In escalating his constant effort to demean and delegitimize the mainstream press, President Trump reached a new low in recent days when he tweeted “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @NYTimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
If he did not realize that chilling phrase has a long and dark history, used by murderous dictators like Stalin in Russia and Chairman Mao in China against those they deemed disloyal, he lacks historical memory. And if he was aware that “enemy of the people” has been a weapon to turn a society against a chosen scapegoat — often with deadly consequences — that is even more disturbing.
Carl Bernstein, half of the Washington Post journalistic duo whose work led to the fall of President Nixon, tweeted: “The most dangerous ‘enemy of the people’ is presidential lying — always. Attacks on press by Donald Trump more treacherous than Nixon’s.” And Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote that “either out of calculation or instinct, Trump operates as an anti-Semite of old in the way he describes the news media,” accusing journalists of operating outside mainstream society, “profiting” from unnamed “special interests.”
Not only journalists have reacted this harshly. Mitchell Orenstein, a professor of Russian and Eastern European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, tweeted: “Charming that our uneducated president manages to channel the words of Stalin and fails to hear the historical resonance of this phrase.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former Republican presidential candidate, warned on “Meet The Press” that attacking the press is “how dictators get started.”
Seeking to offset the criticism, Vice President Mike Pence told journalists in Brussels that the White House supports “a free and independent press.” But he added that “when the media gets it wrong, I promise you President Trump will take his case straight to the American people to set the record straight.”
The problem is that it’s the president who has been “getting it” — the facts — “wrong.” And his case to the American people is to believe him anyway, and ignore the press.
History has shown that the pattern for authoritarian leaders, on gaining power, is to undermine the media first, followed by the judicial system. President Trump’s actions along those lines in his first month in office should serve as a sobering reminder that America’s freedoms are only as strong as its citizens. It is the responsibility of each of us to ensure that those freedoms endure.