Jeff Flake's Stalin-Trump comparison needs a fat dose of facts

Jeff Flake's Stalin-Trump comparison needs a fat dose of facts
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If the political ailment is “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakePoll: McSally holds 14-point lead in Arizona GOP Senate primary GOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border McCain, Coons: Trump should withdraw controversial refugee nominee MORE (R-Ariz.) is an advanced case.

“Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams once wrote. “Whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The senator’s wishes, inclinations, and passions have gotten the best of him, despite the facts.

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Sen. Flake fired a broadside from the Senate floor on Wednesday against President TrumpDonald John TrumpConservatives express concern over House GOP immigration bill Poll: McSally holds 14-point lead in Arizona GOP Senate primary Trump defends Nielsen amid criticism over family separations MORE’s criticisms of the media. The president’s “unprecedented” and “unwarranted” assault is actually a “sustained attack on the truth” which threatens the “guardian of democracy”: a free press.

Now, the importance of a free press in a democracy cannot be overstated. And Senator Flake has every right to be a passionate critic of the president’s opinions. But what about those facts?

The senator refers to a presidential tweet of February 17, 2017: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” The mainstream media, omitting the word “fake” and references to the New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN, erupted as one monolith at the time and claimed that the president had declared war.

But that misses the point: Agree or not, the president regularly criticizes the entrenched elites. When he talks about draining the swamp he isn’t just talking about political elites, but the establishment media — in particular those outlets hiding behind “fake news” based on anonymous (and sometimes fabricated) sources. As the president explained a week later:

“The First Amendment gives all of us — it gives it to me, it gives it to you, it gives all Americans — the right to speak our minds freely. It gives you the right and me the right to criticize fake news, and criticize it strongly.”

Sen. Flake’s smoking gun was the president’s use of the infamous phrase “enemy of the people.” Its origins are old — the Roman Senate condemned Nero as a “public enemy.” But the term took on vicious significance with Vladimir Lenin and his brutal successor, Joseph Stalin. Such language is a testament to the condition of our democracy, the senator tells us, and makes Trump the enabler-in-chief of an “authoritarian impulse” reasserting itself around the world.

So how does Trump match up with the authoritarian leaders to which he is explicitly compared?

Bashar al-Assad of Syria, known for having killed several hundred of his own people with chemical weapons, is now in the process of starving 500,000 people in besieged areas to destroy political opposition. 

The Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is widely criticized for encouraging the extrajudicial killings of over 9,000 people as part of his administration’s “War on Drugs.”

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has jailed major political opponents and stripped the legislative powers of the country’s parliament dominated by opposition parties.

And then there is Joseph Stalin, who dominated the Soviet Union from 1922 to his death in 1953 during the heyday of Marxism-Leninism. In the 1930s, his Great Purge of political enemies in Russia and an enforced famine in Ukraine killed 7 to 10 million people. In World War II, Stalin launched an unprovoked war against Finland, allied with Nazi Germany to invade Poland, executed thousands of Polish nationals in the Katyn Massacre, and devoured Eastern Europe. His regime, which imposed an “iron curtain” across Europe to prevent millions of conquered peoples from escaping his despotic rule, was marked by ethnic cleansing, total press censorship, widespread religious persecution, and the jailing of political dissidents in the harsh Soviet Gulag.

“The death of one man is a tragedy,” Stalin once said. “The death of millions is a statistic.” He should know: the dictatorship he built killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million such statistics.  

Despite his hard talk and thin skin, President Trump is no authoritarian. He has obeyed judicial rulings that have overturned his administration’s actions. Rather than ruling by fiat, Trump has turned to Congress to pass new legislation on healthcare, taxes, and immigration. Trump has not jailed or legally retaliated against a single journalist or political opponent, all of whom are free to speak and write against the president and denounce him even on the floor of the United States Senate.

Senator Flake is absolutely correct that American liberty is predicated on truth: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Those truths about man’s equal rights by nature, along with some facts “submitted to a candid world,” brought them to see the difference between real despotism and human freedom. As we criticize and debate long-established opinions in a divided country, one should keep in perspective such stubborn facts.

Matthew Spalding is associate vice president and dean of Educational Programs for Hillsdale College in Washington, D.C., where he is the Allan P. Kirby, Jr., Chair in Constitutional Studies.