The fury of the crowd chanting "Send her back!" — send Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), an American citizen, back to her birthplace in Somalia, that is — at President Trump's rally in North Carolina on Wednesday resembled nothing so much as the "Two Minutes Hate" of George Orwell's 1984.
Instead of a video of the enemies of the regime, Trump provided a live denunciation to get the hatred flowing. The substitution was no impediment to his audience's response in ritualized resentment.
"A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current," Orwell said of his fictional mob. That description is — I hope — as-yet hyperbolic to apply to Trump's crowd, though the president's behavior has observers left and right alike worried he will incite violence against Omar or the American Muslim community more broadly. But Orwell's next sentence is already apt: The "rage that one felt" during the Two Minutes Hate, he wrote, "was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp." The anger of Trump loyalists is similarly supple, constantly redirected from one target to another, each one cast as an enemy of "real America," which coincidentally looks just like them.
I was not the only one to see Orwell in the rally shouts. So what I find noteworthy is not my reaction, but that this is the dystopia that so widely came to mind. 1984 is classic, of course, but wasn't our descent into tyranny supposed to come from the pages of Brave New World? Weren't we on track to prove Aldous Huxley the more prescient prophet of our coming oppression?
That was the case famously made by media critic and educator Neil Postman in his masterwork, Amusing Ourselves to Death. "Contrary to common belief even among the educated," Postman explained, "Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history."
Huxley's tale of domination invited by a passive populace, obsessed with entertainment and apathetic toward reality, certainly has its currency. Social media and the fake news it disseminates have given new urgency to his warning, in Postman's phrase, that "we would become a trivial culture" in which "the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance."
But "Send her back!" isn't Huxley. It's Orwell. It's not the lulling, consumerist tyranny of Brave New World. Though too fleeting to fully incarnate the institutional violence of 1984 — Trump will be on to a new target as soon as his mosquito attention span demands fresh blood — it's an unmistakable shift in that direction.
And "Send her back!" is hardly the only sign we should give Orwell's caution heed anew. The authoritarian populism which fueled Trump's rise to power; state surveillance capabilities that remained the stuff of science fiction when 1984 was published; "alternative facts" as the Trumpian take on doublethink; the president's "enemy of the people" designation for all but the most fawning members of the press; his memory hole denial of saying things he is recorded saying; newly coercive enforcement of immigration policy in the form of ICE raids, family separations, and border camps — all these are Orwell, not Huxley. They are not a dreamy drift into the pain-free totalitarianism of Huxley's World State. They have the more brutal edge of Orwell's Oceania.
"When the year came and the prophecy didn't," Postman wrote of 1984, "thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares." Not so long ago I would have agreed with Postman's proposal that we celebrated too soon because Huxley's horror was the more significant threat all along. But now I'd say we were twice in error.
I don't want to exaggerate here: Donald Trump is not Big Brother, and we are not living in 1984. Furthermore, the movement I see from Huxley's future toward Orwell's — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the movement toward a chimera of the two, with Huxley for the relatively privileged and Orwell for those who run afoul of power, whatever that looks like — is larger than Trump alone. This "authoritarian moment" so many diverse voices have identified predated Trump and shows every sign of persisting past his presidency.
Orwell has much to say about that moment, about the political shift Trump both rides and runs. The Two Minutes Hate for Omar is but the most vivid reminder that the hard dystopia remains as much a risk as the soft.