It is an ugly, ugly phrase

David Remnick and Evan Osnos were on Fresh Air yesterday. I know Remnick as the editor of the New Yorker, and a frequent editorialist there; I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that he used to be Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post. The two of them and a third author, Josh Yoffa, wrote an article about Trump, Putin and the new Cold War. It was a very meaty – informative – interview.

They wrote the article to explore why Russia messed with the election.

DAVID REMNICK: Well, I think that goes to your first question about what we found out. Well, a lot of this article is not just about the what, the what happened. It’s the why. The why goes back a – fully a generation in politics and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union not as a liberation, not as the oncoming of freedom of the press and assembly and religion and all these things, and – and yippee, all the republics get to go their own way. That’s not the way he experienced it at all.

This is a KGB agent who was in East Germany and experienced the end of the Soviet Union as the loss of empire, the way someone in the Ottoman Empire – a servant of the Ottoman Empire would have that kind of tragic sense of loss of empire.

Or as Churchill and others did about “losing” India…which of course wasn’t theirs to “lose,” but they didn’t see it that way, just as Putin and co didn’t see it that way.

The Russians didn’t expect Trump to win, and were overjoyed when he did, and now…they’re not so sure. (Yeah we’ve had that. The Shah? That turned out to be not such a brilliant idea. Also the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. And so on.)

Toward the end of the show they talked about Trump and the press.

GROSS: Let’s look at what’s happening to the press under President Trump. Trump tweets a lot about the press. On February 17, he tweeted (reading) the fake news media, failing New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, CNN, is not my enemy. It is the enemy of the American people.

REMNICK: Yeah, what a phrase, the enemy of the people.

GROSS: Yeah, I know. That goes back to Stalin, right?

OSNOS: I recognize that from somewhere.

Then Remnick became impassioned:

REMNICK: Well, it goes back to Robespierre. It is an ugly, ugly phrase. I don’t know how self-aware Donald Trump is of that kind of phrase. I guarantee you Steve Bannon knows what enemy of the people means. Stalin used it to keep people terrified. If you were branded a vrag naroda, an enemy of the people, you could guarantee that very soon there would be a knock in the middle of the night at your door and your fate would be horrific.

To hear that kind of language directed at the American press is an emergency. It’s an emergency. It’s not a political tactic. And if it’s a political tactic, it’s a horrific one. And that needs to be resisted not just by people like me who are, you know, editors or writers but all of us. This is part of what distinguishes American democracy. And it’s untenable, immoral and anti-American.

Emphasis added, but it’s there in his voice, I assure you. They don’t include emphasis in the transcripts.

GROSS: So you just said that you’re not sure whether Donald Trump knows the pedigree of that expression enemy of the people, but you’re sure Steve Bannon does. So I’m wondering since this is…

REMNICK: That doesn’t excuse Trump at all.

GROSS: No, no, but I’m wondering since you’re implying here that Bannon probably knows that this is a word that was used by Stalin and that had very grave implications when it was used in the Stalinist era, what do you know about any either connections that Bannon has to Russia or about the influence of Russia on Bannon just as…

REMNICK: I know zero about that, nothing. And it’s been important for journalists to say when they don’t know things, too.

GROSS: Absolutely.

REMNICK: But I think it’s important to point out that right now you and I are having and have been having a free discussion. I’m going to go back to my office, and I will publish website and the magazine this week without any government interference. In fact, without any interference of the owners of The New Yorker. That is as close to an ideal situation as possible, and it obtains to this day. And to have people thrown out of the White House press pool for a day or even for a while does not mean the end of the press.

But it is a very ominous circumstance when the president of the United States uses this kind of language because, quite frankly, and it’s been pointed out more than once, it’s the kind of language that autocrats use in the beginning. And where it will go, we don’t know yet. But he is obviously – this is beyond dog whistles. He is signaling to the base that your enemy, your enemy is those people.

That’s how autocrats behave. They create an other. Whether it’s the press, whether it’s ethnic or otherwise, it’s the creation of an other. And I find it – I just, you know, it has to be stood up against.


GROSS: So, David, this is a question for you. It strikes me that The New Yorker has become more overtly political in terms of the covers. The covers have become more political. A lot of the investigations are political. You wrote something that I think may be unprecedented in The New Yorker, which is after Donald Trump was elected, you wrote an editorial saying the election of Donald Trump to the presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution and a triumph for the forces at home and abroad of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny and racism.

REMNICK: I wish I were wrong on every point. I hope to be wrong on every point. I mean, my hope for my country is much greater than my desire to be right in the moment. That was written on election night. And I wish that every moment in the transition, in the first month of the presidency had proved me wrong.

But it didn’t. It’s where we are. We’re in new territory, and it’s not good territory.

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