Yale Historian Timothy Snyder on How the US Can Avoid Sliding Into Authoritarianism

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 order to find 20 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.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We spend the rest of the hour with award-winning author and Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder, whose new book draws on his decades of experience writing about war and genocide in European history in order to find lessons that can help the United States avoid descending into fascist authoritarianism. It is titled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Snyder writes, quote, “The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” That’s from On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder, Levin Professor of History at Yale University, where he joins us now. Professor Synder is also the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, as well as Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Timothy Snyder. Can you talk about, well, just what we quoted you saying there? Do you think that the United States is — is headed towards tyranny?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: So, I guess the place to start would be with the quotation. Like the framers of the Constitution, I’m not an American exceptionalist. I’m a skeptic. My tendency is to look at examples from other places and to ask what we could learn. The point of using the historical examples is to remind ourselves that democracies and republics usually fail. The expectation should be failure rather than success. The framers, looking at classical examples from Greece and Rome, gave us the institutions that we have. I think our mistake at present is to imagine that the institutions will automatically continue to protect us. My sense is that we’ve seen institutions like our own fail. We’ve — 20th century authoritarians have learned that the way to dismantle systems like ours is to go after one institution and then the next, which means that we have to have an active relationship, both to history, so that we can see how failure arises and learn from people who tried to protect institutions, but also an active relationship to our own institutions, that our institutions are only as good as the people who try to serve them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Professor Snyder, in terms of the rise of tyranny in the 20th century, clearly, the rise of fascism came in the period after World War I. The masses of people in the world had been exposed to these imperialist wars, and there was tremendous insecurity. Do you see — what parallels do you see between that period in the ’30s and our situation today?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: That’s a wonderful question, because it helps us see how history can brace us, can give us a kind of grounding. When we think about globalization today, we imagine that it’s the first globalization, that everything about it is new. And that’s just not the case. The globalization we’re in now is the second one. The first globalization was the late 19th century and the early 20th century, when there was a similar expansion of world trade, export-led growth. And interestingly, there was also a similar rhetoric of optimism, the idea that trade would lead to enlightenment, would lead to liberalism, would lead to peace. That pattern of the late 19th century, we saw it break. We saw the First World War, as you say, the Great Depression, the Second World War. One way to understand all of that is the long failure of the first globalization. Once we have that in mind, we shouldn’t be surprised that our own globalization has contradictions, has opponents, that it generates — that it generates opposition, that it generates ideas of the far right, sometimes the far left, that are against it.

So, history instructs us that there’s nothing new or nothing automatic about globalization, but it also instructs us that there are people who lived through the end of that first globalization, the kind of people I cite in the book — Hannah Arendt, Victor Klemperer — who observed these effects and then gave us very practical advice about how we can react. So, part of our own misunderstanding of globalization, that it’s all new, is that history doesn’t matter, precisely because it’s all new. What I’m trying to say in the book is, no, the opposite. We’ve seen globalization fail before. We’ve seen fascism rise. We’ve seen other threats to liberalism, democracy, republics. What we should be doing is learning from the 20th century, rather than forgetting it.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a Facebook post in November. Tell us what you wrote about when Donald Trump was elected.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Yeah, so, I mean, the thing about the Facebook post, I wrote it right after the election. And it was the first thing that I did. And it was — it was these 20 lessons. It was an attempt to compress everything that I thought I understood about the 20th century into very brief points that would help Americans react, because I had the strong feeling — I think it turned out to be correct — that there would be tens of millions of Americans who would be surprised and disoriented and shocked by the election of Mr. Trump and would be seeking some way to react.

And I did it as quickly as I could, because it’s very important in these kinds of historical moments to get out front. The tendency to or the temptation to normalize is very strong. The temptation to wait and to say, “Well, let’s see what he does after the inauguration. Let’s see who his advisers are. Let’s see what the policies are,” that temptation generates normalization, which is already happening in the United States. And so, I was trying to get out front and give people very practical day-to-day things that they could do.

But 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. What also stood behind it is my friendships with my teachers and also my students from Eastern Europe, people who have their own biographical connection either to the authoritarianisms of the 20th century or, sadly, the new authoritarianisms of the 21st. It’s that, a little bit, which helps me to see that these kinds of things can happen to people like us, but also that there are practical ways that people like us can respond.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the first lesson you talk about in your book, especially in light of the realities that, in our day and age, clearly, authoritarianism has enormous more power of surveillance and social control of populations. You write in your first lesson, “Do not obey in advance. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.” I think about that in terms of the enormous gravitation of the population toward social media and then the ability of states and corporations to actually monitor and control what people say and do and shop and everything they’re thinking about.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Yeah, so, I agree with that completely. The historical basis of that first lesson, “Don’t obey in advance,” is what historians think we understand about authoritarian regime changes, and in particular the Nazi regime change of 1933. Historians of Nazi Germany disagree about a lot of things, but one of the few things we agree about is the significance of adaptation from below in 1933. When we look at Hitler in retrospect, we sometimes have a tendency to think of him as a kind of supervillain who can do anything. But in fact, the lesson of 1933 is that consent from below matters a lot, not consent necessarily in the sense of voting or marching or anything active, but consent in the sense of bystanding, going along, making mental adjustments.

So the point of “Don’t obey in advance” is not to give your consent in that way, which is very important, because if you do just drift at the beginning, then psychologically you’re lost, or, to put it a different way, if you don’t follow lesson one, “Don’t obey in advance,” then you can’t follow lessons two to 20, either. Politically, it’s also really important, because the time which matters the most is the beginning, where we are now. Right now we actually have much more power than we think we do. Our actions are magnified outwards now. When protest becomes illegal or dangerous, this is going to change. But right now Americans actually have more power than they think they do.

And your point actually magnifies all of this, because the reason — one of the reasons you shouldn’t obey in advance is that when you do, you’re actually giving power ideas. They don’t necessarily have plans. They don’t necessarily know what they can do. But when we lean towards what they think they want — and social media is a very good example of this — then we give them ideas. We teach them what they can do. So, in our real lives and in social media, it’s very important not to obey in advance, because, you’re absolutely right, that information is being collected and collated and considered.

AMY GOODMAN: Number two, Timothy Snyder, in your Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, is “Defend institutions.” Explain.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Well, that’s the second most important lesson. It’s number — it’s number two for a reason. I have in mind, above all, the constitutional institutions. But I also have in mind, later on in the book, other kinds of institutions, like professional or vocational institutions or nongovernmental organizations. And the reason why institutions are so important is that they’re what prevent us from being those atomized individuals who are alone against the overpowering state. That’s a very romantic image, but the isolated individual is always going to lose. We need the constitutional institutions as much as we can get them going. It’s a real problem now, especially with the legislature. We also need the professions, whether it’s law or medicine or civil servants, to act according to rules that are not the same thing as just following orders. And we need to be able to form ourselves up into nongovernmental organizations, because it’s not just that we have freedom of association. It’s that freedom itself requires association. We need association to have our own ideas confirmed, to have our confidence raised, to be in a position to actually act as individuals. Some of that is actually happening, which is a good sign.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about number nine of your lessons — “Be kind to our language” — especially, again, in the times in which we are today, where kindness is one of the few things that politicians or academics talk about much.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: So, I have in mind the necessity of thinking, really, because the way we are now — and this connects back to your earlier question — the way we are now, we’re bombarded, from the television, from the internet, with whatever tropes and memes are being chosen for us for a given day or for a given hour. And whether we agree or disagree or feel comfortable or uncomfortable, there’s a certain tendency to express ourselves in the terms that come down from above. We get caught up in this daily rush. You see this, for example, in people who think they’re critical of Trump, but use his language. First, they use it as a joke, and then they find that they can’t get — they can’t get themselves out of it.

So, being kind to language is one of these — is one of these lessons that seems easy. It just means read, think and try to express your views, whether they’re for or against, in your own words, because my very strong sense is that if we have pluralism of expression, we’re going to be fostering pluralism of thought, and that if people can clarify why it is that they’re opposing this or that, they’re going to be more likely to be persuasive. And at a minimum, in the worst case, if you have your own way of expressing yourself, you at least clutter up the daily memes. You at least put a barrier in the way of the daily tropes. You at least form a force field around yourself and maybe the people who are closest to you, where it’s possible to think and have a little peace.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to our discussion with Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, author of the book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s been number one on The New York Times best-seller list for a long time now. Stay with us.