Staunton, February 18 – An enormous and completely justified effort is now going to determine how Moscow influenced the US elections last year and what the nature of contacts between the Putin regime and the Trump team have been, but in doing so, some have missed one aspect of this situation that can be seen with an unaided eye.
And it is this: Donald Trump and some of his supporters are introducing Russian terms like “enemy of the people” and “dark forces” into American political discourse, a development that can only cheer the enemies of democracy and freedom everywhere and encourage the enemies of those values in Moscow.
Words matter and changes in the vocabulary with which people talk about the circumstances around them can change those circumstances in ways far more profound than more obvious actions because they create a new situation in which things that were not possible in the old one become all too likely in the new.
And what is worse, the acceptance of such new terms opens the way to others. Now that Trump has called leading American media outlets “enemies of the people,” one of his supporters, Congressman Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky), is blaming unspecified dark forces for pushing the US toward a war with Russia (belaruspartisan.org/politic/371412/).
Those tempted to view such rhetoric as simply overheated should remember three things: First, it was Stalin who used the term “enemy of the people” to justify the liquidation of his opponents and to spread terror in Soviet society, a tactic that other totalitarians have routinely copied with countless real-world victims as a result.
Second, disgraced US President Richard Nixon had an enemies list, but they were his enemies. He did not call them “enemies of the people” because however much he hated those on that list, he remained within the American political tradition that accepts the existence of opponents in politics and the media regardless of how much one differs from them.
And third, as George Orwell and others have pointed out, the abuse of language opens the way to the abuse of people. Calling anyone “an enemy of the people” represents an effort to strip them of their rights as a human being and citizen and makes it all too easy for those who use such terms to take the next step of get their followers to do so.
Vladimir Putin may have achieved more of his goals in undermining the US and democracy by getting some to follow his lead in language than he has so far in getting his way in policy. Tragically, unless these linguistic “innovations” from Russia are combatted, the other concessions the Kremlin wants will not be long in coming.