On Wednesday, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) stood up on the Senate floor and compared President Donald Trump to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The link? Both used the phrase “enemy of the people” to refer to a hostile press.
“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 declared. “It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase ‘enemy of the people’ that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of annihilating such individuals who disagreed with the supreme leader.”
Flake is correct that President Trump used the phrase “enemy of the people” — or rather, “enemy of the American people” — to describe certain news outlets. This hyper-charged rhetoric is part of the president’s rhetorical style, however, not part of a systematic attempt to silence dissent the way Stalin did.
This is a marked difference from Stalin, who as dictator of Soviet Russia censored newspapers, literature, pictures, and film, and whose “purges” directly caused the deaths of an estimated three million people. His policies also sparked a famine, however, leading to the deaths of 18-45 million.
President Trump’s tally? A big fat zero. Trump has not silenced any news outlet, and he has not killed any political foes. The president hasn’t censored books, videos, or television shows — even after the team behind the Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale” announced that they had joined the “Resistance” against him.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump did promise to “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”
Responding to Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the president said, “We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws so that when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about someone, that person will have meaningful recourse in our courts.”
Trump is so different from Stalin that he would have to alter American law just to take someone to court. If Stalin caught someone writing negative things about him, the dictator didn’t need to change the law or take the offender to court. He sent the word, and that person was “swimming with the fishes.”
Trump’s call for looser libel laws is indeed disturbing, and his dismissal of news outlets as “fake news” definitely goes too far. Flake’s suggestion that it puts Trump in the same universe as Joseph Stalin is fatuously absurd, however.
In discussing the need for a free press, Flake cited Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. “Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ so from the very beginning our freedom has been predicated on truth,” the senator said. “Without truth — and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts — our democracy will not last.”
Then came the attack on Trump: “2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than at any other time in our history,” Flake argued. He noted that the White House “enshrined ‘alternative facts’ into the American lexicon.”
While Kellyanne Conway did coin the term “alternative facts” in representing Donald Trump, alternative facts and fake news have been around for a very long time.
Last February, Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse, noted, “Fake news is nothing new—it was going on in the Bible.” Graham noted that “when Jesus died on the cross for our sins and was placed in the tomb, He said He would rise in three days. The Pharisees had guards assigned to watch the tomb, and on the third day an angel from heaven came and rolled the stone away. The guards reported this to the religious leaders who instructed them that if anyone asked, they were to say that Jesus’ supporters had come and taken the body.”
“It was fake news to serve their own agenda,” Graham concluded.
Indeed, Thomas Jefferson himself lamented the bias in the press — in a letter dating from 1807. He admitted that a paper restrained “to true facts & sound principles only” would “find few subscribers.”
“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knolege [sic] with the lies of the day,” Jefferson wrote. He suggested a truly non-biased newspaper divided into four sections: truths, probabilities, possibilities, and lies.
The first chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers, and information from such sources as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth. The 2d would contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his judgment should conclude to be probably true. This, however, should rather contain too little than too much. The 3d & 4th should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy.
Flake’s suggestion that Trump’s spats with the media constitute a war on “truth” is ridiculous. Media outlets have always been slanted. Only in the past hundred years has anyone thought that journalism could be perfectly objective, in the manner of scientific discoveries.
Trump’s suggestion about libel laws may be going too far, but it does not suggest a war on “truth.” Again, Flake said 2017 saw truth “more battered and abused than at any other time in our history.” Is that true?
During the Civil War, there were Union and Confederate news outlets, as there were Democrat and Republican news outlets before and after the Civil War. Each side reported on events from their perspective: Confederates described Union attacks as assaults on their liberty, and Lincoln described the Confederacy as a “rebellion.” Both could not have been right.
Or take President John Adams’ prediction that if Thomas Jefferson won the election of 1800, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.” Jefferson won, so why isn’t incest taught in schools?
Humans have always struggled to determine fact from fiction, truth from falsehood, and American history is no exception. Trump has twisted the truth, but so have The New York Times, ABC, NBC News, and many other outlets. For proof of this, consider that 90 percent of the evaluative statements about Trump from the three major television networks in 2017 were negative. NINETY PERCENT. Yet it’s Trump who is single-handedly waging a war on “truth”?
Countering bias does not make Donald Trump into Joseph Stalin. Even if Trump wants to clamp down on free speech with his suggestions on libel laws, he would face pushback from Congress, the Supreme Court, and the American people. Even if Trump is re-elected in 2020, he won’t be president after 2024. He has actually shrunk the size and scope of the federal government he runs by cutting regulations left and right.
By contrast, Stalin ruled for 24 years, used an iron fist, increased the Soviet state, and crushed his political enemies — literally and figuratively.
To compare these two figures, Jeff Flake almost has to redefine truth itself…
Watch Flake’s remarks below — they start around minute 20.