Enemy of the People
By Pierre Lemieux
There are good reasons to criticize “the media.” They generally espouse collectivist values in the sense that they favor collective or political choices over individual choices. This bias likely corresponds to the vague beliefs of the majority of the population. Not surprisingly, the media give their customers what they want. (The financial press is less prone to popular biases because it sells something else than entertainment and confirmation bias; it sells information that has market value.)
President Trump, I think, uses a no less collectivist approach when he criticizes the media and calls them “enemy of the people.” He may prefer different collective choices than the typical journalist or intellectual, but they remain collective choices to be forced on unwilling minorities. Think of government trade deals imposed on any importer or consumer who would have preferred to make his own deals. The very expression “enemy of the people,” which Mr. Trump used again on Wednesday illustrates his collectivist approach: those who oppose the choices or values of the collectivity–in fact, of some politically powerful individuals in the collectivity–are enemies of the people.
Mr. Trump protests that only the “Fake News (Media) is the Enemy of the People.” In two tweets of October 29, he said:
CNN and others in the Fake News Business keep purposely and inaccurately reporting that I said the “Media is the Enemy of the People.” Wrong! I said that the “Fake News (Media) is the Enemy of the People,” a very big difference. When you give out false information – not good!
Check out tweets from last two days. I refer to Fake News Media when mentioning Enemy of the People – but dishonest reporters use only the word “Media.” The people of our Great Country are angry and disillusioned at receiving so much Fake News. They get it, and fully understand!
It still means that making “the people” angry turns one into an enemy of the people.
The historical connotation of the expression “enemy of the people” is a bit scary, as summarized in two interesting newspaper stories: “Why Trump’s ‘Enemy of the People’ Bluster Can’t Be Compared to Stalin’s Savage Rule,” by Will Englund, Washington Post, January 17, 2016; and “Trump Embraces ‘Enemy of the People,’ a Phrase With a Fraught History,” by Andrew Higgins, New York Times, February 26, 2017.
As far as we know, the expression originated in the late Roman Republic. A “hostis publicus,” who had usually committed an alleged act of treason, lost his Roman citizenship and could be killed. It is interesting to note that the original meaning of hostis was “foreigner.” The enemy of the people is like a foreign enemy. (See P. Jal, “‘Hostis (publicus)’ dans la littérature latine de la fin de la République,” Revue des Études Anciennes, 1963.)
The expression was later appropriated by French revolutionaries and especially by the Jacobins during the Terror. Enemies of the people were summarily condemned and quickly guillotined.
It was Lenin and later Stalin who, following the communist revolution of October 1917, best recycled the French revolutionaries’ “ennemi du peuple.” They used the expression to identify anybody who did not agree with the Soviet rulers and thus needed to be punished. A few years after Stalin’s death, his successor, Nikita Krushchev, condemned the label as an excuse for eliminating political competitors.
“It was a label that meant death,” says Mitchell A. Orenstein, professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He says:
This is the connotation for anyone who lived in the Soviet Union or knows anything about the Soviet Union, which Donald Trump obviously doesn’t—or he doesn’t care.
Yet, words have their importance.