On Tyranny | Timothy Snyder

By Dion Baillargeon

A mild economic slowdown notwithstanding, Democrats should have entered the 2000 presidential contest liking their chances, as the popular incumbent in the White House, five years of strong growth and a world mostly at peace provided them with significant tailwind. However, Al Gore hit the campaign trail as a slight underdog and, after a lacklustre campaign, Republicans managed to clamber their way back into the White House thanks to the Supreme Court’s handing down of the notorious Bush vs. Gore decision. Still reeling from this vexatious loss, American liberal intellectuals and political scientists latched onto the Southern Evangelical resurgence that buoyed George W. Bush’s candidacy and laid out a number of strategies to stem the tide of new social conservatism. A new conservatism that had allowed Bush not only to sweep Southern states that had twice voted for Bill Clinton by decisive margins, but also to win re-election in 2004 by racking up decisive margins in medium-sized towns and rural areas across Ohio or Iowa. Quite tellingly, he also came very close in Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania, the states that made Trump president in 2016.

A quick glance at the literature produced during the Bush years further reveals that the cracks in the Democratic coalition that bedevilled Hillary Clinton and paved Trump’s way to the presidency had been lurking for a long time. In “What’s the matter with Kansas” (2004), Thomas Frank lashed out against New Democrats, warned that the shift from economic to socio-cultural issues was alienating working and middle-class ethnic whites, and urged the party to adopt to a new form of left-wing populism to win them back. Along these lines, the self-avowed “redneck liberal” journalist Joe Bageant offered in his deeply moving bestseller “Deer Hunting with Jesus” (2007) a crude and anecdotal, but yet cogent, explanation as to why poor rural whites have abandoned the Democratic party in throngs. However, it was the thesis expounded by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira in “The emerging Democratic majority” (2002) that carried the day and, after being apparently vindicated by Barack Obama’s resounding 2008 election victory, laid down the basic strategy of the Democratic party for the next three or four election cycles. The unstoppable changes in the nation’s demographic makeup, so the argument goes, were supposed to guarantee progressives the upper hand, since the increasing number of non-white minorities as a share of the overall population would strengthen the Democratic party and more than make up for its losses among working-class whites. This reassuring vision about the nation’s demographic destiny bolstered Democratic confidence and led the party’s ruling cadres to downplay its faltering support among whites, the massive voter realignment that came to a head at the turn of the century and its resulting noxious political polarization. As long as Democrats could secure a larger sliver of the electorate (or even better, a growing slice of the demographic cake), why bother with further questions about governance and social cohesion?

In his still hot off the press work “On Tyranny” (2017), Timothy Snyder vindicates the role of past events as a cautionary tale and relentlessly hammers home the idea that history teaches us Donald Trump is probably a would-be tyrant threatening to destroy American democracy at the slightest opportunity, just as authoritarian leaders of all stripes did in Europe in the past, from Hitler to Vladimir Putin. Yet, the reader is prompted to act on this ghastly realisation as a matter of urgency as if the Trump phenomenon had emerged overnight. Not the slightest mention to the immediately preceding events is ever made. An omission that not only keeps key insights into the immediate historical causes of the Democratic failure to decisively vanquish an outrageous, unapologetic, raving populist such as Donald Trump out of sight, but conceals the already well-established fact that the very nature of American democracy has always been torn apart between inclusive and enlightened cosmopolitan liberalism (represented by Judis and Teixeira) and the American populist, radical and republican tradition (largely entrenched in Frank’s and Bageant’s vision). Moreover, these actors are just an example of a vast body of literature reflecting this dual character that Snyder fails to even acknowledge. For a book trumpeting the virtues of history, “On Tyranny” comes off as oddly ahistorical and Trump seems nothing but a sudden and inexplicable throwback to the 1930s.

This is not to say there is nothing to commend in Snyder’s work. As a historian specializing in 20th Century Europe, Snyder aptly draws on historical examples to illustrate what undoubtedly amounts to a much-needed crash course in democracy 101. Throughout twenty brief snippets of history and political philosophy, the author managed to put together a practical survival guide for the Trump era. However, those expecting a well-thought-out essay or a history book in the manner of his much-celebrated “Bloodlands” (2010) might end up feeling disappointed. Of course, the philosophical and ideological backbone of his work is a stark defence of individual rationality as a prerequisite not only for democracy, but for human liberty and dignity. A position intrinsically linked to the denunciation of all authoritarian and anti-liberal political doctrines as equally inhumane that has been best embodied in the works of Victor Klemperer and Hannah Arendt. Both Klemperer and Arendt described the processes whereby totalitarian regimes seek absolute power by undermining human ability to think through gradual rarefaction of language (Klemperer) and political life (Arendt). Snyder’s best contribution is perhaps to relate rather abstract insights such as Arendt’s “banality of evil” to an immediate blueprint for action: be as independent-minded as possible, get engaged in public life, always strive to find out the truth, read books, reject conformity, and remain steadfastly vigilant and faithful to your own principles and professional ethics. First and foremost, do not fall for the official rhetoric and be wary if national emergency or the state of exception is ever called. All this sounds reassuringly Jeffersonian, but Jeffersonian republicanism is a two-faced beast: on the one hand, it encourages a responsible citizenry to guard liberty against the government’s irrepressible thirst for power; on the other hand, it also inspired the people that spent the best part of 2010 attending Tea Party meetings, protesting against Obama and waving signs with Thomas Jefferson’s well-known quote “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”. The exact same people that unanimously voted for Donald Trump six year later.

However useful to keep the body politic from drifting into a dangerous and complacent autopilot mode that might indeed debase democracy under a reckless head of state such as Donald Trump, this same Jeffersonian republican approach to politics that nourishes Hannah Arendt’s concept of vita activa (active life) and Snyder’s approach to Tyranny is also a fundamental tenet of a basically anti-liberal strand of American politics which he basically decided to ignore altogether: what Richard Hofstadter called “The paranoid style in American politics”. In his famous 1963 essay, Hofstadter argued that the American right-wing fringe was not an offspring of European Fascism (something that Snyder just stops short of explicitly stating about Donald Trump), but rather a by-product of American history itself. He patiently described the main traits of the paranoid interpretation of history: first, an pressing fear of impending doom, brought about by a vast conspiracy brewing in the upper echelons of government; secondly, a thorough vilification of the enemy, with whom no conceivable transaction or agreement can be reached; and finally, a painstaking rationalization procedure involving the piling up of massive amounts of information (normally circumstantial, if not manufactured, evidence) and factoids, always disguising some dubious leap of the imagination at some point in the process.

Hofstadter then goes on to trace the long history of this paranoid political attitude that, as it turns out, encompasses the entire existence of the republic. The Nineteenth Century witnessed the rise and fall of the anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic movements. The introduction of the income tax in 1913 was met with denunciation that it was the “root of all evil”. And, of course, the onset of the Cold War coincided with McCarthyism, the movement against the fluoridation of municipal water (a forerunner of the modern anti-vax movement), and the outrageous claims of the John Birch Society in 1950s about president Eisenhower being nothing less than “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”. And this paranoid streak is still alive and well. Pat Roberson’s “The New World Order” (1991) foreshadowed the militia movement of the 1990s that led to the tragic bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. After remaining dormant for a few years, right-wing paranoia then bloomed during the Obama years: Dick Morris, an embittered former adviser to Bill Clinton, authored an endless string of paranoid-sounding titles such as “Revolt! How to defeat Obama and repeal his socialist programs” (2011), “Here come the Black Helicopters” (2012), or “Power Grab: Obama’s dangerous plan for a one-party nation” (2014). Former House speaker Newt Gingrich made no bones about his feelings towards the Obama administration either in his “To save America: stopping Obama’s secular-socialist machine” (2010). And let us not forget one of the most forthright titles in this list: Ann Coulter’s “Demonic: How the liberal mob is endangering America” (2011). Granted, none of these authors measure up to Snyder’s serious scholarship, deep understanding of sources and academic prestige, but they are the modern embodiment of a tradition as American as apple pie that, quite incomprehensibly, he decided to ignore altogether: the depiction of the president as a would-be king, willing to trample his enemies and hollow out essential institutions. A tradition than can be traced back to the brutal 1800 presidential campaign between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and vice-versa. Even the probe into Trump’s ties to Russia echoes the accusations of Francophilia levelled against the Jeffersonian party.

Probably influenced by Hannah Arendt’s definition of the public sphere and her ideas about the role of personal biography in political life, Snyder’s recipe to get around this ugly by-product of Jeffersonian politics is hardly surprising: personal, face-to-face, physical engagement. Avoid the Internet as much as possible. Meet people in the flesh. Snyder is unequivocal in his judgement: post-truth is pre-fascism, and the stench of hoaxes and fake news comes chiefly from social media and dishonest propaganda outlets. However, judging from the remarkable and ambitious analysis of the Tea Party movement undertaken by Theda Skocpol and Vanesa Williamson in “The Tea Party and the remaking of Republican conservatism” (2011), it would be a sorry mistake to look down on the current wave of modern conservatism as a mere extension of the alt-right weblogs, YouTube channels and radio talk shows. What Skocpol and Williamson found during their field research was a vibrant, rationally-organized social movement that had plenty of healthy interaction at a community level and honestly pictured itself as the mainstay of true democracy, acting as a key safeguard of constitutional liberties in a genuinely Jeffersonian sense. Moreover, the reactionary coalition that swept the 2010 midterm elections was the first sign of a growing rapprochement between the official conservative, Evangelical and establishment-friendly Republican Party, and a new wave of anti-establishment populism. It is probably no coincidence that the taxonomy of the Tea Party movement so urgently adumbrated by Skocpol and Williamson roughly reflects the internal structure of conservatism that scholars such as Clinton Rossiter or Russell A. Kirk had already pointed out back in the 1950s. Timothy Snyder could not ask for a more engaged, responsible, and alert citizenry; and yet, they all pulled together and elected no other than Donald Trump to the White House.

It would be equally mistaken to assume that the most preposterous populist and paranoid attitudes are mainly reactionary or right-wing. Just a few years ago, the razor-thin margins that decided the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections in Florida and Ohio inevitably led to accusations of election fraud. David Greenberg’s excellent “Nixon’s shadow. The history of an image” (2004) also reminds us of the pervasive, stifling conspiratorial atmosphere that plagued the Johnson and Nixon presidencies way before Daniel Ellsberg came forward with the Pentagon papers or Watergate broke out. By mid-1970 it was widely rumoured in the alternative-left press that Nixon was arranging for covert agents to instigate an “American Reichstag fire” in order to call a national emergency, cancel the 1972 presidential election and eventually repeal the Bill of Rights. The radicals maintained, right from the start of Nixon’s presidency, that his “law and order” agenda betrayed his authoritarian tendencies and didn’t hesitate to compare to U.S. government to the Third Reich. Nixon, of course, was regularly caricatured as a modern-day Hitler. Even the most venerable outlets such as The Nation and The New York Times eventually gave in to this conspiratorial Zeitgeist and ran articles warning about “a presidential dictatorship” and explained how Nixon was becoming “an American sovereign” whose ousting was imperative for the republic’s survival. When the president’s misdemeanours seemed to confirm these fears, eerie buzzes about a possible military coup that would allow Nixon to suspend the Constitution and hang on to power didn’t only find their way into the musings of progressive columnists, but also caught on with some government officials. There is no denying that Nixon was an opportunistic, resentful, and divisive politician that played on people’s worst fears and instincts, but however reckless and outlandish his Watergate cover up was, it perhaps bears repetition that, in insight, claims about his dictatorial instincts now ring as overblown, unwarranted, and needlessly abrasive as the accusations lobbed against John Adams.

Populism and paranoia are genuine and even legitimate fixtures of American political life and can be found at every turn throughout history and sprawling across the ideological spectrum. There is, of course, a significant overlap and positive feedback between them. In his influential and widely-read “The Populist persuasion” (1995), Michael Kazin traced a full-fledged genealogy of the populist movement in the U.S., ranging from the farmer’s revolt and the free silver coinage movement of the late Nineteenth Century that propelled William J. Bryan’s three presidential bids and foreshadowed father Coughlin’s rather paranoid rants against “the heinous rottenness of modern capitalism” in the 1930s, to the New left resurgence of the 1960s and the anti-globalisation movement of the nineties. Douglas S. Schoen has recently built on Kazin’s work to argue how Richard Nixon was in fact instrumental in capturing the populist movement and funnelling its energy towards conservative goals, thus laying the basic groundwork of the ensuing Reagan revolution. What is more, long-term deep demographic changes also bore heavily upon the restoration of the grassroots conservative movement. As Lisa McGirr noted in “Suburban Warriors: the origins of the New American Right” (2001), new high middle-class cohorts flooding into Sunbelt suburban enclaves sowed the seeds of the future market-oriented, conservative Republican Party of Jack Kemp, Pat Buchanan and William F. Buckley. They provided the seedbed of Reaganism in the 1960s, just as the Tea Party tilled the ground of Trumpism. In other words, Trump is not the would-be fascist purported by Timothy Snyder, but probably the most blatantly, shamelessly genuine, well-rounded product of the anti-liberal American tradition since Andrew Jackson.

There is no denying that Trump is probably one of the most dangerous presidents in the history of the United States. His ignorance, brutal megalomaniac recklessness, and self-absorbed, obsessive persecution complex are second to none, and Snyder is most probably right in warning us against him. However, he does it for the wrong reasons. The first lesson we should learn from Greenberg’s work is that Nixon’s and left-wing paranoia were not only mutually reinforcing, but equally damaging to democracy. The second lesson is that we are not dealing with an external enemy, but with our very own innate contradictions. By linking Trump to threats apparently alien to American history, telling us to remain vigilant and recommending Philip Roth’s “The plot against America” while tossing aside and silencing all this troubling tradition, Timothy Snyder is doing little service to the cause of democracy. Actually, the whole “resistance” movement against Trump might be encouraging an increasingly polarizing loop that indefinitely feeds on itself, precisely because it stems from the very same paranoid, non-liberal tradition that gave us Trump in the first place.

Michelle Obama had the only reasonable answer to this catch-22 type of situation: “when they go low, we go high”. Paranoia must be met with sanity. Fanaticism must be confronted with open and sincere discussion. Never assume your principles, beliefs and ideas are self-evident and need no further explanation. Doubt everything, but above all, keep doubting yourself. Never give up on your opponents, let alone an entire segment of the population. Keep an open mind. Listen. And most importantly, do not get dragged into an outshouting contest: don’t ever assume that Trump’s flat-out lies, distortions and outrageous actions can ever justify an equally ludicrous response. Democracy isn’t about being right, but about being fair. Both radical and mainstream Democrats are guilty of these sins, and that probably cost them the 2016 presidential election. Fight the good fight, but if things don’t turn out your way, don’t despair. Politics are cyclical and, in the long run, there is not such a thing such as winners and losers in history. There is only change and continuity. And remember, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Truism