In the disorienting weeks right after the presidential election of 2016, Timothy Snyder of Yale University, a professor of European history and an expert on the Holocaust, wrote a viral Facebook post about fascism. It was composed of 20 lessons from the 20th century and how to see them in the context of what had just happened. It was soon turned into a small book called On Tyranny, which served as a handbook for Americans to defend their democratic institutions, resist the propaganda and, most important of all, to think clearly and critically. Snyder wrote, “You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.”
It was obvious from the beginning that Donald Trump was a fabulist and a liar, and there seemed to be a shocking willingness among many Americans to roll with his alternate version of reality. Snyder’s little book was a strangely comforting message in those strange early days, giving people a little bit of a roadmap as to how to approach these bizarre and unfamiliar circumstances.
I suspect those words have echoed in the minds of many people over these last months. On Tuesday, they came flooding back for me when I watched President Trump say in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars: “Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” This prompted members of the audience to turn toward the media in the back of the hall and boo lustily.
Needless to say, millions of people who may not have read that book by Snyder certainly have read George Orwell’s 1984 and were reminded of this famous passage:
“The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
As Anderson Cooper pointed out:
Anderson Cooper: “For the President… to tell people to stop believing what they see or what they read. It’s what dictators, it’s what authoritarian rulers say. It’s unbelievable in the truest sense of the word” https://t.co/QIIeW1BGhD pic.twitter.com/d4OoVu8jvg
— Anderson Cooper 360° (@AC360) July 25, 2018
Trump is getting more explicit about this command by the day. For instance, everyone who follows politics has seen the bit at the Helsinki press conference in which Jeff Mason of Reuters asked President Vladimir Putin: “Did you want President Trump to win the election and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?”
Putin replied, “Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.” Rachel Maddow reported on Tuesday night that the White House has omitted that part of the transcript and edited the accompanying video:
White House edits video to remove question about whether Putin wanted Trump to win. pic.twitter.com/ExlsHNlgF8
— Maddow Blog (@MaddowBlog) July 25, 2018
It’s a cliché to bring up old Soviet-era practices in these situations, but in this case it’s inescapable. The White House altered the part of the transcript and the video showing Putin saying that he wanted Trump to win the elections. Just as Soviet authorities used to “erase” people’s pictures from official photographs and edit transcripts, the administration is doing a similar thing with its official record. Of course it’s ridiculous: The actual tape is everywhere and millions of us saw it in real time.
Meanwhile, in the days since the Freedom of Information Act release of the FISA warrant for former Trump campaign official Carter Page, we’ve been subjected to one of the most “You can believe me or you can believe your lyin’ eyes” responses in history from right-wing media and Republican members of Congress. The facts as laid out in the documents are crystal clear: The FBI had been tracking Page for years and relied on numerous pieces of evidence to establish probable cause to initiate surveillance on him about a month after he left the Trump campaign. They revealed all of this to the four judges who signed the successive warrants.
Yet Republicans still insist that those facts do not exist and continue to parrot their previous narrative, which Trump himself tweets out almost daily: That’s the one in which the FBI lied to the judges and based their accusations entirely on the “Steele dossier,” which they assert proves that the whole thing was a partisan hit job. It’s maddening. The truth is there for anyone to see and yet they are simply declaring it is not.
Thankfully, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr, R-N.C., finally threw some cold water on this gaslighting extravaganza:
Sen. Burr: “I think it’s an awful precedent and if the American people ever learned anything from its release it’s that there was great justification to the courts as to why a FISA application was approved.” https://t.co/lrVBGAW0Xe pic.twitter.com/kz8LFNqAZj
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) July 25, 2018
It’s unlikely that will stop the right-wing media from pushing this propaganda to their followers, but at least one Republican has validated reality in this story.
These are all “Orwellian” strategies and as disconcerting as they are they’re somewhat familiar. But the president laid out another in a tweet on Tuesday that is a bit less recognizable.
I’m very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election. Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don’t want Trump!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 24, 2018
It’s almost as if he’s preparing to re-up his “the election is rigged” mantra from the 2016 campaign, when he seemed sure he was going to lose and was prepared to lead his “movement” to an insurrection after the fact. After having “erased” Putin’s admitted interference on his behalf, he’s now going to lay the groundwork to invalidate a Democratic “blue wave” as the work of the Russians on behalf of their true allies. It’s diabolical but not unique.
Timothy Snyder’s new book is called The Road to Unfreedom, and lays out a technique perfected by none other than Vladimir Putin himself, which Snyder calls “schizo-fascism.” He describes it as “actual fascists calling their opponents ‘fascists,’ blaming the Holocaust on the Jews, treating the Second World War as an argument for more violence.” It’s an exasperating “I know you are but what am I” tactic designed to frustrate and eventually wear down opponents.
It can work. We already see that there is a willing audience for these kinds of distortions. Millions of people ready to take the cues from their president and pass them along. Snyder sees Trump as a sort of apprentice practitioner of these tactics, but I’m not so sure. Unlike Putin, he has little long-range strategic vision and he is mostly just trying to bluff his way through one day at a time. But because he has been a reflexively dishonest hype artist for decades, whose public utterances pretty much just alternate between bragging and blaming, he’s more of a natural at this “schizo-fascist” style than Putin.
The problem for Trump is that he’s not very mentally organized, and in his zeal to create an alternate narrative he loses track of reality. The good news for Trump is that he has cynical and powerful allies who can help him keep it all straight:
MCCONNELL: “The Russians better quit messing around in our elections. They did it the last time. They better not do it again.”
— Nolan D. McCaskill (@NolanDMcCaskill) July 24, 2018
It’s funny, but until now Mitch McConnell has had virtually nothing to say about election interference.