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If We Don’t Act Now Fascism Will Be on Our Doorstep, Says Yale Historian

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If We Don’t Act Now Fascism Will Be on Our Doorstep, Says Yale Historian

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Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

How close is President Donald Trump to following the path blazed by last century’s tyrants? Could American democracy be replaced with totalitarian rule? There’s enough resemblance that Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who studies fascist and communist regime change and totalitarian rule, has written a book warning about the threat and offering lessons for resistance and survival. The author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century talked to AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld.

Steven Rosenfeld: Three weeks ago, you said that the country has perhaps a year ‘to defend American democracy.’ You said what happens in the next few weeks is crucial. Are you more concerned than ever that our political culture and institutions are evolving toward fascism, resembling key aspects of the early 20th-century European regimes you’ve studied?

Timothy Snyder: Let me answer you in three parts. The first thing is that the 20 lessons that I wrote, I wrote on November 15th. The book, On Tyranny, was done by Christmas. Which means if people read it now, and people are reading it, and it’s describing the world they are in, that means I’ve successfully made predictions based on history. We’re going to talk about what is going to come, but I want to point out that timeline—it was basically completely blind. But the book does describe what is going on now.

The year figure is there because we have to recognize that things move fast. Nazi Germany took about a year. Hungary took about two and a half years. Poland got rid of the top-level judiciary within a year. It’s a rough historical guess, but the point is because there is an outside limit, you therefore have to act now. You have to get started early. It’s just very practical advice. It’s the meta-advice of the past: That things slip out of reach for you, psychologically very quickly, and then legally almost as quickly. It’s hard for people to act when they feel other people won’t act. It’s hard for people to act when they feel like they have to break the law to do so. So it is important to get out in front before people face those psychological and legal barriers.

Am I more worried now? I realize that was your question. No, I’m exactly as worried as I was before, in November. I think that the people who inhabit the White House inhabit a different ideological world in which they would like for the United States not to be the constitutional system that it now is. I was concerned about that in November. I’m concerned about it now. Nothing that has happened since has changed the way I see things.

SR: Let’s talk about how this evolution takes place. You’ve written about how ‘post-truth is pre-fascism.’ You talk about leaders ignoring facts, law and history. How far along this progression are we? I’m wondering where you might see things going next.

TS: That’s tough because what history does is give you a whole bunch of cases where democratic republics become authoritarian regimes; sometimes fascist regimes, sometimes communist regimes. It doesn’t give you one storyline: A, B, C, D. It gives you a bunch of clusters of A, and a bunch of clusters of C. But factuality is really important and more important than people realize, because it’s the substructure of regime change.

We think about democracy, and that’s the word that Americans love to use, democracy, and that’s how we characterize our system. But if democracy just means going to vote, it’s pretty meaningless. Russia has democracy in that sense. Most authoritarian regimes have democracy in that sense. Nazi Germany had democracy in that sense, even after the system had fundamentally changed.

Democracy only has substance if there’s the rule of law. That is, if people believe that the votes are going to be counted and they are counted. If they believe that there’s a judiciary out there that will make sense of things if there’s some challenge. If there isn’t rule of law, people will be afraid to vote the way they want to vote. They’ll vote for their own safety as opposed to their convictions. So the thing we call democracy depends on the rule of law. And the things we call the rule of law depends upon trust. Law functions 99 percent of the time automatically. It functions because we think it’s out there. And that, in turn, depends on the sense of truth. So there’s a mechanism here. You can get right to heart of the matter if you can convince people that there is no truth. Which is why the stuff that we characterize as post-modern and might dismiss is actually really, really essential.

The second thing about ‘post-truth is pre-fascism’ is I’m trying to get people’s attention, because that is actually how fascism works. Fascism says, disregard the evidence of your senses, disregard observation, embolden deeds that can’t be proven, don’t have faith in god but have faith in leaders, take part in collective myth of an organic national unity, and so forth. Fascism was precisely about setting the whole Enlightenment aside and then selling what sort of myths emerged. Now those [national] myths are pretty unpredictable, and contingent on different nations and different leaders and so on, but to just set facts aside is actually the fastest catalyst. So that part concerns me a lot.

Where we’re going? The classic thing to watch out for is the shift from one governing strategy to another. In the U.S. system, the typical governing strategy is you more or less have to follow your constituents with legislation because of the election cycle. That’s one pulse of politics. The other pulse of politics is emergency. There’s some kind of terrorist attack and then the leader tries to suspend basic constitutional rights. And then we get on a different rhythm, where the rhythm is not one electoral cycle to the next but one emergency to the next. That’s how regime changes take place. It’s a classic way since the Reichstag fire [when the Nazis burned their nation’s capitol building and blamed communist arsonists].

So in terms of what might happen next, or what people could look out for, some kind of event that the government claims is a terrorist incident, would be something to be prepared for. That’s why it’s one of the lessons in the book.

SR: You have talked before about that kind of emergency justification—and even with Vladimir Putin in Russia. Is that what you think would happen here? Because with the exception of the judiciary, a lot of American institutions, like Congress, are not really resisting. They’re going along.

TS: They’re going along… but my own intuition would be the emergency situation arises because going along isn’t going to be enough. Paradoxically, Congress is going along and is going to pass a bunch of stuff, which is not actually very popular. Right? It’s not going to be so popular to have millions of people lose health insurance, which is what’s going to happen. The ironic things about the Republican Congress is now it has the ability to do everything it wants to do, but none of what it wants to do is that popular. Except with the few big lobbies, of course. The freedom the Republicans have is the freedom to impose their agenda on down.

The same thing goes with Mr. Trump. The things that he might do that some people would like, like building a wall or driving all the immigrants out, those things are going to be difficult or slow. In the case of the wall, I personally don’t believe it will ever happen. It’s going to be very slow. So my suspicion is that it is much easier to have a dramatic negative event, than have a dramatic positive event. That is one of the reasons I am concerned about the Reichstag fire scenario. The other reason is that we are being mentally prepared for it by all the talk about terrorism and by the Muslim ban. Very often when leaders repeat things over and over they are preparing you for when that meme actually emerges in reality.

SR: I want to change the topic slightly. You cite many examples from Germany in 1933, the year Hitler consolidated power. So what did ordinary Germans miss that’s relevant for ordinary Americans now? I know some of this is the blurring of facts. But when I have talked to Holocaust survivors, they often say, nobody ever thought things would be that bad, or nobody thought the Germans would go as far as they did.

TS: The German Jews then, and people now, don’t understand how quick their neighbors will change; don’t understand how quickly society can change. They don’t understand the fact that a life that’s been predictable for a long time, doesn’t mean that it will be predictable tomorrow. And people like to think that their experience is exceptional. German Jews might have thought, ‘Well, there were pogroms [ethnic cleansing] in Russia, but surely nothing like that could happen here.’ That’s what many German Jews thought. So one issue is people need to realize how quickly things can change.

The second thing that German Jews were not aware of, or Germans were not aware of, was how new media can quickly change conversations. In that way, it’s not exactly the same, but radio at that time often ended up being a channel for propaganda. There are parallels with the internet now, where there were hopes that it would be [primarily] enlightening. But in fact, it turns out that with presidential tweets, or with bots, or isolated habits of viewing, it isn’t necessarily enlightening. It’s the opposite. A lot of us were blindsided by the internet in much the same way that people could be blindsided by radio in the 1930s.

But here’s the other view. The one that we have that German Jews didn’t have in 1933 is we have their experience. That’s the premise of the whole book; the premise is that the 20th century showed us what can happen, and there’s lots of wonderful scholarship by German historians and others, which breaks down what can happen and how. And so, one of the first things that we should be doing is taking advantage of the one opportunity that we really have that they didn’t, which is to learn from that history. And that’s the premise of the book.

SR: All of your book’s lessons are very personal: Don’t obey in advance. Believe in truth. Stand out. Defend institutions. Be calm but as courageous as you can be. Yet the change or oppression that you are talking about is systemic and institutional. What do you say to people who say, ‘I’ll try, but I may not have the power here.’ There’s that cliche, tilting at windmills. …

TS: Well, if everyone tilted against a windmill, the windmill would fall down, right? Party of the tragedy of Don Quixote is he’s tilting against the wrong thing. So that’s not our problem. We’re pretty sure what the problem is. But he was also alone except for his faithful companion. We’re not really alone. There are millions and millions of people who are looking for that thing to do. Just by sheer math, if everyone does a little thing, it will make a difference. And much of what I am recommending is—you’re right, they are things that people can do, but they also involve some kind of engagement. Whether it’s the small talk [with those you disagree with] or whether it’s the corporeal politics. And that little bit of engagement helps you realize that what you are doing has a kind of sense, even if it doesn’t immediately change the order.

And finally, a lot of the political theory that I am calling upon, which comes from the anti-Nazis and the anti-communists, makes the point that even though you don’t realize it, your own example matters a whole lot, whether it’s positively or negatively. There are times, and this is one of those times, where small gestures, or their absence, can make a huge difference. So the things that might not have mattered a year ago do matter now. The basic thing is we are making a difference whether we realize it or not, and the basic question is whether it is positive or negative.

Let me put it a different way. Except for really dramatic moments, most of the time authoritarianism depends on some kind of cycle involving a popular consent of some form. It really does matter how we behave. The danger is [if] we say, ‘Well, we don’t see how it matters, and so therefore we are going to just table the whole question.’ If we do that, then we start to slide along and start doing the things that the authorities expect of us. Which is why lesson number one is: Don’t obey in advance. You have to set the table differently. You have to say, ‘This is a situation in which I need to think for myself about all of the things that I am going to do and not just punt. Not just wait. Nor just see how things seems to me. Because if you do that, then you change and you actually become part of the regime change toward authoritarianism.’

SR: You cite in the book something I read in high school: Eugene Ionesco’s existential play about fascism, Rhinoceros, where people talk about their colleagues at work, in academia, saying stuff like, ‘Come on, I don’t agree with everything, but give him a chance.’ Ionesco’s point is that people join an unthinking herd before they know it. 

What would you suggest people do, when they run into others who fall on this spectrum?

TS: There are a few questions here. One is how to keep yourself going. Another is how to energize other people who agree with you. And the third thing is not quite Rhinoceros stuff, but how to catch people who are slipping. Like that CNN coverage last week of the speech to Congress, where one of the CNN commentators said, ‘Oh, now this is presidential.’ That was a Rhinoceros moment, because there was nothing presidential—it was atrocious to parade the victims of crimes committed by one ethnicity. That was atrocious and there’s nothing presidential about it.

Catching Rhinoceros moments is one thing. I think it’s really important to think about. The example that Ionesco gives is people saying, ‘Yeah, on one hand, with the Jews, maybe they are right.’ With Trump, people will say something like, ‘Yeah, but on taxes, maybe he’s right.’ And the thing to catch is, ‘Yeah, but are you in favor of regime change? Are you in favor of the end of the American way of democracy and fair play?’ Because that’s what’s really at stake.

With people all the way over at the end of the spectrum who are now confident about Trump—that’s a different subject. I think it’s important to maintain impossible human relations across that divide, because some of those people are going to change their minds. It’s harsh. But some will change their minds, and if they have no one to talk to, it will be much harder for them to change their minds. At different points on the spectrum, you have to think in different ways. My own major concern right now is with self-confidence and the energy of the people who do have the deep—and, I think incorrect—conviction that something has gone wildly wrong.

SR: The people who have the conviction that something has gone wildly wrong—that can describe Trump supporters and Trump opponents.

TS: That’s a good point. So much of this is personal. In the book, I don’t actually mention anybody’s name, except the thinkers who I admire. So much of this is personal that people think, ‘Well, if you say anything critical, it is about you as a person, and how you don’t like anything about someone who likes Trump.’ That’s a way for there to be no political discussion.

I think it’s useful, even though you will never win the argument, when you are talking about people who support to the administration, to stay at the level of the Constitution. To stay at the level of freedom, or stay at the level of basic issues, like, is global warming really going to be so great, when the entire Pentagon says that it is a national security threat? Or, is it really such a good idea to treat Muslims like this? Or, is it really going to be so good when millions of people lose health insurance?

Keep it at the level of issues as much as possible, because what I’ve found is the pattern that people shift to is, ‘Why are you going to be so hard on this guy? Give him a chance.’ But the issues of what’s constitutional, what is actually American, and what’s going to be a policy that they are going to be proud of a year from now—keep the conversation closest to the Constitution. It’s easiest to be dismissed when it’s personal. And fundamentally, this is the trick. It isn’t personal. It doesn’t matter who’s in charge. What matters is the system, which people of very different convictions take for granted, is now under threat.

SR: You have said that the Muslims are being targeted as the Jews were targeted in Germany. But out here in California, it also feels like the deportation machinery is getting ready for undocumented immigrants. On Monday, Reuters reported that Homeland Security officials said they might separate mothers from kids when making arrests. Germany did that as it rounded up Jews. Don’t they face just as grave a threat?

TS: With the Muslims, the resemblance to anti-Semitic policy in Germany in ’33 is that if you can pick some group and make them stand in for some international threat, then you can change domestic politics, because domestic politics then is no longer about compromises and competing interests, domestic politics is about who inside the society should actually be seen and outside the society. Once you get the wedge in with the first group, them you essentially win. It could be the Muslims. It could be somebody else, is the point. The political logic is basically the same.

With undocumented immigrants, I think the logic might be a little bit different. I think the goal might be to get us used to seeing a certain kind of police power. And getting us used to seeing things happening to people in public. And then if we get used to that, then we might be more willing for the dial to turn a little bit further. It’s too soon for me to speculate confidently about all of this.

I think you’re right though, it could be the Muslims, but it doesn’t have to be the Muslims. The crucial thing is to get some kind of in [political opening] where people go along with or accept stigmatization. And the logic is there’s always some kind of threat that comes from beyond the country. And that we can fix that threat on a group of people inside the country. And if you go along with this, what else are you agreeing to go along with?

SR: To go back to your book, what you’re saying is that people should be vigilant, should know their values and participate at some level with making those values known, because that is what ordinary people can do.

TS: Yes. The point of the book is [that] we are facing a real crisis and a real moment of choice. The possibilities are much darker than Americans are used to considering. But at the same time, what we can do is much more important than we realize. The regime will only change if the gamble of the people in the White House is right: That many of us despise many others of us and that most of us are indifferent. If it turns out that there are emotions and values that are more numerous and more vibrant than indifference and hatred, things are going to be okay. That depends on us. That depends on us making certain realizations. It depends on us acting fast. In that sense it’s a test, not just collectively. Maybe there’s no such thing as a collective test. But it is a test for us individually.

Most Americans who haven’t been abroad haven’t been faced by something like this. And hopefully they won’t be faced with it again. But we are faced with it as citizens and as individuals. And I think, five or 10 years from now, no matter how things turn out, we’ll ask ourselves—or our children will ask us—how we behaved in 2017.

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.



    1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth March 15, 2017

      How quaint and amusing. Someone spawned from the cesspool of fake news, having the temerity to accuse someone else of fake news. How many of these childish memes do you and your associates have stockpiled in your infantile database?

      1. Mama Bear March 15, 2017

        drain that cesspool:) I did, I blocked him and whatever he spews does not reach my universe.

        1. dpaano March 16, 2017

          Ditto……there’s enough nonsense going on politically…we don’t need a bunch of uninformed idiot trolls!

      2. idamag March 17, 2017

        To intelligent people, there is no alternative to fake news. It means exactly what it says – fake, made up, no facts, downright lies , etc. To the right wing racists it means anything they don’t like. They are destroying our country because instead of learning, they think ignorance is a virtue.

        1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth March 20, 2017

          Sadly, the adoption by Trump, many in the GOP, and their respective followers have distanced themselves so far from reality that their zip codes may as well be on the dark side of the moon. And Trump and Bannon are the Pied Pipers of “Fake News”, piping away as they lead the vermin of Trumpland to a watery grave. Hamelin of lore may as well be the individual residences of all of those residing in Trump strongholds who still sing his praises.

    2. COMALite J March 16, 2017

      You don’t know what the term “fake news” actually means, do you?

      1. idamag March 17, 2017

        Have you ever looked at the reptile “godzilla.” It has very little space from its eyes to the top of its head. In fact, none. This “high school football player” has chosen his avatar well.

  1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth March 14, 2017

    “Godzilla”, thankfully, is providing a useful service in justifying the concerns expressed above. But enough of his childish diversions.
    There are several things, among many others, that the article references that require our urgent attention, and several others I’d like to offer from a Baha’i perspective.

    1) The ongoing competitive adversarial nature of our political system renders politics no more than a way of choosing who we want to represent us. However, no matter how wise we elect, the representatives at the local, state, and federal levels enter into a divisive arena that mirrors divisiveness in society, and have to waste time fighting among themselves to get anything done—positive or negative.
    2) A follow-up of “1” creates the feeling among politicians in the majority, that as contestants, they must “impose” their will on the less dominant entity in order to “score” points and look good in the eyes of the voters.. The shift in power fluctuates, but the division remains nonetheless.
    3) Americans having been absorbed in an environment that rewards quick service at the expense of quality, or expecting rapid outcomes, is a byproduct of a society that has lost a sense of patience. Rather than carefully consider a problem, we want the fastest solution, regardless of whether a structure, for example, is as well-built as it should be, or a position offered as fully as possible to inspire deeper thoughts. The primacy of shallowness in thinking has become a hallmark of American society by and large.
    4) And then there’s our infatuation with social media and the internet to a point that deceitful people can take advantage of it, by disseminating false information easily and quickly to massive numbers of people in a flash—something that despots in the past had no access to or imagine possible.
    5) Heavy reliance on certain media whose very mission is to deceive, makes telling the difference between what is real and what are hoaxes much harder. Entities like FOX take advantage of the hypnotic effect of 24/7 blasting of lies and distortions have on those who no longer are capable of, or wish to, of following a long train of thought, or could care less about reading books.
    6) Overuse of media forms like Twitter turn many users into functionally illiterate individuals, unable to express cogent thoughts, or write no more than an offensive retort to articles like this one—refer to the numerous Trump Trolls that have infested this forum and other platforms, and people like “Godzilla”.

    In summary, outside influences can easily take advantage of these trends and work much more efficiently to demoralize a society composed largely of individuals who’ve been lulled into a state of mental lethargy. Only by engaging people of different races, classes, and backgrounds, in substantial and meaningful conversations which focus less on politics, and more on building relationships, can we break this downward spiral. Politics, especially as it now exists, is not a useful means of changing hearts. And a change in heart affects our attitudes, which in turn makes for better and more intelligent voters.

  2. itsfun March 15, 2017

    We did act to get rid of Fascism, we didn’t elect Hillary.

    1. Hueight March 15, 2017

      Someone needs to lookup fascism.

      1. idamag March 17, 2017

        Look at my post, above, describing the dumbing down of America. The fascists and the dolts are a danger to this country.

    2. jmprint March 15, 2017

      When did you see Hillary hire a supremacist to advise her. Trump surrounds himself with them.

      1. idamag March 17, 2017

        Arguing with a person with so little knowledge at this care of arrested development is arguing with a racist, stupid diptin.

    3. Aaron_of_Portsmouth March 20, 2017

      It’s a pity you’ve chosen ignorance and idiocy to be your favorite “virtues”.

  3. Mama Bear March 15, 2017

    Isn’t it amazing how history repeats itself and humans react the same way over and over and over. No doubt this prediction will come to pass. Are there enough “resistors” to change it’s course? Who knows. My mother – rest her soul – was the daughter of Jewish parents in Germany. Her father understood what what happening and sent her and her sister (ages 14 and 16) to America to save them from the inevitable fate he knew awaited his family. My mother told the stories to us until the day she passed and told us that when it happens here, as she knew it could, we must fight if we are young and strong or flee if we are too young or too old. I am likely too old but I will fight until my last breath as my grandparents did. We will likely die anyway so let’s go down fighting for freedom.

    1. idamag March 17, 2017

      We MUST fight.

  4. opinioned1 March 15, 2017

    I just don`t get it—?? Why do these friggin un-America losers and misfits insist on waving flags that real American`s fought against and destroyed? Everything they once stood for has been destroyed? I would think if you morons were serious you would at least pick a flag that stood for something other than massive defeat and embarrassment.

    1. Mama Bear March 15, 2017

      Ignorant people do not read history books and therefore they do not know what that symbol stand for. There is a huge problem in this country with educating the very low-level idiots.

  5. jmprint March 15, 2017

    You can get them out of the trailer, but you can’t get the trailer out of them.

    1. idamag March 17, 2017

      Aint that the truth.

    2. Mama Bear March 17, 2017

      HAHAHA! good one. thanks

  6. Jmz Nesky March 17, 2017

    Talking heads keep warning, expecting us the masses to do something about it when our only saving grace will be our leaders.. Oops! They seem to be the ones organizing fascism so their useless to the American people, oh, not the fascist lovers, I’m talking about the ones who only wanna live in peace just as their ancestors did (after they fought for their freedom) .. So what to do about this insane movement? Let her rip, that’s the only way we will be able to start the new revolution, hopefully beat these Nazi pricks back under the rocks they slithered from AND reconstruct a new g’ment, get rid of the old and replace them with honest patriots who will heal the country and help each and every one of us to re-live the American dream.. Yes, its a lot to ask.. Much sacrifice but it’s coming and the goose stepping wankers need to learn a hard lesson as do we in our lacking way of electing our officials.. Right now the leaders are draining the swamp, if you look closely as to what is being replaced then you will know the draining consists of those who have tried to help this nation and maintain the helpful programs that were installed 70 years ago.. So with that in mind you can’t help but realize that the ones now in charge are draining the swamp and replacing it with a cesspool.

    1. idamag March 17, 2017

      We can’t “storm the Bastille.” However, we can show disapproval as we are doing now. The postcard blitz on the Ides of March was one way to show we are not lying down and saying “kick me again.” The marches were another. Even Joe Scarborough has spoken out against Congress last night on The Steven Colbert show. This morning trump is tweeting against Joe. The first postcard, I sent to Trump the first month, said only, “I don’t like you.” It probably never got read, but there will be so many during the blitz that someone has to pay attention. The ones I sent then, had a picture of my cat with the words, “Not up for grabs.” The thing about postcards is that everyone who handles them can read them. You don’t have to sign your name.

      1. Jmz Nesky March 18, 2017

        I’m not saying we shouldn’t try and I’m not saying in some ways it can make a difference but the buck stops at the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania avenue, n.w. so long as we keep voting in self-important apathetic sub-humans. The only reason Trump pays attention is because he’s a psychotic asshat who demands everybody love him and abhors being second place in anything (second place=first loser)..

  7. idamag March 17, 2017

    I don’t think the author is an alarmist. When WWII ended, I was a child. I saw the horrible newsreels showing what they found in the concentration camps. I wanted to understand why a human could do that to another human. It was beyond me. So, from that day on I have studied nazi Germany extensively. I read the English version of “Mein Kampf.” Another good read is, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” One of the first things hitler did was to get rid of intellectuals such as teachers, writers and others. This country has done this in a more subtle way. They used our education system, cable television, and the internet. Hitler destroyed the free press. This country has few journalists left. I will say, Time and Newsweek do have some real journalists and are working to save us from ourselves. Then they had to usurp a party and found one that they have all but destroyed and turned it into their patsies. Hitler had what he termed as “useless mouths.” These were people who were unable to work. They were being sent to camps for rehabilitation from things such as: developmental disabilities, siezures, lameness. In these camps they were locked in a small building that piped gas from a huge exhaust engine into the building. We have people, here, who would advocate the same, I think. I used to work for health and welfare. There were people who didn’t have the skills for good paying jobs. I knew one man who worked two jobs doing janitor work at two cafes after closing time. He did not make enough for food, clothing and lodging and qualified for food stamps. Yet farm subsidies and oil subsidies do not look like welfare to those who look over what is in a person, with food stamps, grocery cart. We are turning into the most hateful nation in the world and that promotes fascism.


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