Are we really enemies of the people?

February 23, 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Tom Claridge

WE STRONGLY SUSPECT that all politicians see the media as posing a potential threat to their ability to stay in office. But it was still shocking to observe the current president of the United States tweet that the ‘fake news” published by the New York Times, Washington Post and four television networks made them not just critics of his administration but an “enemy of the American people.”

We’ve never had much doubt that Donald Trump is a demagogue, or that his campaign based on a promise to “make America great again” was frightenly similar to what Adolf Hitler would have said that brought him to power during the Great Depression.

Interestingly, the New York Times has provided its readers with a history of the phrase “enemy of the people,” tracing its origin to the Roman Emperor Nero and his infamous fiddling while Rome burned.

“The [Roman] Senate grew so infuriated that they declared Nero an enemy of the people and drew up plans for his arrest and execution. Nero took his own life after a failed attempt to flee.”

Although the phrase fell out of fashion among politicians, it popped up in literature and art, most famously in Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play “An Enemy of the People,” which featured a doctor who is almost run out of town because of an article he wrote bashing the government.

“The idea came to Ibsen after his own brush with infamy – his play ‘Ghosts’ challenged the hypocrisy of Victorian morality, and was deemed indecent,” the Times article said.

Hitler was allegedly an Ibsen fan, some historians suggesting he saw the plays as prophecy of the Third Reich. “He reportedly read ‘An Enemy of the People’ closely, even weaving some key lines into speeches,” the article said. “His administration deployed this rhetoric to describe Hitler’s main enemy: the Jews. ‘Each Jew is a sworn enemy of the German people,’ Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels wrote in 1941. ‘If someone wears the Jewish star, he is an enemy of the people. Anyone who deals with him is the same as a Jew and must be treated accordingly. He earns the contempt of the entire people, for he is a craven coward who leaves them in the lurch to stand by the enemy.’”

Noting that Stalin, Lenin and Chairman Mao all used similar language to stifle dissent, the article added: “Today, ‘enemy of the people’ is still deployed. But mostly, you hear it from dictators. … It’s never before been uttered by the leader of the free world. One more way in which Trump’s presidency truly is unprecedented in U.S. history.”

Interestingly, the reporter who, with Bob Woodward, helped expose the misconduct of President Richard Nixon suggested Sunday that Mr. Nixon had nothing on Donald Trump.

“Trump’s attacks on the American press as ‘enemies of the American people’ are more treacherous than Richard Nixon’s attacks on the press,” Carl Bernstein said Sunday on CNN.

He said Mr. Trump’s comments, made publicly (unlike Nixon’s private attacks), brought to mind “dictators and authoritarians, including Stalin, including Hitler.”

And he added that the Trump rhetoric is potentially more dangerous than Nixon’s attacks on the news media, since there is “no civic consensus in this country like there was at the time of Watergate about acceptable presidential conduct. … Trump is out there on his own, leading a demagogic attack on the institutions of free democracy. We are into terrible authoritarian tendencies.”

We guess only time will tell what the new American president might do to follow up on his attacks on the media.

Is it unthinkable that in his attempt to find the source of “criminal leaks” to reporters that some of them will wind up accused of disclosing “classified information” and facing jail time?

To us, the main danger is that repetition of his allegations that the news media are purveyors of “fake news” will lead his supporters to believe him and support moves to silence his media critics.

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