Last 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.