I’d always shuddered to imagine what it would be like to live as a dissident under some autocratic regime, hunted and harried as an “enemy of the people.” And now I suppose I’m getting a slight taste of it, since President Donald Trump on Monday tweeted that the “Fake News (Media) is the Enemy of the People.” He later specified on Fox News that The Post falls into that category.
Some journalists are greatly alarmed, but I just can’t muster much fear of persecution. The president struggles to control a handful of his senior staff; strong-arming the vast federal bureaucracy into carrying out any purges he fancies looks entirely beyond his capacities.
And yet it’s still worrisome that the commander in chief seems to enjoy dictator cosplay. The job of U.S. president ought to offer enough drama and pageantry to satisfy anyone. Trump should have neither the time nor the need to spend afternoons dressing up as Dear Leader and strutting through our Twitter feeds.
Still more worrying are his supporters’ often pleased reactions to these sorts of attacks. I don’t really expect any better from Donald Trump. But I retain rather higher hopes for conservatives.
His supporters might respond that he is justified: that the media has a liberal bias and that the skew has become more monolithic, and less restrained in its expression, since Trump’s election. Most media outlets do indeed list to the left, and they’re certainly not overfond of Trump. But I’d ask my conservative friends whether dubbing them enemies of the people is really the best way to go about correcting that problem. Or even the best way to name it.
I’ve written more than my share on media bias, but I’ve managed to avoid defaming a huge profession, with tens of thousands of individuals, as a massive fifth column. And I’ve definitely avoided deploying “enemies of the people,” which has a particularly grotesque history.
The first recorded usage seems to have been in the Roman Empire. The Roman senate declared Emperor Nero hostis publicus in A.D. 68. OK, fair enough. But the phrase came into wider currency during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. After that, its biography offers a whirlwind tour of the worst regimes in modern history.
In the Soviet Union under Vladimir Lenin, the designation “enemy of the people” justified gross crimes against people who’d had the temerity to, say, own a bit of property under the old regime. Stalin, not to be outdone, widened the meaning to include fellow communists who had displeased him in some way. The carnage was so appalling that even Nikita Khrushchev repudiated the phrase in 1956, saying it had been “specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals.”
Oh, and did I mention that Nazi Germany also wielded “enemy of the people” as a cudgel?
Hardly a good look for the president of the United States.
This is where conservative readers will be getting angry. “There you go again! You mainstream media types are always calling us Nazis! Such nonsense!”
As it happens, I agree: It is nonsense to argue this way, and the left-wing folks who do it ought to knock it off.
Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and others appalls me. But that’s not in the same category as establishing a fascist dictatorship. Nor is tightening our immigration policy very much like invading other countries and sending millions of citizens to extermination camps. It’s offensive lunacy to suggest that these things are somehow inextricably linked.
And it’s not much more reasonable to claim a direct causal link between Trump’s rhetoric and the monstrous synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, as is now happening. Jews are not among the groups Trump is known for slandering, and America has a pernicious history of anti-Semitic violence long pre-dating Trump. Sadly, there were deadly attacks at Jewish centers under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
So, no, friends, I’m not arguing that Trump is Hitler, or even Hitler Lite. I’m entirely confident that even if he wanted to trash the Constitution and impose a racist dictatorship, neither the institutions of the United States nor the people of the United States would permit it.
But one can dislike the president’s unpleasantly evocative phraseology without thinking the dark night of fascism must therefore be almost upon us. One merely needs to ask: Are Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia really the rhetorical company we want to keep? As conservatives, or as a nation?
Or to put it in a slightly less provocative manner: Conservatives are absolutely right that the left should stop tarring opponents with repellent and fantastic calumnies. In fact, conservatives are so very correct on this matter that they really ought adopt the policy for themselves.
Megan McArdle is a columnist with The Washington Post.