Writings and observations


Lest Donald Trump’s use of the phrase “enemy of the American people” – to describe the news media – be dismissed as just another rhetorical flights by an incoherent president, put it into some context.

The phrase has a long and deeply chilling history.

First, what he said on Friday, was wrapped in a criticism (vague and unspecific, which is not unusual) of the news media. Presidential complaints about news organizations is nothing new; that goes back all the way to Washington, with examples available from all or nearly all presidents since. Richard Nixon famously considered the press his “enemy.”

The phrase “enemy of the people” is something different, and far more toxic. And if there’s one “enemy of the people” out there, other similar designations won’t be far behind.

The phrase was used in ancient Rome, though there it tended to be applied to one person, and to one person in power (in the best documented case, by the Roman Senate of Nero).

The French Revolution made significant use of the phrase, this time to apply to categories of people, as in this 1793 quote from Maximilien Robespierre: “The revolutionary government owes to the good citizen all the protection of the nation; it owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death”.

Vladimir Lenin adopted the usage during and after the Russian Revolution. From Wikipedia: “The Soviet Union made extensive use of the term (Russian language: враг народа, “vrag naroda”), as it fit well with the idea that the people were in control. The term was used by Vladimir Lenin after coming to power, as early as in the decree of 28 November 1917: ‘all leaders of the Constitutional Democratic Party, a party filled with enemies of the people, are hereby to be considered outlaws, and are to be arrested immediately and brought before the revolutionary court.’ … An enemy of the people could be imprisoned, expelled or executed, and lose their property to confiscation. Close relatives of enemies of the people were labeled as ‘traitor of Motherland family members’ and prosecuted.”

What Lenin did, his successor Josef Stalin did more. During his long reign in the Soviet Union, “enemy of the people” designations got a massive workout, covering dozens of categories of people – anyone, really, Stalin didn’t like, whether or not they were a threat to him. And as University of Pennsylvania professor Mitchell Orenstein notes, “What it basically meant was a death sentence. … The formula ‘enemy of the people’ was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals.”

Mao Zedong picked the lesson for China too. There, as Chinese writer Li Yuan pointed out, “every dissenting voice was ‘the enemy of the people’ under Mao.” People so designated got under Mao about the same as their counterparts in the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Trump surely is no great student of history, but some of the people around him have looked into some these precedential areas enough to understand the meaning of the phrase. (Top presidential advisor Steve Bannon was quoted as saying in 2013, “I’m a Leninist.” Some context for the phrase “enemy of the people” would undoubtedly be familiar to him.)

Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein tweeted after the Trump statement: “The most dangerous ‘enemy of the people’ is presidential lying – always. Attacks on press by Donald Trump more treacherous than Nixon’s.” Unlike Nixon’s, which were dismissed widely as personal animus, this new attack by a president easily could lead to murders to journalists, even aside from direct state action. (In mirror image to the scene in Russia under its latest autocrat, another Vladimir.)

One addition to that is merited: What a president, or other national leader, does can be even more dangerous than what they say.

Share on Facebook