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“The Enemy of the People”: The Traveling Meme

Part III: “The Enemy of the People”: From Rhetoric to Criminal Act

Today in the US the meme “fake news is the enemy of the people” carries with it an evolving history of import that includes not only a lying press but as well counter-establishment rumor, planted hoax, secret plot, coterie of assassins, purging of subgroups, international conspiracy, divided nation, threat of invasion from outside and of overthrow from inside, even civil war.

Is this history known to the elected President of the United States or to his far-right base? The question mispictures how the history of a meme grows. It operates largely below the conscious surface. Occasionally it will throw up fragments, and even self-contained units of meaning: the swastika, “No pasarán,” “fake news is the true enemy of the people.” But as an evolving whole it is no more “known” than individuals know the multitude of ways they re-enact, day after day, their family history.

In Portland, May of 2017, Jeremy Joseph Christian stabbed to death two men who tried to stop him from harassing two Muslim women on a light-rail train. At his first court appearance, May 30, 2018, he shouted “Death to the enemies of America!”

In Charlottesville, August of 2017, American Nazi James Alex Fields, Jr. drove his car into anti-fascist protestors and killed Heather Heyers. Two months later, in jail charged with first-degree murder, he spoke on the telephone with his mother and complained that Heather’s mother had been slandering him on social media. “It doesn’t fucking matter” that she had lost a daughter. “She’s a communist,” he said. “She’s the enemy.”

Before Robert D. Bowers killed eleven people at a Pittsburgh Jewish temple, on he had been asserting that Jews secretly controlled the nation and were the “enemy of white people.” He posted a image of the Auschwitz workcamp gates that replaced “Arbeit macht Frei” with “Lies Make Money.” Just before he left for the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue, he posted a message declaring that its Hebrew Immigrant Aid Soceity was a false front. The HIAS brought Muslim “invaders in that kill our people.” “Screw your optics,” he said, “I’m going in.”

Cesar Sayoc, whose mail bombs included several sent to CNN headquarters, drove a van covered with messages such as “MAIN STREAM MEDIA COLLUSION,” “ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION,” “CNN SUCKS,” and a picture of CNN’s host Van Jones in the cross-hairs of a rifle.

There was also an ISIS “hunting permit.” Alongside the imperative “KILL

YOUR ENEMY AND THOSE WHO ROB YOU,” the “ISIS Hunting Permit” reads: “No Mercy Not An Option / Identify Kill Your Enemy / Radical Islamic Terrorist / Jihad & Liberals.” The implication of the last phrase, that there is a conspiracy between US liberals (the enemy within) and Jihad (the enemy without), is made clearer in Sayoc’s Twitter posts, where he ranted that Blacks and Hispanics were taking over the world, and that David Hogg, who survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and began advocating gun control, was a “fake fraud” supported with money from George Soros, prominent Jewish benefactor of progressive causes.

A magical meme such as “fake news is the enemy of the people” does not have to be repeated verbatim in order to sway people toward terrorist acts of the kind committed by Bowers and Sayoc. It rides with an underground stream of kindred memes, fragments of which surface in images, words, and phrases in the form of gestures, passwords, shibboleths, slogans, logos, stories, myths, rituals, and other verbal handshakes.

This particular web of memes, triggered by “fake news is the enemy of the people,” absorbs George Soros with ease. Over and over extreme right media warn that fake news will not report the “fact” that Soros is secretly financing a horde of people, including Jihadists, who are “invading” the United States from the south. The meme-cluster—divisive, xenophobic, conspiratorial, militaristic—is magical because people act on it. Self-styled “militia groups” have already moved down to the border. Tear gas has already been deployed by US military against asylum seekers, including elderly in wheelchairs and infants in strollers, who were trying to cross the border at San Ysidro perhaps under the belief that they would have to remain in Mexico, news spread by US authorities that turned out to be false.

One further note, an ominous heads-up. In the past the meme “fake news is the enemy of the people” has operated with the most murderous consequences in time of war—France surrounded by Prussia, Austria, and England; Russia invaded by a perfidious Germany; Germany confronted by Allied forces to the east and to the west. The switch from criminal paranoia to wartime imperative can happen in the historical blink of an eye. What would happen to Muslim Americans if the US declared war on Iran, to Hispanic Americans if the US declared war on Mexico? In the US, within weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, people of German, Italian, or Japanese descent, including many born here, suddenly became “enemy aliens,” that is, both enemy within and enemy without. And the internment camps were already under construction, on our soil.

2 thoughts on ““The Enemy of the People”: The Traveling Meme”

  1. Who are the “people?” Can we trust them to make up their own minds in the midst of all this misinformation? Our founding fathers didn’t trust them, which is why we have a Republic and not a Democracy. How is that working out for us? Maybe the internet is just too much democracy? Maybe “fake news” is just what we disagree with?

    1. Who are “the people?”–good question. I guess it depends on who is using the term for what reasons. As for Robespierre, Lucy Ferris has some interesting things to say about the meaning of “le peuple” in French: “le peuple (which is almost always singular, except, as in English, when referring to the various nationalities or ethnicities of the world) doesn’t mean the same thing as les personnes, les gens, or le monde (as in Le parc est plein du monde, the park is full of people). It refers to a group bound by tribal, ethnic, or national identity or class struggle.” A riot, a French scholar tells her, is caused by les gens, a revolution by le peuple.”
      So by “le peuple” Robespierre means “us,” the faction in France who support the Revolution, or rather his Revolution.
      By comparison, when Trump uses the phrase “fake news is the enemy of the people,” the denotion of “the people” cannot be as well determined. He would mean as much if he said, “fake news is the enemy.” It’s little different from McCarthy waving a piece of paper in Wheeling, West Virginia (Feb 1950) with the names of “200 members of the Department of State” that are “known Communists.” He never showed anybody the names and it is likely he did not have the names. They were figments of his imagination, or paranoia, or politics.
      So who is “the people”? Usually when the term is used, I don’t have enough of a picture to say whether I trust them or not. The couple, our neighbors who live up the hill to the south, well, there are people I happen to trust.

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