Interview with Timothy Snyder

By H.D. Wright

Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He speaks five and reads ten European languages. He is the author of eleven books, including On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017); and The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018).


HDW: My interpretation of your book, On Tyranny, is that it was written to act as an alarm, a warning to American citizens that the fabric of our democracy is under attack. In the book, you list a number of signs that conscious citizens should watch out for as markings of tyranny. It’s been three years since your book was published, are any of these signs visible in American society today?

Snyder: The most obvious one which is right before our eyes is the one about paramilitaries. We’re seeing the beginnings of a mixture between paramilitaries and police forces, which is dangerous. We’re speaking at a moment after a young man took a semiautomatic weapon and killed two people because they were protesting, and that young man was not arrested even after he tried to surrender to the police after he did what he did. We’re speaking at a moment where in some places paramilitaries and police are engaging in some friendly way.

Another obvious one regards truth. I think we’re even further down the road in not believing that anything is true than we were three years ago when I wrote the book, and Mr. Trump deserves a lot of credit for that because he’s been extremely consistent in his behavior. I think he shows ruthless discipline about never telling the truth, and that has an effect. Most politicians lie, but when you catch them, they at least admit that there’s something called the truth, whereas Mr. Trump doesn’t do that. I think he has been leading us further and further into this world where everything is just a matter of how you feel.

Another lesson stands out: don’t obey in advance. There’s an awful lot of conformity and an awful lot of Americans who are following the President to places where I think many people would’ve said they wouldn’t have gone. That’s actually what happens in history where what’s normal gets changed, and you forget today what was normal yesterday. And that’s one of the fundamental things that I was warning against, that democracy depends on an individual's sense of ideals and an individual's ability to define for themself what is normal. If we give that power of defining the normal over to someone, then it will always be abused, and it really has been abused. What seems normal now would’ve seemed extraordinarily abnormal just three years ago.

HDW: How can we regain truth, regain control over the police, and make these acts not normal again, and strengthen the institutions that would be there to prevent this from happening? Because somebody has to pull it back from where it’s headed.

Snyder: I think at this point, it’s more a matter of pulling it forward to a different place. One of the things which I think distinguished me from a lot of people who were looking at 2016 was that I did not start from the assumption that American democracy is secure. I started from the assumption that American democracy is insecure. And I didn’t do it because I’m such an expert on America, but because I’m aware of the history of democracy, which usually fails.

And also there’s a logical point that democracy means the people ruling, so, by definition, when people start saying, “Oh, the institutions will protect us,” then democracy is going to die, because the institutions are only as alive as the people decide that they are going to be. I would recast your question a little bit and say that we are going to have a democracy if the people decide that they want to rule instead of the various kinds of sleepwalking that so many of us have been engaged in in the last three years—which isn’t to say that there aren’t specific institutional things. Of course there are specific institutional things.

When it comes to truth and the production of facts, the country is starving for facts. Most of the country is now a news desert. Local news no longer really exists. That’s fatal for democracy because people want to understand things, and they’ll try to understand things without facts, and that creates this huge vacuum or demand for either the propaganda from the nation's capital, or the conspiracy theories which often come even from beyond our own country. In terms of truth, one probably has to break up the big platforms. One has to tax the big platforms and use that to support local news. Fundamentally, one has to think about the production of factuality.

As to the police, there are plenty of people who are better experts on that than I am, but I would say at least two things. One is that no one should be engaging American citizens without some identification. That should not be happening. Another thing I would say is that it’s crazy to have a border zone defined a hundred miles from your borders, which allows the Department of Homeland Security to treat most of the American population as somehow part of a border zone. That should not be happening.

And the third thing that shouldn’t happen is the police should not be militarized. Because when the police are militarized then you’re in the worst possible area because the police don’t have the same ethical infrastructure as the actual military does. And then when they’re militarized, they also lose their police ethical background, so they’re in this kind of no man's land. We really shouldn’t have all of these huge SWAT teams, and we shouldn’t have tanks on the streets on the side of the police. That shouldn’t be happening. In terms of the summer, it’s not so much about the police as it is about telling the truth about our own past. That is something which will be a task for the people of your generation and forward. Basically, if we lie about the past, we will continue to be racist, because the racism and the lying go together. If we confront the past, then we have a better chance of being citizens.

HDW: Any specific aspects of the past that we should confront, or the entire foundation?

Snyder: That’s a very well formulated question. I think it’s the entire formation. The United States has a story about itself that somehow we were just here, we were a nation, there were some nice white people, they were the founding fathers, whereas in fact, we were a frontier empire. We’ve never been a nation state until now. We’ve always been in motion. We’ve always been conquering, one way or another, until very recently. The way that the native populations and the African Americans fit into the story isn’t just a kind of detail or a side show, it’s the core truth about how the country was created, which doesn’t mean the U.S. is worse than other places. It just means the U.S. has a history. It doesn’t mean everyone has to grow up feeling guilty all the time, but I think it does mean people have to be truthful. There are all these wonderful American myths about the Confederacy and so on, and I’m afraid those have to be treated as myths, and the history of the country has to be more widespread. There’s no simple way to do that, but the basic answer to your question is slavery and the frontier. We have to put those in the center of what our history is all about. And then on that basis, we can build a just future. If our idea is, nobody ever did anything wrong, and slavery and the frontier are just footnotes, then we will not only continue to have racism, we’ll also have all kinds of policies that racism makes possible, which are bad for everybody.

HDW: We’re fortunate that many people are writing the true history of the country now, and consequently, many more people are waking up to it and becoming conscious of it. Earlier, you mentioned a few policy solutions--demilitarizing the police and funding local news outlets--what would you say that the normal American citizen can do? Because these are sweeping policy changes under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

Snyder: That’s very important. The normal American citizen can do a ton. The normal American citizen can subscribe to newspapers. The business model of newspapers was always advertising. The advertising is now Google and Facebook, and then Google and Facebook train us to think we should get everything for free, and we just go along with that like sheep, and thereby we take part in the murder of the news industry. If there are newspapers with reporters, then we should be paying money to get their reportage. If Americans would just subscribe to the newspapers, local and national, that would make a huge difference.

Another good example of what people can do is what you’re doing. People can decide to try and figure things out. The way that social platforms are designed is to make us all positive consumers of stimulation, and it takes an active effort to say no, I’m actually going to try to figure some things out. And the trick to knowing whether you’re figuring something out is whether you’ve gotten up and left your desk. Social media operates on the principle of what is easiest to make you believe, and what it’s easiest to make you believe has no relationship whatsoever to do with the truth. The truth is always surprising, so people have to go out and train themselves to find what is surprising, and that is something an average person can do. And by surprising, I don’t mean the latest shocking conspiracy theory on the internet. What’s surprising is the simple factual truth.

HDW: You’ve said that history is a tool to instruct. What can we learn from Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and Stalin’s Russia that can teach us how to respond in our present moment to the tyranny facing our society?

Snyder: Well, an awful lot of things. One is the importance of propaganda language. The importance of drumbeat propaganda, very simple slogans like “Lock her up,” for example, or “Drain the swamp.” The things that go quickly to an animal part of the brain and define ‘us’ and ‘them’. Those are fascist tricks, and we should be aware they're fascist tricks.

A second thing that we can learn which we’ve already talked about is the allergy to the truth. The Nazis, the Soviets, the Fascists, they were all highly indifferent to factual truth, whereas democracy depends upon factual truth, because the truth is the subject of conversation between free citizens who have different values. If you take away the factual truth, then all you have left is the different values, and then you’re very easily manipulated.

A third lesson is the importance of having multiple political parties who are campaigning on policy, as opposed to campaigning on shutting the system down. We’re in the unfortunate position where one of our two major political parties doesn’t really have a platform anymore and is running on the idea that it can stop other people from voting. If that wins, then you end up with just one party, and a one party system, which history tells us, we definitely shouldn’t have.

Another lesson has to do with lawlessness. The concentration camps in Nazi Germany are lawless zones. Whenever there was a major Soviet crime about to be committed, a state of exception was declared. That was true for collectivization, that was true for the Great Terror. If you’re trying to run a democracy or a rule of law state, you have to watch out for all the excuses that people come up with to declare an exception. Oh, a city is bankrupt, I guess we’ll have to declare an exception and run that city undemocratically. Oh, maybe all the ballots aren’t going to be there on November 3, therefore I need to declare an exception. Where you say, there’s something really crazy going on, therefore the law doesn’t apply--that’s something you have to watch out for because that’s the easy way to slip from a democracy into something else.

HDW: Much of our discussion has centered around the importance of factual information, and having a society built on shared truths. What books do you think every responsible American citizen should have read?

Snyder: I tried to write that book. I think every responsible American should read the Constitution, but if I had to pick one book, it’s The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, which is about language, conformity, and the little things that we do that are in fact collaboration, although they don’t feel like collaboration, that leave us unfree.