If you should visit the gravesite of George Orwell, as I have, you might notice three things: the humble simplicity of its surroundings, the absence of other people (by which I mean, of course, “living” people), and the simplicity of his marker, which is inscribed with his birth name, Eric Arthur Blair. That the final resting place of planet earth’s greatest prophet should remain so uniquely unrewarded by glitz and fame in its own way makes the place all that more powerfully moving. I do not know Kim Kardashian and I mean her no harm, but that she should be significantly more famous than Eric Arthur Blair’s nom de plume may serve as a deserving epitaph for a species ultimately condemned to a stupid finish – if we don’t heed his warning.
I cannot think of a single instance in all his writings where George Orwell raised a polemic against totalitarianism. He didn’t have to. Instead, he showed us what it looked like, how it justified itself and how it took over. He didn’t need to call it evil, he merely showed us why and how it was evil, by exposing us, in his fiction, to life at the unendurably wrong end of the barrel of a gun. He exposed the triple follies of the 20th century – imperialism, fascism and Soviet communism – as aspects of the same idiocy, the belief that if you surrender your rights – to the white man, to the nation, to the good of the proletariat – the end will be predictably dystopian.
The justifications vary but they always amount to the same thing, “the good of the state,” “civilization for your own good,” “make America great again.” On closer inspection one realizes these are placards not merely in the literal sense, but the symbolic sense as well. Two dimensions with nothing on the other side. How does one make America great again? No one really knows, no one bothers to explain it in anything like detail, because it’s an unexamined assumption that is only understood in the uselessly abstract. Every era is some future somebody’s “good old days,” and America’s fuzzy past is a standard held up to disguise an underlying darker rationale.
Orwell understood that darker rationale for what it was and he exposed it mercilessly: power for its own sake. Power because some people like telling other people what to do, what to think, whom to love. Power because some people enjoy hurting other people.
The subtext of George Stephanopoulos’ interview with Donald Trump is, clearly, that Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing because he doesn’t need to know what he’s doing. That is not why he’s in power. He’s in power for the sake of power, for the ugly relentless pursuit and exercise of power, for himself and for his Republican cronies.
Occasionally they do public good, just for the sake of form. For example, Mitch McConnell’s recent promise to extend the benefits paid to 9/11 first responders is a bone he reluctantly tosses us to hide the one and a half trillion dollar tax cut he gave to his rich friends, or to distract from the rapist he recently husbanded onto the bench of the Supreme Court. But one does get the impression Mitch is getting tired of the pretence. He, like Donald Trump, looks forward to a time when they can murder democracy right out in the open, and laugh at us as we are forced to watch.
Little by little the American people are being gaslighted by slogans: “no collusion,” “the enemy of the people,” “make America great again.” Or, in Orwellian terms, “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” “Ignorance is Strength.” And if you think there are not enough of them to pull it off, think again. The Nazis did it with just one third of the German people behind them.
Orwell’s playbook tells how things will proceed, how they must proceed for Trump and his gang to hold onto the power they have grown to love. Slowly, bit by bit, Trump and his cronies will want more and more concessions. They have already cleared a path for Russian interference in the election of 2020 with nary a shot fired. They will continue to flout shamelessly the rule of law, out of the well of contempt from a fathomless conviction that the rule of law will soon be a thing of the past. They must be stopped.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.