President Donald Trump’s Attack on Media as ‘Enemy of the People’ has Historic Echoes

"The FAKE NEWS media," Trump wrote on Twitter, "is the enemy of the American People!"

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President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON, Feb 19, 2107: President Donald Trump ramped up his criticism of the news coverage of his administration Friday, again taking to his favorite social media platform.

“The FAKE NEWS media,” Trump wrote on Twitter, “is the enemy of the American People!”

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An initial tweet put only The New York Times, CNN and NBC News on his enemies list. That message was quickly deleted, however, and replaced by an almost identical note that added two more domestic television networks: ABC and CBS.

The social media attack, the latest in a long series of Trump broadsides against the news media, came after the president had left Washington for a visit to a Boeing aircraft plant in South Carolina. The president later headed to Florida, where he is to spend the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago complex.

President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up from the top of the steps of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Feb. 17, 2017. VOA

As the president arrived at the estate he has dubbed the Winter White House, social media and the networks crackled with debate about the significance of Trump calling some of the top American journalistic outlets enemies of the people, a phrase that goes back to ancient Rome and was used with chilling finality during the communist revolution in Russia a century ago.

U.S. diplomat recalls ‘petty tyrants’

“As an American diplomat, I stood up to petty tyrants who called journalists ‘enemies of the people,'” tweeted Tom Malinowski, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. “Guess that’s not our policy anymore.”

“It is one of the most controversial phrases in Soviet history,” said Mitchell Orenstein, professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

The phrase has its roots in Latin, during the Roman Empire, but “enemies of the people” gained its most notorious associations during the 20th century, during the purges ordered by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin that killed tens of millions of people.

FILE – Facemasks depicting former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and U.S President-elect Donald Trump hang on sale hours before Trump is to be sworn in as president of the United States, at a souvenir street shop in St. Petersburg, Russia, Jan. 20, 2017. VOA

An “enemy of the people” in the Soviet Union was not necessarily a criminal, but more often someone stigmatized by social origin or pre-revolutionary profession. The label alone was akin to a terminal illness, and merely being a friend of an enemy of the people was a certain cause for official suspicion.

“What it basically meant was a death sentence,” Orenstein told VOA.

Some see parallels in history

Stalin’s crimes were exposed to the world by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in a shocking speech to the Communist Party Congress in 1956, 61 years ago next Saturday, February 25. The speech, secret at the time, was delivered to a huge audience of communist faithful who heard it in fearful silence, but Khrushchev’s words were leaked to Western reporters and broadcast around the world the next day.

FILE - Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev addresses a huge rally in the Lenin sports stadium in Moscow, April 10, 1958.
FILE – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev addresses a huge rally in the Lenin sports stadium in Moscow, April 10, 1958. VOA

“For both Lenin and Stalin, journalists and intellectuals who didn’t share their point of view were among the most hated enemies. In attacking them, both appealed to the people,” said Serhiy Yekelchyk, an affiliate associate professor and Soviet studies specialist at the University of Washington.

“I am sure you will see in this description quite a few uncomfortable parallels,” Yekelchyk told VOA.

The principal founding father of the Soviet Union, communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, was fond of “the peoples’ enemies” as a label, and decades later, China’s dictator Mao Zedong denounced as “enemies of the people” those who criticized the Maoist policies and commands that led to the Great Famine and the death of tens of millions of Chinese.

FILE – Security cameras in front of the giant portrait of former Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Nov. 11, 2012. VOA

One would hope “American presidents would be educated enough to know something like that,” added Orenstein, who teaches one of the few courses on communism at an American university.

Trump defenders: ‘Things will adjust’

“He’s got his style,” Congressman Ted Yoho, a Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on CNN when asked about the provocative “enemy of the people” phrase.

“Things will adjust,” Yoho predicted, brushing off the potential volatility of the tweet.

In a dispatch shortly after the second Trump tweet, the French news agency noted that while many U.S. presidents have criticized the press, “Trump’s language has more clearly echoed criticism leveled by authoritarian leaders around the world.”

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Can radical language justify violence?

J.M. Berger, a fellow at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism at The Hague, is among those who agree with that characterization, calling Trump’s language “radical.”

Some of Trump’s supporters on the extremist fringe “may see language like ‘enemy of the American people’ as ratifying violence,” Berger told VOA.

The president’s tweets “could also incite others who are inclined toward violence, whether because of a political ideology or mental illness,” said Berger, author of several books and studies on extremist group’s use of social media. (VOA)

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