On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

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By Timothy Snyder

The current political landscape has lead historians to wonder if we are seeing a repeat of the 1930’s. Viktor Oban in Hungary; Vladimir Putin in Russia; Narendra Modi in India. Across the globe populist authoritarians are able to claim huge political and social power. This trend is certainly worrying and alarming. How concerned should people in the United States be that America could slide into a similar style of authoritarianism? In “On Tyranny: 20 lessons from the 20th century” Timothy Snyder attempts to tease out at answer. The danger, he warns, is accepting the normalisation of non-normal behaviour.

There are numerous passages in the book which draw parallels between Donald Trump and the fascist style . The threat is surmised tersely by Snyder as: “Post-truth is pre-fascism.” Snyder notes a parallel between the fascist style of “Shamanistic incantation” and the nick names Trump gives to his adversaries. The nick names through endless repetition seem to crystallise and codify a mis-placed veracity.

There are many natural reasons to be alarmed by Trumps behaviour, but we should consider whether his obnoxious and bullying style should rightly be compared to that of a fascist. President Trump certainly has no respect for democratic norms and institutions, but they have held up well against his continued assault against them. His firing of James Comey led to the appointment of special prosecutor and his justice department has resisted numerous attempts to undermine that investigation. Yet that is not assuming that at some point those institutions could give way and Trumps very worst impulses will be unleashed.

Snyder makes a vigorous defence of institutions noting that they will only work when we invest and believe in them. Some people in Germany underestimated the threat that Hitler posed until it was too late, and he was able to dismantle supposedly impervious institutions with alarming ease. Snyder argues that attacks by Trump against the institution of the free press poses huge damage to the American political system. Degradation of the press by the executive ultimately undermines the effectiveness with which leaders can be held to account. Snyder therefore call for people to spiritly defend institutions of the press, congress and the courts.

On Tyranny refers to the ease with which totalitarian rule can spread. He gives numerous examples of where otherwise good people were swept up in strong nationalist currents. There is an impulse to wonder how Germans could have been complicit in such an evil and cruel regime, but there was nothing unique to the German character that explains such actions. The notion that all Nazis must have been immoral people was challenged convincingly in the famous Milgram experiment. Psychiatrist Stanley Milgram showed that ordinary people can be persuaded to do awful things under the right kinds of condition. Milgram convinced subjects to administer supposed lethal electric shocks to a subject so long as they had the permission of the doctor to proceed to do so. The experiment showed that under certain conditions people will behave with impunity so long as they believe they have permission from authority to do so.

At other points Snyder comes off as hyperbolic. The severity with which he treats the Clinton email scandal is a case in point:

During the campaign of 2016, we took a step toward totalitarianism without even noticing by accepting as normal the violation of electronic privacy. Whether it is done by American or Russian intelligence agencies, or for that matter by any institution, the theft, discussion, or publication of personal communications destroys a basic foundation of our rights.”

Yes, we should never accept it as normal that peoples private data can be hacked and disseminated, but did people really treat this as normal? When Donald Trump told Wikileaks to hack Clinton’s emails people were rightly outraged, but that outrage got lost in the media circus of the 2016 campaign. Snyder’s wider point about the need to ensure privacy of communications is right, but to categorise what occurred with the hacks of DNC and Clinton emails as a progression totalitarianism seems overblown. The Russians involved in the hack have been indicted, Trump’s associates are being investigated over it and a republican congress put a law in place to prevent trump removing Russian sanctions following the hack. As dysfunctional as the American political system is, this would not happen under a totalitarian system.

On Tyranny is a short book that offers plenty of insights. It would have benefited greatly if the historical examples had been developed more fully. It is not attempting to be a comprehensive treatise on tyrannical systems in the 20th century. It instead signposts to  the dangers associated with democratic complacency. It is likely that American democracy will survive Donald Trump. For all his norm breaking and denigration of institutions he is reigned in mightily by checks and balances. But Snyder’s main point bears consideration. On the surface things may look like normal, but circumstances are prone to change in the blink of an eye.