It is to Orwell we must turn again, not from a paucity of sources, but because he is the original source and he got it right the first time. Orwell understood how the apparatus of totalitarianism works. He told us what they do, how they do it and how we fall for it– and why we will keep falling for it. Above all he told us why they do it, not to promote the state, not to provide for the general welfare, not to form a more perfect union, but for the headlong pursuit and exercise of power for its own sake, power for the elite, power applied with the arbitrary cruelty of the unsmiling, nonchalant bureaucrat. He warned us that evil loves to be cruel and that evil is ultimately banal. We are fooled by its banality. We are made to see buffoons where we should be seeing demons.
Orwell began by warning us about euphemisms. The harmless sounding room 101 in the “Ministry of Love” in his novel 1984 was the place of unspeakable horror. War became peace, freedom became slavery, ignorance became strength. Still, we persisted in employing them out of our embarrassing inability to learn. We woke up enough to cease using some of the more obvious ones, at least. Does anyone speak of “collateral damage” any longer? Do even the hokiest novels these days employ “terminate with extreme prejudice” except as a joke?
But we coined new euphemisms. The newly minted “Department of Homeland Security,” had a distinctly Orwellian cast to some of us, but most of us were fooled. For some of us the “Patriot Act” briefly and aptly conjured associations with the “Nuremberg Laws.”
Like a Broadway musical, the sets and cast change over the years but the lyrics and music remain the same. The feigned outrage that says we shouldn’t refer to “detention centers” as “concentration camps” exists purely to maintain the illusory efficacy of the euphemism. We call them concentration camps because that is exactly what they are. There is not a single aspect of the wholesale detention of human beings, distinguished by their ethnicity alone and nothing else, caged in deplorable conditions for political reasons, irrespective of the benign intentions of any of them, that doesn’t scream out “concentration camps.” That it is happening in America provides no cover, no moral exception, no blanket amnesty for the unspeakable horror that it has become. Americans have rounded up human beings who have committed no crimes in conditions worse than prisons, without rights, without due process, without humanity. That is what a concentration camp is.
Meanwhile the purported American leader – the word in German is still “Fuhrer,” incidentally – conducted what was euphemistically referred to as a “Salute to America.” It’s the same song and the same tune. The Romans called it a triumph, but for the perfected ideal behind the symbol no one brought it to its sinister apogee quite like Adolf Hitler with his “Nuremberg rallies.” What Trump gave us was a jingoistic salute to himself. To some extent the press cooperated, excusing its many mistakes and blunders because it was “too hastily organized,” despite the fact that it has been in the works for at least five months, and micromanaged by Trump every step of the way.
That in his “Salute to America” speech, Trump laughably referred to captured airports in an eighteenth century war, and conflated the War of 1812 and the American Revolution, will have very little impact on his fan base. Totalitarianism does not require truth. It doesn’t even require verisimilitude. It only requires blind obedience and unquestioning belief in the simplicity of its euphemisms.
“Make America Great Again,” is the most chilling of all. For me it symbolizes a deliberate call to undo every piece of desperately-won progress in the cause of human rights. It is the battle cry of the white man who wants to keep everything for himself and leave nothing behind for anyone else. It signifies children in cages, torn from their families, it encapsulates intolerance for people of color, it enshrines the death of the cause to empower women. It is the most monstrous assemblage of four words in the English language, a euphemism for this, the darkest time in American history.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.