Twitter or on Instagram.