Many of us were startled by the president’s recent labeling of the free press as “the enemy of the American people.” Many felt a line had been crossed. But which line, and what it had to do with this particular choice of words, hasn’t been crystal clear. I want to pick it apart here to understand which alarm bells may be ringing and why.
The phrase itself is most recently associated with Stalinist Russia, where, as Nikita Khrushchev put it in his 1956 speech denouncing the term, it “was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals” as demurred from Stalin’s cult of personality. Certainly Stalin was relying on language cues that distinguish the two important words in the phrase, enemy and people. An enemy differs markedly from the more common political labels adversary or opponent. As Michael Ignatieff wrote in 2013, “An adversary is someone you want to defeat. An enemy is someone you have to destroy.” The difference goes back to the roots: Opponent and adversary both derive from words meaning to turn or stand again; enemy comes from terms meaning “not friend.” You can have friendly opponents or adversaries; it is a contradiction in terms (despite the coinage frenemy) for an enemy to be a friend.
When Sen. Mitch McConnell, on learning of the Russian hacking of our presidential election this past fall, said, “The Russians are not our friends,” he was voicing the standard message that America and Russia, while currently at peace and occasionally cooperating in international efforts, are not simply opponents in a race for power, but fundamentally antipathetic toward each other. When the current President tweeted, “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do,” he seemed to be substituting the word enemies for adversaries — people who had fought against him, not people who felt hatred for him (and vice versa).
Of course, the phrase goes back further than Stalin, to Robespierre in 1789, who called the aristocrats of France “l’ennemi du peuple.” Peuple is a cognate of people, but with a more restrictive meaning. In English, we use people as the general plural of person; only rarely and with specific intent do we say or write persons. By contrast, le peuple (which is almost always singular, except, as in English, when referring to the various nationalities or ethnicities of the world) doesn’t mean the same thing as les personnes, les gens, or le monde (as in Le parc est plein du monde, the park is full of people). It refers to a group bound by tribal, ethnic, or national identity or class struggle. As one French scholar I met put it, “A riot is caused by les gens, but a revolution is caused by le peuple.” To be an enemy of the people, in this original (and doubtlessly also the Stalinist) sense is to be deemed worthy of destruction by that self-identified group. Insofar as an enemy of the people is found amongst the people, he is likewise a traitor and doomed as such. And when a leader decides, like Louis XIV, that “l’état, c’est moi,” that autocrat’s notion of the people resides exclusively within his own breast.
Such are the resonances that greet the president’s new phrase of choice concerning the free press. The words at the beginning and the end of the phrase are both fraught with meaning. (I haven’t even started on the choice of the enemy rather than an enemy.) They suggest fairly strongly not only that the free press is an inimical force that must be destroyed, but also that the American people are a cohesive, like-minded unit, identical in its feeling to the president himself, that is under threat from that press. When the French revolutionaries codified ennemi du peuple in a 1794 law that condemned to death those “spreading false news to divide or trouble the people,” they were seeking to mute such press by any means, including the most extreme.
Of course, such a recognizable slur risks ironic turnabout, as in Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, where the supposed “enemy” is the whistle-blowing hero of the story. But we are not in a play, and irony has taken its leave from our politics. The clearest formulation of the dangers in this phrase, for me, can be summed up this way: Any homogeneous group of people, and any politician, not only has opponents; he or she needs opponents, whether the “loyal opposition” or an outside adversary, in order to thrive. No one needs enemies — and those labeled as enemies are thereby unwanted, disposable, and deeply at risk.
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