One reason historians study the past is to better understand the present.
In his books, essays and public scholarship, historian Timothy Snyder has been conducting a master class on authoritarianism, neofascism, and the existential threat that Donald Trump and his movement represent to America’s multiracial democracy. Snyder, a professor at Yale, is the author of the bestselling books “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” “The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America” and “Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary.” His new book is “On Tyranny Graphic Edition,” an adaptation of his 2017 bestseller illustrated by Nora Krug.
In a series of conversations at Salon, Snyder has repeatedly warned and predicted how Donald Trump’s regime, the Republican Party and their ascendant neofascist movement would threaten the foundations and future of American democracy. In May of 2017, he speculated on how quickly American democracy could begin to crumble in the face of this assault:
Nobody can be sure how long this particular regime change with Trump will take, but there is a clock, and the clock really is ticking. It’s three years on the outside, but in more likelihood something like a year. In January 2018 we will probably have a pretty good idea which way this thing is going. It’s going to depend more on us than on them in the meantime. Once you get past a certain threshold, it starts to depend more on them than on us, and then things are much, much worse. It makes me sad to think how Americans would behave at that point.
Several months later, Snyder said this about the precarious state of the rule of law under Trump:
I think the most predictable thing, because it does not have to do with legislation, was the moral effect that his presence would have.
This works three ways. It works by what Trump does and says. For example, the outrageous things he says about the press and his obsession with violence. It also works by the things he doesn’t say and the things he doesn’t condemn. “On the one hand and on the other hand” is a way to destroy values and virtues, because if the leader of the country does not have a firm opinion about good and evil then it becomes very hard for other people to have firm opinions about good and evil.
People who have opinions which are in fact absolutely evil are supported by this kind of relativism. With the attempted terrorist attacks, defacing the Holocaust Memorials, and defacing the Lincoln Memorial — which just happened, by the way — you are looking at the demoralization of a society.
The second big trend is that we are hanging by our teeth to the rule of law. That was my judgment at the beginning of his presidency and it is still my judgment now. The rule of law is what gives us a chance to rebuild the system after this is all done.
Obviously, we are in a slow-motion Reichstag Fire right now. That is what is happening. Donald Trump is not as skilled as Hitler. He doesn’t work as hard as Hitler. He doesn’t have the same level of confidence as Hitler, but he’s clearly looking for that Reichstag Fire emergency. Trump tried to make Black Lives Matter into that emergency. “Antifascists” and “thugs” and “law and order” and so on is part of that effort. Donald Trump keeps trying to make the Reichstag Fire work.
If Trump is not successful, then that is a credit to the people who are resisting. Donald Trump is not involved in a political campaign; it is emergency politics in the constant search of an emergency. Whether Trump and his allies can line up the emergency politics with the emergency, I do not know. But that is all that Trump and his allies have got on their side — and it is all they are going to have through to Election Day.
Unfortunately, the Democratic Party, the so-called resistance and other pro-democracy forces for the most part did not listen to Snyder and other experts’ warnings. Matters are even more dire now than they were on Jan. 6 when Trump and his followers attempted a coup. Democrats and pro-democracy forces are not acting with the urgency required to defeat the Republican-fascist movement, and continue to behave as though compromise and “bipartisanship” can somehow save American democracy and society.
In this new conversation, Snyder reflects on how and why America’s democracy crisis is getting worse, the seductive power of normalization and denial, and how Trump and the Republican-fascist movement have tried to capture and debase the concept of “freedom.”
Snyder also offers advice for how to resist the rising tide of fascism: Americans must create lighthouses of truth and democracy — which should include more local news media and other civil society institutions — that can help our fellow citizens become better informed and more responsible. Toward the end of this conversation, Snyder observes that America is in a moment of interregnum, a turning point in history where there are hopeful possibilities for the future, but also nightmarish potential outcomes as well.
This conversation has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.
How are feeling now? How do you make sense of America’s escalating democracy crisis? You predicted more or less what would happen with Trump’s regime and the country’s path to autocracy.
Normalization has no bottom. People can normalize just about anything. Many people who supported Trump back in 2016 would, back then, have pronounced themselves appalled by things that did in fact happen. But if you don’t make an active break, you will go along, right down through a coup attempt.
On the other side, for people who oppose Trump, the temptation is to think that problems can be solved in one stroke. They tell themselves, “Maybe I was wrong. Maybe some things did happen that were bad, but surely now we’ve taken some kind of turn.” Those who like Trump are still thinking about him all the time. And those who don’t have sometimes lost their focus since he left the White House.
And that is what is particularly frightening: there are structural changes underway that are more important than Trump. What’s most frightening about this moment is that unlike in 2016 — where there were America’s historic problems plus one person, Donald Trump — now there are those historical problems plus a coordinated, multi-layered effort to sabotage future elections.
America is in danger of drowning under a fascist tide. Should the American people try to float right now? Or do they need to learn to swim?
I believe we need to build a lighthouse. The very term “fascism” is also a kind of lighthouse, because it’s a concept. As soon as you say “fascism,” putting aside the question of how applicable it is, you’re saying this situation is something which has historical precedent. We have seen fascism all over the world. It is not a concept or situation that just emerged from nowhere. Ultimately, America needs more such lighthouses.
The lighthouse allows us to then say, “OK, there’s a rising tide. But look, there are rising tides everywhere. And come to think of it, when I look at my lighthouse records, we’ve seen rising tides in the past and here’s what they look like. Here’s how people have navigated them.” We also need to make the noise being caused by the rising tide into something comprehensible.
For example, the level of discourse is getting lower and lower on the side of those who support authoritarian politics. They are abandoning concepts in favor of noise and personal attacks. Some of those values are worth picking up. One of the most important values and concepts right now is freedom. The other side’s idea of freedom is so impoverished that it does not exist anymore: it is a cliché with no real content. Freedom for them just means being rolled by the waves. Freedom for them just means their impulses or whatever they’re feeling right now in the moment. On the left, people are shy of the word, but we need the word, and we need the value. We can’t do without the value.
Donald Trump represents a certain type of freedom. When I think of Trump and freedom, I see a man who is now an idea. What Trump represents is much bigger than one person. Trump is permission for his followers to engage in a perverse and vile type of “freedom” that represents the worst sort of human behavior. I see permission for freedom without responsibility. I see permission for violence. I see permission for destruction.
I always try to give credit where it’s due. Donald Trump is a very talented entertainer. Entertainment is a form of education. He’s setting an example, because he’s simultaneously an entertainer whose life seems to suggest that you can behave like him and then rise all the way to the top. It can all be shtick all the way down, nothing beyond the shtick.
But Trump’s behavior and life are not a useful lesson for people. Even if his behavior was not unethical and authoritarian, it’s also just not good life advice for most people to follow. Most people are not going to have Trump’s talent. They are also not going to have a fabulously wealthy father to save them from their bad choices. And just mathematically speaking, you can’t have a society where everyone survives by conning everyone else.
What is the importance of corporeal politics as a form of resistance during this moment of crisis?
In my writing I have defined corporeal politics in a narrow way. This involves getting off the internet and doing something in the three-dimensional world. Make sure you take action with people who agree with you on some things but not on everything. Make sure that some of this action takes place outside. Make sure that you spend some time in places you hadn’t known with people you hadn’t known. A lot of this is about mood, about feeling better, about feeling more free.
I was also defining corporeal politics in terms of the mood change that you experience when you protest for something, or when you march for something.
We feel like we are on the defensive all the time — because we in fact are. But when we take action with other people around, we not only feel better, we start to see the problems in different ways, more imaginatively. I am also really concerned about how freedom, as being enacted by and through our bodies, is being taken away.
I am not just thinking about women’s reproductive rights but also in the sense that when we are separated from one another by the internet or by the coronavirus or whatever it might be, it is harder for us to recognize one another as fellow citizens or fellow human beings. As a result, it is easier to fall into these traps caused by extreme political and other forms of polarization.
To my eyes, Joe Biden, the other leaders of the Democratic Party and too many other political and social elites are not acting with the “urgency of now.” They are literally saying that America is experiencing the greatest political crisis since the years before the Civil War — but where is the urgent action? What can history teach us here?
One of the things we can learn from history is that if a leader has a large parliamentary majority, like FDR did, then they can pass many more laws. If the Democrats had more votes in the Senate, very important legislation having to do with protecting elections and democracy would have already passed.
The elections are close to being a meta-issue here. The American people are much better than their electoral system. Our electoral system makes real policy very difficult.
Where I see Biden and the Democrats failing is that they are not using enough positive language about the future. In terms of fighting the rising tide you alluded to earlier, positive language about how America could be much better is essential.
The culture war is a way of keeping everyone stuck in the present, or in the past. The voter suppression and the memory laws and the obsession with “critical race theory” is, among other things, about fomenting culture war in time for 2022. You can’t win a culture war without a vision of a much better future. If the Democrats or other pro-democracy forces are trying to defend against the right wing and its culture-war tactics, then they are going to lose without such a vision.
One of the other problems I see with the Democrats and other pro-democracy forces also has to do with information and knowledge. We are in the middle of the largest Facebook scandal yet. All well and good. But how do we turn that around? The companies should be broken up. That is what antitrust is for. The algorithms should be opened up. You should be able to see your car’s engine and you should be able to see your kid’s school’s curriculum. You should also be able to see the software that is designed to run your emotions.
The profits that social media make from polarizing us and making us stupid should be turned towards a project to recreate local news in United States. We need local news, news about people’s lives, to provide a cushion between everyday life and the global.
We can do all the corporeal politics we want; we can get everything else right. But if people have no idea what’s actually happening in their daily lives, then their politics immediately jumps to the national or the international or the conspiratorial, and perhaps even the entirely fictional. That is where we are in America right now.
We’ve just raised a whole generation of Americans who lack local newspapers. Most of America is now a news desert. You cannot deny people factuality and then blame them for how they act and vote. We need to resuscitate factuality, as a value but also as part of daily life.
Texas has now empowered vigilantes to prevent women from exercising their reproductive rights. These plans are going to be copied nationwide in GOP-controlled areas. What is the role of legal vigilantism, and the rule of law more generally, in a failing democracy?
For me this is not so much vigilantism, although it is that, as a kind of planned anarchy. Rather than the state taking responsibility for the law, the state is marking out a policy line and inviting citizens to enforce it. This is how one party-states operate. It is characteristic of both fascist and communist regimes. The law exists, but power is not defined by the law. Instead, the party courts a certain kind of chaos. The leader sends a signal, and then sees how people respond. The result is that people take part in their own oppression.
If you oppress someone else because you believe the state has given you license to do so, you are saying that you too can be oppressed by another private citizen.
I receive many emails from people asking me about leaving the country because of Trump and his movement and everything that is happening. They are concerned about what to do, and when it might be too late to make that decision. What would you tell them?
I would tell them to have a valid passport and an actual plan. If you have a plan, then you can think sensibly about the moment. Beyond that answer I would have to know them personally.
Where are we in the story of America’s democracy crisis? Are we in the beginning of the story, the middle or something else? Finally, can this all be turned off or is the road ahead a function of path dependency?
History tells us that there are always more roads, for good or ill, than we can see at a given moment. We are close to a kind of managed democracy, brought either by “legal” changes at the state level, a dramatic repeated coup attempt in 2025 or likely a mixture of both. The scenario is right out there in the open, it is underway. But it is far from inevitable.
Defense is now played at a higher level than in 2016. There is more awareness of the need for structural changes. But above all, we need a sense of the future which is something better than an averted disaster. Without visions of a better future, it is hard to shake the sense that there is some kind of path dependency. Personally, I think there are much brighter versions of the future out there, alongside the much darker ones.