Trump's 'enemy of the people' bluster can't be compared to Stalin's savage rule

Joseph Stalin was a newspaper man, though not quite in the mold of Horace Greeley or Hildy Johnson or Ben Bradlee. When Czar Nicholas II was overthrown in March 1917, Stalin came back from his Siberian banishment and took over as editor of Pravda.

He had to contend with competitive voices in the Russian press for about eight raucous months, until the Bolsheviks seized power on Nov. 7 and Vladimir Lenin established censorship two days later. After that, for Pravda and Stalin, it was clear sailing.

On Wednesday Sen. Jeff Flake denounced President Donald Trump for using the Stalinist term "enemy of the people," about prominent American media organizations. The Arizona Republican said: "2017 was a year which saw the truth - objective, empirical, evidence-based truth - more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine ‘alternative facts’ into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. ‘The enemy of the people,’ was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.

Flake was drawing an instructive but inexact parallel. Stalin, unlike Trump, never had to deal with a contentious or truth-telling press. To be labeled an "enemy of the people" under Stalin was a death sentence, with execution typically coming only after an abject and fictional confession.

Flake is right, though, that Trump's phrase, "enemy of the people," is indelibly linked to Stalin. The term in Russian is "vrag naroda," and it not only meant death for you but state persecution of your family. Lenin introduced that category of criminal into Soviet law, but Stalin elevated it to a sort of foundational principle of his rule.

Flake's point was to defend the media. "The free press is the despot's enemy," he said, "which makes the free press the guardian of democracy."

He accused Trump, accurately, of using Stalinist language against the press. But the existence of a free press in itself helps to undercut Trump's designs, if he has any. There was no Washington Post or New York Times or CNN in Stalin's Soviet Union - nor was there a Jeff Flake. There was no Michael Wolff. Nobody serving under Stalin leaked gossip and secrets to Pravda.

But let's return one more time to the past. Sinclair Lewis wrote a satirical novel, "It Can't Happen Here," about a demagogue coming to power in the United States. He seems to have had more of a fascist model in mind than a Stalinist one, but the elimination of counterweights in a society and the denigration of facts are similar either way.

Lewis' novel was a warning, not a diagnosis. Flake's argument could be taken the same way.

Will Englund is a veteran Moscow correspondent and currently an editor on The Post's foreign desk. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is the author of “March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revolution.”



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