May 31st, 2017

Harriet Vane

An important book and interview: Timothy Snyder on tyranny spreading in the US

Dear friends,

Here is an crucial interview for you to watch: Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez questioning and talking with Timothy Snyder

Synder presents his material as twelve steps to resist and avoid a slide into totalitarism, but in fact each of the steps is a description of some stage or aspect of the regime we are enduring today. Probably the most important thing he reminded us of is that in history democracies and republics regularly fail and are replaced by authoritarian regimes. Most Americans cannot believe our democracy is not here forever, cannot fail. Not so at all. We have got to have this historical perspective.

The point of using the historical examples is to remind ourselves that democracies and republics usually fail. The expectation should be failure rather than success. The framers, looking at classical examples from Greece and Rome, gave us the institutions that we have. I think our mistake at present is to imagine that the institutions will automatically continue to protect us. My sense is that we’ve seen institutions like our own fail. We’ve—20th century authoritarians have learned that the way to dismantle systems like ours is to go after one institution and then the next, which means that we have to have an active relationship, both to history, so that we can see how failure arises and learn from people who tried to protect institutions, but also an active relationship to our own institutions, that our institutions are only as good as the people who try to serve them.

When we think about globalization today, we imagine that it’s the first globalization, that everything about it is new. And that’s just not the case. The globalization we’re in now is the second one. The first globalization was the late 19th century and the early 20th century, when there was a similar expansion of world trade, export-led growth. And interestingly, there was also a similar rhetoric of optimism, the idea that trade would lead to enlightenment, would lead to liberalism, would lead to peace. That pattern of the late 19th century, we saw it break. We saw the First World War, as you say, the Great Depression, the Second World War. One way to understand all of that is the long failure of the first globalization.


He had twelve points but I want to begin with the one that appertains to Trump's trip abroad: he wants to separate us from Europe, our old allies because they are social democracies. He does not care in the least if he impoverishes the average person in the US by isolating the US. He wants to ally himself and his regime with militarist dictatorships around the world. That is what he was doing. Remember what Reagan said of his regime: watch what we do, not what we say. Trump and Co are immiserating to enrich themselves egregiously on every level, including ruining the environment.

Gonzalez and Synder:

Professor Snyder, about President Trump in Brussels and Sicily, the NATO meeting, the G7 meeting. Trump sparked outrage in Montenegro after he shoved the prime minister of Montenegro out of his way while barreling to the front of the pack at this weekend’s G7 summit. This came after French President—the new president—Emmanuel Macron clenched Trump’s hand until his knuckle turned white, when the two met in Brussels during the NATO summit. Even when Trump attempted to pull away, Macron continued to grip Trump’s hand. He since said the handshake was a moment of truth designed to send a message to Trump, saying, quote, "We must show that we will not make small concessions, even symbolic ones." Can you comment on this and then on your number 18, which is "Be calm when the unthinkable arrives"?

So, Europe—so, Europe is so important for us. Whether you care about trade and American jobs, it’s the biggest market in the history of the world. Whether you’re more—you know, whether you think more about security, it’s—these are America’s long-term partners. It’s the only reliable set of democracies—or the main reliable set of democracies we have. In many ways, Europe is a positive example for us. So, it is tragic that we are cutting ourselves off from that, from that market, from that security, from those sets of values, for no particular reason.

It fits many things. It fits Mr. Trump’s desire for an America which is more isolated and, frankly, poorer. it fits Mr. Bannon’s ideas about the European Union. What it doesn’t fit is, think, anybody’s—anybody’s interests. The Europeans are seeing us—you know, as one of my political scientist friends puts it, we’re no longer in column A, we’re in column B. You know, we are now—you know, we are now one of the powers which is undermining them, perhaps weakening them, setting a bad example.

And the heartening thing is that people like Angela Merkel or Macron notice this and seem to be taking it as a reason to try to recreate Europe, rather than just being distressed about all of this. That’s a positive thing.


Second: what do we do when the unthinkable happens. Do not imagine a Reichstag though that could. Instead when the Internet as we know it disappears and we can no longer readily reach any source of information we want and speak ourselves here.

be calm when the unthinkable arrives, be a patriot, be courageous—they have to do with a particular mechanism where regimes change. The template is the Reichstag fire of 1933. Pretty much, I think it’s fair to say, all modern tyrants know that they need—When something unthinkable happens, despite our fear and grief, what we have to be protesting for is our own rights.

To go through a few of the twelve points, the first is "don't obey in advance," and don't normalize this.

It’s very important in these kinds of historical moments to get out front. The tendency to or the temptation to normalize is very strong. The temptation to wait and to say, "Well, let’s see what he does after the inauguration. Let’s see who his advisers are. Let’s see what the policies are," that temptation generates normalization, which is already happening in the United States. And so, I was trying to get out front and give people very practical day-to-day things that they could do.

Don’t obey in advance," then you can’t follow lessons two to 20, either. Politically, it’s also really important, because the time which matters the most is the beginning, where we are now. Right now we actually have much more power than we think we do. Our actions are magnified outwards now. When protest becomes illegal or dangerous, this is going to change. But right now Americans actually have more power than they think they do.

The reason—one of the reasons you shouldn’t obey in advance is that when you do, you’re actually giving power ideas. They don’t necessarily have plans. They don’t necessarily know what they can do. But when we lean towards what they think they want—and social media is a very good example of this—then we give them ideas. We teach them what they can do. So, in our real lives and in social media, it’s very important not to obey in advance, because, you’re absolutely right, that information is being collected and collated and considered.


Defend institutions:

They will not defend themselves. One institution being used against the people is the prison system.

Well, that’s the second most important lesson. It’s number—it’s number two for a reason. I have in mind, above all, the constitutional institutions. But I also have in mind, later on in the book, other kinds of institutions, like professional or vocational institutions or nongovernmental organizations. And the reason why institutions are so important is that they’re what prevent us from being those atomized individuals who are alone against the overpowering state. That’s a very romantic image, but the isolated individual is always going to lose. We need the constitutional institutions as much as we can get them going. It’s a real problem now, especially with the legislature. We also need the professions, whether it’s law or medicine or civil servants, to act according to rules that are not the same thing as just following orders. And we need to be able to form ourselves up into nongovernmental organizations, because it’s not just that we have freedom of association. It’s that freedom itself requires association. We need association to have our own ideas confirmed, to have our confidence raised, to be in a position to actually act as individuals. Some of that is actually happening, which is a good sign.

the way we are now—and this connects back to your earlier question—the way we are now, we’re bombarded, from the television, from the internet, with whatever tropes and memes are being chosen for us for a given day or for a given hour. And whether we agree or disagree or feel comfortable or uncomfortable, there’s a certain tendency to express ourselves in the terms that come down from above. We get caught up in this daily rush. You see this, for example, in people who think they’re critical of Trump, but use his language. First, they use it as a joke, and then they find that they can’t get—they can’t get themselves out of it.

being kind to language is one of these—is one of these lessons that seems easy. It just means read, think and try to express your views, whether they’re for or against, in your own words, because my very strong sense is that if we have pluralism of expression, we’re going to be fostering pluralism of thought, and that if people can clarify why it is that they’re opposing this or that, they’re going to be more likely to be persuasive. And at a minimum, in the worst case, if you have your own way of expressing yourself, you at least clutter up the daily memes. You at least put a barrier in the way of the daily tropes. You at least form a force field around yourself and maybe the people who are closest to you, where it’s possible to think and have a little peace.

The importance of truth; there is such a thing; there are no alternative facts:

Hold fast to the truth and truth matters.

Since taking office, President Trump has continued to escalate his attack on the media, what he calls the fake news. On Sunday, he once again took to Twitter, after there was a few days of not tweeting, lambasted the, quote, "fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media." Trump tweeted, "Whenever you see the words 'sources say' in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names ... it is very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!" Meanwhile, The New York Times recently revealed, in a February Oval Office meeting, President Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to consider imprisoning journalists who report on leaks of classified information

t the deepest level, I think we should be aware that this is about getting rid of a common sense of truth. Truth is an awkward concept for us these days and should probably be less awkward concept. If we’re going to resist all of this, I think we have to take a stand, even if it feels a little bit naïve, in favor of the facts, because what we know about 20th century regime changes are that they involve, at their base, an assault on everyday factuality. Whether it’s the extreme-right fascist idea that facts aren’t important, only a sense of collectivity, of belonging to the nation, this organic group, is important, or whether it’s the extreme-left Bolshevik idea that the facts of today have to be sacrificed in the name of a vision tomorrow, we know that these forms of radical politics have to begin with undermining a sense of everyday factuality.

In the 21st century, when ideologies no longer propose a future, what you have is a much more direct attack on factuality, where the first step is to say—well, the first step is just to lie all the time, as Mr. Trump did in 2016. The second step, as we’ve seen since late 2016 and into the presidency, is to say, "It’s not me who lies. It’s the press. It’s the journalists." And the final goal is that everyone is so confused that we say, "We don’t really have truth. We just have our own private, clan-like sets of beliefs." And at that point, democracy is not really possible anymore. Opposition is no longer possible, because we don’t know where to begin. We don’t know—we don’t know whom to trust.

So, of course, it’s an atrocity, and it’s a violation of basic American traditions, to attack journalists like that. But I think something—if possible, something deeper is at stake. I think that this is a direct and well-understood attempt to transform the regime, the easiest and cheapest way possible, which is to make us all distrust one another.


How did he win? by lying, he's an effective speaker, by whipping up passionate hate rallies but all this resonated where and because in some areas of this country the inequality is just egregious:

Here is an underlying problem, at least one, in this country, and it goes back to our earlier discussion of globalization. And that is inequality, especially fractal inequality. That is, in particular parts of the country, there’s just—there are unspeakable levels of inequality. And that sets up the possibility for someone like Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump won by promising all kinds of things he can’t deliver. He won by being a good speaker. He won because he had cyberhelp from foreign powers. There are lots of reasons why he won. But one of the reasons why he could win is that he could say to people, "Look, it’s an oligarchy out there. I’m an oligarch, but I’m your oligarch." Of course, that’s not really true. He doesn’t care about Americans. And there were plenty of other oligarchs behind him; they just weren’t Americans. But you can only tell that story in a situation of radical inequality.


Last beware of paramilitaries:

So, one of the ways that not just Hitler but other ideological authoritarians break republics is that they break the monopoly of violence. That is, they—you’re in a—what we think of as a normal system is when there’s law, and then there are certain organs whose job it is to enforce the law, and those are state organs. What you do if you’re Hitler—and other authoritarians have done this, too—is you have your own militia, a paramilitary, which is an organ of violence which is beyond the state. And you use it to change the atmosphere of politics. You use it to intimidate opponents. And then, after you win, you keep it going. That’s the story of the SA and the SA in—the SS and the SA in Nazi Germany.

So, in the current situation, you know, where our society is flooded with guns like none has ever been before and where there are lots of paramilitaries, it’s very important to watch out for the connection of those paramilitaries to politics. So, for example, if an elected representative or an important politician in, let’s say, Oregon says, "We ought to bring in paramilitaries rather than the police, when we have our own demonstrations," that’s something to really watch out for. Likewise, in the firing of Mr. Comey, of which there are so many desperately bad things that it’s easy to overlook some of them, one of the things which was striking in the firing of Mr. Comey by Mr. Trump is that he sent Keith Schiller to do it. Right? So, here you had a confrontation of the man who was the head of Mr. Trump’s security detail—right?—his own paramilitary, going to fire the head of a law enforcement agency. That’s a sign of the way Mr. Trump thinks, and it’s obviously not a very good sign.

Miss Drake