In an interview with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder located some of the Donald Trump hysteria in a historical context. In particular, Snyder touched on Trump’s actions in the first three weeks of his administration, as well as what to expect moving forward.
President Trump has jumped right into the presidency these last few weeks, issuing executive orders left and right. Snyder explained, “the institutions have not thus far restrained him. He never took them seriously, acts as if they don’t exist, and clearly wishes they didn’t.”
While many Americans believed that the democratic institutions that are presently in place would rein in the president’s actions, Snyder said, “It is all about him all of [the] time, it is not about the citizens and our political traditions.” Snyder also noted that Trump doesn’t actually seem to care about the institutions of American democracy at all, and instead has treated institutions and the law “as barriers to the goal of permanent kleptocratic authoritarianism.”
Snyder is not the only intellectual to draw connections between Trump’s actions as president and authoritarian regimes. Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen published a piece outlining rules for survival while living under autocracy in the days following Trump’s election victory. “Institutions will not save you,” Gessen wrote.
The Yale professor published a piece in November that sought to draw comparisons between Trump’s rise in 2016 and Adolf Hitler’s in the 1930s, not because they are exactly similar, but rather, as Snyder told Süddeutsche Zeitung, “[to] help others to learn how republics collapse.” Touching on the nature of American exceptionalism and noting that Americans “think we live outside of history,” Snyder suggested:
Americans tend to think: “We have freedom because we love freedom, we love freedom because we are free.” It is a bit circular and doesn’t acknowledge the historical structures that can favor or weaken democratic republics. We don’t realize how similar our predicaments are to those of other people.
Snyder also touched on Trump’s anti-Muslim travel and immigration executive order, which he signed at the end of his first week in office and has since been halted by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He commented on the need to ponder the treatment of the Jewish people in the 1930s and Muslims today.
“It is obviously the case that the point of the Muslim ban is to instruct Americans that Muslims are an enemy: a small, well-assimilated minority that we are supposed to see not as our neighbors or as fellow citizens but as elements of an international threat,” Snyder said. He added, “More than that, Trump’s policy is a provocation, which is probably meant to provoke an event like the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst Eduard vom Rath on November 7 1938.”
“With something like the Muslim ban, it is important a lot of people react very quickly because if the government can slice off one group, it can do the same to others,” he said.
Commenting on the mass movements and marches that came to fruition on day one of the Trump administration, Snyder discussed the urgency of acting right now, rather than waiting four years for another election. “That sort of initiative has to continue,” he said. “I think things have tightened up very fast, we have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less. What happens in the next few weeks is very important.”