George Orwell's "Animal Farm": Guide to the rise of authoritarianism in the Donald Trump era?

Orwell's 1945 parable of a lying pig who seizes power used to seem improbable and crude. Not so much right now

Published May 24, 2018 12:00PM (EDT)


Does President Donald Trump fit the profile of an authoritarian dictator?

We just so happen to have a handy portrayal of common characteristics of a tyrant, so let’s see how Trump compares.

In the mid 1940s, the author George Orwell was alarmed by the possibility that, in a society aspiring to be free and fair, an authoritarian figure might ascend to power and erode the sovereignties cherished by the people.

Orwell’s concern was no idle matter. In the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution that deposed the monarchy, Orwell watched as the promising socialist society emerging in Russia was instead commandeered by the dictator Joseph Stalin and tragically misdirected into totalitarianism.

So Orwell took to his pen and wrote a simple allegorical tale, “Animal Farm,” in which he described the telltale signs of totalitarianism to make them easily recognizable for all to see.

The story takes place on a farm, which serves as the equivalent of a nation. The animals on the farm come to realize that they are being exploited for their labor by their human farmer, so the animals rise up in revolt and chase the human farmer from the property. (This resembles both the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the American Revolution of 1776.) The animals are left in control of the farm and must decide how to govern themselves.

The animals quickly agree on a set of core principles with the central tenet being that all animals will be treated equally. They adopt a set of commandments, such as not interacting with humans, not wearing clothes, not drinking alcohol and not killing any animal.

During their debates, the animals recognize that the pigs seem to possess the highest intelligence, as distinguished from the lesser intelligent creatures, such as sheep, hens and ducks. Two pigs emerge as leaders, one named Napoleon (whom Orwell likely intended as a representation of Stalin) and the other named Snowball.

Differing viewpoints begin to emerge between Napoleon and Snowball, so the animals decide to hold a vote. Napoleon says very little, and he fails to offer constructive proposals for governing. Instead, he primarily attacks the ideas proposed by Snowball. Napoleon also relies on projecting a sense of power and an ability to get his way, and he advocates for arming the animals and building up their defenses in case the farm is attacked.

Snowball, on the other hand, is enthusiastic and offers numerous constructive proposals for governing, such as forming committees to include many animals in the governing process, educating the animals and building a windmill to create electricity. Instead of arming themselves, Snowball desires to reach out to animals on neighboring farms to build a broader animal movement, thereby preferring education and cooperation over military escalation. Snowball gives an inspiring presentation of his vision for the animal community, and it seems apparent that Snowball has much better ideas.

Before any votes are cast, however, Napoleon unleashes a pack of vicious attack dogs. It turns out that he had previously taken a litter of puppies at birth and secretly raised them in isolation to become his loyal guards. Snowball is suddenly forced to flee for his life and is chased off the farm to be seen no more.

Many of the animals are not intelligent enough to know what to make of this, but they generally sense that something is not quite right. A few of the younger pigs, who are more intelligent, begin to speak out in objection. But the attack dogs surrounding Napoleon start to snarl, and the “stupider” sheep, whom Napoleon had intentionally targeted as his base of supporters, shout out over and over the simplistic slogan, “Four legs good, two legs bad!” (meaning animals over humans), which prevents any debate or dissent.

Napoleon steps to the front and claims that everyone knows full well that Snowball is nothing more than a “criminal.”

Huh? Snowball? A criminal? But there is absolutely no basis for such an allegation.

Wait a minute. This is all too familiar. Orwell presumably meant this to remind readers of the power struggle between Stalin and his longtime rival, Leon Trotsky, following the death of the revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. But it is also strikingly reminiscent of Donald Trump demonizing his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as “Crooked Hillary.”

Just like Napoleon, Trump failed to offer meaningful proposals of his own but instead campaigned on attacking the proposals of Clinton and President Barack Obama. Health care is a prime example. Trump ranted and raved about repealing Obamacare, but he never had a replacement plan. The same is true with Trump’s opposition to the Paris climate accords, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Instead of offering constructive plans of his own, Trump, like Napoleon, unleashed attack dogs against his opponents. And like the sheep supporting Napoleon that repeatedly bleated out a mindless slogan that stifled dialogue, Trump’s flock of sheep bleated out their own mindless slogans, such as “lock her up,” “build the wall” and “CNN sucks.”

On Orwell's animal farm, Napoleon assumes control. He announces that all decisions will be made by a committee comprised exclusively of pigs, the committee will be controlled by him, and the committee will meet in private and announce decisions only after they have been made.

The animals again sense that something is not quite right here. They are told that this is the only way. After all, they do not wish for humans to return and retake the farm, do they?

Goodness, no! Of course, this way is much better than humans returning. So the animals accept what they are told.

Under Napoleon’s mismanagement, the farm soon experiences all sorts of difficulties, such as crop failures and food shortages. The animals cast a suspicious eye toward Napoleon, but he has an explanation. All the problems, he tells them, are entirely the fault of none other than . . . Snowball!

Ha! This is a classic Trump technique. Blame Obama! Blame Hillary!

Trump and Napoleon both play upon the fears of their constituents, to cast themselves as indispensable protectors. Napoleon repeatedly reminds the animals of the grave threat of humans returning, even though Napoleon’s rule is unrelated to whether humans might return.

Similarly, Trump constantly stokes the fears of the populace over immigration, crime committed by immigrants, the immigrant gang MS-13, terrorist attacks, large numbers of Muslims entering the country, China stealing American jobs, inner-city crime and so on.

By selecting only pigs as members of the ruling elite, Napoleon creates a system of racial discrimination. Trump has also been accused of racial discrimination.

Napoleon, like Trump, seeks to instill loyalty in his followers. This is typical of dictators because “loyal” supporters will go to any lengths to serve their leader, including concealing wrongdoing by the leader or even engaging in wrongdoing themselves.

On the farm, Napoleon increasingly lives a lifestyle of ever greater luxury. Despite the fact that the animals had previously agreed that no animal would ever live in the lavish human farmhouse, Napoleon blatantly violates this pact and moves into the farmhouse. Napoleon breaks other resolutions as well, one after the next, such as by wearing clothes, sleeping in a soft human bed and drinking alcohol.

Trump also breaks presidential norms, such as profiting from his personal business while serving as president, appointing family members to government offices, seeking to use the Justice Department and the FBI for his own personal objectives and undermining a congressional committee investigation.

Napoleon begins to misdirect farm resources to himself in order to support his increasingly luxurious lifestyle, and this leaves the animals to suffer hardship and lack of food.

The animals have a vague sense that something is awry. But Napoleon has a plan for keeping the animals in the dark – Lie!

And, oh boy, does he lie! This little piggy takes lying to a new level. Napoleon himself is not such a convincing speaker, but another pig on the farm, by the name of Squealer, is a brilliant speaker. So Napoleon regularly sends out Squealer to bamboozle the animals.

Squealer has a nice way about him. He has a warm smile and “twinkling eyes.” As he explains his points, he has a way of “skipping from side to side and whisking his tail which was somehow very persuasive.”

But Squealer lies like you would not believe, from itty-bitty falsehoods to whale-sized whoppers. In fact, the big ones are more than just lies. They are not just variants of the truth, but are the 180-degree, exact opposites of the truth. Squealer, as they say, “could turn black into white.” His lies alter history, present completely new facts and altogether create an entirely new alternate reality.

One common lie is to blame everything on Snowball. And since this seems to be working, Napoleon's supporters pile it on. They say Snowball was sneaking onto the farm at night and destroying the crops, stealing the eggs and milking the cows while everyone else slept. Snowball is now actively attempting to sabotage the farm, they say. No wait, it’s even worse: Snowball has all along been in cahoots with humans in a grand conspiracy to invade the farm!

The animals are skeptical. They say they knew Snowball well for many years, so they don't believe Snowball would ever do such things. Squealer invents stories out of whole cloth about how Napoleon personally witnessed Snowball sabotaging the farm and even fought Snowball heroically to protect the animals. That Snowball is certainly a wicked villain!

Similarly, wild theories have been promulgated by Trump and his supporters, such as the “birther” sham that Obama was born in Kenya and is thus ineligible to be president, the “Pizzagate” smear that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex ring run out of the basement of a pizza parlor, the elaborate theory that the Democratic National Committee murdered one of its own employees in retaliation for leaking emails and that the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was a fabricated hoax by Democrats so Obama could take away all the guns in America.

Napoleon’s personal behavior, however, cannot easily be blamed upon Snowball. The animals express concern about Napoleon’s blatant violations of the farm’s resolutions, such as living in the human farmhouse. Squealer assures them, falsely, that Napoleon vehemently believes that all animals are equal. Squealer explains that the animals were misremembering the resolutions, which he fabricates in retrospect. He insists that Napoleon has fully complied with all the farm’s (reverse-engineered) rules.

Hmm. The animals did not quite remember it that way. But the fabrications sink in and become the new normal and the revised collective memory.

Before the Trump era, a modern reader might fault Orwell for exaggerating the degree of lying, or its potency. After all, in the age of mass media, a politician could certainly never get away with such blatant lies. But this sort of egregious lying is now occurring right before our eyes. Shockingly, it turns out that Orwell had it right.

In addition to his own epic lying, Trump deploys an army of Squealers who appear across media outlets to bamboozle the American people. Perhaps most infamous among them is Kellyanne Conway, who claimed that Trump is entitled to present to the public his own “alternative facts,” even though such “facts” can easily be disproved. (Incidentally, Conway’s comment caused a spike in the sales of another famous Orwell book, “1984,” published a few years after “Animal Farm.”)

Falsehoods also emanate from the podium of Trump’s White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, despite the fact that the responsibility of this position is to provide the American people with transparency into the affairs of our highest public official, and in a manner, as the oath of that office requires, “without . . . purpose of evasion.”

Eerily, Orwell even provided the exact phrasing commonly used by Trump. In one of his 180-degree lies, Squealer insists that “no one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal.” This same formulation is one of Trump’s favorites for his own lies, such as his recent statement that “there’s been nobody tougher on Russia than President Donald Trump” (referring to himself in the third person). Or any one of these: “No one respects women more than me”; “I am the least racist person you’ll ever meet”; “No one reads the Bible more than me”; “Nobody knows more about trade than me” or “There’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have.”

Orwell captured even the phrasing of Trump’s lies – more than seven decades ago.

On the farm, all this egregious lying works fairly well. As time goes by, however, the animals again become suspicious. Napoleon conceives of a new idea – to hold a military parade! Yes. All the animals line up in military formation and march around the farm. This helps to stir the passions of patriotic sentiment, distract attention from Napoleon’s failures and glorify the great “Leader.”

This exact same idea was proposed by Trump, who has proposed staging a grand military parade on the streets of Washington.

Napoleon’s leadership is marked by incompetence and chaos. When the farm produces a pile of extra timber, Napoleon repeatedly flip-flops about how best to utilize this resource. He continually contradicts his prior plans, and his proposals will clearly violate cardinal rules of the farm, such as not interacting with humans and not dealing with money.

The incompetence is so extreme as to be comical. The repeated changes in direction signify that Napoleon has no principles or guiding beliefs. Instead, he impulsively leaps in any direction that seems to suit his own interests in the spur of the moment.

This hapless flip-flopping is classic Trump. He rails against China for stealing American jobs, then advocates for America to help save jobs in China. Trump derides NATO as obsolete, then embraces it. He withdraws from the TPP trade agreement, then says he may rejoin it. He opposes military intervention in Syria, then launches missile strikes. Constant chaos, constant contradiction, constant incompetence.

Once Napoleon consolidates power, he stops attending public meetings. He is seldom seen on the farm other than for ceremonial appearances. Just like Napoleon, after winning the election, Trump largely closed himself off from public questioning. Despite the fact that Trump gave many interviews during his campaign, thereby suggesting that he would be a very open president, upon attaining power he closed up like a clam and stopped taking questions from the press via press conferences, interviews or otherwise (except, of course, with the most obsequious media outlets). Trump’s appearances are now largely scripted or mere showpieces.

Just as Squealer lies in blaming others for every problem, Squealer also lies on the flip side by taking credit for every improvement. Squealer cites reams of official statistics falsely claiming that the farm is much improved under Napoleon’s rule, such as better crops, more food, less work and greater happiness -- all of which, of course, are untrue. Squealer also takes credit for improvements that were not attributable in any way to Napoleon, such as the joy of being free from human rule, which occurred before Napoleon became the leader.

Claiming credit for everything positive is a hallmark of Trump. Just like Squealer, Trump misrepresents data to bolster his image. And Trump claims credit for improvements that occurred without his involvement, such as the positive jobs report for January 2017, even though he did not take office until Jan. 20 of that year.

Both Napoleon and Trump cultivate loyalty from their constituents and then mercilessly exploit them. A horse on the farm is incredibly strong and is the hardest worker, although he is not very intelligent and thus is susceptible to manipulation. As he nobly toils harder and harder for less and less while Napoleon grows richer and richer, the horse nonetheless frequently repeats in blind obedience, “Napoleon is always right.”

Similarly, Trump portrays himself as the champion of the forgotten blue-collar worker, and he won their votes in several key states. But Trump’s policies favor the wealthy at the expense of the working class by sabotaging the health care system, eroding the social safety net and granting enormous tax cuts for the wealthy, including himself.

Orwell’s purpose in writing "Animal Farm" must surely have been to present the telltale signs of totalitarianism in the clearest and simplest terms, in order to make sure the populace would steer clear of electing any such ruler in the future. It does not seem to have worked.

Is Trump destroying democracy?

Harvard professor Daniel Ziblatt visits SalonTV to discuss the warning signs of rising authoritarianism.

By Cody Cain

Cody Cain is the author of the new book, "Mend or Spend: How to Force Rich People to Solve Economic Inequality," available here. Follow Cody on Twitter @codycainland.