‘The People’ and Its Enemies: The Power and Potential Danger of Populist Rhetoric

‘The People’ and Its Enemies: The Power and Potential Danger of Populist Rhetoric

The media’s obsession with our president’s informal statements is just that: an obsession, “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling.”

That’s not to suggest that what any president says is unimportant. It’s just that a single statement rarely constitutes a threat to the Republic.

Take the president’s recent description of members of the “fake news” media as “the enemy of the American people.”

President Trump is not the first to speak of “enemies of the people.” Some claim that our third president, Thomas Jefferson, did, though that’s probably not true.  What is true is that totalitarian regimes, such as the 18th century “Reign of Terror” in France, Nazi propagandists and both Lenin and Stalin have found it a useful phrase.

It’s not fair, however, to draw a dark line from these horrors to the present, implying that these six words prove that fascism is waiting in the wings of American politics, to burst boldly on the scene after our own impending kristallnacht.

Much more productive for understanding our current political climate is to focus our attention on the American tradition that often speaks, as Trump does, of championing “the people.” That tradition is not fascism, but populism.

Steven Stark, in the February 1996 issue of The Atlantic, observed that the populist label “is a mutable one” that politicians of widely varying interests have claimed, including William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Mary Lease, Joseph McCarthy, H. Ross Perot and, Stark’s interest, then-presidential candidate Pat Buchanan.

Stark asserts that the common thread uniting populists is the championing of “the people” against some specified list of “enemies.”

For me, the irony of populist rhetoric is that “the people” being championed are actually a group of people within the populace, distinct from and threatened by one or more other groups of people who, despite being people, are not part of “the people.”

Yeah . . . that was confusing. Let me try again.

What populists mean when they refer to “the people,” isn’t all the people. They mean some group of people who the populist politicians imply are the real people. This group typically is experiencing some cultural, economic or social change that they find deeply disturbing.

And the “enemies”? Though they, too, are human, they are not people. Or, if they are, they are bad people. They certainly aren’t the real people. They’re something less, something other, something to be feared and fought.

Which is why it’s easy for populist appeals to bleed over, as Stark notes, into prejudice and hatred.

To be fair, every political campaign involves the rhetoric of “us versus them.” The “them” can be almost anything, including large corporations, members of certain professions and members of political movements.

The danger that hides in populist rhetoric is the dehumanization of the “enemies” it identifies. The “enemies of the people” aren’t simply people with different ideas or interests. They are not the real people . . . and, therefore, not worthy of our respect, or even our tolerance.

It’s worth noting that when Nikita Khrushchev banned the use of “enemy of the people” by the Soviet Union, he observed, “The formula ‘enemy of the people’ was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals.”

Any rhetorical formula that seeks to dehumanize others threatens the same result.



Interested in hearing me speak live? I’ll be at the Florida League of Cities Annual Conference offering a course on Leadership: You Have No Idea How Important You Are. Join me on Friday morning, August 17, 2018. Learn more.  

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