Timothy Snyder on Modern Tyranny

By | May 19, 2017

By Marilyn Cooper

Yale University historian Timothy Snyder is famous for writing long and meticulously researched books about war, genocide and the decline to dictatorship in 20th Europe. But after a Facebook posting that he quickly penned in the wake of last November’s presidential election went viral, he’s turned his attention to politics in 21st-century America. The result is a slim but powerful new book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century that offers practical advice for resisting authoritarianism. Snyder recently spoke with Moment about the current political climate and lessons garnered from history.

What motivated you to write this book at this time?

The book comes from three places. First, I have spent my adult life learning languages, reading archives and examining testimonies in order to make sense of some of the darker chapters of European history. That doesn’t mean I have something meaningful to say about every moment in the contemporary world, but it does mean that I have perspectives that might be useful and pertinent at particular times. Second, we have arrived at just such a particular time. We find ourselves with a president who has expressed open disregard and contempt for the central American traditions of democracy and the rule of law, as well as for the more contemporary idea of human rights. More worryingly, both in his campaign and in his presidency, Donald Trump seeks to undermine the basic idea that there are facts in the world. That’s extremely dangerous. Finally, I wrote this book because I knew there would be millions of Americans who were shocked and dismayed by last November’s election results and who would be looking for actions to take.

Was the book written in response to Donald Trump’s presidency?

Yes and no. I don’t want to characterize it only that way. From my point of view, there is a much deeper background, which is the entire history of modern tyranny in the 20th century, that is my subject. So this was not an impulsive reaction to Trump. On the contrary, it’s me recognizing in Mr. Trump things that I know from other contexts. Also, the swing away from democracy and towards authoritarianism is a general trend in the west from Russia to Europe and now to us. That’s been going on for about the last five years. So yes, I wrote the book in response to Mr. Trump, but I did so because I was informed by these larger trends in history and in contemporary international politics.

You write in the introduction to the book, “It is a primary American tradition to consider history when our political order seems imperiled.” Do you believe our political order is currently imperiled?

Absolutely. The system is clearly imperiled. We have a head of state who thinks journalists are the enemy of the people, who calls sitting judges “so-called judges,” who has never performed public service of any kind and who was elected with the help of tyrants from other countries whom he openly admires. The less we do now, the more imperiled the system will become. The founders realized that human nature is imperfect; they knew that we need to have institutions to constrain ourselves and to prevent the system from falling prey to our various weaknesses. They imagined that there would be bad leaders who would come to power legally and set up the system to hold them back.

Modern tyranny can change things quickly by making us react slowly.

That’s the whole point of the system. But the system can’t do this by itself; it needs us to take responsibility for it. If we simply think that the institutions [on their own] will save us, then we are complicit in a process where the institutions cannot save us. If we say that it can’t happen in America, we negate the underlying logic of the whole system that is that it can happen anywhere. You need to have institutions and also proactively take actions to ensure that it doesn’t happen here.

What’s your view of the term “American exceptionalism”?

Everyone thinks they are exceptional. You are not going to find a country that says that they are just like every other country. Exceptionalism is not exceptional; exceptionalism is universal. It’s the least useful idea to have in one’s mind right now. American exceptionalism says that we are wonderful because of who we are, but that is not the case. We are not wonderful because of who we are, but because of what we do, particularly in critical situations. When we assert that we are fine no matter what and that we have freedom in our DNA, we give ourselves permission not to take responsibility and not to do anything. That makes authoritarian changes much more likely. When you say that it can’t happen here, you are making it happen here.

You are famous for writing about Europe. In a departure, in this book you write about America. What led you to shift your focus?

There are a number of departures. Writing a pamphlet about contemporary policy and offering people advice is not something I would ordinarily do. This book is by a historian, but it is not a history book. My work on Europe gives me an unusual perspective on America that I wanted to offer to others. This is a piece of advocacy and an attempt to bring history to bear on a particular moment with the desire to change that moment. I wrote it out of a sense of civic engagement and from love of country. Normally I write big books with relatively few readers and a great many footnotes. But there are moments in life—and in history—when you have to break out of your comfort zone and do things that you believe are right and worthwhile for their own sake. This is one of those moments.

How does Trump’s rise compare to historic forms of nationalism that you’ve written about in Europe, such as fascism and Stalinism?

The fundamental similarity relates to the idea of truth. Once you say that there isn’t truth and you try to undermine the people whose job it is to tell the truth, such as journalists, you make democracy impossible. The fascists realized this. The first move the fascists made in the 1920s was to say that everyday life doesn’t matter, your own experiences don’t matter and the real world doesn’t matter. What matters is seeing invisible unities between you and your nation or between you and your leader. Science doesn’t matter, what matters is a myth that makes us feel good about ourselves and makes us feel like a collective. Another thing that’s familiar is an approach to globalization not as a series of objective problems, but as a series of conspiracies—or to put it more simply, putting a face on globalization. We are now in the second globalization crisis; the first was 100 years ago. The way the fascists or, in a different way, the communists handled it was to say that the problems of globalization were caused by a Jewish conspiracy or a capitalist conspiracy. Then it becomes the fault of the people within your country whom you can associate with that conspiracy. This situation hasn’t proceeded quite that far, but even in the campaign Mr. Trump’s basic idea was that it’s not that we’re facing a difficult world, it’s that people are betraying us. You can’t trust the Mexicans, you can’t trust the Muslims and you can’t trust the elites. Rather than facing up to the fact that life is hard and that globalization presents challenges, you name and blame people and groups who you say are at fault.

If you read the transcripts of Mr. Trump’s speeches, you realize that they are very similar to fascist rhetoric. First, there is a constant repetition of certain tropes, like the “lying Ted” or the “crooked Hillary.” Second, there are incantations such as “lock her up” or “build that wall” rather than serious policy recommendations. Third, there is the assertion of the idea that Mr. Trump is some kind of political god with the repetition of “I’m your voice,” a phrase used word for word by fascists. Finally, throwing protestors out of rallies was eerily similar to what happened in fascist rallies in the 1920s and 1930s. I found that very disturbing.

Does Trump remind you of any one figure from the 20th century?

In different ways he reminds me of different people, but in many ways he is all his own. It’s important to remember that the threat to democracy is not about identifying a particular personality type. Hitler wasn’t Stalin and Mussolini wasn’t Lenin. They were all different people with different appeals and different personalities. Mr. Trump especially recalls the right-wingers of the 1920s and 1930s. We need to recognize that he can learn from politicians of other non-democratic times; that doesn’t mean he is just like them, but that may help us anticipate where this situation might go.

It’s important to remember that the threat to democracy is not about identifying a particular personality type. 

The person he most reminds me of is the Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych who, in 2015, tried to become a dictator and was then overthrown. They both clearly sought office as a way to gain huge amounts of money for their own families and they both have no regard for the rule of democracy. That’s the closest resemblance, and it’s not a glamorous one. We’re attracted to figures like Hitler and Mussolini because there is a dark charisma around them. But Mr. Trump is most similar to a 21st-century dictator who just wants a lot of money and will appeal to whatever ideology that will best cover up that basic reality.

To be clear, do you feel Trump supports American democracy?

No, there is no reason to think Mr. Trump supports democracy. His main comment on the subject was to say that, if he lost the election, he would not accept the results. Now that he is president and there is a bounty of evidence that a foreign power interfered with our democracy, he calls this fake news. If he were a normal politician, or if he were innocent, he would want there to be an investigation because of the importance of preserving the democratic process. He is doing the opposite, which I think is very revealing.

Can you say more about the role of “fake news”?

Fake news is a problem because it manipulates our minds, but it’s also a problem because we slowly become convinced that there is no news that isn’t fake. Typically the people who fake the news or benefit from it will then say that it’s all fake. For instance, the official position of the people who run the Russian broadcast networks is that all journalism is fake in one direction or another. Mr. Trump takes the same position. He refers to real news outlets doing real work in search of real facts as fake. The idea is for us to lose trust in all these institutions, but the consequence of losing trust is that democracy falls apart. Once we don’t have any factual basis for making our own judgments, we don’t have any basis for criticizing our rulers and then the people with the most money always win. Philosophically, it is very important for us to believe in truth.

What does the 20th century teach us about combatting tyranny?

The main lesson is that modern tyranny can change things quickly by making us react slowly. You have an enormous amount of influence in the first weeks and months. If you spend that time saying, “This is not that big a deal,” or “The institutions will protect us,” or “This can’t happen here” or “I’m going to wait for someone to tell me what to do,” then it’s all over. Soon it will be illegal or dangerous for you to protest and then most of us won’t do it. The first thing we must learn is: Don’t obey in advance. In practical terms, this means that you have to get in front of the situation; you have to begin early to change both the political atmosphere and individual minds while you still can. Before anything else, you have to stop yourself from adjusting to the new reality.

How would you assess the reactions to (or resistance to) Trump over the last three to four months?

B-minus on a curve. On the one hand, it’s good that so many people marched and that many Americans were fast to realize the political meaning of the Muslim ban and to understand that it wasn’t really about Muslims; it was a flagrant attempt to change our system. The people protesting it at airports showed agility and nimbleness, and many lawyers recognized that the Trump administration was a threat to the rule of law and mobilized quickly. All that is extremely good.

We’re still in a moment in which what we do matters.

On the other hand, there has been a strong trend by most of the news media to normalize the situation by simply covering the day-to-day events as though we were not in the midst of a regime change. There has been an understandable and human tendency to seize on anything Mr. Trump does that somehow looks normal and say, “Aha, actually everything is okay.” That kind of childish faith is exactly what allows regime changes to take place. One sees it all the time: If he reads a speech from a teleprompter, then his critics say he looks presidential, or if he blows something up in Syria, his critics say that he is defending America’s interests. We are looking for one normal thing to feed upon to pull us out of this nightmare. But that won’t happen because the nightmare is real.

What is the role of the Republicans and the Republican Party during the Trump administration?

It’s a test for them because they control everything—and when you control everything, you can try to change the system. The first and main thing the Republicans need to do is resist that temptation and show their loyalty to the system. They are in a weird situation in which they control everything but they don’t have any popular policies. They are looking at a pretty sure drubbing in 2018 and 2020 unless they change the system. They need to be responsible and accept democracy; they have to try to come up with good policies and speak to the people. I’m not confident they can do that. The second thing they need to do is show that they are patriots. I’m skeptical about American politics, but even so, I’ve been surprised by how few elected Republican officials have realized that the possibility of Russian interference in our elections is not a partisan issue. If we normalize other countries intervening in our elections, we no longer have a democracy. This is not about Mr. Trump winning or losing. It’s about the political health of the United States. It’s striking how few Republicans seem to see it that way; they are trying very hard to frame this as a partisan issue for Democrats.

What do you anticipate the American political system will look like by the end of the Trump administration, whenever that comes?

It’s all still open. History teaches us that many things are possible that we don’t think are possible, so it’s difficult to make predictions. The two obvious possibilities are that we’re moving toward the nepotism and kleptocracy of Jared Kushner’s people or toward the neo-fascist tyranny of Steve Bannon’s people. One faction thinks everything is about making money for people named Trump or Kushner, and the other faction wants to go back to the 1930s. The danger is that we end up with some combination of the two in which the grab for money is cushioned and permitted by the ideologues and the neo-fascist ideology is accepted by the kleptocrats and nepotists because it provides the cover under which they make unbelievable amounts of money. What I most fear happening in the next four years is some kind of real or engineered terrorist attack that our government uses to accelerate all of this by declaring a state of emergency. Something like that is very likely. Whether the American republic survives depend on whether Americans think that through in advance and realize that a terrorist attack is not a reason to change our system. One of the reasons I wrote the book is to remind us, because we can so easily forget, that democracy can fail across a wide spectrum of circumstances and opponents. History shows that democracy is hard and faces challenges from all directions, be it fascism, communism or the contemporary authoritarianism we see rising in our world today. I believe we can act to head that off; my personal stance is that we’re still in a moment in which what we do matters and will make a difference.


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