The fact that Huxley and Orwell’s dystopian visions are forever intertwined in our collective imagination, shows just how similar they are. Both of these intellectual giants of cultural criticism have, in their own way, anticipated a future where governments control and manipulate us in such a way as to keep us docile and acquiescent. Despite their similarities and overlapping rejection of totalitarian regimes, there are significant differences between them. Neil Postman articulated these differences perfectly:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”[i]
Postman’s summation of each writer’s fears perfectly captures the subtle differences between both writers. There are many today who ask whose vision turned out to be the correct one. Andrew Postman, the son of Neil Postman, writing in the Guardian, argued that the rise of Trump proves that Huxley’s vision was the correct one. Andrew Postman writes, “there were two landmark dystopian novels written by brilliant British cultural critics — Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell — and we Americans had mistakenly feared and obsessed over the vision portrayed in the latter book (an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state) rather than the former (a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble).”[ii] While it is tempting to agree with Andrew Postman’s argument, as well as his father’s prediction, that Huxley’s vision is the one we are living through today, there is an argument to be made for Orwell as well.
Trump’s celebrity status came at a time when the digital revolution was intensifying.
Prior to Trump’s ascendancy, I made the argument that Huxley’s vision was realized. Once Trump came to power, everything changed. The fact that a Republican administration came to power had very little to do with the seismic change that was about to be unleashed. As a nation, we’ve experienced both Republican and Democratic administrations with traditional partisan bickering and dissent. The cataclysmic change that suddenly and inexplicably descended upon our democracy was the result of a man who was singularly unqualified for the most powerful office in the world. Although Trump’s beliefs, if he has any, and his hateful rhetoric were disturbing — enough so that countless books will be written about them — it was his desire to control the epistemic content of what we perceive as real that was frightening to behold. It is important to clear up a potential contradiction here. I, and numerous others, have made the argument that Trump is an intellectual simpleton. If this is the case, then how could someone who lacks any modicum of understanding of history, economics, literature, political theory, international relations, etc., be in a position to fundamentally rewrite the basic structure of knowledge? The answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer is it is indeed possible to have a simpleton manipulate, condition, brainwash, influence, impact, and generally control people given the right conditions.
Trump’s rise to power occurred at a time when a set of multi-stranded forces converged in such a way as to make the improbable a reality. Trump’s celebrity status came at a time when the digital revolution was intensifying. Social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have already been established and waiting for a bombastic charlatan to come along. Prior to running for public office, Trump was a businessman, a brand, and a popular face of reality television. His fascination with Twitter, coupled with a narcissistic personality, helped catapult him to social media stardom. By the time he formally declared his candidacy for president, the number of Twitter followers dramatically increased. His crude manner of doublespeak, conspiratorial mindset, racially charged rhetoric, misogynistic language, xenophobic tendencies, and authoritarian leanings attracted a subsection of the population known as the alt-right. This group, who largely existed on the fringes of society, found a candidate who would finally speak for them.
Trump’s meteoric rise to power revealed a fundamentally disturbing truth of democracies: Intellectually challenged, cognitively deficient, shallow, and self-absorbed individuals who have a strong following on social media may actually win an election for the hell of it. Although he identified himself with the Democratic Party until 1987, and again from 2001 to 2009, he switched to the Republican Party from 2012 to now. When he ran for president in 2016, he used political rallies and endless Tweets to engage in empty platitudes that appealed to several groups of people who believed he defended their perceived grievances. He appealed to religious groups who felt marginalized by society that abandoned them; he appealed to young white males with limited education; he appealed to people who believed their economic lot in life would improve by having him as president. Many of those who gravitated towards him were willing to either ignore his astonishing ignorance of government, history, geography, etc., or they identified with his ineptitude as being one of their own.
Once Trump took office, his incessant attacks against the media would become a full-time job for his administration.
Once Trump took office, his incessant attacks against the media would become a full-time job for his administration. He used blanket statements, such as fake news, to describe any news organization that was critical of his presidency. His Orwellian doublespeak came into focus when on July 24, 2018, he gave a talk at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Kansas City. He told the audience: “Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news… Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening…”[iii] What makes the above statement extraordinary is that Trump is asking people to ignore what their eyes tell them and instead accept his own interpretation of the world. If truth is no longer truth and perception can no longer guarantee that what we are seeing with our own eyes is real, then what’s left is a manufactured world created and controlled by a man who lives in his own dream world filled with ignorance, stupidity, conspiracy theories, and the belief that he is somehow smarter than he sounds. There are those who reject everything Trump stands for, nevertheless, they may ascribe to him a certain level of cleverness for succeeding in manipulating us en masse.
Trump is not clever. It simply turned out that his monosyllabic way of speaking, coupled with his ability to use Twitter to both project and amplify the collective grievances of his followers, shifted his popularity to the political arena. In doing this, Trump has unwittingly exposed the two cultures of America. One culture includes the intellectual elites who live along the East and West coasts. This culture includes the news media, college professors, and generally those with a college degree. The other culture includes those with limited education, religious people, and anyone who responds to authoritarian leadership. Trump was able to exploit the chasm between these two cultures by widening the gap to such a point that both cultures look at each other through a prism of resentment, suspicion, fear, paranoia, and an oceanic sense of otherness. Whenever Trump attacks journalists as fake news, he is, in essence, attacking the bicoastal intellectual culture; while simultaneously defending Middle America.
It is this narrative that Trump perfected over the years that enabled him to withstand any and all criticism.
It is this narrative that Trump perfected over the years that enabled him to withstand any and all criticism. The narrative was simple: anyone who showed an ounce of intellect, or challenged the thousands of idiotic utterances he’s made, would immediately be labeled fake or an enemy of the people. Trump’s followers would, of course, find themselves trapped in an Orwellian-type echo chamber, where anything their leader says or does fits a predefined narrative. It is this “us” versus “them” paradigm that Trump exploited for his own narcissistic desire for attention and power. The “us” is Middle America and the “other” includes the sophisticated elites who believe “they know everything.” As long as Trump framed the narrative as a cultural war, he would be shielded from any attempt at exposing his monumental flaws as a leader and a human being. The reason he engages in bullying tactics, ad hominem attacks, and endless repetition of monosyllabic phrases is that he lacks the intellectual wherewithal to engage in substantive conversation. He surrounds himself with sycophants who lack the moral courage to confront him, and those who challenge him are dismissed in short order.
Trump’s rise to power was simple in the sense that he used school-yard taunting and bullying in order to mask his massive insecurities, while simultaneously appearing as if he is defending Middle America. Let me say a few words about those on the right, as well as the religious groups who support Trump. These groups feel their voice is not heard; that the liberal intellectual culture looks down on them with condescension and contempt. These feelings are real and valid. The only problem is Trump is not the person to defend their sense of alienation from a political world that took them for granted. There are those who argue that Trump is filling the courts with conservative judges and though he might be crude, and at times offensive, he is keeping his promise to defend us. Many churches have struggled with this dichotomy and some have distanced themselves from Trump, but many others have shown glaring moral cowardice by either staying silent or actively supporting this cancerous leader. There are also those who argue that the economy is in the best shape it has been in decades. Despite the fact that, “the income gap between rich and poor in [the] U.S. is the largest in 50 years,” Trump and his administration want us to believe that we are living through the halcyon days of wealth and prosperity.[iv]
We are either too busy or too distracted to make sense of the world.
I said earlier that an explanation for Trump’s capacity to change the very prism by which we apprehend knowledge is both simple and complex. It is complex in the sense that our democracy should have been mature enough to reject the hubris, narcissism, bombast, megalomaniacal, ineptitude, and generally offensive nature of someone like Trump. Here is where my critique of the digital age can shed light on the Trump phenomenon. Let me engage in a counterfactual. If Trump ran for president at any period prior to the digital age, he would most assuredly have lost. The traditional media, as well as the political apparatus of both parties, would have swiftly exposed him as a con man. The question, of course, is what happened in the digital age that has enabled a snake-oil salesman to be taken seriously by the voting public. The digital age ushered in a dizzying pace of technological change, an avalanche of information, fleeting images, ephemeral ideas, twenty-four-hour news, endless distractions, social media, echo chambers, and our growing appetite for more empty content. The preponderant impact of all this concentrated rapid-fire change is mental exhaustion.
The end result of all this sophistication is unnecessary complexity. We are either too busy or too distracted to make sense of the world. It is within this cultural space of our collective vulnerability that charlatans thrive. In other words, our vulnerability is the unwitting outcome of, “the complexity of the modern world and the rate of technological and social change: Quackery provides what Saul Bellow once called a ‘five-cent synthesis,’ boiling down the chaotic tangle of the age into simple nostrums. Modern life bombards us into exhaustion and boredom as much as anxiety; sometimes we are just looking for entertainment in a surprising notion.”[v] There are simple nostrums that keep us in a perpetual state of intellectual numbness. The word nostrum refers to an ineffective drug that is prepared by an unqualified person. The complexity of our age has given rise to a vicious circle — the more technology we use, the less intellectual we become. And any idea that is nuanced, or requires cognitive effort on our part, is dumbed down, packaged, and delivered to us for mindless consumption.
[i] Postman, A. (2017). My Dad Predicted Trump in 1985 — It’s Not Orwell, he Warned, it’s Brave New World. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/feb/02/amusing-ourselves-to-death-neil-postman-trump-orwell-huxley.
[iii] Richards, K. (2018). Trump’s Latest Speech Compared to ‘1984’: ‘What You’re Seeing and what You’re Reading is Not What’s Happening.’ Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/us.
[iv] Boylan, D. (2019). Income Gap Between Rich and Poor in the U.S. is Largest in 50 Years. Washington Times. https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2019/sep/27/income-gap-between-rich-and-poor-in-us-is-largest-/.
[v] Ganz, J. (2018). Why we are so Vulnerable to Charlatans Like Trump. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/12/opinion/trump-jordan-peterson-charlatans.html.