On Tyranny: Yale Historian Timothy Snyder on How the U.S. Can Avoid Sliding into Authoritarianism
Levin Professor of History at Yale University. His new book is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. He is also the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.
Is the United States sliding toward tyranny? That is the question posed by Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder in his new book that draws on his decades of experience writing about war and genocide in European history in order to find 20 key lessons that can help the United States avoid descending into authoritarianism. “I was trying to get out front and give people very practical day-to-day things that they could do,” Snyder says. “What stood behind all of that was a lifetime of working on the worst chapters of European history, a sense of how things can go very wrong.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We spend the rest of the hour with award-winning author and Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder, whose new book draws on his decades of experience writing about war and genocide in European history in order to find lessons that can help the United States avoid descending into fascist authoritarianism. It is titled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Snyder writes, quote, “The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” That’s from On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder, Levin Professor of History at Yale University, where he joins us now. Professor Synder is also the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, as well as Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Timothy Snyder. Can you talk about, well, just what we quoted you saying there? Do you think that the United States is—is headed towards tyranny?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: So, I guess the place to start would be with the quotation. Like the framers of the Constitution, I’m not an American exceptionalist. I’m a skeptic. My tendency is to look at examples from other places and to ask what we could learn. The point of using the historical examples is to remind ourselves that democracies and republics usually fail. The expectation should be failure rather than success. The framers, looking at classical examples from Greece and Rome, gave us the institutions that we have. I think our mistake at present is to imagine that the institutions will automatically continue to protect us. My sense is that we’ve seen institutions like our own fail. We’ve—20th century authoritarians have learned that the way to dismantle systems like ours is to go after one institution and then the next, which means that we have to have an active relationship, both to history, so that we can see how failure arises and learn from people who tried to protect institutions, but also an active relationship to our own institutions, that our institutions are only as good as the people who try to serve them.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Professor Snyder, in terms of the rise of tyranny in the 20th century, clearly, the rise of fascism came in the period after World War I. The masses of people in the world had been exposed to these imperialist wars, and there was tremendous insecurity. Do you see—what parallels do you see between that period in the ’30s and our situation today?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: That’s a wonderful question, because it helps us see how history can brace us, can give us a kind of grounding. When we think about globalization today, we imagine that it’s the first globalization, that everything about it is new. And that’s just not the case. The globalization we’re in now is the second one. The first globalization was the late 19th century and the early 20th century, when there was a similar expansion of world trade, export-led growth. And interestingly, there was also a similar rhetoric of optimism, the idea that trade would lead to enlightenment, would lead to liberalism, would lead to peace. That pattern of the late 19th century, we saw it break. We saw the First World War, as you say, the Great Depression, the Second World War. One way to understand all of that is the long failure of the first globalization. Once we have that in mind, we shouldn’t be surprised that our own globalization has contradictions, has opponents, that it generates—that it generates opposition, that it generates ideas of the far right, sometimes the far left, that are against it.
So, history instructs us that there’s nothing new or nothing automatic about globalization, but it also instructs us that there are people who lived through the end of that first globalization, the kind of people I cite in the book—Hannah Arendt, Victor Klemperer—who observed these effects and then gave us very practical advice about how we can react. So, part of our own misunderstanding of globalization, that it’s all new, is that history doesn’t matter, precisely because it’s all new. What I’m trying to say in the book is, no, the opposite. We’ve seen globalization fail before. We’ve seen fascism rise. We’ve seen other threats to liberalism, democracy, republics. What we should be doing is learning from the 20th century, rather than forgetting it.
AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a Facebook post in November. Tell us what you wrote about when Donald Trump was elected.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: Yeah, so, I mean, the thing about the Facebook post, I wrote it right after the election. And it was the first thing that I did. And it was—it was these 20 lessons. It was an attempt to compress everything that I thought I understood about the 20th century into very brief points that would help Americans react, because I had the strong feeling—I think it turned out to be correct—that there would be tens of millions of Americans who would be surprised and disoriented and shocked by the election of Mr. Trump and would be seeking some way to react.
And I did it as quickly as I could, because it’s very important in these kinds of historical moments to get out front. The tendency to or the temptation to normalize is very strong. The temptation to wait and to say, “Well, let’s see what he does after the inauguration. Let’s see who his advisers are. Let’s see what the policies are,” that temptation generates normalization, which is already happening in the United States. And so, I was trying to get out front and give people very practical day-to-day things that they could do.
But what stood behind all of that was a lifetime of working on the worst chapters of European history, a sense of how things can go very wrong. What also stood behind it is my friendships with my teachers and also my students from Eastern Europe, people who have their own biographical connection either to the authoritarianisms of the 20th century or, sadly, the new authoritarianisms of the 21st. It’s that, a little bit, which helps me to see that these kinds of things can happen to people like us, but also that there are practical ways that people like us can respond.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the first lesson you talk about in your book, especially in light of the realities that, in our day and age, clearly, authoritarianism has enormous more power of surveillance and social control of populations. You write in your first lesson, “Do not obey in advance. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.” I think about that in terms of the enormous gravitation of the population toward social media and then the ability of states and corporations to actually monitor and control what people say and do and shop and everything they’re thinking about.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: Yeah, so, I agree with that completely. The historical basis of that first lesson, “Don’t obey in advance,” is what historians think we understand about authoritarian regime changes, and in particular the Nazi regime change of 1933. Historians of Nazi Germany disagree about a lot of things, but one of the few things we agree about is the significance of adaptation from below in 1933. When we look at Hitler in retrospect, we sometimes have a tendency to think of him as a kind of supervillain who can do anything. But in fact, the lesson of 1933 is that consent from below matters a lot, not consent necessarily in the sense of voting or marching or anything active, but consent in the sense of bystanding, going along, making mental adjustments.
So the point of “Don’t obey in advance” is not to give your consent in that way, which is very important, because if you do just drift at the beginning, then psychologically you’re lost, or, to put it a different way, if you don’t follow lesson one, “Don’t obey in advance,” then you can’t follow lessons two to 20, either. Politically, it’s also really important, because the time which matters the most is the beginning, where we are now. Right now we actually have much more power than we think we do. Our actions are magnified outwards now. When protest becomes illegal or dangerous, this is going to change. But right now Americans actually have more power than they think they do.
And your point actually magnifies all of this, because the reason—one of the reasons you shouldn’t obey in advance is that when you do, you’re actually giving power ideas. They don’t necessarily have plans. They don’t necessarily know what they can do. But when we lean towards what they think they want—and social media is a very good example of this—then we give them ideas. We teach them what they can do. So, in our real lives and in social media, it’s very important not to obey in advance, because, you’re absolutely right, that information is being collected and collated and considered.
AMY GOODMAN: Number two, Timothy Snyder, in your Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, is “Defend institutions.” Explain.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: Well, that’s the second most important lesson. It’s number—it’s number two for a reason. I have in mind, above all, the constitutional institutions. But I also have in mind, later on in the book, other kinds of institutions, like professional or vocational institutions or nongovernmental organizations. And the reason why institutions are so important is that they’re what prevent us from being those atomized individuals who are alone against the overpowering state. That’s a very romantic image, but the isolated individual is always going to lose. We need the constitutional institutions as much as we can get them going. It’s a real problem now, especially with the legislature. We also need the professions, whether it’s law or medicine or civil servants, to act according to rules that are not the same thing as just following orders. And we need to be able to form ourselves up into nongovernmental organizations, because it’s not just that we have freedom of association. It’s that freedom itself requires association. We need association to have our own ideas confirmed, to have our confidence raised, to be in a position to actually act as individuals. Some of that is actually happening, which is a good sign.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about number nine of your lessons—”Be kind to our language”—especially, again, in the times in which we are today, where kindness is one of the few things that politicians or academics talk about much.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: So, I have in mind the necessity of thinking, really, because the way we are now—and this connects back to your earlier question—the way we are now, we’re bombarded, from the television, from the internet, with whatever tropes and memes are being chosen for us for a given day or for a given hour. And whether we agree or disagree or feel comfortable or uncomfortable, there’s a certain tendency to express ourselves in the terms that come down from above. We get caught up in this daily rush. You see this, for example, in people who think they’re critical of Trump, but use his language. First, they use it as a joke, and then they find that they can’t get—they can’t get themselves out of it.
So, being kind to language is one of these—is one of these lessons that seems easy. It just means read, think and try to express your views, whether they’re for or against, in your own words, because my very strong sense is that if we have pluralism of expression, we’re going to be fostering pluralism of thought, and that if people can clarify why it is that they’re opposing this or that, they’re going to be more likely to be persuasive. And at a minimum, in the worst case, if you have your own way of expressing yourself, you at least clutter up the daily memes. You at least put a barrier in the way of the daily tropes. You at least form a force field around yourself and maybe the people who are closest to you, where it’s possible to think and have a little peace.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to our discussion with Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, author of the book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s been number one on The New York Times best-seller list for a long time now. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Tusk” by Fleetwood Mac, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is professor Timothy Snyder. His book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.
Since taking office, President Trump has continued to escalate his attack on the media, what he calls the fake news. On Sunday, he once again took to Twitter, after there was a few days of not tweeting, lambasted the, quote, “fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media.” Trump tweeted, “Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names … it is very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!” Meanwhile, The New York Times recently revealed, in a February Oval Office meeting, President Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to consider imprisoning journalists who report on leaks of classified information. And this is Trump speaking earlier this year in Melbourne, Florida.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln and many of our greatest presidents fought with the media and called them out oftentimes on their lies. When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it. I will do whatever I can that they don’t get away with it. They have their own agenda. And their agenda is not your agenda.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, while President Jefferson often lambasted the press, he also believed it was fundamental to the functioning of a democratic society, famously writing, “The only security of all is in a free press.” Timothy Snyder, historian, talk about the attack on the press and how it fits into your thoughts about On Tyranny.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: Well, at the deepest level, I think we should be aware that this is about getting rid of a common sense of truth. Truth is an awkward concept for us these days and should probably be less awkward concept. If we’re going to resist all of this, I think we have to take a stand, even if it feels a little bit naïve, in favor of the facts, because what we know about 20th century regime changes are that they involve, at their base, an assault on everyday factuality. Whether it’s the extreme-right fascist idea that facts aren’t important, only a sense of collectivity, of belonging to the nation, this organic group, is important, or whether it’s the extreme-left Bolshevik idea that the facts of today have to be sacrificed in the name of a vision tomorrow, we know that these forms of radical politics have to begin with undermining a sense of everyday factuality.
In the 21st century, when ideologies no longer propose a future, what you have is a much more direct attack on factuality, where the first step is to say—well, the first step is just to lie all the time, as Mr. Trump did in 2016. The second step, as we’ve seen since late 2016 and into the presidency, is to say, “It’s not me who lies. It’s the press. It’s the journalists.” And the final goal is that everyone is so confused that we say, “We don’t really have truth. We just have our own private, clan-like sets of beliefs.” And at that point, democracy is not really possible anymore. Opposition is no longer possible, because we don’t know where to begin. We don’t know—we don’t know whom to trust.
So, of course, it’s an atrocity, and it’s a violation of basic American traditions, to attack journalists like that. But I think something—if possible, something deeper is at stake. I think that this is a direct and well-understood attempt to transform the regime, the easiest and cheapest way possible, which is to make us all distrust one another.
Oh, and what I also wanted to say, there is something we can do about this. I mean, there are simple things we can do, like we can support reporters who actually travel and investigate. We can, all of us, subscribe to newspapers and other sources of reliable information. Those seem like easy things to do, but if we all do them, it actually makes a huge difference, morally for the reporters, financially for the sources of good information.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, interestingly, in your book, you never mentioned Donald Trump. I’m wondering, was that deliberate on your part? And also, what responsibility you feel previous administrations, whether it’s the Obama administration or the Bush administration, have for the slide or the move toward tyranny and authoritarianism in this country?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: Mm-hmm, so let me—let me take that in reverse order. There is an underlying problem, at least one, in this country, and it goes back to our earlier discussion of globalization. And that is inequality, especially fractal inequality. That is, in particular parts of the country, there’s just—there are unspeakable levels of inequality. And that sets up the possibility for someone like Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump won by promising all kinds of things he can’t deliver. He won by being a good speaker. He won because he had cyberhelp from foreign powers. There are lots of reasons why he won. But one of the reasons why he could win is that he could say to people, “Look, it’s an oligarchy out there. I’m an oligarch, but I’m your oligarch.” Of course, that’s not really true. He doesn’t care about Americans. And there were plenty of other oligarchs behind him; they just weren’t Americans. But you can only tell that story in a situation of radical inequality.
And that radical inequality has its roots, I think, in the false story that we’ve told ourselves since 1989, that history came to an end, that human nature is capitalism, capitalism brings democracy, and so on and so forth. History never comes to an end. We had a moment in 1989 where we needed to reshape things. And I think we’ve missed that moment and, in that way, betrayed younger generations.
Now, why don’t I mention Mr. Trump? I mean, it’s largely because I think he’s not going to change. What can change is the system. So, Mr. Trump is not a young man. He has very firm sets of ideas. He has a certain kind of personality. And he is going to push against the walls of the system. And some of those walls are already weak. He’s going to push and push and push and push, because that’s what people do. You don’t have to have a plan to be an authoritarian. You just have to have a set of instincts, a set of inclinations, and a certain amount of energy. He has all of that. So, I’m not trying to change Mr. Trump. What I’m trying to do is alert us, change us, because if those—if that system is going to be preserved, it’s going to be because we hold up the various parts of the structure. So, I was trying to get away from what I knew was coming, which is all the personal stuff. You know, is he crazy? You know, can he read? Right? He has—there are certain talents he doesn’t have, but there are also certain talents he does. The real question is what we can do. And so the book is meant to be about us, much more than about him.
AMY GOODMAN: Number six in your Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is “Be wary of paramilitaries.” Talk about this in the current context.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: Yeah. I mean, it’s just such a—it’s such a wonderful example, Amy, of things that we used to know about, for example, National Socialism in Germany, which have obvious application. We just need to make those applications. So, one of the ways that not just Hitler but other ideological authoritarians break republics is that they break the monopoly of violence. That is, they—you’re in a—what we think of as a normal system is when there’s law, and then there are certain organs whose job it is to enforce the law, and those are state organs. What you do if you’re Hitler—and other authoritarians have done this, too—is you have your own militia, a paramilitary, which is an organ of violence which is beyond the state. And you use it to change the atmosphere of politics. You use it to intimidate opponents. And then, after you win, you keep it going. That’s the story of the SA and the SA in—the SS and the SA in Nazi Germany.
So, in the current situation, you know, where our society is flooded with guns like none has ever been before and where there are lots of paramilitaries, it’s very important to watch out for the connection of those paramilitaries to politics. So, for example, if an elected representative or an important politician in, let’s say, Oregon says, “We ought to bring in paramilitaries rather than the police, when we have our own demonstrations,” that’s something to really watch out for. Likewise, in the firing of Mr. Comey, of which there are so many desperately bad things that it’s easy to overlook some of them, one of the things which was striking in the firing of Mr. Comey by Mr. Trump is that he sent Keith Schiller to do it. Right? So, here you had a confrontation of the man who was the head of Mr. Trump’s security detail—right?—his own paramilitary, going to fire the head of a law enforcement agency. That’s a sign of the way Mr. Trump thinks, and it’s obviously not a very good sign.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you—there was another one of your lessons, lesson 12, “Make eye contact and small talk.” That would seem like not a strong way to battle authoritarianism. But your thoughts about that?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: I love that question, because it’s really important for us to see that we have power in all kinds of ways that we don’t have. So, some of the lessons look easy, but are in fact hard, like number one, “Don’t obey in advance.” That’s actually really hard. Or number 19, “Be a patriot,” also really hard. Some of the ones actually are not that difficult, but they magnify outwards, like number four, which is “Take care of the face of the world,” which basically means just paint over swastikas when you see them. That’s not that hard when you get to do it, if you can get yourself to do it, but it does make a difference.
So, small talk is a little bit like that. Small talk and eye contact are important for a number of reasons. One is that, I mean, going back to the news story above all this, you have to be—you don’t know who feels left out, who feels threatened. But if you are more pleasant or more affirming to everybody in your daily life, you are going to make a difference. And the reason why this is so close to my heart is that in all the memoirs, Jewish memoirs, say, of Nazi Germany, but also memoirs of the terror in Stalinist Soviet Union, there’s that moment when people start crossing the street rather than talking to you. And that’s the moment we have to avoid, both for the sake of the political atmosphere, but also for the sake of what kind of people we want to be.
But the small talk is also really important because one of the deep problems where we are, in our own sort of postmodern authoritarianism, is that we spend too much time on the internet, we spend too much time in front of screens. We forget to—we forget how to talk to one another. And that human contact can be very important. I mean, one thing, you know, personally, which suggests to me this is right, is the difference between last fall and this spring. Last fall I talked to a lot of people in other parts of the country, in the Midwest, for example, about what I thought was going on, and I got basically zero resonance. But the fact that I talked to people, as opposed to just posting something online—which can be important, too—means that now sometimes people come back to me and say, “Oh, yes.” So, you never convince anybody with small talk, but you do sometimes demonstrate that you’re a human being and that you’re not the enemy and that maybe at some future point there could be some better conversation.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Professor Snyder, about President Trump in Brussels and Sicily, the NATO meeting, the G7 meeting. Trump sparked outrage in Montenegro after he shoved the prime minister of Montenegro out of his way while barreling to the front of the pack at this weekend’s G7 summit. This came after French President—the new president—Emmanuel Macron clenched Trump’s hand until his knuckle turned white, when the two met in Brussels during the NATO summit. Even when Trump attempted to pull away, Macron continued to grip Trump’s hand. He since said the handshake was a moment of truth designed to send a message to Trump, saying, quote, “We must show that we will not make small concessions, even symbolic ones.” Can you comment on this and then on your number 18, which is “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives”?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: OK. So, Europe—so, Europe is so important for us. Whether you care about trade and American jobs, it’s the biggest market in the history of the world. Whether you’re more—you know, whether you think more about security, it’s—these are America’s long-term partners. It’s the only reliable set of democracies—or the main reliable set of democracies we have. In many ways, Europe is a positive example for us. So, it is tragic that we are cutting ourselves off from that, from that market, from that security, from those sets of values, for no particular reason.
It fits many things. It fits Mr. Trump’s desire for an America which is more isolated and, frankly, poorer. it fits Mr. Bannon’s ideas about the European Union. What it doesn’t fit is, I think, anybody’s—anybody’s interests. The Europeans are seeing us—you know, as one of my political scientist friends puts it, we’re no longer in column A, we’re in column B. You know, we are now—you know, we are now one of the powers which is undermining them, perhaps weakening them, setting a bad example.
And the heartening thing is that people like Angela Merkel or Macron notice this and seem to be taking it as a reason to try to recreate Europe, rather than just being distressed about all of this. That’s a positive thing.
Now, there’s no good segue to your next question, which is about—which is about terrorism and talk about terrorism. So, the last four lessons of the book, which are about beware—beware certain kinds of language, be calm when the unthinkable arrives, be a patriot, be courageous—they have to do with a particular mechanism where regimes change. The template is the Reichstag fire of 1933. Pretty much, I think it’s fair to say, all modern tyrants know that they need—
AMY GOODMAN: Fifteen seconds.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: OK—that they need a moment of fear of terrorism to make a regime change. So, in the atmosphere we have now with Mr. Trump, we have to be aware that when something unthinkable happens, despite our fear and grief, what we have to be protesting for is our own rights.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Timothy Snyder, thanks so much for being with us, Yale historian, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.
And that does it for our show. Welcome to the world, Muriel Lau-Burke, the daughter of our news director Mike Burke and his wife Michelle Lau-Burke.