Opinion » Viewpoint

Language and Leaders: Trump, Castro, and Stalin



President Trump's impeachment proceedings focused on his abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. He was not impeached for bad language, which, as we know, is protected by the First Amendment. Yet, any leader in America who sounds a lot like Fidel Castro and Joseph Stalin probably should be impeached on a language violation, or at minimum, strongly censured.

Trump has recently resorted to referring to his political enemies (the Democrats) as "scum." When he made this verbal assault — and he has said it more than once — I thought, "Where have I heard this before?" I answered my own question with two memorable words: Fidel Castro.

Castro, who ruled Cuba from 1959 until (essentially) his death a little more than three years ago, used that word frequently in his long, undisciplined, unscripted speeches in Havana. He famously called his political enemies — those who opposed his revolution — escoria. Scum. It's not a pleasant-sounding word in either Spanish or English, and Castro used it as an adjective, together with gusanos (worms) in a sort of blanket denunciation of anyone who disagreed with him.

There was plenty to disagree with: Castro murdered many political opponents in the early days of the revolution; he always seemed to win re-election (sometimes by more than 100 percent of the vote); and he put gay people in prison/re-education camps.

He wasn't, in my estimation, as bad as the truly terrible tyrants of Latin America (Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, the Argentine generals of the late 1970s and early 1980s, or the noxious General Pinochet in Chile), but he was pretty bad. He communicated mostly via long speeches that were repetitive, rambling, and represented the official word of the regime.

Trump's speeches are also repetitive and rambling, but his preferred communication method, the tweet, is the modern-day Castro speech — only much shorter. The communication is similar in style and substance. The Trump tweet is one-directional, not to be challenged, and represents (evidently) Trump's policy plans and ideas, as well as his impulses. There is no room for debate, commentary, or retraction in either a Trump tweet or a Castro speech.

Recently, I've heard Trump refer to the United States press as "the enemy of the people," and I thought "Where have I heard that?" The term, which dates back to Roman times, was popularized by former Russian leader Joseph Stalin, who referred to anyone with whom he disagreed as the "enemy of the people." You'd think that the democratically elected leader of the United States could lift language from leaders who were not Castro or Stalin, but we live in a new age where people forget about history. It translates into a sad reality, where the tyrants of times past seem slightly less terrible when emulated by the elected leader of the free world. But let's face it, when it comes to a top 10 list of reprehensible leaders of the 20th century, Stalin probably comes in second. Hitler set a high bar.

The truth is, Trump's political opponents are not scum, and the U.S. press is not the enemy of the people. All tyrannical leaders hate critics — journalists, artists, writers, free-thinkers — because the tyrant, by definition, has no new or innovative ideas and fears exposure as a fraud by those who inhabit the world of innovation and ideas.

Those who support this president and don't or won't see the historic danger of his language are refusing to acknowledge a powerful reality: Leaders who dehumanize their political opponents have rarely been democratically inclined. They also signal to their supporters — subtly and not so subtly — that scum should be cleansed away and such enemies should be vanquished, politically or otherwise.

Language matters, and though the dangerous vocabulary used by President Trump might seem to be the least of our troubles right now, it's likely he'll be president for another 12 months — maybe longer. The United States needs and deserves a president who sounds more like an aspirational leader and less like Fidel Castro — and a lot less like Joseph Stalin.

Michael J. LaRosa teaches history at Rhodes College.

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