MOSCOW — The phrase was too toxic even for Nikita Khrushchev, a war-hardened veteran communist not known for squeamishness. As leader of the Soviet Union, he demanded an end to the use of the term “enemy of the people” because “it eliminated the possibility of any kind of ideological fight.”
“The formula ‘enemy of the people,’ ” Khrushchev told the Soviet Communist Party in a 1956 speech denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality, “was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with the supreme leader.
It is difficult to know if President Trump is aware of the historic resonance of the term, a label generally associated with despotic communist governments rather than democracies.
But his decision to unleash the terminology has left some historians scratching their heads. Why would the elected leader of a democratic nation embrace a label that, after the death of Stalin, even the Soviet Union found to be too freighted with sinister connotations?
Nina Khrushcheva, the great-granddaughter of Khrushchev and a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York, said the phrase was “shocking to hear in a non-Soviet, moreover non-Stalinist setting.”
Her great-grandfather, she said, “of course also used Soviet slogans and ideological idioms but still tried to stay away from sweeping denunciations of whole segments of the Soviet population.”
In Trump’s case, however, he is branding as enemies a segment of the US population — specifically representatives of what he calls the “fake news” media, including The New York Times.
He has used the phrase more than once, including Friday during an attack on the news media at a conservative gathering in which he said that some reporters were making up unnamed sources to attack him.
By using the phrase and placing himself in such infamous company, at least in his choice of vocabulary to attack his critics, Trump has demonstrated, Khrushcheva said, that the language of “autocracy, of state nationalism is always the same regardless of the country, and no nation is exempt.”
She added that, in all likelihood, Trump had not read Lenin, Stalin or Mao Zedong, but the “formulas of insult, humiliation, domination, branding, enemy-forming, and name calling are always the same.”