Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World used to be seen as mutually exclusive dystopias. In 1984, however, while Neil Postman was writing Amusing Ourselves to Death, Aldous Huxley’s biographer Sybille Bedford came to a different conclusion, describing the choice as a false binary: “We have entered the age of mixed tyrannies.” By this she meant that the modern power-seeker would assemble whatever combination of coercion, seduction and distraction proved most effective.
Effectiveness is one of the watchwords of Vladimir Putin’s mixed tyranny, or “managed democracy.” Since first becoming Russia’s president in 2000, buoyed by a craving for strength and stability after the nerve-grinding upheavals of the post-communist 90s, the former KGB officer has gradually brought back such features of the old regime as leader-worship, martial parades, mass arrests, show trials, political prisoners, territorial aggression, the one-party state, censorship, Newspeak and endemic paranoia. In 2012, Putin declared his dream of building a Russian-led replacement for the European Union, “from Lisbon to Vladivostok,” unbound by such bothersome concepts as human rights and free and fair elections. Inspired by the fascist thinker Aleksandr Dugin, he called it Eurasia. In 2014, Stalin’s posthumous approval rating in Russia reached a new peak of 52 percent, proving beyond doubt that Homo Sovieticus had outlived the Soviet Union.
Putin’s justification is, of course, different from Stalin’s—nationalism and cultural conservatism rather than Marxist ideology—and his execution less brutish, retaining the pretense of freedom of speech and political opposition. The aim of his brand of authoritarianism is not total control but effective control. In his last substantial interview before his death in 2005, the great reformer Aleksandr Nikolaevich Yakovlev called Russia’s weakness for strong leaders a “disease” and bemoaned its backsliding towards a centralized state at the expense of a healthy society. “If the state so wishes, the society will be civil, or semicivil, or nothing but a herd,” he said. “Look to Orwell for a good description of this.” Yes, but look to Huxley, too.
When the journalist and film-maker Peter Pomerantsev began working for Russian state television in 2006, he noticed how it synthesized “show business and propaganda, ratings with authoritarianism.” Putin’s media mastermind at the time was Vladislav Surkov, a former theatre director and PR manager with a soft, bland face and a steel-trap mind who defined “the very language and categories the country thinks and feels in.” Surkov was a pioneer of post-truth politics, generating a destabilizing fog of lies, hoaxes and contradictions to which the natural response was a nihilistic cynicism about the very status of hard facts. The title of Pomerantsev’s book about Putin and Surkov’s Russia paraphrased Arendt’s memorable formulation about totalitarianism and truth: Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. The Russia expert Luke Harding calls it “Versionland.”
This is a new kind of Orwellianism. Orwell’s generation experienced the consequences of Big Lies so absurd that they could only be sustained by the extreme control of totalitarianism. 21st-century authoritarians, however, don’t need to go that far. “They don’t require belief in a full-blown ideology, and thus they don’t require violence or terror police,” wrote the historian Anne Applebaum in a 2018 essay for The Atlantic. “They don’t force people to believe that black is white, war is peace, and state farms have achieved 1,000 percent of their planned production.” Instead, they rely on “Medium-Sized Lies”: “all of them encourage their followers to engage, at least part of the time, with an alternative reality.”“We didn’t want to solve the puzzle for people.”
The internet enabled this mentality to spread far beyond Russia’s borders, as the world’s leading producer of disinformation exported its alternative reality to democracies that had no idea how vulnerable they were.
When President Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway first used the phrase “alternative facts” on January 22, 2017, Nineteen Eighty-Four came roaring back onto the best-seller lists. The Hollywood Reporter called the novel, which was then attached to director Paul Greengrass, “the hottest literary property in town.” Scores of cinemas across the US announced that they would be screening Michael Radford’s 1984 on April 4, because “the clock is already striking 13.” And theatre producers Sonia Friedman and Scott Rudin asked British playwrights Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan to transfer their hit play 1984 to Broadway as soon as possible. “It went from zero to a hundred in the space of five days,” Icke told me when I spoke to him and Macmillan at London’s Almeida Theatre the following year. “They said, ‘We think it’s important this play is on Broadway now.’”
As one character asks at the start of the play: “how do you begin to talk about one of the most significant things that has ever been put on paper?” A totalitarian regime like Ingsoc is itself a kind of theatre, with a script, assigned roles, sets, props, and cues for applause. But when, in 2011, Icke and Macmillan started thinking about bringing Nineteen Eighty-Four to the stage, they wanted to avoid the obvious. “I remember saying we don’t want a guy with blue overalls walking along with a big poster, because it’s so familiar that it doesn’t speak anymore,” Icke said. “To make you engage with the book properly requires a certain amount of distance and confusion: do you know this as well as you think?” They read Nineteen Eighty-Four over and over again, looking for a “back-door key” that no previous adaptors had found. That key was the Appendix Theory, which turns the rest of the book into a historical document that has been studied and edited by persons unknown. Once entered by that route, the novel becomes an unnerving maze of riddles, paradoxes and mysteries. “If you’re reading it properly, it comes for all of us in different ways,” Macmillan said. “Everything is both true and false at the same time. It’s doublethink as a structural device.”
Whereas Michael Radford’s movie clarifies Orwell’s text, maintaining a distinction between what is real and what is not, the play plunges into its ambiguity. Icke and Macmillan’s touchstones included David Lynch, The Shining, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Tony Soprano’s coma dreams in The Sopranos: works which explore the netherworld between reality, fantasy and memory. The actors were then required to exercise their own form of doublethink by playing the characters in such a way as to allow for multiple theories about what was real and who to trust. The play ends with a reader in the post-appendix future asking one final question: “How do we know the Party fell? Wouldn’t it be in their interest to just structure the world in such a way that we believed that they were no longer . . .”
“We didn’t want to solve the puzzle for people,” said Macmillan. “We wanted to try and present the complexity of it. It was so interesting reading the reviews and hearing people coming out every night arguing about what they’d just seen.” He laughed. “We looked at Twitter during the Broadway run and everyone thinks everyone else doesn’t understand it.”The directors noticed that the audience’s reaction each night was affected by whatever Donald Trump had done that day.
Icke suspected that their experimental take on the book would be “a party nobody will want to come to apart from us,” but when 1984 opened at the Nottingham Playhouse in September 2013, three months after the Snowden revelations, it was a hit. Its three subsequent West End runs each inhabited a different political context: the third opened in June 2016, during the Brexit referendum campaign and just before the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by a far-right terrorist. During the run at New York’s Hudson Theatre, which began on May 18, 2017, the directors noticed that the audience’s reaction each night was affected by whatever Donald Trump had done that day. The night after Trump tweeted the nonsense word covfefe, there was such a desire for humor that one actor was distraught: “I’ve been in comedies that have had less laughter than this.”
On another night, the news was so bad and the mood so intense that people passed out. At a third performance, when O’Brien asked, “What year is it?,” a woman shouted: “It’s 2017 and this is fucked up!” Although Icke and Macmillan added the passage from the Declaration of Independence in Orwell’s appendix to the Broadway production, they resisted pressure to make the play more topical and actually removed a couple of lines that now felt too on-the-nose. Icke subsequently wondered if the transfer was too timely: “The city at that moment felt ashamed and sad as well as angry. They weren’t ready to confront this.” Scott Rudin’s other Broadway production at the time was the pure escapism of Hello, Dolly! Julia, suggested Icke, would have chosen Hello, Dolly!
During the Broadway run, an uncannily prescient quotation from Nineteen Eighty-Four went viral: “The people are not going to revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s really happening.” Except that the line wasn’t from the book at all: it was written for the play. Icke and Macmillan appreciated the irony of inadvertently rewriting history.
“I think dad would’ve been amused by Donald Trump in an ironic sort of way,” said Richard Blair in 2017. “He may have thought, ‘There goes the sort of man I wrote about all those years ago.’ ”
It must be said that Donald Trump is no Big Brother. Nor, despite his revival of such toxic phrases as “America First” and “enemy of the people,” is he simply a throwback to the 1930s. He has the cruelty and power hunger of a dictator but not the discipline, intellect, or ideology. A more apt comparison would be Buzz Windrip, the oafish populist from Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, or, in the real world, Joseph McCarthy, a demagogue who displayed comparable levels of narcissism, dishonesty, resentment and crude ambition, and a similarly uncanny ability to make journalists dance to his tune even as they loathed him.
Still, there are precedents in Orwell’s writing. During Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton, it was hard to watch the candidate whipping supporters into a cry of “Lock her up!” without being reminded of the Two Minutes Hate and Orwell’s description of the Party mindset: “a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party.” Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” calls to mind Orwell’s reference to “hundred percent Americanism.” The president meets most of the criteria of Orwell’s 1944 definition of fascism: “something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class . . . almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist.’” Orwell contended that such men can only rise to the top when the status quo has failed to satisfy citizens’ need for justice, security and self-worth, but Trump’s victory required one more crucial ingredient. He did not seize power through a revolution or coup. He was not potentiated by a recession or a terrorist atrocity, let alone a nuclear war or a fertility crisis. His route to the White House passed through America’s own Versionland.
When some listeners to Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds believed the radio play without checking other sources, they were motivated by excessive faith in the authority of the media. The modern spreaders of disinformation, however, are driven by too little. As the science-fiction writer Marta Randall argued in 1983, the collapse of trust in establishment narratives brought about by scandals such as Watergate and the Pentagon Papers could result in a country where citizens “may quit relying on ‘authoritative’ news stories entirely,” far beyond the point of healthy skepticism.
During the two decades preceding the 2016 election, groups such as climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, creationists, birthers, 9/11 truthers and conspiracy theorists of every variety all demonstrated a fierce disregard for factual evidence that contradicted their beliefs, often reinforced by right-wing media outlets such as Fox News and talk radio, and by online echo chambers. This increasingly popular mindset was a toxic cocktail of cynicism and credulity. People who were proudly skeptical of CNN or The New York Times were perfectly happy to take unsourced Facebook posts and quack science at face value; those who doubted the BBC eagerly rubber-stamped the state propaganda of Putin or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Perhaps the most damning scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the Two Minutes Hate. On the screen, Goldstein is speaking the truth, “crying hysterically that the revolution had been betrayed,” for anyone who cares to listen and believe, but nobody except Winston does that. The Party wouldn’t broadcast him uncensored unless it knew that he would be ignored, and if you don’t believe that Goldstein really exists, then the cynicism is even more obscene. Similarly, the effectiveness of the fake news that Winston manufactures at the Ministry of Truth depends on its readers’ ignorance, laziness and prejudice as much as it does on state power.
The consequences of so many Americans’ abdication from reality have been disastrous. During the 2016 election campaign, the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, flooded social media with fake news stories designed to generate confusion, cynicism and division. One of the agency’s popular memes read: “The People Believe What the Media Tells Them They Believe: George Orwell.” The quotation was fabricated. Orwell never used the phrase the media, which did not enter common usage until after his death, and he would never have made such a simplistic claim. The irony of Russian propagandists putting words into Orwell’s mouth in order to hijack his prestige as a truth-teller to erode faith in journalism is breathtaking.
Some of the social media accounts that disseminated these stories and memes were themselves bogus—fake names, fake photographs, fake biographies—but many were not, because the architects of dezinformatsiya found that they were pushing at an open door. After a post-mortem into the epidemic of hoax news on Reddit’s messageboards, the company’s CEO, Steve Huffman, wrote: “I believe the biggest risk we face as Americans is our own ability to discern reality from nonsense. I wish there was a solution as simple as banning all propaganda, but it’s not that easy.” Former president Barack Obama made a similar point: “One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts. What the Russians exploited . . . is we are operating in completely different information universes.” America’s epistemological crisis was Trump’s golden opportunity. He could only win the 2016 election because a significant number of Americans were effectively living in a parallel reality.
Social media made this process all too easy as it became the primary news source for millions of Americans while lacking the editorial oversight of traditional media. Responding to criticism in 2017, Facebook’s chief of security, Alex Stamos, pointed out that using the blunt instrument of machine learning to eliminate fake news could turn the platform into “the Ministry of Truth with ML systems,” but by failing to act in time, Facebook was already allowing bad actors such as the Internet Research Agency to spread disinformation unchecked. The problem is likely to get worse. The growth of “deepfake” image synthesis, which combines computer graphics and artificial intelligence to manufacture images whose artificiality can only be identified by expert analysis, has the potential to create a paranoid labyrinth in which, according to the viewer’s bias, fake images will pass as real while real ones are dismissed as fake. With image synthesis, Winston’s fictional Comrade Ogilvy could be made to walk and talk while the crucial photograph of Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford could be shrugged off as a hoax. There is no technological remedy; the bug resides in human nature.
It is truly Orwellian that the phrase “fake news” has been turned on its head by Trump and his fellow authoritarians to describe real news that is not to their liking, while flagrant lies become “alternative facts.” In March 2019, The Washington Post calculated that Trump had made 9,014 false claims during his first 773 days in office; the average had risen from just under 6 a day during his first year to 22 a day in 2019. Trump creates his own reality and measures his power by the number of people who subscribe to it: the cruder the lie, the more power its success demonstrates. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani accidentally provided a crude motto for Versionland USA when he snapped at an interviewer, “Truth isn’t truth!” Reality is inside the skull.
Old dystopian nightmares resurfaced in Trump’s America with renewed force. Thanks to Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s novel sold another 3.5 million copies, inspired a new wave of feminist dystopias, and made the handmaids’ uniform of red cloaks and white hoods almost as popular with protesters as V’s mask. One woman protesting Trump’s inauguration held a placard reading: MAKE MARGARET ATWOOD FICTION AGAIN! Atwood announced that she would be publishing a second novel about Gilead, The Testaments, in 2019; unlike Orwell, she has lived to write her own sequel. Trumpism formed the backcloth to Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as HBO’s Fahrenheit 451, and Electric Dreams, a Channel 4/Amazon Video anthology series based on Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction short stories. Writer-director Dee Rees revealed that her radical adaptation of “The Hanging Stranger,” now a biting commentary on political paranoia, flowed directly from the 2016 campaign. “Many dangerous ideas,” she wrote, “were declared, nurtured, and allowed to propagate . . . This is not really happening, they said. What you are seeing is not what you are really seeing, they said. What you are hearing is not really what is meant, they said.”
During a speech in July 2018, Trump himself said: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Another line from Nineteen Eighty-Four went viral—a real one this time: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
Excerpted from The Ministry of Truth. Used with permission of Doubleday. Copyright © 2019 by Dorian Lynskey.