Scared and mystified by President Donald Trump, people on both sides of the Atlantic are turning to George Orwell’s 1984 and other dystopian novels for insight into what to expect from a repressive, fact-denying government.
A surge in sales of Brave New World, 1984, and other books with pessimistic visions of the future comes as people struggle to understand the troublesome political realities of the new Trump administration, including the damage it threatens to the fight against AIDS, to the battle for recognition of the human rights of LGBTI people, and to so much else.
Sales of the novel 1984 rose after Trump communications adviser Kellyanne Conway on Jan. 22 discussed the size of the crowd on Inauguration Day, describing a Trump spokesman’s incorrect statements as “alternative facts.”
In the Orwell novel, published in 1949, the government crushes independent thought, using language it calls “newspeak” to eliminate unacceptable ideas.
On similar bestseller lists for Amazon’s European sites, Orwell’s 1984 reached:
- Number 3 on the British list
- Number 3 on the French list
- Number 12 on the Spanish list
- Number 15 on the Italian list
On the U.S. bestseller list, it was joined by other dystopian fiction:
- Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here (at Number 8), about the rise of an American demagogue, and
- Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New World (at Number 10), about civilization destroyed by ignorance and what Huxley called “man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
Back in September 2015, the online magazine Salon.com focused on the similarities between then-candidate Trump and the charismatic, popularly elected dictator of Lewis’s cautionary 1935 novel, who “appealed directly to his core constituency of unprosperous and resentful white men to help him repress dissent and bring fascism to America.” Salon.com stated:
“With his careful mix of plainspoken honesty and reactionary delusion, Trump is following an old rhetorical playbook, one defined and employed successfully in the [fictitious] 1936 presidential campaign of Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip. … Windrip laid out the classic nativist call to action that Trump would pick up nearly word-for-word.”
The book’s chilling account of a couple’s struggle against a dystopian society has many elements that will strike a contemporary reader as disturbingly prescient. Orwell’s description of “doublespeak” – the ability, and requirement, to utterly believe two contradictory thoughts at the same time – feels tailor-made for a president who simultaneously believes that three to five million “illegals” voted in the election, and that his victory in that election was completely fair and valid.
Similarly, [in Orwell’s narrative] the Party’s slogan that “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” seems to chime with the White House’s incorrect claim that Trump won the general election with “the most [electoral votes] since any Republican since Reagan” (he didn’t) or that the crowd on 20 January was the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration” (it wasn’t).
The Handmaid’s Tale (Number 26 on the Amazon bestseller list): “Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel is set in a near-future New England following the collapse of America into the authoritarian, theocratic state of Gilead. It was groundbreaking for its treatment of gender, depicting a state in which the advances of feminism have been comprehensively destroyed. Women are considered inferior to men, and their every behaviour is tightly controlled by the state. In particular, their role in reproduction is bound to a strict caste system: abortion is illegal, and fertile women are required to bear children for higher-status women. [Meanwhile, in reality] On Monday, Trump signed the ‘global gag order’, barring US funding from going to NGOs who provide abortion services or information. It was one of his very first acts as president.” [That gag order threatens funding for many countries’ health programs serving women and LGBTI people.]
- Brave New World: “Compared to Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World makes the case that an oppressive, authoritarian dystopia can still be pleasant to live in for the vast majority, sparking little mass resistance.”
- Virtual Light by William Gibson (1993): “[In the book] Ever greater concentration of wealth has rendered multinational corporations miniature states in their own right, with private security forces acting like personal armies for the super-rich, while the middle class has almost entirely dissipated. [Meanwhile, in reality] Trump’s net worth is currently estimated to be about $3.7bn, and he has refused to extricate himself from his businesses in any way that satisfies conventional ethical norms.”
- Forget Nineteen Eighty-Four. These five dystopias better reflect Trump’s US (Jan. 26, 2017, The Guardian)
- It really can happen here: The novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal (September 2015, Salon.com)
- Anti-AIDS programs under fire in Russia, U.S., Tanzania (Jan. 25, 2017, 76crimes.com)
- LGBT hopes in Africa, LGBT fears in the U.S. (Jan. 20, 2017, 76crimes.com)