President Donald Trump’s planned “Fake News Awards” ceremony — announced then quickly rescheduled for January 17 — flies in the face of the First Amendment, a foundation of American democracy and decency.
But even before Trump entered the White House, his worst insults were usually aimed at the independent media. Or, as he labeled it: the “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.”
Once in the Oval Office, the newly minted president tweeted, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” He was attacking the media, it seemed, for not reporting his prowess and success.
As a former Soviet citizen, I am frequently overcome by a horror-movie feeling of fear and disbelief. It’s almost as if I don’t know where I am. In cosmopolitan New York? Or back in monotonous Moscow, listening to Soviet leaders boasting from the Kremlin about Communism’s drummed-up victories and denouncing their illusory enemies?
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake delivered a pre-planned speech from the Senate floor on Wednesday criticizing the president’s attacks on the press. “Mr. President, 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,” Flake said. Frankly, Trump’s America is in some ways even worse than it was during my Soviet childhood. When I was growing up in Moscow in the 1970s, not even Pravda used such menacing language for the Kremlin’s critics.
In the early years after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and particularly under Joseph Stalin’s despotic regime in the 1930s, “enemies of the people” emerged as the regime’s most terrifying label. During Stalin’s Great Purges of 1936-38, the term vragi naroda (enemies of the people) branded all those who disagreed with the Kremlin — whether about the planned economy, unfree press or predetermined election results. That label, which defined Soviet reality, typically resulted in immediate death or imprisonment within the Gulag of harsh labor camps.
This changed when Nikita S. Khrushchev, my great-grandfather, denounced his predecessor Stalin during a 1956 speech to the Communist Party. Khrushchev dismantled the Stalinesque system of the Gulag camps, and, perhaps as important, the vragi naroda became a tragedy of the past. The term itself was retired; Khrushchev considered the hateful language damaging to the Soviet Union’s fragile recovery from totalitarianism.
Most autocracies — from the Romans to the Nazis — have dubbed those who disagreed with their ideology as enemies of the state.
Let’s be clear, assaulting critics was not original to Stalinism. Most autocracies — from the Romans, to the French during the 1789 revolution, to the Nazis and after — have dubbed those who disagreed with their often-brutal ideology as enemies of the state. Journalists habitually topped these “enemy” lists and were subsequently censored, harassed, injured, or even killed just for doing their jobs. In an autocracy, there is nothing more dangerous than speaking truth to power and challenging the narrative of the rulers’ supremacy.
Democracies normally have known better, both in action and in rhetoric.
Not, it seems, in America under Trump. True, there are checks and balances that protect the press from the president’s ire. Journalists can freely provide the real facts that dispute or complicate the president’s megalomaniacal narrative. And their lives are not in danger, compared to so many other places.
Yet, when Trump tweets, or when speeches or ads attack the news media, this still can amount to the conditions of state censorship. Before Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” was released, the president’s personal lawyer filed suit to stop its publication. As the book garnered widespread attention this month, Trump indignantly objected to the “current libel laws [that] are a sham and a disgrace, and do not represent American values or American fairness.”
Fairness for who? This kind of pronouncement is designed to instill intimidation and fear. It creates volatility — threats shouted from the top, even without the threat of physical harm, can restrict public debate and influence public policy. Such actions reinforce social and political inequalities, and foster an atmosphere of mistrust and animosity between political parties and social groups. As a recent report from the think tank Freedom House argues, “basic rights and political freedoms in the United States are deteriorating at a faster pace under President Donald Trump, exacerbated by attacks on key institutions like the press and the courts.”
Threats shouted from the top, even without the threat of physical harm, can restrict public debate and influence public policy.
In this light, one has to appreciate Flake’s critique. The Republican, who will not be seeking re-election, is a rare, if not always consistent, Trump critic. To be fair, his analogy comparing the White House’s bullying rhetoric to Stalin’s is by no means a direct one. Yet Trump’s vile lingo is dispiriting, and edges the world’s foremost democracy closer to the not-so-savory club of non-democracies.
Not only does Trump appear less democratic than the Soviet autocrat Khrushchev, but his anti-free speech rhetoric places him in unsavory company; the current pantheon of world rulers who share his disdain for the free press include Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, China’s Xi Jinping and the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte.
In democratic societies, a free press guaranties that the state’s menacing language can never turn into menacing actions against its people — as Stalin’s Gulags did. That’s how many dictatorships have thrived. Where would Nazi Germany be without Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who dubbed the Jews the “sworn enemy of the German people” because they doubted Adolf Hitler’s Aryan agenda?
Of course, the flashy real-estate tycoon-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-foulmouthed president is arguably more like Charlie Chaplin’s buffoon character in “The Great Dictator” (1940) than the real Hitler or Stalin. Or perhaps Trump is more like Hollywood’s mean clown “Pennywise” — “Trumpywise” — insulting some, punching others and scaring the rest.
But the danger of this nightmare is that it gets more real every day. And the longer it lasts, the harder it will be to wake up.
Nina Khrushcheva is professor of international affairs at The New School and the author of “The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.”