On Wednesday Sen. Jeff Flake denounced President Trump for using the Stalinist term “enemy of the people,” in regard to prominent American media organizations. The Arizona Republican said:
2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine “alternative facts” into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. “The enemy of the people,” was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.
Flake was drawing an instructive but inexact parallel. Stalin, unlike Trump, never had to deal with a contentious or truth-telling press. Newspapers were not a target of his wrath but a weapon, in his hands, that could be wielded to frightening effect.
Even after ascending to the pinnacle of Soviet power, Stalin liked to keep his hand in the game. In 1936 he reportedly wrote an unsigned piece for Pravda, headlined “Muddle Instead of Music,” about an opera by Dmitri Shostakovich, that nearly drove the composer to suicide. (When Trump criticized Lin-Manuel Miranda, it didn’t seem to have the same effect.)
Just a year later, Pravda took an active role in whipping up the hysteria that led to the show trials of the Great Purge. Now Stalin was not toying with an artist, but identifying traitors. To be labeled an “enemy of the people” under Stalin was a death sentence, with execution typically coming only after an abject and wholly fictional confession.
Stalin used the press, unburdened by facts, to create an enclosed atmosphere where paranoid fantasy had to be accepted as reality. He gaslighted his victims, and an entire nation, besides. There was seemingly no way out. (Pravda means truth in Russian, and the name of the other Soviet leading paper, Izvestia, means news; as the old joke had it, there was no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia.)
Flake is right, though, that Trump’s phrase, “enemy of the people,” is indelibly linked to Stalin. The term in Russian is “vrag naroda,” and it not only meant death for you but state persecution of your family. Lenin introduced that category of criminal into Soviet law, in the very early going, but Stalin elevated it to a sort of foundational principle of his rule.
Lenin had “bourgeois” die-hards in mind. Stalin and his henchmen targeted spies, wreckers and counter-revolutionaries in every corner of Soviet society, but especially among his rivals, real or imagined, within the Communist Party. Millions were shot and millions more perished in the camps of the gulag (though not all had been designated enemies of the people). It got so bad that when Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Stalin in the 1950s, he banned the phrase.
“Enemy of the people” is an idea that predates the Soviet Union by a couple of millennia. The Romans had their “hostis publicus,” which came into English as “public enemy.” There was something in the air in the 1930s, though, that saw enemies, of the public and of the people, just about everywhere. The first Public Enemy No. 1 in American history was John Dillinger, followed, after his tommy-gun death on a Chicago sidewalk in 1934, by Baby Face Nelson. In Germany, Hitler was calling the Jews enemies of the people. In the Soviet Union, Stalin was taking his even broader approach, and in the end the term was attached to his legacy.
Flake’s point was to defend the media. “The free press is the despot’s enemy,” he said, “which makes the free press the guardian of democracy.”
He accused Trump, accurately, of using Stalinist language against the press. But the existence of a free press in itself helps to undercut Trump’s designs, if he has any. There was no Washington Post or New York Times or CNN in Stalin’s Soviet Union — nor was there a Jeff Flake. There was no Michael Wolff. Nobody serving under Stalin leaked gossip and secrets to Pravda.
But let’s return one more time to the 1930s. Sinclair Lewis wrote a satirical novel, “It Can’t Happen Here,” about a demagogue coming to power in the United States. He seems to have had more of a fascist model in mind than a Stalinist one, but the elimination of counterweights in a society and the denigration of facts are similar either way. Lewis’s novel was a warning, not a diagnosis. Flake’s argument could be taken the same way.