What Americans are reading to understand President Trump
Posted February 5
During Donald Trump’s first week as president, sales of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, “1984,” skyrocketed. The book appeared on Amazon’s best-sellers list — a record of the website’s top-selling texts updated hourly — on inauguration Monday and jumped to No. 1 the following Tuesday evening, a position it continues to hold at the time of this article’s publication.
According to literary experts and political commentators, “1984” is one among a variety of best-selling books Americans are reading to better understand Trump’s presidency.
1984 in 2017
Orwell’s “1984,” originally published in 1949, has long been popular as it became required reading for many high school and college English courses. But recent sales represent a measurable spike.
The New York Times reported that last week, “1984” reached a 9,500 percent increase in sales since the Friday before the inauguration.
A spokesman from Penguin, the novel’s publishing house, told CNN the company had to order a 75,000 copy reprint to keep up with demand.
The Atlantic observed that becoming Amazon’s best-selling book across all genres is a difficult feat for any book, let alone a novel published 67 years ago.
Many commentators have argued the timing of the novel’s rise is no coincidence, drawing parallels between Trump’s administration and Orwell’s depiction of a society threatened by a totalitarian government’s surveillance and distortion of facts.
“1984” features a dystopian society called Oceania where government creates its own reality through pervasive propaganda and careful censorship of all media threatening its power. The novel’s protagonist, Winston, works at The Ministry of Truth, revising past newspaper articles to better support government positions — essentially rewriting history.
The New York Times suggested White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration,” despite evidence to the contrary, mirrored Orwell’s depiction of government “reality control.” In “1984,” Winston explains Oceania’s government taught citizens to embrace a worldview that countered logic by forcing them to accept “two and two make five.”
The New York Times also noted the novel shot to No. 1 after Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer’s statements, dubbing them “alternative facts,” a rhetorical move strikingly similar to The Ministry of Truth’s efforts to reshape reality.
Moreover, The New Yorker argued Trump illustrates what Orwell got right about authoritarianism: “that the act of falsifying reality is only secondarily a way of changing perceptions. It is, above all, a way of asserting power.”
But others have suggested Orwell’s novel shouldn’t be interpreted as an indictment of Trump specifically.
The Washington Post contended past presidents also adopted Orwellian methods, noting “The Obama administration did its best to conceal that the National Security Agency is listening to our electronic communications” and that President Bill Clinton “brought the country to a constitutional climax by claiming that the truth of his testimony regarding ‘that woman’ depended ‘on what the meaning of the word “is” is’ — an Orwellian clarification if there ever was one.”
CNN reported a spike in “1984” sales also occurred in 2013 when leaks by Edward Snowden sparked a national conversation about government surveillance.
Other totalitarian classics
While “1984” is a No. 1 best seller, other books exploring totalitarianism are also selling remarkably well.
The Atlantic reported that Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” “a 1935 novel about the rise of an authoritarian fascist leader in the U.S.,” saw a spike on Google Trends corresponding with the presidential election on Nov. 8. It is currently the ninth-best-selling book on Amazon.
Dystopian classics featuring authoritarian governments, including Aldous Huxley’s 1932 “Brave New World,” Ray Bradbury’s 1953 “Fahrenheit 451” and Margaret Atwood’s 1985 “The Handmaid’s Tale,” have been climbing Amazon’s best-selling charts as well.
“The Origins of Totalitarianism,” a dense 500 pages of political theory, also experienced rising sales after November’s election. Written in 1951 by Hannah Arendt, the book traces the rise of Stalinism and Nazism, and is not typically a hot commodity, according to KQED.
Jim Milliot, editorial director of Publishers Weekly, told KQED that typically 50 copies of “The Origins of Totalitarianism” sell nationally each week. But in December of last year, when sales peaked, it sold at 16 times that rate.
Roger Berkowitz, founder of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, told the station that the rise in sales likely reflects “right-wing populism and dissatisfaction with government sweeping through Europe and the U.S.,” which is “reminiscent of what happened in the 1920s and ’30s in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.”
But Berkowitz urges readers to avoid exaggerating parallels between these historical movements and Trump, insisting Arendt would argue Trump is no totalitarian.
Books on rural America
Other books enjoying a post-election sales boost are less overtly political. Many texts in this category probe white rural America, composing what The Washington Post labeled “Trumpology” — “a nascent genre of reading material exploring a certain portion of the electorate that seems most likely to vote for Donald Trump.”
Chief among these books is J.D. Vance’s 2016 “Hillbilly Elegy.” Currently Amazon’s No. 2 best-selling book of 2017, the memoir follows the history of Vance’s working-class family from Kentucky’s Appalachia to Ohio’s Rust Belt. Its Amazon profile boasts that The New York Times named it “one of ‘6 books to understand Trump’s win’” and the Economist concluded, “you will not read a more important book about America this year.” “Hillbilly Elegy” reached the top of The New York Times best seller list in August 2016, but KQED reported it started selling three times as fast after the presidential election.
In a Q&A with Lafayette Journal & Courier last week, Vance speculated his memoir resonated with readers post-election because Trump’s win spurred a stronger desire among Americans who didn’t vote for Trump to understand his supporters. He also noted post-election readings of the book felt less politically charged and more engaged with “some of the deeper questions about why we have those upward mobility issues here in the U.S.”
Many Americans are also reading Nancy Isenberg’s 2016 “White Trash,” a former New York Times best-seller still frequently mentioned in post-election commentary. Isenberg’s book traces the 400-year history of class struggle in America and the emergence of the “redneck” stereotype. The New York Times explained it elucidates how America’s economic system has systematically harmed the working poor as well as the ways Trump appealed to the wealthy and working class alike.
Other similar books in the cultural consciousness include Robert P. Jones’s 2016 “The End of White Christian America,” Carol Anderson’s 2016 “White Rage” and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s 2016 “Strangers in Their Own Land.”
While these books may be intended to engender liberal empathy for Trump supporters, some find them somewhat insulting. The Washington Post called their popular reception at once “deeply earnest and slightly disturbing,” noting their titles often include pejoratives and that many approaches to these texts seem “tinged with a feeling of superiority.”
Bob Hutton, an American studies professor at The University of Tennessee, wrote that “‘Hillbilly Elegy’ should have been titled ‘Hillbilly Reprimand,’ because Vance doesn’t want to mourn the hillbilly — he wants to make him a good worker.”
Trump as anti-reader
Although many Americans report finding insight on Trump through literature, Trump has been criticized for not being much of a reader himself.
While Trump’s stance on literature has garnered a fair amount of criticism and unfavorable comparisons to his predecessor, The Washington Post argued Trump’s comments on reading are purposeful. Obama seemed in many ways a “professor in chief.” Yet by positioning himself in direct contrast to Obama’s intellectualism, Trump can better channel “the will of the people, a group that has been ignored or laughed at by coastal elites over the past decade.” Thus, even in his relationship to literature, Trump represents a president championing change.
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