The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservatives crying ‘Orwell’ are downright Orwellian

(The Washington Post)
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If nothing else, Donald Trump has been doubleplusgood for Orwell.

When the multiply bankrupt reality-TV star ascended to office in the guise of a straight-talking financial genius, sales of “1984” increased by 9,500 percent.

From its start, the Trump presidency has played out like the world’s most expensive lesson plan for English classes studying George Orwell. On the first day, White House press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that Trump’s inauguration drew the “largest audience ever.” Easily disproved by widely available visual evidence, Spicer’s fib fulfilled Winston Smith’s prediction in “1984”: “In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.”

In those early days of relatively benign lies, Kellyanne Conway sounded like a parody of the Ministry of Truth when she announced that the Trump administration was relying on “alternative facts.” But a few months later, the president articulated the administration’s fundamental public policy: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening. Just stick with us.” In that blistering moment of twisted candor, “Orwellian” became the adjective of our era.

Four years later, how quaint such duplicity sounds. The novel that chillingly proclaimed, “War is peace — Freedom is slavery — Ignorance is strength” has transitioned from a dystopian warning to a political flag that conservatives love to wave. We know now that America’s descent down the memory hole was just beginning back in 2017. In these latter days of Trump’s calamitous reign, his disciples have co-opted not just Big Brother’s methods but Orwell’s very name.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), one of the slickest recyclers of Trump’s fabrications, was quick to raise the specter of Orwell last week. The senator’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, announced Thursday that it was canceling his upcoming book, “The Tyranny of Big Tech.” While “tyranny” is a word now permanently affixed to Hawley’s name, there is apparently no longer much interest in the senator’s musings about Facebook and Google.

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“We did not come to this decision lightly,” Simon & Schuster said in a statement. “It will always be our mission to amplify a variety of voices and viewpoints: at the same time we take seriously our larger public responsibility as citizens, and cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom.”

“This could not be more Orwellian,” Hawley tweeted, with little understanding of Orwell (or private industry). “Simon & Schuster is canceling my contract because I was representing my constituents, leading a debate on the Senate floor on voter integrity, which they have now decided to redefine as sedition. Let me be clear, this is not just a contract dispute. It’s a direct assault on the First Amendment.”

In his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell mocks writing such as this, in which “words and meaning have almost parted company.” He reserves particular condemnation for phrases like “let me be clear,” which is used here in Hawley’s tweet as code for “let me obfuscate.” The senator must know that Simon & Schuster didn’t cancel his contract because he was representing his constituents; the company canceled his contract because he’s become a symbol of violent extremism and toxic deception that no self-respecting private company wants to promote. That’s not “a direct assault on the First Amendment.” That’s a direct exercise of free enterprise.

But Hawley earns Big Brother’s special smile for invoking Orwell’s name at the very moment he’s committing the slick linguistic abuses that Orwell so memorably demonstrated in “1984.” From his hysterical tone, you would think the cancellation of some book six months from now was the quintessential tragedy of this month in Washington. That’s the old Orwellian 3-D strategy: Denial, Deceit and Distraction.

The president’s son also wrapped himself in Orwell after the assault on the Capitol when social media companies banned his father for inciting violence against the U.S. government.

“We are living Orwell’s 1984,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted on Jan. 8. Speaking freely in America to his 6.5 million followers, he added, “Free-speech no longer exists in America.” But irony is having a heyday!

Such appropriation of the language of condemnation is an old trick. But the violent assault on Congress has fired the furnace of conservative rhetoric to record temperatures. After months of openly poisoning the body politic with lies that sent a mob crashing into the Capitol, right-wing politicians are deeply alarmed about . . . their ability to continue openly poisoning the body politic with lies.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) recently tweeted, “Big Tech’s PURGE, censorship & abuse of power is absurd & profoundly dangerous. If you agree w/ Tech’s current biases (Iran, good; Trump, bad), ask yourself, what happens when you disagree? Why should a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires have a monopoly on political speech?”

There is nothing “profoundly dangerous” about limiting the ability of co-conspirators to plot attacks against government ceremonies, officials and buildings. Cruz, who pretends to be an expert on constitutional law, knows that private companies making editorial judgments and enforcing their terms of service are not practicing “censorship.” And he neatly elides the inconvenient fact that no one in this country enjoys “a monopoly on political speech.” Indeed, a U.K.-based billionaire controls Fox News, America’s most successful cable news network and a gushing fount of incendiary disinformation.

The great silencing that right-wing zealots are shouting about to their millions of followers on social media, radio, TV and in newspapers is not an example of Orwellian repression. It’s a mirage of Orwellian double-think.

This week — on cue — “1984” is No. 1 again.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts

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