President Trump is not known for his subtlety. But even by this standard, his tweet Friday night was extreme. Trump called the news media “the enemy of the American People.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
The New York Times, which among others was called out specifically, labeled it “a striking escalation” from a leader who “routinely castigates journalists.”
Gabriel Sherman, national affairs editor at New York magazine, described it as “full-on dictator speak.”
They're not being pedantic.
Enemy of the people is a phrase “typically used by leaders to refer to hostile foreign governments or subversive organizations,” the New York Times wrote. “It also echoed the language of autocrats who seek to minimize dissent.”
Where did the expression come from? In its original incarnation, enemy of the people wasn't code for “enemy of my regime.” In one of its earliest uses, the phrase was used to describe a leader himself — Nero. The Roman ruler was a disastrous emperor, and a careless one to boot. As his country fell into ruin, strained by construction costs and a massive devaluation of the imperial currency, Nero vacationed in Greece. He enjoyed musical performances and theater. He took a chariot to some Olympic Games. He considered whether to build a canal across the Isthmus of Corinth.
When he got back home, the political class was angry. And he didn't do himself any favors by ignoring a revolt in Gaul. The 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.
The term fell out of fashion among the political class, though it popped up in literature and art. Most famously, Henrik Ibsen wrote an 1882 play called “An Enemy of the People.” It features a doctor who's almost run out of town because of an article he's written 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.
Adolf Hitler was allegedly an Ibsen fan. (Some historians say they believe that he read the plays as prophecy of the Third Reich.) He reportedly read “An Enemy of the People” closely, even weaving some key lines into speeches. 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.”
Around the same time, leaders of the Soviet Union were transforming enemy of the people into a major tool for oppression and silencing enemies. Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Bolsheviks, used “the peoples' enemies” as a label to stigmatize anyone who didn't fall into line when the revolution happened. Enemies of the people were ostracized and even their friends were under suspicion.
For foes of Joseph Stalin, being branded an enemy of the people was a death sentence. The Soviet leader deployed that language against politicians and artists he didn't like. Once branded, the accused were sent to labor camps or killed. Best case? An enemy would be denied education and employment. “It is one of the most controversial phrases in Soviet history,” Mitchell Orenstein, professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, told Voice of America
“For both Lenin and Stalin, journalists and intellectuals who didn't share their point of view were among the most hated enemies,” University of Washington professor Serhiy Yekelchyk told VOA. “In attacking them, both appealed to the people.”
Chinese dictator Mao Zedong deployed the phrase against people critical of his policies and dictates. The leader, who created a famine that killed 36 million Chinese, was obsessed with identifying and rooting out his enemies. As Zhengyuan Fu explained in “Autocratic Tradition and Chinese Politics”, every member of Chinese society, even children, were called on to root out the landlords, teachers, intellectuals and artists who opposed Mao. He wrote:
Members of society are divided into two major categories: the “people” and the “class enemy.” People describes the in-group, within which are workers, poor and lower-middle-class peasants, soldiers and cadres. The “class enemies of the people” refers to the out group … a highly arbitrarily assigned group whose members are defined by the party state.
While the “people” are described in terms of “warmth, friendliness, candor, courage, and everything that is good,” the class enemies are depicted as “cruel, cunning, morally degrading, always scheming, and evil,” Fu writes. In the enemies camp were who often were imprisoned.
Today, enemy of the people is still deployed. But mostly, you hear it from dictators. (Heads of former Soviet countries are particularly fond of the construction. Old dog, new tricks, etc.) 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.