Trump is playing an Orwellian numbers game
Editorial writer and columnist
Jan. 4, 2021 at 5:58 p.m. EST
“Mathematics,” Galileo said, “is the language in which God has written the universe.” Though an atheist, George Orwell very much agreed with the Italian astronomer that quantification is an essential attribute of objective reality.
Orwell understood, however, that politics is not a scientific endeavor, but rather “a sort of sub-atomic or non-Euclidean world” where perception could prevail over substance, sometimes dangerously, and sometimes lastingly. He hoped for a decent politics that would enable people to discern objective truth, and to act on it — consistent with their principles.
And so, in his greatest novel, he framed an individual’s protest against tyranny as an insistence on arithmetic. “Freedom,” the protagonist of “1984,” Winston Smith, confided to his diary, “is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.”
In the Ministry of Love’s dungeons, a different credo prevails: “Whatever the party holds to be truth is truth.” The party’s interrogator knew it had broken Smith’s resistance when, under horrific torture, Smith first lost the ability to count four fingers held in front of him, then came sincerely to believe that the four might be five.
President Trump did not torture Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, on Saturday — life does not imitate art to that degree. Yet his attempt to pressure this astonished official and his lawyer into “recalculating” the state’s certified presidential vote totals otherwise deserved the admittedly overused adjective “Orwellian.”
As Orwell illustrated in “1984,” the power to make another person believe something that literally cannot be true — not just to mouth the false words but to believe them — is the ultimate form of domination.
In a sense this is what Trump is doing with Republicans now: He is making acceptance of his phony numbers — figures that are not just false, but impossible — into a test of personal and party loyalty.
In reality, the result of Georgia’s election was: Joe Biden got 2,473,633 votes and Donald Trump got 2,461,854; the former figure is 11,779 votes greater than the latter. These figures have been checked, rechecked and verified repeatedly. They denote real votes cast by actual citizens.
In Trump’s reality, however, such things never happened, but all sorts of fraud — “they went to the table with the black robe and the black shield, and they pulled out the votes” — did occur, and he really “won that state by hundreds of thousands of votes,” as he told Raffensperger.
Raffensperger replied, sounding almost like Orwell’s beleaguered Smith: “We don’t agree that you have won.” He was so incredulous at the president’s words, perhaps, or so desperate to placate him without capitulating, that he used a verb — “agree” — implicitly making Trump’s contentions worthy of debate.
This counts as a courageous performance, however, especially given the threat of legal action Trump made against Raffensperger (albeit probably empty), and the hostility the president is whipping up against both the secretary of state and Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp (R), on social media.
Meanwhile, no beatings or electric shocks have proved necessary to bring others in the GOP into line, starting with the 77 percent of Trump voters who believe he was cheated out of victory, according to a Fox News poll.
The president’s own irresponsible statements were enough to convince them that he had been the victim of massive fraud, just as his concession to Biden would have convinced them of the opposite, had he chosen to behave like almost every other losing candidate in the history of U.S. presidential politics.
For numerous elected officials in the GOP’s upper echelons, however, the threat of a pro-Trump primary challenge, or fear of being rendered nonviable in a 2024 Republican presidential primary, induces obedience, or what they hope will be a sufficiently sincere-seeming display of it.
On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers, including 13 senators, plan to confront electoral votes for Biden with a challenge, the premise of which, essentially, is that two plus two might make five.
Leading the charge in the Senate is Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), joined by fellow 2024 hopeful Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). When he was running against Trump in the May 2016 Indiana primary and feeling offended by Trump’s insinuation that Cruz’s father might have been involved in the JFK assassination, Cruz said: “This man is a pathological liar, he doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. . . . Whatever lie he’s telling, at that minute he believes it.” Now, though, Ted Cruz loves Big Brother.
Fortunately, this maneuver will fail, rejected by the rest of the Senate. When you add the Democrats in that chamber to reality-based Republicans — such as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Mitt Romney (Utah), John Thune (S.D.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.) — the number of votes to accept Biden’s electors could reach 86.
And 86 is, still, a majority of 100.