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The Free Press Aren’t ‘Enemies of the People’

The phrase has an ignominious history. Why does Trump keep using it?

August 24, 2018

On Sunday, only hours after The New York Times published a block­buster story reveal­ing that White House coun­sel Donald McGahn II has been “cooper­at­ing extens­ively” with the special coun­sel invest­ig­a­tion, Pres­id­ent Trump resor­ted to one of his favor­ite attack lines. Claim­ing that the story implied some­thing that it did not — that “the White House Councel [sic] had TURNED on the Pres­id­ent” — Trump’s tweet went on to charge, “This is why the Fake News Media has become the Enemy of the People. So bad for Amer­ica!”  

Indeed, to hear Trump tell it, he is engaged in a noble effort to educate the public about how the press is the “Enemy of the People.” In an August 5 tweet, the pres­id­ent explained, “The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am provid­ing a great service by explain­ing this to the Amer­ican People. They purposely cause great divi­sion & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very danger­ous & sick!” Asked how much of the media would qual­ify for this label, Trump gave an estim­ate of 80 percent. 

Trump’s attacks on the press, not to mention anyone else remotely crit­ical of him or his admin­is­tra­tion, have become a distress­ingly famil­iar occur­rence. But his grade-school rhet­oric takes a darker turn when he invokes the phrase “enemies of the people.” For anyone with even a passing under­stand­ing of the 20th-century use of the phrase by auto­crats and dictat­ors across the globe, it is shock­ing for an Amer­ican pres­id­ent to invoke these words. 

I first became famil­iar with the locu­tion “enemies of the people” when I star­ted work­ing as a prosec­utor for the United Nations at a special court estab­lished to invest­ig­ate and try former lead­ers of Cambod­i­a’s Khmer Rouge for geno­cide, crimes against human­ity, and war crimes. During the almost four years the Khmer Rouge controlled Demo­cratic Kampuchea (as Cambodia was then known), they were respons­ible for roughly 2 million deaths — about a quarter of the coun­try’s popu­la­tion at the time. Inter­viewed decades after the regime fell, the second-in-command of the govern­ment, a man named Nuon Chea, was asked what happened to those who came under suspi­cion. He was surpris­ingly forth­right: “These people were categor­ized as crim­in­als. Crim­in­als. … They were killed and destroyed. If we had let them live, the party line would have been hijacked. They were enemies of the people.” 

Nuon Chea no doubt picked up the phrase from his prede­cessors in the commun­ist author­it­arian lineage. Stalin deployed the phrase so frequently to justify his purges that the language was condemned in a famous 1956 speech by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. Khruschev said the term “enemy of the people” was “specific­ally intro­duced for the purpose of phys­ic­ally anni­hil­at­ing” those who disagreed with Stalin. Chin­a’s Chair­man Mao, mean­while, gave a speech the next year in order to “be clear on what is meant by ‘the people’ and what is meant by ‘the enemy,’” wherein those who attemp­ted to oppose the state’s social­ist revolu­tion were “the enemies of the people.” Auto­crats used the phrase to ration­al­ize mass arrests, torture, and extraju­di­cial killings.

To be clear, Pres­id­ent Trump’s condem­na­tion of the media as an “enemy of the people” in tweets does not equate to the crimes carried out by the Khmer Rouge, nor does it mean the U.S. is headed in that direc­tion. But the Pres­id­ent’s words do matter, and such state­ments create tangible harms. The use of such a loaded phrase by the Pres­id­ent normal­izes it in domestic and inter­na­tional discourse and encour­ages those opposed to a free press.

Enemy of the people’s twin, “fake news,” has now become stand­ard vocab­u­lary for govern­ments seek­ing to suppress or discredit journ­al­ism within their coun­tries’ borders. Accord­ing to a Decem­ber 2017 Politico story, prom­in­ent lead­ers or state media in at least 15 coun­tries have used “fake news” toward these ends. In the Phil­ip­pines, after an outlet that had been crit­ical of the govern­ment was shut down, the author­it­arian pres­id­ent, Rodrigo Duterte, proclaimed that “since you are a fake news outlet then I am not surprised that your articles are also fake.” Syrian Pres­id­ent Bashar al-Assad dismissed as “fake news” an Amnesty Inter­na­tional report that his regime had executed up to 13,000 pris­on­ers. Venezuelan Pres­id­ent Nicolas Maduro attemp­ted to refute reports of human rights by saying, “This is what we call ‘fake news’ today, isn’t it?” And Polan­d’s Pres­id­ent, Anderzej Duda, thanked Trump for continu­ing to fight the “phenomenon” of fake news.

Back at home, Trump’s state­ments are foster­ing an atmo­sphere of unpre­ced­en­ted hostil­ity to the media. This envir­on­ment threatens not only free speech — a recent poll found 43 percent of Repub­lic­ans said Trump should have the power to shut down “bad” media outlets — but also journ­al­ists’ phys­ical safety. A congress­man was elec­ted to the House of Repres­ent­at­ives last year after plead­ing guilty to assault­ing a journ­al­ist who dared to come to his campaign headquar­ters and ask ques­tions. Tele­vi­sion report­ers attend­ing Trump rallies now are accom­pan­ied by their own secur­ity guards. After New York Times reporter Kenneth Vogel appeared on MSNBC last week, he received this voice­mail: “You’re the prob­lem. You are the enemy of the people. And although the pen might be migh­tier than the sword, the pen is not migh­tier than the AK-47.” 

Given all the comment­ary that followed Trump’s use of “enemy of the people” early this year, much of which high­lighted the histor­ical baggage asso­ci­ated with it, the pres­id­ent either knows  — or should know — its connota­tions. His contin­ued use of it verges on incite­ment. 

All Amer­ic­ans, regard­less of polit­ical affil­i­ation, should unite to condemn the phrase “enemies of the people.” Indeed, even some of Trump’s closest advisers, includ­ing his daugh­ter, have distanced them­selves from this partic­u­lar asper­sion. And if Trump can’t be convinced about the import­ance of a free press or even its safety, then he should repu­di­ate the phrase purely out of self-interest: History has not been kind to members of the club that have used it.

(Image: Chip Somod­ev­illa/Getty)