Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, currently ranked third on The New York Times Best Seller List for paperback nonfiction, is not really a book at all. It’s really a manifesto: an opinionated and passionate call to action — short, easy to read, and small enough to fit in your pocket, so you can carry it with you wherever you go. Last weekend when I was walking with my daughter and grandson in the West Village in New York City, I popped into a little bookstore called Three Lives & Company, on the corner of Waverly and West 10th Street. I chatted with the genial store owner, pulled out my copy of On Tyranny, and asked him if he was selling it. “We’re selling a lot of copies. Some people buy 25 or 30 and give them to friends to read. One girl told me she leaves copies on the subway.” That is the mark of a manifesto — and it just may be the manifesto we need.
In his prologue, Snyder defines “tyranny” in terms of the American experience:
In founding a democratic republic upon law and establishing a system of checks and balances, the Founding Fathers sought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny. They had in mind the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit.
Snyder is a European historian at Yale who has written a dozen books on the Holocaust, Central Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltics in the 19th and 20th centuries. His most recent books include the critically acclaimed Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Perhaps because he is a scholar of European history, Snyder has little affection for the American Exceptionalism argument — the long-standing and widespread notion among American writers that our country remains largely immune to the wars, political upheavals, and economic calamities that plagued Europe. Deeply familiar with democratic experiments, and their eventual failures in Europe after World War I, World War II, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Snyder detects dangerous trends in American politics that may be less visible to most citizens who cannot believe that our country, with its system of checks and balances, could succumb to illiberalism or authoritarianism.
It is precisely this complaisant attitude that Snyder wants to expose as erroneous and anti-historical. In doing so, Snyder offers an affirmation of the value, even necessity, of understanding history. He opens his manifesto with this statement: “History does not repeat, but it does instruct.” The 20 lessons he extracts from the last century provide instructions to help us think more carefully about what we, as individuals and groups, are doing to influence the political direction of our institutions. At the same time, Snyder provides a damning refutation of anti-historical ways of thinking about politics, including the idea of “the inevitability of history” — the notion that the present is merely another step in the direction of a certain, usually desirable future. Equally dangerous is another anti-historical fallacy, “the politics of eternity,” a masquerade of history, “self-absorbed” and “free of any real concern with facts,” that longs for a mythical past that never really existed. At the heart of Snyder’s analysis is one hope: that we can learn from the past to protect our future.
Many of his lessons focus on what we can do to prevent homegrown authoritarianism. We must defend institutions because they do not protect themselves. After Hitler’s Nazis won free federal elections in 1932, many reasonable people did not believe that the budding tyrant would actually create a one-party dictatorship. “The mistake,” writes Snyder, “is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions — even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.” In order to prevent this, we must, among other things, support a multiparty system and election rules. In the European context, several democracies that emerged after the World Wars I and II soon collapsed when a single party assumed power — usually by means of some combination of an election, emergency powers, and a coup d’état. We’ve been taught that checks and balances protect us from one-party rule, but today the less popular party controls all three branches of government and does not want to relinquish its power. Writes Snyder, “We can be sure that the elections of 2018, assuming they take place, will be a test of American traditions.”
Several of Snyder’s lessons concern personal decisions — little things, but ones that become more significant if more people do them. If you see swastikas or other signs of hatred, “do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.” If you are a professional, remember professional ethics: “It’s hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants.” In the face of authoritarianism, be willing to stand out: “It’s easy to follow along. It can seem strange to do or say something different. But without that unease there is no freedom.” Investigate: “Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media.”
Snyder never mentions the president by name, but Trump and his followers are always there, armed with their “alternative facts.” In a lesson called “Believe in truth,” Snyder writes that “to abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true then no one can criticize power.” Tyranny takes root when reality is renounced — a phenomenon with which we are now only too familiar. The first sign of this is “open hostility to verifiable reality,” which brings to mind the president’s off-the-charts “Pants on Fire!” rating on PolitiFact. After six months of Trump, everyone, supporters and opponents alike, know that he doesn’t tell the truth. Behavior that would have been unacceptable in the past has become normal. The second sign is “shamanistic incantation” and “endless repetition,” utilized to make the fictional plausible; think of the constant, meaningless complaints about “fake news,” and the mesmerizing “Build the wall!” and “Lock her up!” chants at mass rallies. The third sign is “magical thinking” and an open embrace of mutually contradictory promises — such as health care for all and turning Medicaid over to the states, or huge tax cuts and huge increases in military spending; this requires a blatant abandonment of reason. Lastly, we have “misplaced faith,” where the Leader makes self-deifying claims like “I alone can solve it” or “I am your voice.” Witness that chilling video of Trump’s first full cabinet session, where, one by one, each member heaped praise on the great leader in a ritual of sycophantism that is more suited for North Korea. When our leaders and large numbers of our people have renounced facts, “the result is your demise as an individual — and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism.”
Of course, one could argue that Snyder’s warnings are exaggerated and overdrawn. Perhaps he is too strongly influenced by European history, as when he urges us to beware of paramilitary power: “When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh.” On the other hand, isn’t it prudent to consider how a certain set of circumstances could lead to the curtailment of civil liberties, postponement of elections, and de facto one-party rule? What if, on the eve of the 2018 elections, deadly acts of terror in several cities kill hundreds of people? In response, the president takes to Twitter to demand emergency powers and postponement of the elections for two weeks, so that Americans can mourn properly. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of armed supporters of the Second Amendment march on Washington to enforce his security measures. Could this happen here? Would Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell rise to the occasion to defend democracy? Can we depend upon Neil Gorsuch? How about Attorney General Jeff Sessions?
Or consider how a lurch into a war could lead to a crisis and a similar result. A recent issue of Foreign Affairs features an article by Philip Gordon, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, entitled “A Vision of Trump at War: How the President Could Stumble into Conflict.” Gordon offers three well-reasoned narratives, based on what we know in the factual (not “alternative” factual) world of June 2017, in which Trump could lead us into war with Iran, China, or North Korea. Is this far-fetched? The president has already indicated support for increased troop build-ups in Syria and Iraq and is considering a similar escalation in Afghanistan and perhaps Yemen. He has delegated authority to his top military appointees but, tellingly, has not yet met with or spoken to the commanders on the ground in Iraq or Syria, the military leaders who know the most about the situation. How likely is it that these escalations will lead to war, declared or undeclared? And if so, won’t that ignite massive protests? The movement against the Vietnam War took five or six years to become broad-based. Thanks to our polarized political climate and social media, this new movement could spring to life in five or six minutes. But if we are really at war, a very large percentage of the population might uncritically support the president; protests might be met by police, the army, and armed paramilitary organizations. This would, in turn, swell the protests, and the conflict in the streets could lead to emergency decrees, mass arrests, and other draconian policies that lead to one-party rule with or without elections. As Snyder notes, “Protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets.” Don’t anticipate groovy scenarios where peace-loving hippies poke long-stemmed flowers into the rifle barrels of smiling national guardsmen. And since Snyder believes this struggle will be a long one and may involve repression, he closes one of his lessons with another practical piece of advice: “Make sure you and your family have passports.”
Can a manifesto like On Tyranny force us to understand our past more clearly and take action — in small and large ways, as individuals and collectively — to defend democratic values? I hope so. And here is one final lesson worth noting: “Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”
Darryl Holter is a historian, entrepreneur, musician, and owner of an independent bookstore. He has taught history at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA and is an adjunct professor at USC.