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Joseph Stalin was a newspaper man, though not quite in the mold of Horace Greeley. When Czar Nicholas II was overthrown in March 1917, Stalin came back from his Siberian banishment and took over as editor of Pravda.

He had to contend with competitive voices in the Russian press for about eight raucous months until the Bolsheviks seized power on Nov. 7 and Vladimir Lenin established censorship two days later. After that, for Pravda and Stalin, it was clear sailing.

On Wednesday, Sen. Jeff Flake denounced President Donald Trump for using the Stalinist term "enemy of the people," in regard to prominent American media organizations.

Flake was drawing an instructive but inexact parallel. Stalin, unlike Trump, never had to deal with a contentious or truth-telling press. Newspapers were not a target of his wrath, but a weapon in his hands that could be wielded to frightening effect.

Even after ascending to the pinnacle of Soviet power, Stalin liked to keep his hand in the game. In 1936 he reportedly wrote an unsigned piece for Pravda headlined "Muddle Instead of Music" about an opera by Dmitri Shostakovich that nearly drove the composer to suicide. (When Trump criticized Lin-Manuel Miranda, it didn't seem to have the same effect.)

Just a year later, Pravda took an active role in whipping up the hysteria that led to the show trials of the Great Purge. Now Stalin was not toying with an artist, but identifying traitors. To be labeled an "enemy of the people" under Stalin was a death sentence, with execution typically coming only after an abject and wholly fictional confession.

Stalin used the press, unburdened by facts, to create an enclosed atmosphere where paranoid fantasy had to be accepted as reality. He gaslighted his victims and an entire nation, besides. There was seemingly no way out.

"Enemy of the people" is an idea that predates the Soviet Union by a couple of millennia. The Romans had their hostis publicus, which came into English as "public enemy." There was something in the air in the 1930s though that saw enemies, of the public and of the people, just about everywhere.

Flake's point was to defend the media. "The free press is the despot's enemy," he said, "which makes the free press the guardian of democracy."

He accused Trump, accurately, of using Stalinist language against the press. But the existence of a free press in itself helps to undercut Trump's designs, if he has any.

But let's return one more time to the 1930s. Sinclair Lewis wrote a satirical novel, It Can't Happen Here, about a demagogue coming to power in the United States. He seems to have had more of a fascist model in mind than a Stalinist one, but the elimination of counterweights in a society and the denigration of facts are similar either way. Lewis' novel was a warning, not a diagnosis. Flake's argument could be taken the same way.

Editorial on 01/19/2018

Print Headline: Stalin? Don't go there

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  • BoudinMan
    January 19, 2018 at 6:30 a.m.

    Fascist. Stalinist. Whatever your preference. If trump thinks his base would prefer one over the other, he'll lean that way. Stephen (white supremacist) Miller is still in the White House.