In his 2017 New York Times bestselling book On Tyranny, Yale historian Timothy Snyder warned that the American people only had one year to stop Donald Trump from causing serious and perhaps irreversible harm to our democracy, as well as other social and political institutions.
Snyder’s concerns were centered on how the rule of law, reality and truth, civil and human rights, and the ways Americans interact with each other as members of a shared community would come under assault by Trump and his allies’ agenda. He also sounded the alarm about the possibility that the Trump administration could stage its own version of Nazi Germany’s “Reichstag fire” as a way of declaring a national emergency in order to consolidate power.
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In many ways, Snyder’s On Tyranny has proven eerily prescient. How has America endured under Trump’s rule? Is there a way to bring Trump’s voters and the Republican Party back to normal politics? What does their reaction to Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election reveal about the health of American democracy? Can our be saved, and eventually redeemed?
I recently spoke with Timothy Snyder in an effort to answer these questions. This is our third conversation since the election of Donald Trump.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Chauncey DeVega: I am deeply troubled by how the American people have become numb to Donald Trump and this dangerous and abnormal situation. What is your assessment of America under Trump and the first year of his rule?
Timothy Snyder: I think what people have done in the last year has made a tremendous difference. Things are bad and they’re going to get worse before they get better, but if it weren’t for the marches, local activists, lawyers defending people’s civil rights, citizens calling their representatives and investigative journalists doing their jobs. things could be a lot worse than they are. As a whole, America has not done a great job of reacting to Trump, but some Americans have done a great job. If we all get tired and say we can’t do it anymore, then things will go south very quickly. So yes, things are bad, but we have stopped them from being much worse.
How does an authoritarian such as Trump try to counter the people’s resistance against him?
You need to see how they think without mirroring it yourself or being seduced by it. If you are an authoritarian or one of that type, the first thing you do is constantly claim to have a majority — even if you do not. You talk about “the people” as though they are supposedly on your side. The second thing that you do is question the legal foundations of the system. Trump is doing this by attacking the Mueller investigation, packing the courts and undermining the FBI.
If you’re a Trump-style authoritarian you are not trying to make a big powerful state. What you’re trying to do is make the state dysfunctional and then at the end of the crumbling, you and your friends are at the top. What you also do is discredit the resistance actively both by calling people names, whether that’s African Americans or Native Americans or women or any other group. You say that protesters are paid, and journalism is all fake news. Insofar as Mr. Trump has a domestic policy it involves shaking people’s belief in reality and the facts, because if you do that then everybody just has their own opinion. Money will be the only thing that matters in terms of “the truth.” In the end the Trump-style authoritarian who creates the greatest spectacle is going to win.
What impact does Trump’s strategy of spectacle and distraction have on America’s role in the world?
“America First” is not a policy that advances American interests. “America First” is a big con. When you look at “America First” from the point of view of Europe it means that we say that we need special rules, but we don’t know what those rules are. So meanwhile the Europeans are taking up the mission that we used to have, such as supporting some sense of universal values. If you’re China and you look at America, “America First” just means that we pushed the pause button on our own power. They did not expect to have such a free hand in Asia, but they do, and they’re taking advantage of it.
Mr. Trump has publicly said that it might be a good thing to have a “major event,” meaning a terrorist attack, because that will “bring us all together.” Along the same lines is this idea of a military parade. The Soviets had military parades not because they were winning but because they were losing and they were trying to show their defiance. This kind of feels like that: We’re going to spend a huge amount of money to bring the military to a Washington for no particular purpose except for the spectacle of greatness. It actually demonstrates the opposite. We’ve got one American military veteran committing suicide on average every hour in this country. Every hour. If we’re going to care about the military and the people in it, let’s first think about health care for those folks. Once we attend to those veterans in some kind of civilized way then maybe the country can celebrate having done that.
When democracies are in crisis how do the establishment political parties behave? For example, most of the “principled Republicans” and “never-Trumpers” have rolled over and support almost all of Trump’s policies while publicly complaining about him.
If the Democrats had allowed Russia to win an election for them the Republicans would not be quiet about it. Yet most Republicans seem to have no problem with just shrugging off Russia’s interference in the 2016 election in favor of Trump and their party. I am also really surprised about the lack of any realization that the Republicans are a mainstream party that is allowing something extraordinary to happen in America. But after a while there will not be mainstream parties anymore. The analogies are clearly there.
One of the ways that Hitler came to power is that the conventional conservatives thought, “You know, with this guy we can have a majority, we can get our stuff done. Of course we will get rid of him in the end.” But there was enough of a base in Germany for Hitler to stay in power. This is roughly the same size of the base that Trump has in the United States, roughly a third of the population. I’m surprised by how few Republicans care about how they will be described in the history books.
What percentage of a given population must support an authoritarian for that country’s democracy to die?
For American democracy? Our country’s system has not survived because we have had radically different demographics or preferences than other places. We’ve gotten lucky with leadership at certain moments. We’ve got pretty good institutional design, at least by comparison with other countries through about the middle of the 20th century. American democracy has not survived because of public opinion. For example, during the 1920s and 1930s there was significant hostility to immigrants and a not insignificant extreme right-wing movement in the country.
What’s changing is that the United States has not had a leader like Trump before. Another thing that has changed is how economic inequality hasn’t been this bad for 90 years, since 1929. Those things make the whole system shudder. Then there’s the information environment which has radically changed so that it’s very hard to have a sensible conversation, which makes it harder to hold up the system as a whole. So, it’s not a situation where if Donald Trump has 25 percent of the public, we are safe, and if he has 35 percent, we are doomed. There are other structural factors to be concerned about as well.
There are also tens of millions of Americans who enjoy Trump’s cruelty to nonwhites and immigrants — his racism, misogyny and violence. He is a hero to them.
Trump is not a populist. He does not actually deliver anything of an economic or socially positive nature. But he is delivering something psychological to his base. It’s the sense that “maybe we’re hurting, but other people are hurting worse, and that’s what we like.” The design of Trump is to change politics from a positive-sum game where the idea is that everybody’s going to do a little bit better because we’re going to have better policies, to a negative-sum game where you’re not doing anything for people in Virginia or Pennsylvania or Ohio. However, Trump is going to offer them a spectacle in which other people doing worse. The public gets caught up in the spectacle and that is what people then begin to expect from politics.
For example, Americans on average are leading shorter lives — which is completely anomalous in the developed world — and that’s going to keep happening. But meanwhile, some of the people who are suffering the most are immigrants or blacks or Muslims. The psychological pleasure and joy for Trump’s public from this horrible situation means they feel like they are on the right side of things. It’s about pain. Trump’s public may feel like they are hurting, but their leader is hurting other people worse and that feels good.
Is there a way to break out of this bubble of political sadism?
I am just not convinced that Americans are less enlightened now than they were in, say, 1924 or 1938. With the help of reasonable public policy and non-governmental organizations — unions for example — you can get people to see the future as a positive-sum game. It also requires that some of us keep up the standards of decency and try to maintain a public language which isn’t as negative as what it occurring at present. Getting out of this bubble of political sadism also necessitates that people win elections who actually carry out decent public policy.
How do you reconcile Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the election and related matters with your concerns about Trump and American democracy?
Start with the rule of law. It should be an issue which has much broader sway than it does, because when the rule of law breaks down then what you end up with is oligarchy. In that system there is a whole lot less national wealth, but concentrated at the top even more. This means that almost all of the people who voted for Mr. Trump will be losers. Almost all Republicans will be losers out of this. If you break the rule of law at the top by doing something like firing Mueller, then the rule of law is going to collapse elsewhere as well.
I wish that folks on the right who are concerned about the economy and big business would think more about this dynamic. In the type of oligarchy that Trump is trying to create, unless you’re friends with the right oligarchical clan — which you won’t be — you are going to be in real trouble. Regarding Mueller’s investigation, it has to go through judges and juries. If you believe in the rule of law, you shouldn’t be concerned about this investigation. You should want it to go forward. This investigation is also about whether the president is above the law or below the law. We know where this president’s instincts are. He believes that he is above the law. The law is going to need some defenders. If Mueller is fired, those people are going to have to protest because such an outcome will just hasten a larger breakdown in the rule of law.
When Trump was elected you said America had roughly one year before the country’s democracy was irrevocably damaged. You were also concerned that Trump and his allies would stage some type of “Reichstag fire,” a staged event that would permit them to expand their control. Where are we with those predictions?
My allusion to the Reichstag fire was meant to be a self-defeating prophecy. I was trying from the very beginning to get that idea out there in order to make it less likely. I think that conversation has now gone well beyond me. I am happy that plenty of other folks have now raised it. My new concern is that there will be something that happens around the time of the midterms. This will allow Trump and his allies to say that the midterms don’t really count or that we have to have the midterms under exceptional conditions. Take note of how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said that the Russians are going to hack the 2018 election and we really can’t do anything about it.
I’m starting to wonder whether the idea might be to discredit the election and use Russian interference as a pretext to say that the elections aren’t real and therefore we must not have any turnover. It is odd otherwise for Tillerson to say, “Yes, there is Russian interference, but no, we can’t do anything about it.” It’s one thing to say it’s not real. It’s another thing to say it’s real, but hey, you know, what the hell? That is basically Tillerson’s position, as I understood him.
As for the one-year prediction?
There were a couple of things I couldn’t anticipate. I was not sure if Trump’s administration was going to try true national socialism, which would be a welfare state for white people, or whether it was going to be an effort to increase inequality and blame other people for it. It’s now clear that the second option is Trump’s preferred strategy. Many Americans have reacted better than the Germans did in 1933. This would include physicians, lawyers and journalists. We are still in the early stages of an authoritarian regime change. We still have an aspiring authoritarian leader. Many people have gotten to the point where I was a year ago, which is recognizing that this situation is uncertain and the outcome depends upon us. Matters are not hopeless but they are dire. The stakes are very high.