A week after Donald Trumps election, Timothy Snyder, a professor of European history at Yale, posted a long note on Facebook. Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism, he began. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.
The note consisted of twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to what Snyder called the circumstances of today. Among other things, he admonished Americans to defend democratic institutions, to not repeat the same words and phrases we hear in the media, to think clearly and critically, and to take responsibility for the face of the world.
The post went viral. Its now the basis of Snyders new book, On Tyranny. The book is a brisk read packed with lucid prose. If its not quite alarmist, its certainly bracing. This is a call to action, a reminder that the future isnt fixed. Being a citizen, Snyder argues, means engaging with the world, with other people, with the truth.
You submit to tyranny, he writes, when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.
If theres a recurring theme in On Tyranny, its that accepting untruth is a precondition of tyranny. Post-truth is pre-fascism, he warns, and to abandon facts is to abandon freedom.
In this interview, I talk to Snyder about the book, the fragility of Americas liberal democratic system, and what we might learn from Europes descent into fascism.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This is a brief book, but you cover a lot of ground. The tone is measured but also urgent. You write as though the American political order is truly imperiled.
Absolutely. I believe it is. I wrote the book in a few days in December, so it was all done a month before the inauguration. It sounded true at the time, and it sounds even more true now. These are thoughts I had relatively long ago. As a historian, I understand that democratic republics fall all the time. You work on European history and you know that most times it actually doesn’t work out.
You also know that the Europeans who saw their regimes change were not necessarily less wise than we are. I’d be tempted to say they’re wiser, in fact. I think we have a lot of good attributes in our society, in our political system, but also we’ve been lucky a lot of the time. It’s important to be humble and to realize that past success is no guarantee of future returns.
So what happens next is going to depend on us.
The American founders were very attuned to the dangers of tyranny, and they designed a system that would guard against it. Why is that system short-circuiting now?
I’m just going to repeat the point that you make. This is something that Americans often get wrong. We think that because we’re America, everything will work itself out. This is exactly what the founders refused to believe. They thought human nature is such that you have to constrain it by institutions. They preferred rule of law and checks and balances. They were the opposite of American exceptionalists.
They thought they knew something from history because of the Greeks and Romans. In the book, I just argue that they were right and that we can also learn from more recent and relevant examples because two more centuries have passed. I think our institutions are basically okay, but there are a couple of things that have gone wrong before the election.
What went wrong before the election?
An obvious problem is the role of money in politics, the confusion between the right to free speech and the right to give as much money as you want to anyone you want. Those are obviously two different things. The founders knew, because they read Aristotle, that inequality itself is always going to be a threat to democracy. If you have too much inequality, Aristotle warned, the people will grow tired of oligarchs. And someone like Trump will come along and say, well, the world’s run by billionaires but at least I’ll be your billionaire, which is false and demagogic and generally horrible.
But it makes a certain kind of sense when you’ve already reached a point of extremity.
Tell me about the distinction you make between a politics of inevitability and a politics of eternity. I find this interesting from a political theory perspective. What youre describing is two equally misguided orientations to politics, both of which are grounded in a false story we tell ourselves about history. The price we pay for this is blindness to the present, and to our role in shaping the future.
It all starts with me trying to assert that history matters, that we have to start from history itself and not from the comforting or delusive myths we might have about the past. A politics of inevitability is an idea thats been pretty widespread in the US since 1989. Its the view that the past is messy and violent and chaotic but that were inching inexorably toward a freer, safer, more progressive world. The future will be better, in other words, because thats how history works. There will be more globalization, more life, more prosperity, more democracy. But this is just not true.
No big narrative or grand stories like that are true, and they actually blind you to the very real danger of returning to the kinds of things you’re saying can’t happen, which is where the politics of eternity emerges.
A politics of eternity is an equally antihistorical posture. Its a self-absorbed concern with the past, free of any real concern with facts. In the book, I call this a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous. An eternity politician seduces the populace with a vision of the past in which the nation was once great, only to be sullied by some external enemy. This focus on the past and on victimhood means people think less about possible futures, less about possible solutions to real problems.
But again, these are just stories. The truth is that history is much more open and we have much more agency and responsibility than we think.
This reminds me of a recent discussion I had with Fareed Zakaria. People mistakenly assume that history moves in only one direction, that liberal democracy is the logical endpoint of Western civilization. But thats clearly not the case. History, like everything else, is in flux, and the range of outcomes is infinite.
That is exactly why I wrote the book. I was afraid the dominant narrative reaction would be something like: Oh, well, it’s a bump in the road. It’s a detour. The institutions will handle it. It’ll all be fine in the end, right? That’s what we were talking about earlier. That’s the politics of inevitability. That’s just not true.
It’s just not true that things have any kind of direction. That’s a big intellectual mistake that we made in 1989. We put ourselves to sleep and now we’re having a rough awakening, and the rough awakening has to lead us to realize that no, we’re actually in charge, and things can go in all kinds of directions.
A recurring theme of your book is that many democracies have failed in circumstances that resemble our own. Tell me what you mean by circumstances that resemble our own.
Well, for one, people overlook the fact that regime change in a democracy usually happens after an election thats when we have to be on guard. There are dramatic cases like the Bolshevik Revolution where a very, very young republic was overturned by a true revolution, but usually what happens is the scenario begins with an election, a big election. This is how Hitler came to power, for instance. His party won more votes than anyone else. Once inside, he decided the system needed to be changed. Something similar happened with the communists in Czechoslovakia, who won an election in 1946 and then wanted to carry out a coup dtat.
But to answer your basic question: The general circumstances are when an unusual figure is elected by way of normal mechanisms at a time when for other reasons the system is under stress. Thats the basic setup, and thats what I was referring to.
You said a minute ago that you still believe in the basic viability of our institutions. But I wonder if thats true for the majority of Americans. This last election showed, among other things, that a lot of people have lost faith in public institutions. They elected a man in large part because he wasnt a product of these institutions. It seems they were willing to flirt with disaster to register their disgust with the system.
So were already in a very dangerous place. A liberal democracy cant survive if people dont believe in it.
We’re not just flirting. We’re in a long-term relationship with disaster. The question is whether we get out of it in time. There are two steps here. The first is dealing with these flawed institutions; theres too much stress in the system. There’s gerrymandering, for example, which is an affront to the one-vote-for-one-person principle. These are problems that have to be addressed.
But were in a stage now where we have to first rescue the flawed system and then work to improve it. In order to do that, one does have to have some idea of an America that would be better, right? It’s an aspiration of America that would be improved. It’s not enough to say, Let’s go back to 2016. We have to have some idea of this as an experience from which one learns and then applies those lessons.
So I do believe our institutions in their logic are basically sound, but I agree with you that they will have to be corrected. The doubt that Americans have for institutions has to be mobilized toward a sense that they can improve as opposed to a cynicism about institutions and rules in general.
If we reach that point where people say, nothing ever works, it’s all nonsense, then we really are done.
Are we there already? My sense is that November 8 was a Rubicon-crossing moment for the country. But youre a historian, and this is a book about historical lessons, so tell me theres a non-terrifying precedent for this.
Talk me off the ledge!
My whole gambit in this book is that I’m not a US historian. I’m a historian of Europe, and the experience I’m bringing to bear is what happened to many European democracies and what people I admire have to say about how they resisted and what they learned when beating back authoritarianism. These are the sources of my book, and I believe the lessons learned in the 20th century apply equally to the 21st century.
History doesn’t give you perfect analogues, perfect parallels. It doesn’t repeat, and it doesn’t even rhyme, but it does present patterns.
Well, lets talk about one of those patterns, namely the discrediting of truth in totalitarian regimes.
This whole idea we’re dealing with now about the alternative facts and post-factuality is pretty familiar to the 1920s. Its a vision that’s very similar to the central premise of the fascist vision. It’s important because if you don’t have the facts, you don’t have the rule of law. If you don’t have the rule of law, you can’t have democracy.
And people who want to get rid of democracy and the rule of law understand this because they actively propose an alternative vision. The everyday is boring, they say. Forget about the facts. Experts are boring. Let’s instead attach ourselves to a much more attractive and basically fictional world.
So I’m not saying that Trump is just like the fascists of 1920s, but I am saying this isnt new.
In the book, you say that abandoning facts means abandoning freedom.
That’s absolutely the case. The thing that makes you an individual, the thing that makes you stand out, is your ability to figure out what’s going on for yourself. If you abandon that, then you open yourself up to some grand dream, and you cease to be free in any meaningful sense.
Abandoning facts also means abandoning truth, and a civilization cant get along without shared truths.
Sociologists say that a belief in truth is what makes trust in authority possible. Without trust, without respect for journalists or doctors or politicians, a society cant hang together. Nobody trusts anyone, which leaves society open to resentment and propaganda, and of course to demagogues.
If a community or country can’t hold together horizontally by way of an idea of factuality, then someone comes along vertically with a huge myth, and that person wins.
When you address this in the book, your intended audience is individual citizens. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given, you write. Individuals offer themselves without being asked. Political theorists have understood for a long time that the foundation of political power is consent, which can always be withdrawn. But this is not well understood by most citizens.
I think Americans do understand this well enough for normal times. In normal times, consent means political consent, as expressed in voting. What Americans might not understand is that in abnormal times, when the political system as they understand it is shaken and transformed, they can express consent to these changes without being aware that they are doing so. In normal political times, this sort of social adjustment would also be normal. But in times like these, our impulse to adjust takes on radical political significance.
Are you optimistic about the potential for collective action in this environment?
Collective action is hard, but there are real opportunities. If we manage to get our heads away from the screens, if we manage to meet people and talk to people with whom we disagree, then there can be new forms of action which may turn out to be effective. It doesn’t have to be that all Americans at exactly the same time do the same thing.
If 10,000 little groups do 5,000 little things, that will make a tremendous difference.
Whats the most important and relevant lesson in the book? What do you urge people to do with these historical truths?
The book has 20 lessons in there, and they’re of a different character. Some people are going to find some of them more relevant than others. What I want to emphasize is the instruction of the people who survived and learned about totalitarianism. There is wisdom in their examples, in what they did in those dramatic moments. For example, people who lived through fascism understand that when governments talk about terrorism and extremism, you have to be on guard, because these are always the words you hear before your rights are taken away from you.
If another terrorist attack occurs in the United States, which unfortunately is very likely, we have to be vigilant about what comes next. For these are the moments when rights are lost and regimes are changed. So we have to be prepared for that.
We cant trade our actual freedom for a false feeling of security.
See the article here:
"Post-truth is pre-fascism": a Holocaust historian on the Trump era – Vox