Citizen Action Monitor

Is the United States headed towards tyranny? Pt. 2 of 2

Lessons from history on how citizens can defend themselves against Trump’s assault on truth.

No 1970 Posted by fw, June 1, 2017

Timothy Snyder

“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…. we know that these forms of radical politics have to begin with undermining a sense of everyday factuality…. 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 whom to trust.”Timothy Snyder, Democracy Now

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 search of 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.”

In Part 1, Snyder explained what prompted him to formulate 20 lessons that would help Americans respond positively to the shock of Trump’s election. Among his lessons are these two: 1) Especially at the outset, do not give your consent in any way, lest you teach the tyrant the power of his/her authoritarian style of rule; 2) Defend institutions — Isolated citizens are vulnerable; whereas those who form associations with institutions that provide a supportive network, are able to reinforce critical thinking and discussion faculties, which serve as antidotes to tropes, memes, tweets, sound bytes, and alternative facts.

In Part 2, Snyder warns that Trump’s lying leadership style, whether by calculated design or as an integral part of his deeply flawed character, makes Americans distrust one another. An effective defence against this is to use and support reliable reporters and sources of news and information. In tracing the origins of Trump’s rise to power, Snyder points to global trade as a breeding ground for “radical inequality” in America, enabling Trump to succeed with his empty promises to “Make America Great Again.” What to do? — Americans can’t change Trump, says Snyder, but they can, with help, change themselves and “the system.”

Below is a repost, Part 2 of 2, of Snyder’s video-recorded interview on Democracy Now. It includes the embedded 15:11-minute video, and a copy of the transcript for Part 2, featuring my added subheadings and text highlighting main ideas. Alternatively, watch the complete interview and access the full transcript on the DN website by clicking on the following linked title.

At the end of this post is a link to an 82-minute video-recorded talk by Professor Snyder to Yale undergrads in December 2016 about the repercussions of Trump’s election.


On Tyranny: Yale Historian Timothy Snyder on How the U.S. Can Avoid Sliding into Authoritarianism by Democracy Now, May 30, 2017


Amy Goodman — I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is professor Timothy Snyder [author of], On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

Trump’s attack on the “Fake News” media – What’s that all about?

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 “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.

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.

20th century regime changes involve, at their base, an assault on everyday factuality

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.

This century features a direct attack on factuality, where the first step is to lie all the time

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 is to say “It’s not me who lies. It’s the press. It’s the journalists.”

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.”

The end goal is mass confusion where we say, “We don’t really have truth. We just have our own private, clan-like sets of beliefs.”

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.”

At that point, democracy is not possible

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.

With Trump, something deeper is at stake: “to make us all distrust one another”

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.

What counter-measures can citizens take: Support reliable reporters and sources of information

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.

Who contributed to this slide toward tyranny and authoritarianism? – Obama? Bush?

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?

Global trade was a breeding ground for “radical inequality” in America, enabling Trump to make his empty “Make America Great Again” promise

Snyder — 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.

“Trump doesn’t care about Americans”

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.

Americans were sold a lie in 1989 – “that human nature is capitalism, capitalism brings democracy”

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.

Americans can’t change Trump, but they can, with help, change themselves and “the system”

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.

The real question is what can we do? That’s what the book, “On Tyranny, 20 Lessons from the Twentieth Century” is for

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.

Goodman — Number six in your Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is “Be wary of paramilitaries.” Talk about this in the current context.

Tyrants have their own militias, organs of violence outside the state, to change the political culture

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.

America has become the land of guns and paramilitaries – Beware when they’re used for political purposes

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.

Trump has already used his own paramilitary detail to fire Comey, FBI head

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.

What does making eye contact and small talk have to do with countering tyranny?

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?

Some lessons are hard, others are not hard but make a difference because they “magnify outwards”

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.

By being face-to-face friendly and affirming in our daily lives, we remind ourselves and others of our humanity

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.

Showing that we will not make small concessions; being calm in the face of tyrannical fearmongering

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”?

Trump is cutting America off from Europe, a reliable set of democracies, a huge trading partners, a continent of shared values

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.

Trump’s America is seen in Europe as a power that is undermining and weakening them

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.

All tyrants use fear of terrorism to make a regime change – despite our fear, that’s when we must be calm

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—

Goodman — Fifteen seconds.

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.

Goodman — Professor Timothy Snyder, thanks so much for being with us, Yale historian, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.


Timothy Snyder – “What Can European History Teach Us About Trump’s America?”  Published by Yale University, December 6, 2016 (Video 82 minutes) – Professor Synder talks to Yale undergrads about the historical realities of political ideology, and discusses the ramifications of the 2016 election. Snyder is one of the leading experts on Eastern European history. He talks about the ramifications of the 2016 election and the state of European and American political history.

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