April 2017Spectacle

Historian warns of stealthy ways that tyranny can arrive

Review of On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder.  Tim Duggan Books, 2017, 93 pp.

The election of Donald Trump has delivered a shock to the American political system.  No newly elected president -- not Richard Nixon, not Ronald Reagan, not George W. Bush -- expressed such disdain for such a large swath of his own people:  women, Muslims, Latinos, African Americans, and pretty much every constituency that opposed him.  Many presidents won with divisive election campaigns -- Nixon's "Southern Strategy," George H.W. Bush's Willie Horton ad -- but after winning they all made at least rhetorical gestures to national reconciliation.  Not Trump:  He regards his tightrope walk to an Electoral College victory -- while losing the popular vote -- as a mandate for his extreme nativist, Islamophobic, safety-net-slashing, environment-trashing program.  Nor does Trump show much respect for the institutions that underpin democracy as he attacks the press and claims voter fraud when no evidence of it exists.

Books trying to make sense of this seemingly senseless time are just starting to emerge.  In On Tyranny: Â Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, historian Timothy Snyder looks at the rise of Trump in the context of totalitarian and authoritarian movements of the previous century.  "History does not repeat, but it does instruct," he writes.  Snyder, a professor at Yale, knows whereof he speaks, having authored a series of books on Communism and Nazism.  And he minces no words:  He sees Trump as a successor to that heritage of tyranny.

In this brief book -- at 93 pages, it could be read in one sitting -- Snyder offers 20 lessons, or more accurately a "to-do" list, for facing the emergence of a government hostile to democratic norms and practices.  He carries this off without once mentioning the name of the person who is the reason for the book's writing – he is always simply "the president."  Trump, like Voldemort, is he who must not be named.

Snyder clearly sees grim times ahead, and his lessons promise those intending to resist Trump a hard and dangerous, if necessary, road.  "Do not obey in advance," is Lesson 1, as Snyder offers brief sketches of Hitler's rise to power as well as the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1946.  In both cases "anticipatory obedience" greased the path to power, with enough citizens uncritically offering at least tacit support to enable the leaders to consolidate power, making future resistance all the more difficult.

Among Snyder's other warnings are to "beware the one-party state," "contribute to good causes," "learn from peers in other countries," and, when all else may be lost, "be as courageous as you can."  One of his lessons, to "believe in truth," is especially pertinent in this time when distinguishing between "fake news" and the real kind has become both more important and more difficult, and when our president has declared himself unbound from facts.  He also admonishes us to "be kind to our language," and cites the rich literature -- from George Orwell's 1984 to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- on how the language can be manipulated by the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

Some of Snyder's cautions seem a bit far-fetched, even for our perilous times.  Are we really in danger of becoming a one-party state?  Perhaps we are almost there, as the power of money in politics moves us toward an oligarchy of wealth that transcends formal parties, he says.  Also, he notes, "[w]e believe that we have checks and balances, but have rarely faced a situation like this:  when the less popular of the two parties controls every lever of power at the federal level, as well as the majority of statehouses.  The party that exercises such control proposes few policies that are popular with the society at large, and several that are generally unpopular -- and thus must either fear democracy or weaken it."  That is as good an explanation of the right's mania for voter suppression as I have read.

A few of Snyder's admonitions remind us to simply maintain our humanity and individuality, no matter the pressures to conform and join the herd.  "Make eye contact and small talk," he writes.  "Establish a private life."  "Stand out" -- as did Rosa Parks on that bus in Montgomery, and Winston Churchill when the rest of Europe had capitulated to Hitler.

"Be a patriot," reads one of the dictums.  But isn't excessive patriotism -- "the last refuge of a scoundrel," as Samuel Johnson famously put it -- one of the underpinnings of tyranny?  Snyder draws a distinction between patriotism -- "serving your own country" (emphasis in the original) -- and nationalism.  "A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us we are the best," he writes.  Trump, he reminds us at length, is a classic nationalist, while a "patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well -- and wishing that it would do better."

Is our democracy in as great a peril as Snyder would have us fear?  Certainly we have a president who is dismissive of democratic values and fashions himself as a strongman, above public opinion or checks on his power.  He is backed up by a pliant Congress and, should he succeed in getting his Supreme Court nominee confirmed, a friendly judiciary as well.

But a theme running through the book is the dependence of the tyrant on public acquiescence, and this is what Trump lacks.  Immediately after the election, the resistance began to rise.  Demonstrations, citizen mobilizations, and yard signs urging tolerance and resistance have blossomed like spring dandelions.  The massive Women's March on Washington was barely the beginning of an outpouring of anger and opposition in the face of an administration that regards itself as above the law and public opinion.

Even before On Tyranny hit the presses, much of the public already had worked out some of its lessons for itself.  There is a wall of resistance to Trump and his agenda that will be difficult to break.  On the other hand, there is a danger of protest fatigue, that the constant need to demonstrate, write letters, call Congress, and attend meetings will wear activists down.  We must pace ourselves while we continue to organize, agitate, oppose.  This must be a resistance built for the long term. Snyder's book is one of what is certain to be many that will help the resistance grow, strengthen, and sustain itself until Trump, and Trumpism, are in history's dustbin.

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