George Orwell’s 1984 is a dystopian novel about authoritarianism, and is widely understood as a critique of Stalinism and centralized communist states. But Orwell believed that propaganda functioned in both communist and capitalist states alike. His insights about the uses and abuses of propaganda are remarkably relevant when studying American and western “democracies.” Orwell was particularly concerned with thought control, as practiced in corporate media, which had the effect of stifling free and independent inquiry. In line with Orwell’s insight, western societies such as the United States have long been characterized by indoctrination of the masses at the hands of political elites
, who dominate national discourse despite the widely celebrated guises of journalistic and personal freedom.
As Orwell understood, thought control and indoctrination were pervasive in “free” capitalist societies, where “unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” And 1984 is as important as ever in helping us understand how authoritarianism and fascism apply to western politics. More specifically, Orwell’s concept of “doublethink” is relevant when reflecting on the white supremacist, neofascist virtue signaling that is ritualistically engaged in by the Trump administration.
Doublethink is the ultimate form of propaganda, as it represents a sort of gaslighting in which repression is rationalized by powerful societal actors, and in the name of “liberating” the individual. In 1984, Orwell’s totalitarian government (Ingsoc) in the nation of Oceania officially adopts doublethink as its language. As a form of state propaganda, doublethink is defined as the practice of “holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” For Orwell, doublethink was a form of social control whereby subjects are said “to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory, and believing in both of them.” The three pillars of Ingsoc’s doublethink propaganda in 1984 include the slogans: “War is Peace”; “Freedom is Slavery”; and “Ignorance is Strength.”
In the US, doublethink is hardly unique to the Trump administration. The notion that wars are fought for peace spans virtually the entire history of the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries. Presidents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama (among many others) repeated this lie in order to pacify anti-war sentiment, while simultaneously pursuing a vision for infinite war. In Trump’s America, Orwellian doublethink is now utilized to mainstream and legitimize a fascistic commitment to white supremacist politics. The president relies on a dual strategy of repression, on the one hand by expanding the reactionary US police state, and on the other by drawing on reactionaries from his base who engage in coercion and terrorism against his political “enemies.” Nowhere is this dual strategy clearer than in Trump’s immigration agenda, and as related to his interactions with fascists in his support base.
Coupled with the rise of a fascistic police state are the president’s efforts to strengthen the government’s longstanding commitment to neoliberalism. Political leaders in both major parties have committed to neoliberal governance over the last forty years, as defined by deregulation of corporate interests, large and sustained tax cuts for the upper class, an assault on the welfare state, an ecologically devastating attack on the earth and human sustainability, and the sustenance of the corporate military-industrial complex. Such support for neoliberal capitalism is fused with the demonization of minorities and people of color, and the strengthening of policing structures that target immigrants, in what I and other intellectuals refer to as “neoliberal fascism.”
Two examples demonstrate the power of racist Orwellian doublethink: Trump’s response to the August 2017 Charlottesville terrorist attack by “alt-right” white supremacists, and Trump’s role in validating the August 2019 terrorist attack in El Paso. Both attacks meet the classic definition of terrorism, in that they were conscious and premeditated acts of murder against political opponents, pursued in the name of stoking fear and furthering a white supremacist political agenda. In Charlottesville, white nationalists at the “Unite the Right Rally” engaged in violence against anti-fascist protesters, resulting in the murder of a counter-demonstrator, Heather Heyer, and in serious injuries to dozens of others. In El Paso, another white supremacist engaged in a mass shooting, killing more than 20 individuals in a local Walmart, in the name of promoting a white ethno-nationalist state, preventing a “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” and curtailing immigration to the United States by Latinx individuals.
In both cases, the Trump administration engaged in doublethink propaganda by simultaneously condemning hatred and bigotry, and indulging in said bigotry, in celebration of the violence in Charlottesville and rewarding the attacker in the case of El Paso via a reactionary policy response. Following Charlottesville, Trump “condemned” white nationalists who engaged in violence, while simultaneously speaking fondly of participants in the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally as “very fine people,” and lamenting protesters calling for the removal of Confederate monuments in the American south.
Similarly, Trump indulged in a doublethink propaganda campaign throughout 2019, and in the run-up to and wake of the El Paso terrorist attack. In declaring a “national emergency,” Trump confiscated taxpayer funds without Congressional authorization to use in building his separation wall between the US and Mexico. He and Donald Trump Jr. rationalized their attacks on unauthorized immigrants by comparing them to animals and infestations. Conditions at the US border and in immigration facilities quickly deteriorated as reports emerged of immigrants being held in cages and in facilities described as “concentration camps,” with children being separated unnecessarily from parents, and detainees facing nightmarish living conditions in detention facilities that included “dangerous” overcrowding, and denial of basic goods such as soap, toothpaste, and medical treatment.
In the wake of the August terrorist attack in El Paso, Trump referred to the event as “sinister,” while “condemn[ing] racism, bigotry, and white supremacy,” and announcing that “Hate has no place in America.” This statement would have been more meaningful had he not spent years trafficking in hate rhetoric against Mexican immigrants and other people of color, who he referred to in total as “drug dealers” and “rapists” and compared to vermin, locking them in concentration camp-style prisons under a quickly mushrooming police state devoted to criminalizing people of color. His “condemnations” of the El Paso terrorist attack may have held some value had he not also responded to the incident by proposing to “marry” background check gun legislation with “desperately needed immigration reform,” in an effort to intensify his crack down on unauthorized Mexican immigrants.
Trump’s comments and actions above reveal him to be a shrewd Orwellian propagandist. He “condemns” bigotry, then rewards the purveyor of a terrorist attack by seeking to tie the right-wing immigration agenda to a heinous act of gun violence. Trump then gaslights journalists by railing against their accurate reporting on his celebrations of white supremacy. The pattern is now well-established: speak highly of white nationalists and white nationalist principles. Simultaneously “condemn” them so you can claim that you oppose racism and prejudice. Then attack journalists for promoting “fake news” due to their accurate reporting of your celebrations of bigotry.
The lesson to be taken from all of this is quite clear for the extremists in Trump’s base: racist terrorism/violence is legitimate so long as it’s undertaken in service of reactionary agendas of the state. Such attacks are rewarded by a favorable presidential response that directly ties the act in question to a push for even more reactionary immigration “reform.” And this message is received loud and clear by large numbers of Trump’s supporters, who can realistically be classified as terrorist supporters and fascists. As Pew Research Center polling from 2017 revealed, approximately 1 in 5 Trump supporters, or 32 million American adults, agree that “targeting and killing civilians can be justified in order to further a political, social, or religious cause.” This statistic is truly horrifying, considering that roughly one in ten Americans also believe it’s acceptable to hold fascist and Nazi beliefs.
The fascist connection among Trump and his supporters is not merely theoretical. Mass shootings engaged in by members of the reactionary right, and in pursuit of Trump’s immigration agenda, suggest the fascist threat is real. And the threat is widespread, as recent evidence suggests that paramilitary-based violence among “lone-wolf” reactionaries on the right account for two-thirds of mass shootings and domestic terror attacks.
Trump’s flirtations with extremists on the fascist right are undeniable when the president indulges those who advocate white supremacist violence against immigrants. Most recently, Trump “joked” that “only in the panhandle” can people “get away with” using violence against immigrants, a comment he made in direct response to a woman at his rally who yelled that the answer to dealing with illegal immigrants is to “shoot them.” Again, Trump engaged in a feat of doublethink propaganda by virtue signaling to his audience via his joke about fascist violence, while simultaneously stating that “we can’t” use violence against immigrants.
Trump’s virtue signaling to the fascist right represents a potent and deadly weapon at the president’s disposal. He can actively encourage violence against immigrants and people of color, while claiming that he deplores said violence. He can stoke the fires of vigilante violence among what amounts to a modern-day brownshirt fascist base, which targets his political “enemies” on the “left” and among immigrants and people of color, while allegedly deploring violence and condemning the media for pedaling “fake news” by reporting that he supports white supremacy. The implications of this strategy are not yet fully understood in terms of their magnitude, even if they are ominous. Will future targets of the right include prominent Democratic-progressive presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren? Or what about other Democratic leaders of “the Squad” of four prominent women of color – Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley – who have been vocally critical of Trump, and who the president recently demanded “go back” to their own countries, despite all four being US citizens and three being born on US soil?
In a state dominated by doublethink propaganda, psychological warfare, coupled with fascist police state politics, is the name of the game. Dystopian politics become the norm when the president shamelessly ties his reactionary agenda to domestic terror attacks. But discussion of the dual threats of propaganda and fascism is marginalized in “mainstream” political discourse, which has routinely avoided references to the Trump administration as fascist and failed to effectively identify the emergence of fascism within Trump’s base. Unauthorized immigrants are the first target of Trump’s burgeoning military state. It’s impossible to say who could be next, although popular targets may include reporters, academics, and left-leaning protesters. If journalists have not yet recognized the fire they are playing with via their amplification of Trump’s hate rhetoric, which they have done in pursuit of rising profits, it may be too late to protect what remains of American freedoms in the future. Particularly if this president decides to target First Amendment press protections next. Trump has paid no political price to date for his extremism, as his job approval rating remains staunchly at 40 to 45 percent of Americans, despite his trafficking in hate rhetoric and his escalation of attacks on immigrants.His re-election, coupled with the sense of vindication for a sitting president that comes along with it, may make him feel even more empowered to crack down on his political enemies, either directly through the police state or indirectly through his brownshirt base. Only time will tell.
Anthony DiMaggio is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He studies American politics, with an emphasis on social movements, the media, inequality, and public opinion. He is the author of numerous books, including Selling War, Selling Hope (SUNY Press, 2015), The Politics of Persuasion (SUNY Press, 2017), and Political Power in America (SUNY Press, 2019).
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