The Real Relevance of '1984' Today

This week, George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984 shot to number 1 on Amazon. I haven’t seen any sales figures, but  according to a story in The New York Times, the book’s publisher just ordered a 75,000-copy reprint to meet the new demand and was considering yet further printings. Those are remarkable numbers. What happened?

I would have liked to think that the spike in sales happened in response to my essay about Orwell and the assault on free speech in the academy in this month’s New Criterion. I’ll come back to my observations about 1984 later on.  First, however, candor requires that I acknowledge that it was not my essay that sparked the surprising flood of sales.

No, the reason for the book’s new success was Donald Trump.  Was it just another example of the Trump Bump, his doing for the publishing industry what he has done to the Dow Jones average (up by 9% since the election), foreign investment in the U.S., and basic country-wide confidence that the country is getting back on the right track?

Not quite. When I say that “Donald Trump” was responsible for the sudden and unexpected surge in sales of 1984, what I mean is that the media seized upon a remark by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway in response to the controversy over the number of people who viewed Trump’s inauguration a week ago.  Trump opined that one and a half million people attended the festivities. The media laughed at that number, claiming it was much lower. Sean Spicer, in his first appearance as the administration’s press secretary, insisted that Trump was right and that, in fact, “that was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.” The media went to town on that, emitting dozens of articles with graphs, charts, statistics, and expert testimony. According to their count, what Trump, and Spicer, said was demonstrably false.

In one gleeful exchange  on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd repeatedly pressed Kellyanne Conway on the issue.  Why Did President Trump and then his press secretary deliberately lie about the facts of the size of the crowd at the inauguration? Conway parried that the press seemed determined to put the new administration in a bad light. For one thing, she noted, we didn’t really know what the total number of people who watched the inauguration was. For another, the press, fixated on crowd size, essentially ignored a reporter’s tweet that Trump had had the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. removed from the Oval Office when that really was demonstrably false. It was all, said Conway, part of the general effort to diminish and delegitimate the new administration.  All that slid of Todd’s back, who came back to the facts about the size of the crowd. Spicer, said Conway, “gave alternative facts.”