Transcribed from the 29 April 2017 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
In most of the recent transitions to authoritarian regimes, the leader who engineers the transition was elected. That’s the method of choice at this point. The fact that someone was elected does not mean that an electoral system will continue in any meaningful way.
Chuck Mertz: Tyranny is a frightening thing, and almost as frightening as tyranny itself is our ability to quickly adapt to and accept a new system. Here to tell us how easy it is to slide into tyranny, and what we can do to defend ourselves against the increasing threat of tyranny, historian Timothy Snyder is author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Tim is the Levin professor of history at Yale University.
Welcome to This is Hell!, Timothy.
Timothy Snyder: Glad to be here, thank you.
CM: We first need to define what you mean by tyranny. You write, “In founding a democratic republic upon law and establishing a system of checks and balances, the founding fathers sought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny. They had in mind the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit.”
This is hell, so I might as well play devil’s advocate…So they feared those working for their own benefit and not for the benefit of the people. What would you say to those who argue that all politicians are in that sense tyrants, or act in a tyrannical way? Since politicians always work in their own self-interest…
TS: That is the basic American intuition, and the basic historical observation of the people who framed our constitution. That’s why we have the system that we have. I talk about tyranny because it’s a Greek word: ever since the ancient Greeks, people have had the insight that you just described. It’s not cynical, it’s simply empirical; it’s the way things are.
The ancient Greeks observed that democracies (and the Romans observed the same thing about republics) tend to fall into tyranny and empire. The framers of our constitution had that history to look back on; they had the term tyranny to use to describe the phenomenon, and they created the institutions that we have, with our checks and balances (imperfect though they were), to try to prevent the new American republic from becoming tyrannical. If you look at their correspondence, they were very concerned that within ten or twenty years, or in a generation or two, their new republic would collapse into tyranny.
So I use the word because it’s old, because it’s American, and because it’s precise. And because that skepticism the framers of our constitution had was totally justified.
CM: What would you say to somebody who argues that sure, back then, at the beginning of this nation, it might have been vulnerable to tyranny, but now we’ve been around for 240 years, and the likelihood of tyranny happening is very slim, and we don’t need to be concerned about it now?
TS: That view that you’ve just described is American exceptionalism of a really naive kind, which I think no true patriot can actually look him- or herself in the eyes and accept. We have had a constitutional system with the rule of law from the beginning, but we have not been a democracy from the beginning. There has been tyranny of various sorts, whether it was over slaves or over women or over others. For most of the existence of this country, America as a democracy is much more an aspiration than a reality. We got fairly close to it in the 1970s, and now we are drifting away.
The two basic things I would say: first, we are not exceptional. If you say America is exceptional, or that “it can’t happen here,” or that our institutions will save us, you are taking the side of the tyrants and authoritarians, whether you want to or not. When you say it can’t happen here, you’re making it happen here. Because it’s only the individual citizen and his or her actions that prevent it from happening here.
The second thing that I would say is that if one looks around at the state of American democracy before Mr. Trump was elected, things were really not well: gerrymandering, voter suppression laws, unlimited money in politics, to say nothing of the Electoral College itself (which the founders left us). We are somewhere between democracy and oligarchy, and it’s just dreaming to think that there weren’t already crises before this man was elected. This person has his own problems, but he also is an embodiment of the problems with American democracy that we already had.
CM: There are critics who have used any variation on the word fascist or fascism to describe the actions of the Trump administration, whether it’s neo-fascist or pre-fascist or proto-fascist. Is it unfair to label Trump as any variation of fascist? And is it a more accurate framing to look at the actions the administration has taken in the first hundred days through a lens of tyranny than through a more specific lens of fascism?
TS: One notices that there is a very strong taboo about using references to history to describe problems in the present. As soon as one makes any reference to fascism of the 1930s, immediately one hears that there is no resemblance, that history doesn’t repeat, and so on. So the approach that I take is to be humble about history; to notice that democracy usually fails (whether it’s in the direction of fascism or communism or national socialism, or just plain-old kleptocracy, which is the current dominant form of tyranny); and to try to learn general lessons: to read the people smarter than me facing challenges that are greater than the challenges we face, to accept their generosity in leaving behind lessons of their own experience, and then to look for places where those lessons apply. That is more important than a specific label.
That said, with Trump I think it’s appropriate to say that there are certain things that he does, or that Mr. Bannon does, or things that they say, which are very similar to fascism. For instance, the Trump rallies: if you read the transcripts, they resemble very strongly the records that are left to us of rallies of fascists or national socialists in the twenties or thirties. The speech patterns that he has (no doubt unwittingly) are very similar to speech patterns that fascists use.
There are certain tropes of fascist politics there too. For example: saying globalization is not a challenge, but rather a personal problem; putting a face on globalization, whether it’s the Chinese or the Mexicans or the Jews or the elites or what have you. That’s a fascist tactic, to delude the population into thinking there’s one particular enemy that’s responsible for the objective problems of the world.
Just sticking a label on something doesn’t solve a problem. But I do think that recognizing the resemblances between the politics of 2017 and the politics of the 1930s can be very instructive.
We have this notion that things can’t really change very fundamentally. The rightwing version of this is that human nature is the market, and the market generates democracy, so eventually everything will be fine. The leftwing version is something like: the arc is going to tend towards justice; we’ve got demography on our side. In both of these cases, you cede responsibility. You think, okay, there are larger forces that are taking care of history one way or another. And there aren’t. There never are.
CM: You write, “The mistake is to assume that people who come to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions, even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do. Revolutionaries sometimes do intend to destroy institutions all at once.”
How much do we underestimate the power or value or reality of political rhetoric? Do we not take it seriously enough? Do we take it too seriously? How much does underestimating a politician’s words lead to tyranny?
TS: That’s a wonderful question. I want to repeat your premise, because it’s important. The research of political scientists shows that in most of the recent transitions to authoritarian regimes, the leader who engineers the transition was elected. That’s the method of choice at this point. So the fact that someone was elected does not mean that an electoral system will continue in any meaningful way. That’s a very important premise.
Therefore the question becomes: what do we know about the leader before he comes to power? In Mr. Trump’s case, he made it very clear that he would not respect the outcome of the election—i.e. he’s not a democrat. His whole life, he’s been a challenge to the rule of law. He admires foreign tyrants but doesn’t admire (or doesn’t even know the existence of) important American figures. So for all we knew, the man was an aspiring tyrant. Although it seems odd to say so; it somehow seems orthogonal to how we’re used to talking. But he made it very clear to us that he didn’t have any respect for basic American institutions—and I think that was the source of a lot of his popularity, because a lot of Americans also don’t.
How we misplayed it was to see it as entertainment. The man has certain skills and certain talents, and he has a certain kind of intelligence, all directed towards a form of public relations in which he draws you into the notion that life is really just reality television, it’s all just about feeling entertained or affirmed for a moment. What the big networks did, for far too long, was to allow that reality show to go on, and to allow us to be entertained. It turned out that the entertainment was far too close to seduction, and we let the nature of a democratic campaign be fundamentally changed, day by day, before our eyes.
It’s entertaining for someone to destroy all of the norms of conventional behavior. It was entertaining. But it’s also extremely dangerous, and that’s where we are.
CM: Let’s talk about that for a moment. You write, “In fighting tyranny we should be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”
How much can our political discussion be constrained by the catchphrases, memes, and words of others? How much do partisan talking points, political party sales pitches that are then recycled by the media, limit our political debate and imagination?
TS: Extraordinarily so. They are blinders that keep us from seeing most of the horizon of the political and social world. One blinder is the daily news cycle. Every morning we’re pitched a certain number of themes, just as the networks were pitched them before, and the day has to be about those themes even though there are more important things going on.
The other blinder is the memes, the two- and three-word constructions that get formulated by some intelligent person, which get repeated a hundred times, and which we then find ourselves saying—or, almost, which say themselves through us—because the screen has so much more power than any individual. Unless, of course, we turn it off; unless we read books in the background. Then we make different kinds of neural connections, different kinds of social connections. We find ourselves seeing the same world in different ways.
It’s so simple, but it’s so important. We don’t have to spend as much time as we do with the screens. Every little bit of reading that we do helps us to formulate reality in a way which might be useful to other people.
CM: You write, “To fight tyranny, we should believe in truth—to abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle: the biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”
But what is truth? And is even asking that question the first step to abandoning facts and, as you see it, freedom too?
If we say there is no truth, then all that’s left is our emotions, and the people who win are the managers of our emotions: people who have the deep wallets, people who have the television networks, people who understand how psychology works. If we give up truth, we’re just inviting all of that into the recesses of our minds, and inviting authoritarianism to happen.
TS: Thanks for raising that. I want to stress how fundamental it is and how history helps us see that. The whole notion of any kind of constitutional system where the individual casts a meaningful vote depends on each individual’s ability to ascertain the facts for him- or herself. In a democracy, the basic attitude towards factuality has to be that the individual can figure it out. This is a very bright line between a democratic system and an authoritarian system. In an authoritarian system, the way you’re supposed to see the world is in terms of what makes you feel good, what makes you feel affirmed, what makes you feel like you belong, what makes you feel like you’re with the group, what makes you feel like the leader approves of you. That’s a really basic distinction. Can you be strong enough, tough enough, autonomous enough, to figure things out for yourself, or do you prefer just to be told what you want to hear?
It’s not about each of us having complete certainty about what’s true. It’s about each of us having the confidence that each of us can look at facts and figure things out for ourselves. But the question what is truth?, when it’s been posed on the left, often becomes a way of stopping action. We can spend the next four years talking metaphysically about what truth is and whether it’s actually available to us and so on. But that’s not really the central issue. The central issue is that our kind of system depends on each of us striving for it. If we do the opposite, if we say there is no truth, then all that’s left is our emotions, and the people who win are the managers of our emotions, people who have the deep wallets, people who have the television networks, people who understand how psychology works. If we give up truth, we’re just inviting all of that into the recesses of our minds, and inviting authoritarianism to happen.
And just to close the loop: both at the beginning of the twentieth century and at the end, we saw how important this was. Fascists explicitly said: don’t think about everyday facts and small truths; instead, accept these big myths. And they used new technology, like radio. At the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the 21st, the new wave of authoritarians said roughly the same thing: accept the world of television; accept our particular internet; live in this alternative reality; there’s no point in thinking about things for yourself, because it really isn’t going to get any better than this; don’t let anyone convince you otherwise; the leadership you have is the best possible leadership; and here, let us tell you what you want to hear, day after day after day. That’s now being offered up to us again.
CM: Does it makes any difference if the only news we watch is Fox News or if the only news we watch is MSNBC? Are we equally susceptible to tyranny because we’re only watching the news we agree with and we’re only finding the truth that we believe in?
TS: I think watching only either of those would be deeply unhealthy, but I think one would be worse for you than the other. It’s not that all media sources are equally bad. It’s that we need to recognize that there are multiple sources of information, and we need to individualize our search for facts. What you don’t do yourself you should do by establishing relationships with reporters. The people who are out there digging for stuff, whether they’re working for a newspaper or somewhere else: follow them, literally or figuratively, on Twitter or whatever. Get to know people who are actual investigators, as opposed to people who are just presenters or summarizers.
Deeper than all of that is just getting away from the TV and the way that pretty much all TV—even if it’s TV that you like—normalizes the day to day. A shocking thing has happened in this country, and you can’t really get at it by accepting the story of the day. What’s happening is happening in deeper categories than can be grasped by day-to-day coverage. What’s happening has to do with basic changes in how we speak, how we think, and how we act.
This notion that you should follow the red internet and the blue internet—follow MSNBC but also follow Fox—has its uses. To figure out what other people are thinking is an act of generosity towards other people, and I think that’s valuable. But I think it’s a mistake to think that the truth lies between the two extremes. It doesn’t. It never does. The truth is out there, but the truth is going to be found by your own investigations or by other people who are doing real investigations following real procedures.
The good news is that 2017 is turning out to be the heroic age of the investigative reporter. Basically everything that we truly know about the Trump administration has been found out by reporters. If you read the transcripts of White House briefings, there is negative knowledge there. But there has been more great investigative reporting in the last six or eight weeks than there was in all of 2016, I think, and that’s a hopeful sign.
CM: So do we not take our responsibility as citizens within a democracy seriously enough, in your estimation? Do we not do the kinds of investigations that we need to do in order to become better citizens? Do we fall short as citizens within a democracy because we just don’t treat it seriously enough?
TS: Generally the answer to that is yes. There are, of course, tremendous examples to the contrary, countless people and institutions who are admirable and are exceptions to this. I’ll speak to this in historical terms: what’s happened to us in the last quarter century, the last generation, since 1989 (the end of communism and the notion that somehow history had come to an end, the notion that somehow there were no more alternatives), is that we’ve lulled ourselves to sleep. We’ve gotten ourselves into this notion that things can’t really change very fundamentally. The rightwing version of this is that human nature is the market, and the market generates democracy, so eventually everything will be fine. The leftwing version is something like: the arc is going to tend towards justice; we’ve got demography on our side.
In both of these cases, you cede responsibility. You think, okay, there are larger forces that are taking care of history one way or another. And there aren’t. There never are. History is always open, as we’ve just discovered. Surprising things can happen. And then we pay for the fact that we haven’t been more engaged as citizens.
It’s a really mixed bag. When we look at how Americans have reacted in the last couple of months to this fundamental threat to “our way of life” (for lack of a better word), there have been some good moments. The protests at the airports, the investigative reporting, the lawyers preparing briefs out of time. But there’s also a tremendous amount of normalization, whether it’s inside of the Washington DC beltway (where people are frighteningly far along on that) or elsewhere. Some people are getting used to things. This is the very first lesson of the book: you can’t get used to things. You have to disobey in advance. You have to not just drift along. If you can resist drifting along, then you’ve already done the fundamental thing that you have to do in order to prepare your way for all the other kinds of resistance.
If enough people realize, fast, that they’re in a position where their own actions suddenly have a huge consequence, if enough people realize that in exceptional moments you have to do things that are exceptional while you can still do them, then you can open the way for something better.
CM: Let’s talk about that drifting along for a second. When we are choosing tyranny, how aware are we that we are choosing tyranny? When tyranny is being imposed upon us, do we actually realize that tyranny is being imposed upon us?
TS: No. And thank you, because there’s a fundamental insight there that we have from the history of authoritarian regime changes in general and from the regime change to national socialism in Germany in 1933 in particular. We understand two things now: the first is that regime changes require, in most cases, consent. The authoritarians can’t do it on their own. It’s not as though they are supervillains with amazing powers. They require our consent. And consent is expressed in unconventional ways. It’s expressed by allowing minorities to be singled out. It’s expressed by looking away. It’s expressed passively. It’s expressed by going along with the group. It’s expressed by not thinking thoughts all the way to the end. It’s expressed by not speaking one’s mind. But all those things, we now understand, form a kind of consent which allow a regime change to take place.
The second thing we now understand is the importance of timing. Precisely because consent is expressed passively or indirectly, little actions at the beginning count for a huge amount. In the first weeks and months, maybe the first year, saying what you think, thinking those thoughts to the end, not looking away, supporting institutions, not discriminating against minorities but instead affirming people who you think might feel left out—those actions, which are relatively easy, matter hugely at the beginning. If you can get yourself going at the beginning, you can actually make history in a good way.
That’s why the first to lessons in the book are Don’t Obey in Advance, and Defend Institutions. Because the timing is so important. If enough people realize fast that they’re in a position where their own actions suddenly have a huge consequence, if enough people realize that in exceptional moments you have to do things that are exceptional while you can still do them, then you can open the way for something better.
CM: You write, “Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization, to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and to the apparent helplessness of democracies in addressing them.”
Do you believe that the rise of tyrannical forces we are seeing today—not just in the United States but around the world—were inevitable following the rise in globalization since NAFTA, if not earlier? Is this threat to democracy we’re seeing due to the kind of globalization that we’ve had over the last twenty years?
TS: I write about globalization in the book because I want us to be braced. We look around at globalization (this is true on both the right and the left, pretty much everybody), and we say, “Wow, this is new.” For a historian that’s really frustrating, because it isn’t. Most of the features of today’s globalization were also present a century ago. And that’s good news and bad news.
It’s good news in the sense that we have seen it before. We’ve seen global trade expand. We’ve seen the optimistic rhetoric from liberals or from the left about how this must mean the spread of enlightenment. We’ve seen the rhetoric on the right about how this must mean the spread of the market. That’s all happened before.
The bad news is that there was a horrifying collapse of globalization in the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Holocaust. We have to be braced, both in the sense that history gives us a framework for seeing what’s possible, but also braced in the sense of realizing that some of what’s possible is actually terrifying.
When I look at the globalization that we’re in now, I’m not surprised that it has critics, that it has contradictions, and that it generates inequalities and various forms of resistance. That’s normal. I’m not going to say that globalization is good or bad. Globalization is going to be with us. Given that that’s true, you have to choose your form of response to it.
It’s inane to say that the story here is “The market’s spreading, therefore democracy, therefore peace.” That’s what we did, and that was completely inane. We have to be able to say, okay, there are objective challenges here; how are we going to react to them? And as I think you’re suggesting, one of the challenges that we failed to react to in the United States (and this is not only true in the US, as you also suggest) is inequality, real and perceived. When there is this much inequality, it’s very tempting for a populist—or, for that matter, a fascist or a communist—to say the problem has to do with some global force which we can only address locally by targeting some particular group here. Globalization and inequality invites that kind of politics in various forms, and we’re seeing it.
The migrants who are being denounced on White House lists now, who we’re being invited to denounce: it’s not their fault that a miner in West Virginia doesn’t have a job. But that’s a story that opponents of globalization can tell when we don’t have the normal state responses to inequality.
The most dangerous story is the one about how you are always a victim. That hasn’t been a major American story until recently. One sees it in other movements from the far-right around the world in the twentieth century and earlier: the idea that there is some kind of virtuous national center which is at risk of being penetrated by various international forces. That’s the story that frightens me the most.
CM: You’re a historian and I would be remiss if I did not ask you this question: how much can mythologizing national history lead to (or make us more susceptible to) tyranny?
TS: There isn’t really such a thing as national history. There are national myths. There are things that we are taught in kindergarten and when we’re very young, and later on it’s too late and we can’t really resist them. The thing about exceptionalism is it’s universal. You’re not going to find very many nations that don’t think they are exceptional in one way or another. We think we’re exceptional; we’re just bigger than everyone else so it matters more.
The story that’s most dangerous is the story about how you are always a victim. That hasn’t been a major American story until recently. One sees it in other movements from the far right around the world in the twentieth century and earlier, the idea that there is some kind of virtuous national center which is at risk of being penetrated by various international forces, cabals, elites, and so on.
That’s becoming much more prevalent in the way the president talks about America. If we look at the inauguration speech, it’s just rife with the notion of this “American carnage” and how the only way to save us is by putting America first. That is redolent of ideas which, back in the thirties, extreme nationalists and fascists used: that only the nation can rescue itself because only the nation is virtuous, and the nation has martyred itself for others long enough, and so on. That’s the story that frightens me the most.
The way I think about nationalism is precisely that assumption: that we are always virtuous, and therefore whatever is going wrong must be somebody else’s fault. What I try to do in the book is urge a “patriotic” response to that, a patriot being someone who loves his or her country and therefore holds it to some standard or principle or universal idea of how it might become better. Rather than saying we’re always virtuous and therefore it’s always someone else’s fault, which justifies inequality at home and violence abroad, they say my nation should be freer, more just, and therefore we need to hold our leaders and ourselves to higher standards. That kind of patriotism can be an answer to the national story of victimhood, which I think is a great peril to us right now.
CM: You write, “In fighting tyranny, we must be calm when the unthinkable arrives.” So considering our history in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, how do you think the public will react when the unthinkable happens? Will we stand strong against leaders using that moment to attain more power? Or will we see it as a moment of exception that needs an exceptional response even if that means giving up our freedoms?
What do you think would happen if another 9/11 happened? Would we kowtow to tyranny or would we stand up for freedom?
TS: That’s up to us, and it’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. We know this from the Reichstag fire in 1933, which allowed Hitler to create the Nazi regime. We know it from contemporary tyrants, whether it’s in Turkey or whether it’s in Russia: the recipe of modern tyranny involves terrorism—real, provoked, or imaginary. One of the ways that we can slip into authoritarianism is for there to be a terrorist attack or a war involving the United States, when our leaders then ask for our freedom.
I’m much more concerned about this crew than I was about the crew who were in charge at the time of 9/11. 9/11 has to be a lesson for us. We, as citizens, made tremendous mistakes after 9/11. We allowed too much of our freedom to be taken away. When—and I’m afraid it’s when and not if—there is another terrorist attack on the United States, we have to recognize that there is a politics to all of this, and that politics is the basic lesson of the Hitlerian regime change: when there’s a shock, leaders use the moment of fear and grief to exploit our vulnerability ask us to give away real freedom in exchange for fake safety.
But we don’t have to trade freedom for safety. That’s a false exchange. The moment when there is a terrorist attack, we have to mobilize then for our own rights. Because the terrorist attack is the shortcut to authoritarianism.
We should make sure now that our leaders know how we would react to that, that we would protest in favor of our own freedom if something like this happens. That will make it less likely. I don’t mean to dodge your question, but I honestly believe that history, insofar as we learn from it, is open. Insofar as we get the lessons from history and learn them, then we have a chance of avoiding patterns like the modern tyranny that arises from terrorism.
CM: Thank you so much for being on This is Hell! this week.
TS: I’m really glad we could. Thanks so much.
Featured image: Detail of the north frieze the of Siphnian Treasury depicting the Battle of the Giants. Photograph by Mark Cartwright.