This article first appeared in Salon.
Yale University historian Timothy Snyder is one of the most insightful truth-tellers about Donald Trump’s movement and the dangers of authoritarianism in America and around the world. His 2017 bestselling book “On Tyranny” explained how sick democracies succumb to fascism and authoritarianism. “On Tyranny” is also a survival guide for the American people about the lessons they can learn from other countries and other historical eras about how to survive such a regime.
Snyder’s 2018 follow-up, “The Road to Unfreedom,” maps out how Vladimir Putin’s Russia has worked to destabilize Western liberal democracy, as seen with Brexit, Trump and the rise of the global New Right.
I recently spoke with Snyder about the health of American democracy in the third year of Trump’s presidency. Snyder also shared his concerns about the ways Trump and Attorney General William Barr are working to undermine democracy and the rule of law.
In this conversation, Snyder implores the “Resistance” and other Americans of conscience to craft a positive narrative of their political vision rather than simply opposing Donald Trump’s regime. Snyder also urges the Democrats, especially if they defeat Trump in 2020, to immediately pursue a plan to save American democracy and the country’s future by addressing fundamental problems of social inequality and imminent global climate disaster. As he did in “On Tyranny,” Snyder again warns that if Trump is re-elected, the American people must enter survival mode and learn lessons about how people in other countries survived authoritarianism and totalitarianism, and ultimately defeated them.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can also listen to my full conversation with Timothy Snyder through the player embedded below.
In “On Tyranny” you wrote one of the first and most widely read and influential books about the threat of authoritarianism and Donald Trump. Three years into Trump’s regime and entering an election year, how is America doing?
Some people are doing better. A handful of politicians, some of whom are running for president, are doing a much better job of articulating a future for America post-Trump. That is absolutely necessary, because if we do not have a sense of the future then we do not have any reason to resist in the present. And if we do not have a sense of the future. then in a very basic way democracy becomes impossible. Why? Because democracy is precisely about the idea that you can make a mistake and you can correct it later on.
A sense of the future is also very important because what Trump is really good at is driving people down into an eternal present, where we’re all just elated or depressed — but we’re stuck in today, and that eternal present is leavened with a little bit of nostalgia for a past that never was. Politicians such as Donald Trump are very good at keeping the future completely out of view.
Another group of people who are doing better are the investigative reporters. In 2016, there were a lot of things that needed to be investigated in real time which were not. At the national level, we are witnessing a renaissance of investigative reporting. There is still a dire need for foreign correspondents. Events in Syria and Russia and Ukraine would be a lot less mysterious if we had permanent foreign correspondents in those areas from multiple American newspapers.
There is also a real need for local news. The absence of local news is probably the fundamental problem in U.S. politics right now. And then there are people who are still doing good things. All the new NGOs, all the lawyers who are trying to hold things back, the attorney generals in states such as Massachusetts who are filing suits and slowing things down and in some instances even stopping things, in terms of Trump’s push against democracy and the rule of law. But we as Americans have a problem of fatigue, which shows through in people’s increasing difficulty in remembering how the news of today fits in with the news of yesterday or last year.
This fatigue manifests itself in the difficulty one has of getting people to rally for things that are not immediately obvious. America is facing titanic constitutional questions right now with Donald Trump, including the question about whether the rule of law still applies in the country. Yet, paradoxically, it’s hard to imagine a march about such important issues.
How do we as a country manage that fatigue? How do we navigate what seems like a manic state where there are high hopes that Trump will somehow be stopped — Robert Mueller, impeachment, Ukraine — and then great lows of despair and learned helplessness where nothing changes and Trump is further empowered?
The therapeutic vocabulary is appropriate. When I wrote “On Tyranny,” I was thinking about political hygiene in the sense of brushing your teeth. You do not get excited about brushing your teeth, but it’s still a really good thing to do. There are a lot of things in politics that are like that. These are the daily and weekly things that must be done to maintain a healthy democracy. Subscribing to newspapers, making eye contact with people, making sure that you go to a march every so often, those things are partly important because of how they impact our individual and collective mood for the better.
I worry that people get manic because they think it’s all on their own shoulders. Everybody’s refreshing on their phones to figure out what the latest dramatic thing is that has happened. But if all you do is refresh your phone then you don’t actually go out and do anything. The result is that you end up feeling manic or depressive.
If you put the phone down and go out and actually do something, such as attend a small rally in front of the ICE headquarters or write an editorial and get it published or whatever it might be, then you end up feeling better. There are plenty of things that it does not take a lot of courage to do, but if you do them, you will actually feel better. Action is the answer. The way that Trump wins is through inaction, both on the part of people who oppose him and on the part of people who support him. Ironically, if the people who supported Trump actually made demands upon him then he would have a real problem.
In the age of Trump, there has been much discussion of the “Resistance.” What does resistance actually mean in practice?
I respect people who are putting their bodies out in a public place for something that matters. And those people do not necessarily call themselves the resistance. But they are paying some kind of price for their actions. If you’re a citizen and if you are white, it is a small price. But you’re still paying some kind of price. You’re taking some kind of risk. I respect people who are writing about things that they actually know something about. Those people wouldn’t call themselves the resistance either. But they are incredibly significant, because without the facts any type of resistance against Trumpism is going to be slippery. We are going to be on ice. I also respect the people who are running for public office — especially for local offices and state level offices — who would not have done such a thing before.
The idea of a resistance is not incoherent. In America there is a Trump regime that is partly foreign-sponsored and that is constitutionally questionable. Therefore, I do not think the notion of resistance is itself incoherent. What you have to do is break that down from big-R resistance to small-R resistance, and ask yourself exactly, “What am I resisting with a small R today?” There are millions of people who are doing a wonderful job with that now. Then the other aspect of resistance is that there must be an answer of what you want to accomplish. Just being “anti” something is not enough.
One of the syndromes of politics in our time, in 2019, is this kind of passive-aggressive “anti” where we know that Mr. Trump is against a lot of things, but he is not really explicit about what he is for. As a result, the people who oppose Trump can also fall into the trap of being anti-Trump but not being very explicit about what they are really for either. We have to take care that we are as clear as possible about what we stand for.
What is the role of conspiracy theory in a failing democracy?
Attorney General Barr’s recent speech at Notre Dame was very disappointing in this respect, because here is a man who understands it to be part of his job to fly around the world to pretend to look for evidence of things that he knows are fictions.
One of the most prominent of these fantasies involves Ukraine hiding a computer server for the Democrats or that Ukraine, rather than Russia, interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Mr. Barr knows, because he’s a very intelligent man, that he is chasing phantoms. He knows that. Barr and others doing that work have made the decision that they do not want their country to exist in a world of empirical reality. Instead they want the United States of America to be led by someone who has all these fantasies outside of reality, because fantasies allow you to divide politics between “us” and “them.”
Barr’s speech at Notre Dame is an example of this. Barr is saying that the law can’t really be impartial anymore because “we’re” under attack. Barr then makes up a fantasy about a “secularist conspiracy.” What Barr is doing is making a claim that because “we’re” under attack then the normal rules don’t apply. Those normal rules are the law.
There is something very discouraging about a man who is, after the president, at least in principle, the highest law enforcement official in the land, saying that there is a permanent state of emergency because of some type of “attack” on America by “secularists.”
It is not possible to reconcile a permanent state of emergency with democracy or with the rule of law.
With Trump, Barr, the Republican Party and their propaganda machine there is an obvious strategy to render the rule of law meaningless except as a way for them to assault their enemies. Like other authoritarians in other countries and moments in time, they use the law when convenient for themselves and ignore the law when it is inconvenient. Ultimately the law as a matter of principle has no standing.
There are two ways of breaking the law. One, you break the law by breaking it. Two, you break the law by showing it to be absurd. The latter is the 21st-century way of building an authoritarian state — at least the 21st-century Russian way. The law doesn’t apply to the individuals and groups who have power, but then that same law can be used against other individuals and groups. The law is made absurd. That is what is happening in America now with Mr. Trump.
This investigation of the Mueller investigation is meant to have the effect of making the whole system of law look absurd. At the end of the process, we are not supposed to ask who is really guilty. The American public is supposed to conclude that this is all ridiculous. Everybody’s guilty. Everybody’s not guilty. Who knows? The law is clearly a joke in the same way that other things in this moment are a joke. That is the ultimate goal of Trump and his agents’ strategy.
How do you think the whistleblower or whistleblowers who have sounded the alarm about Trump, Ukraine and other matters will be remembered by history?
I’m going to treat this as a hopeful question, because it has the nice premise that in 50 years there is going to be a United States. Moreover, that there are going to be historians and they will be writing about the United States — which I hope is right. The way that history works is that historians will pick out the people who are exceptional in order to create a context, a general backdrop for the narrative and analysis.
The whistleblowers will be necessary for this American story in order to make the point about how people generally just went along with Trump.
The ethic that regardless of political convictions or party affiliation there are actually rules that count is not to be dismissed. This is what the whistleblower and other people who are now testifying exemplify. The alternative is a type of one-party-state situation where civil service does not matter at all as an ethic.
Would you have thought or written five years ago that the president of the United States was foreign-sponsored or that the country might not exist in 50 years? It now seems so matter-of-fact in this state of malignant reality, the unreality of America under Trump’s regime.
The important thing is to make sure that you’re radically truthful. The truth is radical enough. When I look at the great exemplary political intellectuals, such as George Orwell or my late friend Tony Judt, their language was powerful precisely because it revealed with clarity the grotesquerie of what was actually happening. If you describe what is happening, and do so carefully, it is very forceful. Describing the reality of the situation gets us to a much more radical place than almost anything else.
As far as the U.S. not being around in 50 years, I hope it is. But I am a historian. There is no country which has ever lasted forever, and we’ve had a nice long run. It is perfectly clear that the country will not last unless it radically improves upon itself. Even Jefferson thought there had to be a revolution every so often. Here we are.
How much should we focus on the person of Donald Trump, as opposed to the political, cultural and other systems of power that allowed this moment to happen?
If you cannot do both at the same time, then you are probably not doing either. Mr. Trump must be opposed, because if unopposed his administration is capable of doing damage that future generations won’t be able to repair. That structural and moral damage will get in the way of making America a more just country.
Donald Trump must be opposed in the name of something else. But we have to get better at articulating what that something else is. The world in 2016 must have been such as to allow him to be president, because he became president that year.
Therefore, we have to then ask, as we think about the future, “Just what was it that was so wrong in 2016?” The answer can’t be that what was wrong is Mr. Trump. The answer has to be that what was wrong was the Electoral College, but also gerrymandering, but also dark money in politics, but also Election Day not being a holiday, but also voter suppression of African Americans and others. Inequality represses people.
In opposing Mr. Trump, we have to be able to oppose the things that made it possible for him to come onto the scene. Donald Trump wins if it’s all about him — because if it’s all about him then, in an odd way, this abnormal situation becomes normal.
What has to be normal instead is an America which can renew itself, because it’s capable of thinking about the future and drawing conclusions from the past. Donald Trump’s specific terrain is that there is no truth and there is no future. If you cannot keep yourself in a world where there is truth and therefore there’s a future, then Trump is actually winning.
If Donald Trump wins in 2020, what must the American people do? If he loses in 2020, what must the American people do?
I believe that between now and the 2020 election a great number of surprising things are going to happen. This is not going to be a normal race. I’m not even sure that Donald Trump is going to be the Republican candidate.
My first answer would be that it would be a terrible mistake to think we can just wait for impeachment, or for the Democrats to win in 2020. This next year is probably more important than the previous three years in terms of creating a sense that America can be a different place. In practice this means not just following passively as Trump falls into ever greater legal trouble and gets impeached. Instead we should be sketching out for ourselves what kind of America this could instead be. This year cannot just be bracketed by Mr. Trump’s problems. It has to be a year in which the American people are thinking about the second half of your question, which is what do we do next?
Most people did accuse me of being too much of an alarmist about what Mr. Trump represents. I don’t think I was. I would say that if Mr. Trump does win, then the parts of my book “On Tyranny” which are actually about resistance, such as the very practical things about how you live a semi-legal life and how you protect yourself from surveillance and so on, will become much more relevant. And the lessons from Poland, Hungary, Russia and now Hong Kong about how you organize resistance in a semi-legal or even illegal way, that then becomes relevant. I’m not sure Americans are quite ready for that. But that will then be the mode of existence in America if Trump wins again and has some kind of legislative support behind him.
But I think the harder question, and the one that I personally worry about most, is what to do when he loses. We need to think about catching up on all this lost time. These last three years are lost time, in terms of our survival as a species. We needed to have climate policy. Instead we just messed around. And there’s also a lot of lost time in the Obama years. There’s a lot of lost time in the Clinton years, not to mention the Bush years. We in America have just fallen behind in terms of fundamentals such as life expectancy and inequality and prospects for the future. We need to make the 21st century a century that we as a species are actually going to get through.
I worry that the Democrats will win and not hit the ground running, because if you don’t hit the ground running, it is not just that the country, but our entire species, is going to have big problems. If the Democrats do not hit the ground running it will seem as though they are not a real alternative to what came before. We’re going to need political leadership which says, “Yes, really good things have to happen really fast right now.”