“It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Joseph Stalin to describe his enemies,” outgoing Republican Sen. Jeff Flake plans to say this week about Donald Trump’s use of the phrase “the enemy of the people.”
The opposite is true, of course. It’s a testament to the condition of “democracy” that Trump’s abrasive comments about the media won’t inhibit the press, nor any of his opponents, from criticizing him, or investigating him — or even lashing out at him with historically ignorant, hyperbolic juxtapositions.
Since the election of Trump, we’ve been bombarded with arguments from Democrats, and some NeverTrumpers claiming that the president corrupts Republicans, because they are either willing to go along with him on policy or silent regarding his norm-breaking behavior. They claim this props up Trump. There is no denying that partisanship corrupt principles, but I’m afraid that’s nothing new. And it works both ways.
Another way to prop up Trump is to make wildly overstated claims about his power and aims. Flake, who I’ve been a big fan of for a long time, is an example of Trump corrupting his critics.
For one thing, contrasting the words of any U.S. president to Stalin’s is extraordinarily stupid for the most obvious reasons. One of these men won an election and is limited by the Constitution. And, as far as we know, Trump has governed within the confines of that document — even, whether he intended to or not, strengthening the separation of power that’s been degraded over the past eight years and more. The other is the architect of mass slaughter, collectivist starvation, torture, prison camps, full autocracy, and widespread misery and war.
“I am in no way comparing President Trump to Joseph Stalin,” Flake told host Christiane Amanpour in an interview walking back his soon-to-be-made comments. “Joseph Stalin was a killer. Our president is not. But it just puzzles me as to why you’d use a phrase that is so loaded and that has such deeper meaning, the press being the enemy of the people.”
“In no way?” Earlier in the week, Flake was ready to argue that Trump’s Stalinist phrasing was conclusive evidence of the abysmal “condition of our democracy.” Flake got the media’s attention by letting them know in advance that he was going to claim that the president was quoting Stalin — because it’s exactly the kind of thing they love to hear. Now, Flake says he’s merely “puzzled” by Trump’s use of “enemy of the people?”
When it’s convenient, Donald Trump is an incoherent numbskull who has no clue what’s going on. When it’s not, Donald Trump is sifting through Soviet-era propaganda for loaded phrases with deep authoritarian meaning.
Maybe it’s not that puzzling. The idea that “enemy of the people” is a phrase unique to Stalin is ludicrous. I hate to break this to Flake, but though the president’s attacks on the press are often crude and destructive, he probably isn’t referring to journalism or freedom of speech as concepts but rather the actions of the contemporary press, which he sees as hostile to him personally — which is the only thing that matters to him. It’s unlikely he’s even thought through the broader historic implications.
Whatever the case, his comments don’t exist in a vacuum. Conservatives distrust the media, and have for a while now. They have plenty of reason to do so. The many dramatic mistakes and often hysterical coverage during the Trump era have only given them more cause. I’m sure Flake will mention this trend as well.
According to a new poll by Gallup/Knight Foundation, 8 in 10 Americans still believe the media is critical or very important to our democracy, which must include plenty of Republicans. The problem is, they also see the media as failing. More Americans view news media negatively (43 percent) than positively (33 percent), a trend started long before the Trump presidency.
Whey do Republicans hold this attitude? Just look at the coverage of the Flake speech. The press has had a field day wiki-searching the phrase and coming up with a long line of tyrants who referred to their political opponents as “enemies of the people.” If there was any such historical mud racking when Obama said he was “gonna punish our enemies,” by which he meant Republicans, I can’t find it. The former president not only calls his political opponents the enemy, but promises to exact retribution for disagreeing with him. Nor can I find any such investigations into Hillary Clinton claiming that her most notable enemy was, “Probably the Republicans” — not the Iranian mullahs or Putin or ISIS.
And that’s fine. Though it’s uncouth and damaging for the president — or a candidate — to demonize Americans as the “enemy,” it isn’t exactly unique and it certainly isn’t analogous to a tyrant making similar threats. Pretending comments like this are Stalin-inspired, a comparison purposefully used to evoke the menace of authoritarianism and tyranny where none exists, is just another example of the unfortunate state of our political discourse.