“Enemy of the People,” Badge of Honor


When Donald Trump started attacking the media as “the enemy of the people,” I wasn’t the only one who thought immediately of Heinrich Ibsen’s 1882 play. Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast does a great job at drawing contemporary parallels, to which I add a few of my own.

Let’s first review the attacks. Business Insider notes Trump’s use of the phrase and then traces its infamous lineage:

Over the last two weeks, President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to media outlets that he dubbed the “fake news media” as “the enemy of the American People.”

Trump repeated the attack at a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, saying, “They are the enemy of the people.”

The phrase “the enemy of the people” has a long history that Trump may or may not have known about. 

Over the couse of the last century, it has been used repeatedly by dictators and autocrats to delegitimize foreign governments, opposition parties, and dissenters. 

Though the phrase dates back to Roman times and the reign of Emperor Nero (who was declared “an enemy of the people” by the Roman Senate), it came into use in the modern period during the French Revolution. Ennemi du peuple was used to refer to those who disagreed with the new French government during the “Reign of Terror,” a period during which thousands of revolutionairies were executed by guillotine.

While it was featured as the name of a Henrik Ibsen play, its next prominent use was by the Nazis. During the Third Reich’s rule in Germany, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels referred to Jews as “a sworn enemy of the German people” who posed a risk to Adolf Hitler’s vision for the country, according to The Washington Post.

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen traces the same lineage and then lays out why Trump is using it:

A methodical attack on the institutions of Western democracies has one ultimate objective: their replacement with the “soft” autocracies of which President Vladimir Putin of Russia is the supreme exponent. The lifeblood of autocracies is the glorification of a mythical past and the designation of enemies who stand in the way of greatness.

There were people who viewed novelist Émile Zola as an enemy of the people as he helped expose the government for framingJewish Alfred Dreyfus, famously writing,

When truth is buried underground it grows, it chokes, it gathers such an explosive force that on the day it bursts out, it blows up everything with it.

The town in Ibsen’s play is attempting to bury an inconvenient truth. The town’s doctor has discovered that the water used by the town’s spa is poisonous and, in a story line that Spielberg used for Jaws, he and everyone around is pressured to remain silent. He becomes an enemy of the people when he decides to speak out. Tomasky applies the lessons to our current situation:

He loses his job and his home. His wife stands beside him but his two young boys are beaten up at school, and his grown daughter, known about town before all this for her radical ideas, loses her job as a teacher. The schoolmistress received three anonymous letters denouncing her, she tells her father, and Thomas’s reaction to them could be said almost to the word today of abusive pro-Trump tweeters who hide behind their Twitter handles: “The big patriots with their anonymous indignation, scrawling out the darkness of their minds on dirty little strips of paper. That’s morality, and I’m the traitor!”

With Trump having declared the press the enemy, it would fit our exact circumstances today a little better if the newspaper had stood courageously with Stockmann. On the other hand, the portrait of media timidity is all too apt, is it not? I’m sure there were a lot of Americans who thought at any number of points over the past 18 months that surely the press would “stand up and do its duty.”

While the enemy of the people in the play is a scientist, not the press, today both scientists and journalists find themselves as embattled truth-tellers. Tomasky notes one important difference, however: our reverence for scientific truth has diminished. Stockmann, displaying the arrogance of 19th century science, believes that simply proclaiming the truth should be enough. Today’s scientists are rapidly having that illusion ripped from them as they watch the GOP’s all-out assaults on empirical data, especially with regard to human-caused climate change.

Other than Stockmann’s cocky self-assurance, however, the play could have been written yesterday. For instance, Stockmann’s brother, who is mayor of the town, attempts to muddy the scientific results very much like politicians try to muddy evidence about our warming earth:

Mayor Peter Stockmann: Your report has not convinced me that the condition of the water at the Baths is as bad as you represent it to be.
Dr. Stockmann. I tell you it is even worse!–or at all events it will be in summer, when the warm weather comes.
Peter Stockmann. As I said, I believe you exaggerate the matter considerably. A capable physician ought to know what measures to take–he ought to be capable of preventing injurious influences or of remedying them if they become obviously persistent.
Dr. Stockmann. Well? What more?
Peter Stockmann. The water supply for the Baths is now an established fact, and in consequence must be treated as such. But probably the Committee, at its discretion, will not be disinclined to consider the question of how far it might be possible to introduce certain improvements consistently with a reasonable expenditure.

And later:

The matter in hand is not simply a scientific one. It is a complicated matter, and has its economic as well as its technical side.

Today, the play should function as a wake-up call to both scientists and the journalists.. Dr. Stockmann’s poor people skills, which manage to antagonize virtually everyone in the town, are a luxury scientists can no longer afford. It is not enough to be right. They need to learn how to work with the press to communicate the scientific facts.

That being said, however, it may be that the truth is so inconvenient that you will be demonized regardless of how diplomatic you are.

There’s another lesson worth noting. If the press ever gets too comfortable with those in power, and if scientists ever become too comfortable with corporate business interests, the truth is endangered. As Tomasky notes, the press buckles in the play, and Dr. Stockmann himself is tempted when his father-in-law, owner of a tannery that is polluting the water, uses the money he was planning on leaving his daughter and grandchildren to buy up all the spa shares. If Dr. Stockmann exposes the tannery’s pollution, the shares will be worthless. If he doesn’t, he will be a rich man.

By the way, one of Trump’s earliest executive orders has been to overturn a rule that bans coal companies from dumping their waste into streams.

To his credit, Dr. Stockmann turns down this deal with the devil, even though it leaves his family destitute. His steadfastness should stiffen the spines of both our scientists and our journalists. They are not in the business to be liked but to seek out the truth, regardless of the consequences.

In the end, Dr. Stockmann is prepared to administer to the only patients who will use him, the poor, and to run his own school. In the process, he discovers a great secret: that he is “the strongest man in the world.”

How so? Because the strongest man is “he who stands most alone.”

Our own “enemies of the people” should carry this as a banner.

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