When I saw Donald Trump’s tweet Friday night declaring the press the “enemy of the American people,” I thought instantly of the phrase’s modern origin.
For a project I was working on about five years ago, I had occasion to read Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, a play suddenly made relevant by the martinet of Fifth Avenue and one that some theater company in New York, or many theater companies everywhere in this country, should stage immediately.
The phrase was used before Ibsen wrote his play in 1882. Notably, and unsurprisingly, Robespierre gave it a good work out (how’s that for company? Trump I’m sure has never heard of him, but certainly Steve Bannon would smile). To enemies of the people, the sea-green incorruptible once said, the state owes “nothing but death.”
But Ibsen, the famous Norwegian playwright probably best known for A Doll’s House, brought the phrase into common usage, and it’s worth pondering the action of the play to see exactly how Ibsen was using it. Some aspects of the drama are dated, of course, but in other respects it’s stunningly current.
As the play opens, Thomas Stockmann, a doctor, is anxiously awaiting a piece of mail. The envelope arrives, and inside it is a lab report he’d ordered up from the university in Oslo on the quality of the local water in Kirsten Springs. The town had opened a spa and baths and was attracting visitors from across Norway and indeed Europe, but Stockmann began to notice the previous summer that a lot of people were getting sick.
The lab report confirms that the water is toxic. Stockmann’s friends—including the publisher, editor, and lead reporter of the local liberal-reformist newspaper—drop by. He shares the news with them, and they thank him for this act of civic gallantry and express confidence that the town will bow to him in gratitude. “By God, doctor,” the editor exclaims, “you’re going to be a leading man in this town!”
Doktor Stockmann’s brother, Peter, is the town mayor. Thomas excitedly shares with him the news that he—and science—have gotten to the bottom of things, and now the problem can be fixed. Peter is decidedly unenthusiastic. Thomas is confused. Peter informs his brother that fixing the problem—it is one of the play’s most remarkable contemporary echoes that the pollution is caused by an upstream tannery, certainly unregulated in 1882—will require redoing the water system root and branch. This will necessitate a tax increase. On top of that, of course, once word spreads, tourists will stop coming to the insalubrious baths, which have been the great source of the town’s income and pride.
Well, you can see where things go from there. For a time, Thomas is convinced he will triumph. I have the press and the majority on my side, he proclaims, to say nothing of the science. How could I lose? “The liberal press will stand up and do its duty!”, he proclaims.
Then, slowly, the screws tighten. Peter offers Thomas the chance to go before the townspeople and announce that it was all a mistake, he’d vastly overstated the problem. Thomas refuses. The liberal newspaper, which was all set to publish his article, reverses course and deserts him. In desperation, Thomas rents out a lecture hall to explain his findings to the people, but Peter takes the floor before Thomas and riles up the mob. The newspaper publisher—who, just like small-town newspaper proprietors today, comes from and represents the local business community—stands up and declares Thomas “an enemy of the people.”
He loses his job and his home. His wife stands beside him but his two young boys are beaten up at school, and his grown daughter, known about town before all this for her radical ideas, loses her job as a teacher. The schoolmistress received three anonymous letters denouncing her, she tells her father, and Thomas’s reaction to them could be said almost to the word today of abusive pro-Trump tweeters who hide behind their Twitter handles: “The big patriots with their anonymous indignation, scrawling out the darkness of their minds on dirty little strips of paper. That’s morality, and I’m the traitor!”
With Trump having declared the press the enemy, it would fit our exact circumstances today a little better if the newspaper had stood courageously with Stockmann. On the other hand, the portrait of media timidity is all too apt, is it not? I’m sure there were a lot of Americans who thought at any number of points over the past 18 months that surely the press would “stand up and do its duty.”
Over the weekend, I watched on YouTube this 1966 television production of the play, cut up into 12 digestible eight- or nine-minute chunks. This production was part of what was called then the NET Playhouse series. NET was National Educational Television, a kind of precursor to PBS. The adaptation was by none other than Arthur Miller. It’s a particularly compelling version to watch in these dark times insofar as it was itself the product of an America that had a much greater civic imagination than the country we live in today (and sure enough, Trump’s budget would cut all funding for PBS).
Herr Stockmann, it is true, is completely inflexible and not a little insufferable. If one were writing such a play today, the moral scales would need to be weighted a bit more obviously in his direction—a child had died from the poisoned water, say, which would invest the doctor’s position with greater moral authority. For Ibsen and his audiences, all that was needed was that the science was on the doctor’s side. He and they didn’t live in an age when corporations were spending billions of dollars trying to persuade the public that science was “fake science.”
So that’s where “enemy of the people” comes from. The enemy was unpopular, and undoubtedly an “elitist”; but he trafficked in fact, and he was right. Trump obviously had no grasp of this; I’d imagine that if you said the words “Henrik Ibsen” to him, he’d think you were talking about Henry Gibson of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. (Footnote: real name James Bateman; took the name Henry Gibson as homage to Ibsen.)
It is surely not an accident that, as the BBC reported last November, the play has lately enjoyed a worldwide resurgence. There have been new translations into Arabic, Turkish, Russian, and Mandarin, and productions have been mounted in Afghanistan, Egypt, and China. Pity to think that we now have to add the United States to that list.