How '1984' can decode Trump's first 100 days

Story highlights

  • Alexander J. Urbelis: "1984" is a novel that people should read, not just once, but over and over again
  • High sales figures are just the surface of how relevant Orwell's book is for today's audiences, he writes

Alexander J. Urbelis is a lawyer and self-described hacker with more than 20 years' experience with information security. He has worked as a graduate fellow in the Office of General Counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency, as a law clerk at the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and as an associate in the New York and Washington offices of Steptoe & Johnson. He was also information security counsel and chief compliance officer of one of the world's largest luxury conglomerates. He is currently a partner in the Blackstone Law Group and CEO of a separate information security consultancy. Follow him on Twitter @aurbelis. The views expressed here are his own.

(CNN)Watching me read "1984," arguably the greatest dystopian novel ever written, in high school, my mother told me that it was a book that everyone should read not just once, but again, every 10 years. It certainly deserves a reread right now.

Alexander J. Urbelis
Indeed, dozens of news stories this week have alerted us to surging sales of George Orwell's "1984" since the inauguration and even more so in the wake of Kellyanne Conway's now-infamous "alternative facts" gambit. Most media outlets have reported glibly on the figures, with some going so far as to compare the Amazon best-seller list (where purchases of "1984" have gone up nearly 10,000%) to a "political barometer" before making the obvious parallel between the Orwellian concepts of newspeak and doublethink and the words of Conway and actions of White House communications director Sean Spicer.
    Yet surprisingly, very few have neither unpacked the full measure of the parallels between Orwell's dystopia and the Trump administration, nor the import of the Trump administration's practices (so far) if left unchecked. As the protagonist of "1984," Winston Smith, was warned:
      "Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever."
      If the sales figures tell us anything, it's that we are right to want a fuller account of the comparisons between literature's most infamous cautionary dystopia and a new American presidential administration.
      I believe we are treading into territories more treacherous than even Orwell himself contemplated. We now have a President and an administration in power that expects its own versions of reality and events to be created for it, à la carte, after the fact.
        This is not the first time in recent memory that sales of "1984" have spiked. In June 2013, Edward Snowden let the world know the machinations of the US surveillance apparatus were turned not only outward but inward on a massive scale. But this new surge in popularity has a far more pernicious cause: the linguistic assault on, and blatant disregard for, the truth and rational thought by senior Trump administration officials and the President himself.
        We are now fighting a battle over who controls the very notion of what is real and fake, true and false. We cannot afford to mince words: President Trump and his staff have used and will use lies and deceit to create a false perception of reality that suits their political agenda.
        They have espoused as truth unsupportable and untenable falsehoods on a daily basis, and it has become the near-full time responsibility of the media to call out the fictions of the administration. If we do not continue the struggle for basic honesty, we are warned by Orwell that uncorrected lies will be "passed into history and [become] truth."

        What "1984" tells us about ourselves

        "1984" is a menacing tale about the fictional state of Oceania. It exists in a state of continuous and seemingly never-ending war, its institutions are notoriously revisionist and manipulative of public perception with no regard for historical facts or truth. Overseeing law and order and guarding against even minor rebellion is overt and omnipresent government surveillance; and in the seat of power directing all functions of state is Big Brother, a cult of personality demanding of the most intense personal and political loyalty.
        For me, however, "1984" has been more than a cautionary tale of dystopia: The concepts, characters, and lessons have in a real sense guided me both personally and professionally. My teenage years were spent as a hacker, frequently sneaking into Manhattan from Long Island to attend the infamous 2600 Meetings, an underground monthly gathering of New York's hackers in the lobby of the Citigroup building.
        At the center of these meetings was the editor-in-chief of 2600, The Hacker Quarterly, "Emmanuel Goldstein," whose nom de guerre was taken directly from the principal (and likely fictitious) enemy of the state in "1984." Emmanuel and I have a friendship spanning nearly 25 years, and I still regularly contribute to his hacker-focused radio show and podcast, "Off the Hook," airing weekly on WBAI in New York. As a teenager, I saw several friends from the circle of 2600 hauled off to prison; their experiences cemented my desire to become a lawyer.
        In the midst of my first read of "1984," my mother surprised my sister and me with a puppy, a beautiful little black mutt abandoned at a groomer's office. This puppy was willful, forceful and seemed always to be plotting against all attempts to exercise authority or dominion over him. He was the embodiment of Orwell's concept of thoughtcrime, the criminal act of opposing the ruling party, so we named him Winston after Winston Smith in "1984."
        Winston remained steadfastly contrarian and by my side for 16 years, seeing me through high school, college, law school and then real life. When Winston died in 2011, I began volunteering with a local NYC dog rescue, Mighty Mutts, and during one shift I will never forget, the most perfect beagle up for adoption jumped into my lap and refused to leave, as if pronouncing to the world that I was now hers.
        When I asked for her name, I could not believe my ears when I was told "Julia," the very name of Winston's counterpart in "1984", his kindred spirit, and fellow outlaw. We adopted Julia immediately, and until she joined Winston over the rainbow bridge earlier this year, she took over his role as a daily reminder of the wisdom of "1984" and the very special place that novel holds in my heart.
        Orwell's lessons, cautions and predictions have in my life never been more real and more serious than they are now. Those lessons and parallels merit serious consideration.
        Much has been written about newspeak, the fictional language of Oceania, with its deliberately limited and constantly diminishing vocabulary, and how its assaults on truth and reason parallel Trump administration practices. The idea behind newspeak is that by reducing vocabulary it is also possible to constrict personal thought and the freedom of expression.
        In Orwell's world, there is no such thing as the word "bad," it is instead "ungood." But could this very surface-level comparison between newspeak and Conway's characterization of Spicer's blatant lies as "alternative facts" really be spurring such a resurgence in interest in the "1984"? Of course not. There is more.

        Donald Trump and doublethink

        In everything from his Cabinet appointments to the rationale for destabilizing executive orders, President Trump appears to have taken a cue directly from "1984's" fictional ministries, whose purposes are diametrically opposed to their names. Orwell's Ministry of Truth ("Minitrue" in newspeak), for example, had nothing to do with truth but was responsible for the fabrication of historical facts.
        In that vein, President Trump has provided us, in the name of security, with a travel ban on immigrants and refugees from countries whose citizens have caused the terrorism deaths of no Americans, while leaving out countries whose citizens have caused the terrorism deaths of thousands of Americans.
        He has provided us with Betsy DeVos, a secretary of education nominee who is widely believed to oppose public education, and who promotes the truly Orwellian-sounding concept of "school choice," a plan that seems well-intentioned but which critics complain actually siphons much-needed funds from public to private education institutions.
        Andy Pudzer -- named to head the Labor Department, which is charged with promoting and protecting the welfare of wage earners -- has a checkered past with workers' rights and has actually praised the efficiency of robots over humans on account of automatons' inability to take vacation and file discrimination complaints.
        And we cannot fail to mention that Scott Pruitt -- nominated to head the Environmental Protection Agency, which has responsibility to protect health and the environment -- as Oklahoma attorney general devoted his office to battling the EPA, actively sought deregulation of air pollution requirements, and spearheaded the attack on Obama's efforts to reduce global warming, the Clean Power Plan.
        What Trump has done so far and what does it all mean?