When I arrived in London late last summer I had a dog-eared paperback of “1984” in my backpack and plans to see a hit revival of “1984,” the play. The U.S. presidential election was still months away but - as the saying goes – I was hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.
Re-reading George Orwell’s masterpiece for the first time in decades I found it to be better, that is to say, even more terrifying than I remembered. And the theatrical version scared me even more.
Some of that was the staging – blinding lights, shockingly loud noises. But a lot of it was that, unlike the book, I couldn’t put it down and walk away. I was trapped in an alternative reality at least for the duration of the play.
Today, as “1984” rockets to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list and pundits still living in the real world pepper their commentary with Orwellian phrases like “doublethink” and “doublespeak,” I realize the trapped feeling I had in that theater will be with me for four more years.
Welcome to the biggest, most terrifying revival yet of “1984,” in previews since Donald Trump rode down the Trump Tower escalator in 2015. It officially opened this month to fiercely divided reviews, and while I recognize that it’s Orwell’s script, I’m calling this revival “2017.”
Set in the White House, Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago (the Ministries of Lies), “2017” stars Donald Trump as Big Brother and Steve Bannon (who calls the media “the opposition party”) and Kellyanne Conway (defender of “alternative facts”) as the chief enforcers.
Oh yes, and as the doomed lovers Winston and Julia, who make a brave but hopeless stand against the wholesale destruction of facts; it stars all of us who haven’t yet lost our minds.
You remember Winston Smith, born too late to prevent the dystopian world he inhabits, toiling for a Ministry of Truth that he knows is a Ministry of Lies and finally tortured into becoming a liar himself.
Orwell’s novel is about a world in which the spread of disinformation is so complete that not only are most people incapable of separating fact from fiction, they have lost the will to even try. We are not there yet.
There are millions of Winstons and Julias out there, and our resistance against the Ministries of Lies grows stronger each day.
But we have in fact elected a president who believes he can blithely re-write history, as Big Brother did, at his will. And he has at his disposal not only a largely compliant Congress and Cabinet of piggy millionaires and billionaires (see “Animal Farm”), but also a powerful mind-control tool that even Orwell didn’t imagine – the internet.
Of course that same wondrous tool can also liberate minds from manipulation and ignorance, and lovers of truth are making maximum use of it, too.
Now you may think I’m being overly dramatic here, and if I were writing an academic paper, not a blog post, I would have to point out all the ways in which Donald Trump is not the same as Big Brother. For one thing, he is real. We never could be sure that was true of Big Brother.
But Trump shares the one quality above all that defines Big Brother, which is that facts can summarily be made up, altered or destroyed.
The media has exposed many of Trump’s biggest lies, such as that Obama was born in Kenya, “thousands and thousands” of New Jersey Muslims cheered 9-11, human influence on climate change is a Chinese hoax, and millions of illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton on Nov. 8.
Dan Rather, taking a page right out of “1984,” actually felt compelled to remind Americans recently that two plus two still equals four. And Fareed Zakaria, a keen and dutiful student of history, presciently warned that if a lie is repeated too often it can “become the truth.”
Major newspapers, like the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe, are compiling, publishing and archiving running lists of all Trump’s falsehoods, a daunting task since he lies almost as often as he speaks. They are also hiring more investigative reporters – a welcome development that should be supported by more subscribers.
A bigger danger, and one right out of Big Brother’s playbook, is Trump’s orders to stifle free speech and potentially curb research in offices he wields power over such as the Environmental Protection Agency.
Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth is to alter or destroy any evidence that contradicts Big Brother’s latest edicts, to in effect erase history. I wouldn’t be surprised if some U.S. scientists try to store their climate change data in Canada for safekeeping, as has been suggested.
Like Big Brother, Trump is omnipresent. He won the presidency by blanketing the media landscape with his scowling face and ugly message – that America is under siege, and only he can save us.
Big Brother had his never-ending, revolving wars against Eurasia or Eastasia or Whatever Asia, and Trump has his wars against brown skinned immigrants, Muslims, and climate scientists.
In “2017” we don’t need surveillance cameras installed in all our homes, like in “1984,” to know that HE is always there, if not watching us at least relentlessly invading our consciousness and stoking fear. Every time we turn on our televisions, computers or phones his image appears.
He can’t bear to be alone, and he won’t leave us alone, lest we forget his power and self-conferred magnificence. So he tweets at all hours of the day and night, and holds campaign rallies after the campaign is over.
Like Big Brother, Trump injects his audiences with hate in the hope that they will love him all the more for protecting them. His tirades against imaginary foes, from Mexican rapists to Syrian terrorists masquerading as desperate refugees, recall the “Hate Weeks” mandated by Big Brother in “1984.”
“Lock her up,” the chants Trump led at his rallies against Hillary Clinton, are eerily reminiscent of the chants Big Brother demanded from his followers during “Hate Weeks.” Anyone who didn’t join in was labeled a traitor.
And so our national play, “2017,” has begun its presumed four-year run. How appropriate that, like a new trend on Broadway, this is “immersion theater,” in which audiences don’t just watch but play a role.
Finally, let’s not forget the last chapter and last act of our predecessor drama “1984.” It takes place in a torture chamber. Donald Trump, who wants to re-institute torture because “it works,” would probably applaud it, because torture in this scene ultimately does work.
Winston Smith, by this point a shattered, sniveling shell of a man, finally concedes that truth is lies, two plus two equals five, and he loves Big Brother. But “2017” is still being written. What will our ending be?