Since Donald Trump’s rise in 2015, calling his presidency Orwellian has been a kind of shibboleth among critics. After Trump’s first week in January 2017, Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker, “re-reading Orwell, one is reminded of what Orwell got right about this kind of brute authoritarianism.” That same month, when Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway defended the administration’s “alternative facts,” Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote that “we’ve gone full Orwell.” Shortly afterward, sales of 1984 surged.
But in one important respect, these commentators are missing something important. When it comes to language, Trump isn’t the kind of person Orwell was worried about. In fact the plain-speaking president represents something closer to Orwell’s imagined solution to a problem that consumed him, the use of public language to hide meaning. If you look at how Trump talks—and the similar rhetoric in Britain around Brexit, and the broader populist wind across Europe—it is proof that Orwell got some big things wrong when it comes to language’s ability to protect us from politicians who would rather have us not know the truth.
If Orwell as a political thinker is known for one thing besides “Big Brother,” it’s his celebrated 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” in which he complained of leaders using language not to communicate, but to hide their intentions. “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow,” he wrote, “blurring the outline and covering up all the details…. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
Orwell was confident that simple language itself would be a defense against much of what was wrong with politics. Clarity would make it near impossible for leaders to say stupid and dishonest things, or to fall into lock-step dogma, without realizing that they were doing so—and without exposing the speaker as a fraud or a villain. As he wrote in “Politics and the English Language”: “If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.” His famous six rules for writers, which close the essay, are instructions on how to strip one’s words of such clutter.
Orwell had witnessed the rise of the two great murderous -isms in Europe, fascism and communism. Both turned their violence on their own people with a ferocity that could not be put in plain language. As Orwell put it, a defender of Stalin’s purges can’t just come out and say “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” The same might be said for Hitler’s verschärfte Vernehmung and Endlösung, “sharpened interrogation” and “final solution,” which in plain language are torture and mass murder.
Since Orwell, it has become a common complaint among pundits and commentators that overblown or confusing language stacks the deck against ordinary citizens who just want to know what their government is up to. His notion that plain language will make awful politics unbearable is simple and appealing—and largely wrong. Remember that for people to recognize a falsehood, they need to know the truth. Orwell assumes that once deception is stripped away, the truth will be plain. But populism, or at least the brand of populism represented by Trump and Brexit, proves that Orwell was wrong.
The year 2016 rocked Western politics. First, in June, Britain voted for Brexit: to leave the European Union, against the advice of the overwhelming majority of politicians, economists, academics, business leaders and elite journalists. Then, in November, America rejected a former secretary of state and senator, Hillary Clinton, for a political novice and a billionaire with a habit of saying appalling things, Donald Trump. In both cases, the experts misread the sentiment of a part of their country far away from the big cities where journalists tend to live and work.
And in both cases, those angry voters, ready to vote for change of almost any kind, were seduced not by “cuttlefish squirting out ink,” but by politicians making it perfectly clear what they wanted and how they planned to get it. Without making a statement on whether these voting choices were right or wrong, both Brexit and Trump ran campaigns filled with lies—lies in simple, bold language. When they lied, the lies were often perfectly clear to anyone who cared to learn the least bit about the facts. But either the lies were not recognized as such, or voters didn’t care.
First take Brexit. Its master slogan was simple: “Let’s take back control.” Brussels, the metonym for the European Union, was an undemocratic weight on Britain’s ancient freedoms, its democracy and the “Mother of All Parliaments,” the legislature at Westminster. Brexit’s proponents toured the country in a bus that featured the slogan “We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund the NHS [UK National Health Service] instead. Vote Leave.” The £350m figure was fake; it was a net number that didn’t take into account the money Britain got back from the EU. And no one on the Leave side had any serious interest in putting any big extra sums—much less £350m a week—into the health service. But when supporters of staying in the EU pointed this out, they were dismissed as “elites” with no standing to talk about what the real British people—sick of elites—wanted. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the language on the side of the bus, which obeys all of Orwell’s rules. The problem was voters’ grasp of the facts, or their disregard for them.
The polite faces of the Leave campaign were Boris Johnson, who had just been the Conservative mayor of London, and Michael Gove, the former justice and education secretary. But its real powerhouse was Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party.
Mainstream politicians dismissed Farage as a buffoon—it is hard to find a politician more often photographed with a pint of beer and a cigarette in his hands. But that was part of his appeal. And so was his language—as different from that of a polished politician as they come.
In a typical speech, he said:
So who are we? Who is the typical UKIP voter? I’ll tell you something about the typical UKIP voter—the typical UKIP voter doesn’t exist. When I look at the audiences in those theaters there is a range of British society from all parts of the spectrum. Workers, employers, self-employed. Big businessmen, corner shop owners. Well off, comfortably off, struggling. Young as well as old. Not ideologues. Some left, some right, mostly in the middle. Some activists, some haven’t voted for twenty years. One thing many have in common: they are fed up to the back teeth with the cardboard cut-out careerists in Westminster. The spot-the-difference politicians. Desperate to fight the middle ground, but can’t even find it. Focus groupies. The triangulators. The dog whistlers. The politicians who daren’t say what they really mean. And that’s why UKIP attracts this eclectic support. Because when we believe something—we don’t go “are you thinking what we’re thinking?” We say it out loud.
There are a few clichés in there (“fed up to the back teeth,” “cardboard cut-out”). But by and large, this too is a text that follows Orwell’s rules. It even reads a bit like Orwell: Its sentences are short, as are all of the words; about the fanciest words are “spectrum,” “eclectic” and “ideologue.” And he ends with a macho declaration about political language itself, in the plainest possible English: “we say it out loud.”
What he wanted was perfectly clear, too. In the Brexit of his dreams, as Farage said in the same speech:
We get our money back.
We get our borders back.
We get our Parliament back.
We get our fisheries back.
We get our own seat on the bodies that actually run the world.
We get back the ability to strike free-trade deals.
“Elites” could cavil at the facts implied here. But the pounding, repetitive phrasing was perfectly clear and punishingly effective. Whatever the causes of the narrow victory for Brexit, obfuscating language was not it.
That same summer, Donald Trump was shifting into general-election mode in the United States, having wrapped up the Republican nomination for president. He had swept away more than a dozen Republican rivals who had tried to belittle him as a newcomer out of his depth. Something about his campaign generated an energy among his voters that none of his rivals could match. And much of it had to do with his speech. He loved to rib Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida who had raised huge sums for his campaign, as “low energy.” And he was; Bush seemed an owlish, slightly tired professor next to the shouting, staccato Trump.
Trump’s style was successful precisely for being anything but that of a seasoned politician giving an elegant speech. He spoke almost entirely off the cuff:
Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart. You know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world. It’s true! But when you’re a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune. You know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged. But you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are. Nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power, and that was 35 years ago. He would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right—who would have thought? But when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger, fellas. And it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years. But the Persians are great negotiators. The Iranians are great negotiators. So, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.
Unedited transcripts like this rocketed around the internet, forwarded by voters alarmed that anyone could consider voting for a man who produced such a stream of non-sequiturs, the rhetorical equivalent of a bunch of beer cans, potato-chip bags and the odd shiny pool of oil floating down a filthy river. But the effect of passing these excerpts around was not what the people sharing them hoped. The chief result was to blind Trump’s opponents to how effective he was.
Real speech is full of starts and stops, non-sequiturs, ellipses and so on. For example, examine this linguistic 12-car pile-up.
We need to have a much more intentional explicit plan for NATO to engage with African countries and regional organizations, uh, not because the United States is not prepared to invest in security efforts in Africa, but rather to ensure that, uh, we are not perceived as trying to uh, dominate the continent. Rather we wanna make sure that we’re prep-, uh, seen as, uh, a reliable partner, and there are some advantages to some European countries with historical ties, uh, being engaged, uh, in uh, and uh, in ha-, in, taking advantage of relationships. The francophile countries obviously is gonna to be able to do certain things better than we can, uh, and, uh, you know, one of, one of the, uh, things we, we wanna make sure of, though is that, uh, when, when the average African thinks about US, uh, engagement in Africa, I don’t want them to think our only interest is avoiding terrorists from spilling out into, uh, the world stage.
It’s an embarrassing mess: “francophile” substituted for “francophone,” subjects and verbs not matching up, sentences not ending properly, and one “uh” after the other. The speaker is Barack Obama. He was talking to the editor and the foreign editor of The Economist on Air Force One in 2014.
For those passing around similar, unedited transcripts of Trump, the joke was on them. While he could maunder on and get off topic quite frequently, the unscripted and personal way he said nearly everything he said was mesmerizing to many voters who had never heard a politician talk like this.
And these populists were not only successful with their style; they were clear about content, in blunt language meant to shock the audiences into thinking “I’ve never heard anyone say these things.” Farage was explicit, saying that UKIP would not be cowed by taboo: “We say it out loud.”
Trump did the same, hardly hiding his plans. “We are going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it.” “I would immediately start renegotiating our trade deals with Mexico, China, Japan and all of these countries that are just absolutely destroying us.” “I will get rid of gun-free zones on schools and … on military bases.” “We’re going to get Apple to start building their damn computers and things in this country instead of in other countries.”
Say what you like, but Orwell’s heavy snowfall of obscuring language is nowhere to be seen.
Since Orwell’s death, the nature of political speech has changed. In the 1940s, politicians still strove for an elevated register when they spoke in public. Beginning in the 1960s, they began aiming to look more authentic, of the people. On the Democratic side, young voters rejected their elders and tradition, while on the Republican side, Nixon turned the “silent majority” against intellectuals and the cultural elite. In both cases, the result was politicians aiming for a style that was immediate and real rather than polished and perfect. They didn’t go all the way—whether Obama or Bush, most aimed to keep some kind of dignity in their words. But demotic was in, and Demosthenes was out. By Trump, this trend had reached a peak: It was all emotion and plain words, with no hint of aiming for dignity or what used to be called “rhetoric” in the good sense.
Yet despite what Orwell might have hoped, this plain speech did nothing to stop Trump. It may indeed have been his biggest weapon. If he lied, voters either didn’t know, or they gave him a pass. And if he promised something unconscionable, like torturing terrorism suspects—“I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”—many people either gave him a pass on that, too, or they actively thought it was a great idea. When people want bad things, the man who promises them those things in the plainest possible language is going to win. And beyond those who want bad things, many voters really are ill-informed. So it goes in a big and diverse society in which most people’s job is not politics.
As Trump and Brexit show, the weight of fixing a broken politics can’t fall on language alone. People need facts and arguments to make their case, not just plain talk. A democracy cannot be better than its voters. There is no easy way—linguistic or otherwise—around the hard slog of educating them to make good decisions.
Excerpted from Talk on the Wild Side: Why Language Can’t Be Tamed by Lane Greene. Copyright © 2018 by the Economist Newspaper Ltd and text copyright © 2018 by Lane Greene. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Lane Greene writers the Johnson column on language for the Economist.