ON TYRANNY: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
By Timothy Snyder
Tim Duggan Books. 128 pp. $7.99
The early cautions that Donald Trump could become an American strongman, trampling our sad checks and loser balances, came in the late spring of last year — and they were both dire and a bit conflicted. “Trump is an extinction-level event” for American democracy, Andrew Sullivan declared in New York magazine, even while wondering if he was overreacting. And Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan’s broadside, “This is how fascism comes to America,” was as much an attack on a feckless Republican Party for falling in line behind Trump’s nomination as a surefire prediction of what was to be.
Now, nine months later, the warnings have become more specific and resigned, and thus even more believable. Trump may attract scorn and ridicule — think of the late-night jokes, low approval ratings and all that #NotMyPresident stuff — but he elicits ever stronger fears of homegrown authoritarianism. In the latest Atlantic, David Frum paints a plausible landscape of American illiberalism circa 2020, when voting is harder, self-censorship is rampant, Congress is submissive, graft is pervasive and truth is ever hazier. This is the gradual eclipse of liberty, “not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit,” he writes.
Historian Timothy Snyder does not offer a corrective to the pessimism of this genre — he is a scholar of the Holocaust, after all — but begins to illuminate a path forward from it. “On Tyranny” is a slim book that fits alongside your pocket Constitution and feels only slightly less vital. Steeped in the history of interwar Germany and the horrors that followed, Snyder still writes with bracing immediacy, providing 20 plain and mostly actionable lessons on preventing, or at least forestalling, the repression of lives and minds.
Don’t count Snyder among the American-exceptionalism crowd, at least not as the concept is usually understood. “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century,” he writes. “Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” The U.S. political system, he notes, was designed “to mitigate the consequences of our real imperfections, not to celebrate our imaginary perfection.”
The author dwells on “the politics of the everyday” to show the small ways people succumb to or fend off the encroachment of tyranny. Much of the initial power granted to nondemocratic leaders is given freely, via “heedless acts of conformity,” long before popular docility is requested or required. Snyder recalls how, when Hitler threatened to invade Austria, regular Austrian citizens looked on, or joined in, as local Nazis detained Austrian Jews or stole their property. “Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy,” the author writes.
The early days of the Trump presidency have seen acts of subversion by civil servants, including damaging leaks and social-media rebellions, signaling opposition to particular policies or actions by the new administration. Snyder emphasizes that the professional classes — civil servants as well as doctors, lawyers and businesspeople — bear special responsibility when individual freedoms are at risk. “It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges,” he writes. “Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.”
Professional associations, with their codes of ethics, best practices and collective voices, can command attention, creating “forms of ethical conversation that are impossible between a lonely individual and a distant government,” Snyder explains.
That hardly means there is no role for that lonely individual. Snyder devotes several of his lessons to the power of small decisions in the face of eroding democracy. “The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote,” he argues. “Our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much.”
Make eye contact and small talk with strangers, he encourages; it is part of being a citizen. (“People who were living in fear of repression remembered how their neighbors treated them,” Snyder writes.) Defend American institutions and civil society groups by joining them, advocating for them or even supporting them financially, Snyder urges. (“Institutions do not protect themselves.”) Beware of loyalty symbols — be it a sticker or armband, or even a hat, I imagine — however innocuous they seem, because they are often used to exclude. (“When everyone else follows the same logic, the public sphere is covered with signs of loyalty, and resistance becomes unthinkable.”)
And then there’s this ominously concise suggestion: “Make sure you and your family have passports.”
Snyder points to clear and recognizable actions that a leader or a party can take to suffocate freedom — such as exploiting terrorist attacks to curtail individual liberties or enabling the rise of pro-government paramilitary forces — but he is especially attuned to the abuses of language. Showing no compunction in going there, Snyder compares the rhetoric of the Führer and the Donald to highlight phrasing that serves the interests of the leader and no one else:
“Hitler’s language rejected legitimate opposition: The people always meant some people and not others (the president uses the word in this way), encounters were always struggles (the president says winning) and any attempt by free people to understand the world in a different way was defamation of the leader (or, as the president puts it, libel).”
Snyder warns against the treacherous use of patriotic expressions and the mindless repetition of political catchphrases, whether in the news media or from the government. “Think up your own way of speaking,” he challenges readers. “When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework,” and permit a narrowing of vocabulary and thought that only empowers the strongman.
The popular understanding and interpretations of Trump are dominated by his words and phrases — “Sad!” “Fake news!” — and by his use of those words to rouse supporters, identify opponents and distort verifiable reality. “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” Snyder writes. “If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.” And Trump thrives on spectacle; indeed, his rise has been based on it.
A leader’s constant repetition of “shamanistic incantations,” as Snyder puts it, and the people’s misplaced faith in an oracular strongman over evidence and reason — these are ways truth begins to fade. Throughout history, despots have “despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism.”
And that elevation of mythology over truth has consequences. “Post-truth,” Snyder writes, “is pre-fascism.”
To break free of the incantations, we must loosen the hold that our televisions and phones have over us, Snyder argues. “Get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books,” he urges, like the good academic that he is. “The characters in Orwell’s and Bradbury’s books could not do this — but we still can.”
It is not an entirely persuasive course, as if television and online debates did not have the power to introduce new ideas or vital reporting into public circulation. In fact, this very book — easily the most compelling volume among the early resistance literature emerging in response to Trump — took inspiration from a November 2016 Facebook post by the author.
Perhaps the greatest contribution in Snyder’s clarifying and unnerving work is buried in its epilogue, and it shows the slippery intellectual path from freedom to tyranny. After the Cold War, he writes, we were enthralled by the politics of inevitability, the notion that history moved inexorably toward liberal democracy. So we lowered our defenses. Now, instead, we are careening toward the politics of eternity, in which a leader rewrites our past as “a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood.” Inevitability was like a coma; eternity is like hypnosis.
“The danger we now face is of a passage from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity, from a naive and flawed sort of democratic republic to a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy,” Snyder concludes. “The path of least resistance leads directly from inevitability to eternity.”
A possible detour from that path may be found in “On Tyranny,” a memorable work that is grounded in history yet imbued with the fierce urgency of what now.
Read more from Book Party, including: