The Banality of Autocracy

David Nurenberg
11 min readJun 30, 2020

What Orwell got right, and wrong, about power in the Age of Trump

The prescience of George Orwell’s 1984 is near-universally acknowledged across America. In this 1948 dystopian sci-fi novel that exhaustively details the workings and philosophies of a terrifyingly successful totalitarian government of the future, we find an analogue for seemingly every act of deception, repression and cruelty perpetrated by modern governments. Vocabulary from the novel like “doublethink” and “newspeak” have long been incorporated into the general lexicon.

Orwell’s genius (or perhaps just his highly effective observations of how oppressive regimes functioned) is unimpeachable, but Orwell’s book was fundamentally wrong in predicting the world we live in today. 1984 both underestimated the power of manipulative leaders, and overestimated human beings’ desire for truth and freedom.

On the Ministry of Truth

Nowhere are 1984’s shortcomings more evident than in the occupation of its hapless protagonist Winston Smith. Smith is a minor functionary working at the Oceanian government’s “Ministry of Truth.” His job consists of, each and every day, locating and destroying printed material that provides historical evidence to that might contradict whatever the ruling Party’s doctrine of the day is. He joins hundreds of others who work nonstop to ensure that -

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

The Ministry of Truth is presented as vital to the power and permanence of the government. It is the Party’s control of information, more than the might of its military and secret police, which constituted and perpetuated its hold on power.

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”

The Presidency of Donald Trump has shown the world a wildly successful implementation of this control of the…

David Nurenberg

Educator, consultant and author. His latest book is entitled, “What Does Injustice Have to Do With Me? Engaging Privileged White Students with Social Justice.”