My favorite part of the book 1984 by George Orwell is the appendix, entitled “The Principles of Newspeak.” In 1984, Newspeak was the official language of the Party that ruled Oceania. As the Appendix states:
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.[…] This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words…
Orwell then explains how, through shrinking the vocabulary of the language, heretical thoughts became unthinkable. He illustrates by quoting the following passage from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
Orwell then states that “it would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.”
Why do I mention this? Well, it is very relevant to our present political situation.
One of the most notable things about Donald Trump is how few words he seems to know. People mock his tiny hands, but to me what’s truly amazing is his absolutely minuscule vocabulary.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in his tweets, where he will often conclude one of his communiques insulting someone or complaining about something with an imperative “Sad!” or “Bad!”
If Trump needs to lengthen some statement, usually all he can do is add the word “very” or, if he is talking about something he does not like, interject “so terrible”.
When Trump wants to add extra emphasis to some point, he often adds that it will be “big league”. (e.g. “We are going to win big league.”) Thanks to Trump’s peculiar accent, many people have misheard this as “bigly”; a child-like non-adjective that seems extremely fitting for the man, with his penchant for gaudy, oversized buildings.
If the problem were merely that our President-elect was a man incapable of eloquence, that would be one thing. But it is far worse than that.
The scary thing is that his style of communicating is very infectious. People–myself included–have picked up his habits of saying “sad!” or “big league”. It’s addictive, I won’t deny it; and there is an alarming pleasure in mimicking him–even for people like me, who find him utterly appalling and oppose him completely.
But that is the frightening thing: once you start to talk like him, you will start to think like him. And once that happens, you could reach a point where “a heretical thought” becomes, as Orwell warned, “literally unthinkable”.
To be clear, I think Trump’s rhetorical style (if you can call it that) is more a symptom than the disease itself. I wrote back in 2010 that “Twitter = Newspeak”, and that was before Trump was even on the political map. I do think that the ascendance of Trump, who communicates through Twitter far more than most candidates, supports my point. It may be that Twitter itself made Trump possible.