Historian Timothy Snyder: “It’s pretty much inevitable” that Trump will try to stage a coup and overthrow democracy
Yale historian and author of the new book "On Tyranny" says we may have one year left to save American democracy
American democracy is in crisis. The election of Donald Trump feels like a state of emergency made normal.
Trump has threatened violence against his political enemies. He has made clear he does not believe in the norms and traditions of American democracy — unless they serve his interests. Trump and his advisers consider a free press to be enemies of his regime. Trump repeatedly lies and has a profoundly estranged relationship with empirical reality. He uses obvious and naked racism, nativism and bigotry to mobilize his voters and to disparage entire groups of people such as Latinos and Muslims.
Trump is threatening to eliminate an independent judiciary and wants to punish judges who dare to stand against his illegal and unconstitutional mandates. In what appears to be a violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, Trump is using the office of the presidency to enrich himself, his family and his inner circle by peddling influence and access to corporations, foreign countries and wealthy individuals. Trump and his representatives also believe that he is above the law and cannot be prosecuted for any crimes while in office.
What can the American people do to resist Donald Trump? What lessons can history teach about the rise of authoritarianism and fascism and how democracies collapse? Are there ways that individuals can fight back on a daily basis and in their own personal lives against the political and cultural forces that gave rise to Trump’s movement? How long does American democracy have before the poison that Donald Trump and the Republican Party injected into the country’s body politic becomes lethal?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University. He is the award-winning author of numerous books including the recent “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” and “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.” Snyder’s new book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” explores how the American people can fight back against Donald Trump’s incipient authoritarian regime.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. A longer version can be heard on my podcast, available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.
The election of Donald Trump is a crisis for American democracy. How did this happen?
We asked for it by saying that history was over in 1989 [with the end of the Cold War]. By saying that nothing bad could [ever] happen again, we were basically inviting something bad to happen.
Our story about how nothing could [ever] go wrong was a story about how human nature is the free market and the free market brings democracy, so everything is hunky-dory — and of course every part of that story is nonsense. The Greeks understood that democracy is likely to produce oligarchy because if you don’t have some mechanism to get inequality under control then people with the most money will likely take full control.
With Trump, one sees the new variant of this where a candidate can run by saying, “Look, we all know — wink, wink, nudge, nudge — that this isn’t really a democracy anymore.” He doesn’t use the words but basically says, “We all know this is really an oligarchy, so let me be your oligarch.” Although it’s nonsense and of course he’s a con man and will betray everyone, it makes sense only in this climate of inequality.
In my writing and interviews, I have consistently referred to Donald Trump as a fascist. I have received a great deal of resistance to that claim. Do you think this description is correct? If not, then what language should we use to describe Donald Trump?
One of the problems with American discourse is that we just assume everybody is a friendly democratic parliamentarian pluralist until proven otherwise. And then even when it’s proven otherwise we don’t have any vocabulary for it. He’s a “dictator.” He’s an “authoritarian.” He’s “Hitler.” We just toss these words around.
The pushback that you are talking about is 95 percent bad. Americans do not want to think that there is an alternative to what we have. Therefore, as soon as you say “fascism” or whatever it might be, then the American response is to say “no” because we lack the categories that allow us to think outside of the box that we are no longer in.
Is this a function of American exceptionalism?
Yes, it is. We made a move towards intellectual isolationism in a world where no kind of isolationism is possible. The fact that democracies usually fail is a rule which can’t apply to us. If you examine American society, there are high points and low points. But there is certainly nothing which puts us in a different category than other people who have failed, whether it’s historically or whether it’s now.
I don’t want to dodge your question about whether Trump is a fascist or not. As I see it, there are certainly elements of his approach which are fascistic. The straight-on confrontation with the truth is at the center of the fascist worldview. The attempt to undo the Enlightenment as a way to undo institutions, that is fascism.
Whether he realizes it or not is a different question, but that’s what fascists did. They said, “Don’t worry about the facts; don’t worry about logic. Think instead in terms of mystical unities and direct connections between the mystical leader and the people.” That’s fascism. Whether we see it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we forget, that is fascism.Another thing that’s clearly fascist about Trump were the rallies. The way that he used the language, the blunt repetitions, the naming of the enemies, the physical removal of opponents from rallies, that was really, without exaggeration, just like the 1920s and the 1930s.
And Mr. [Steve] Bannon’s preoccupation with the 1930s and his kind of wishful reclamation of Italian and other fascists speaks for itself.
How did the news media and others get this so wrong? Why did they underestimate the threat posed by Donald Trump and his movement?
What we ended up with, from Bill Clinton onward, is a status quo party and an “undo the system” party, where the Democrats became the status quo party and the Republicans became the “undo the system” party. In that constellation it’s very hard to think of change because one party is in favor of things being the way they are, just slightly better, and the other party has this big idea of undoing everything, although it’s unclear what that really means in practice. So no one is actually articulating how you address the problems of the day, the greatest of which would be inequality. When neither party is creative, then it’s hard for scholars to get their ideas into meaningful circulation.
Why is Trump not being held accountable for all of his failures, scandals and incompetence?
Mr. Trump is primarily a television personality. As such, he is judged by that standard. This means that a scandal does not call forth a response; it calls forth the desire for a bigger scandal. It just whets the appetite for a bigger scandal because a television serial has to work on that logic. It’s almost as though he has to produce these outrageous things because what else would he be doing?