Monday Witness: Bravo for the Enemies of the People
Saturday, February 25 2017 @ 12:26 PM CST
Contributed by: Andy Updegrove
The following views are mine alone, and should not be read to reflect the expressed views of my firm or any other partner
Donald Trump’s escalating attacks on the press should alarm anyone who believes that a free press is essential to the maintenance of freedom and the avoidance of tyranny. That’s what the authors of the Constitution believed, a document Trump pledged on inauguration day to “preserve, protect, and defend.”
Trump’s accusations of falsehood in journalism are particularly dangerous because they invite those sympathetic to the president’s cause to accept his manufactured version of reality and reject accurately reported events and statements. This is a tactic from a very old playbook, and we don’t need to look very far back in history to see where that strategy can lead.
But Trump’s decision this week to label the media as the “enemy of the people” is ironic as well as dangerous. It’s a familiar phrase, and Trump is likely unaware of its origin. The irony arises from the fact that the president has chosen a weapon to use against the press that is equivalent to a cartoon gun that points backwards at the person holding it. In other words, the connotation of his words is the exact opposite of what he intends - but it’s right on target.
Each time Trump uses the phrase, he invites us to recall the plot and moral of An Enemy of the People, one of Norwegian ex-patriate playwright Henrik Ibsen’s most famous and (still) most-performed works.
In that drama, a doctor in a town economically dependent on its luxury baths discovers that the waters are dangerously contaminated. He informs the powers that be that the pipes taking the waters from their source to the baths must be replaced. At first, his careful public health detective work is applauded. But when the enormous cost of the necessary repairs is realized, the mayor (his brother) and other moneyed interests dispute his findings. As he persists with his warnings, his opponents enlist the editor of the local paper to help destroy him.
When the doctor rents a hall to take his case directly to the people, he is immediately confronted in an effort to prevent him from making his case. The attacks reach a crescendo when the editor of the paper stands up to denounce him as an enemy of the people. The scene ends with the doctor’s friends and neighbors drowning him out by chanting the same phrase over and over – An Enemy of the People! An Enemy of the People! An Enemy of the People! Just as Donald Trump is using that phrase now in an effort to silence the media that are speaking truth to his power.
It’s ironic that Trump is accurately, if accidently, recalling the lesson of a play that continues to resound after almost a hundred and fifty years. Trump is the unscrupulous editor denouncing the faithful servant of the public in an effort to dupe the citizenry into doing his bidding. And if the plot of the Ibsen play also sounds like a prophetic allegory for today's climate change and its deniers, well, that’s just another source of schadenfreude.
Donald Trump is hardly someone to appreciate irony or nuance. A man of a limited number of words (most of them monosyllabic), I doubt he is aware why the phrase “an enemy of the people” comes to mind. But he is a man of great shrewdness when it comes to understanding how to manipulate public opinion, and instinctively able to select the right words to use to rabble rouse, just as Ibsen was.
Whether Trump’s choice of words was deliberate or accidental, we ignore the clear lesson of the Ibsen play at our peril. Demagogues have always sought to silence honest opposition by demonizing truth tellers. True, just as the doctor in the Ibsen play had flaws, the media are also not without fault, often expending the same amount of effort in condemning minor slips as they do to expose major lies.
Trump can hardly be blamed for thinking that the mainstream media are out to get him. It is. And it should be - as and when the facts warrant it, which has not been the case on a day by day basis. Most media have yet to find a balance in reporting a situation that is unique in the experience of reporters and editors alike.
True though that may be, it’s not where the real danger lies. Every citizen has the obligation to respect and support those that seek to present the facts, pleasant and otherwise. A free press will always attract enemies, and should never be taken for granted. Unless we want to only have access to fake news in the future, each of us needs to speak up in defense of a free press – now.
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