Historian Timothy Snyder on Russia, Trump, and Terrorism
"We have a president who regards the Russian system as a positive model"
Yale historian Timothy Snyder has 20 pills he wants us to take and keep taking, perhaps to save our country. The stark premise that he laid out a month ago is that the real project of Donald Trump and company is “regime change.” When they mock the legal restraints of “so-called judges” and call journalism “the opposition,” we should understand that they’re test-marketing their contempt for the rule of law and the constitutional protection of critical freedom. In February, Snyder published a pocket-size get-real manual called On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century—a collection of essential warnings Europe didn’t hear in the 1930s, that grate on American ears today. And then, just a few days ago, the strangest thing happened: the Guardian reports that Russian hackers broke into the Amazon listing for On Tyranny and transformed it into a pro-Trump coloring book. Here, before anybody hacks it, is part of our conversation with Tim Snyder on the American peril in Trump time.
Christopher Lydon: It’s a scary little book you’ve written on tyranny, including the notion that the history of modern democracy is one of decline and fall. We used to say that confidently about empires, but you’re saying it about democracies, including ours.
Timothy Snyder: I don’t think it’s a scary book. I think it’s an instructive book. It’s a political manual. You have to really not be paying attention to think that we’re not facing a very serious struggle, an existential struggle for the future and the character of the American Republic. And given that this is true, we then have to ask ourselves: how can we understand the moment? How could we prepare the struggle? We need some other way to do so besides just being terrified or surprised by the news of the day.
Historically, we recognize—as you say—that democracy generally fails, that we learn lessons from those who have either succeeded or not succeeded in trying to keep historical democracies afloat, and that becomes part of our armory as we work to keep our own democratic republic going. It’s very important—and I think this is sort of the center point of the American shock surprise, the American disorientation—to recognize that we’re not exceptional, or that we’re exceptional and everybody’s exceptional. History is never entirely unique, but everyone has something to learn from someone else.
So, what I’m proposing is that we take a step away from our own confident assurance that we’re going to be free because we’ve always been free, that we also not allow ourselves to be shocked into inaction by the threat that we won’t be free, but instead that we take a lateral step, look around us, draw examples from whence we can and act.
“It’s very important to recognize that we’re not exceptional.”
CL: I’m interested in what you’ve learned since the end of November, including the inauguration and the rise of Steve Bannon, but also the rise of tremendous activism in the women’s marches, in legal gathering, in the university presidents. Some people feel that we’re being challenged to be “real citizens” as they weren’t before and we might not have been if Trump had lost.
TS: I have this slightly East European perspective that Americans are extremely slow and complacent and they need to have everything served to them before they react. And I think that is true of us, unfortunately to a great degree, but in the end, in the airport protests of the Muslim ban, we saw speed and coordination. And in the marches we saw numbers, but also we saw intelligence and we saw people from different backgrounds and different political perspectives communicating with one another effectively, talking to each other in real life, writing fantastically intelligent signs. That was better than I would have expected.
In some ways things are better, and in some way things are worse than they were in the 1930s. And I would never maintain that it’s the same, but the big difference is that we have retrospect. We can look back and say, “it can fail, and therefore we need to act now.” We’ve got that, and I have been all in all pleasantly surprised that many Americans seem to have learned that lesson.
CL: You wisely tell people to watch their words and listen hard to the words that are being used. I immediately think of, and you mentioned, “terrorism.” I also think: what’s the history of these abuses? We’ve been misusing terrorism for 20 to 30 years now. Certainly since 9/11. We never see our own predator strikes as terrorism, and we take the politics out of the 9/11 attack by simply calling that blanket “terrorism.”
TS: In 2001, we used an act of terrorism in the United States to justify a war which had nothing to do with that act of terror, and the people who were in power at the time abused the understandable force of that word and that concept and that experience in New York and Washington and elsewhere to bring about events which killed far, far, far more people and which, in fact, among other things, spread terrorism much further than the authors of 9/11 could have ever hoped.
But here’s what I would say now: we’re now in a situation where a president facing an act of terror could also use it as a justification to completely undo the constitutional order in the United States. For all the legitimate criticisms one would have of our reaction to 2001, if there was a terrorist attack in 2017, we now have a president who is temperamentally and morally very different from George Bush. We have a president who has not even given nodding recognition to the rule of law and democracy. We have a president who openly admires other people—such as Putin or Assad—who have used terrorism precisely to undo the rule of law and install an authoritarian regime. We’re in a different and worse place than we were in 2001, unfortunately, and we need to recognize that there is something worse that can happen. And we need to prepare ourselves to mobilize to defend the constitutional order in the United States in the case of a terrorist attack.
CL: I’m reminded that I met you originally thanks to Tony Judt, the historian, a mentor of yours, a man whose work matter hugely to me, especially Ill Fares the Land. In that book he says, “We must act on our intuition of impending catastrophe.”
What’s wrong with our society? It came down to three big categories in Tony Judt’s analysis: firstly, our money culture, money worship in our institutions and in our undergraduates; secondly, that we’re letting go of a social democracy—both the reality of a welfare state and its value; and thirdly, what he called a “dilapidated public conversation,” sort of media silliness, entertaining ourselves to death. How do we remember those warnings in the light of the panic around the new ones?
TS: I think the fundamental insight that Tony had about social democracy was that it has to do with fear, and given where we stand now with Obamacare under threat (and maybe even Medicare and Medicaid under threat), this is a point which I think needs a lot of emphasis. Social democracy is primarily about generating a middle class that feels like society and politics belong to it and that each individual has a role in society and politics. It’s for creating the social conditions in which democracy is possible. We in America are afraid all of the time, and too many people who voted for Trump voted for Trump because they thought here is somebody who can somehow resolve all of this fear. That’s a shortcut that never works. The only thing that can resolve fear is institutions, which not only make war less likely but that make education something we can take for granted, that make healthcare something we can take for granted, that make pensions something we take for granted. When those things are resolved, then people have the mental space, the psychological capacity, the emotional ability to think about their own interests, the interests of their families and friends over the long run. So, this issue of social democracy is directly related to whether we survive as a democracy, and that’s something that I think Republicans might want to be giving a thought to as 2017 begins.
“Social democracy is primarily about generating a middle class that feels like society and politics belong to it and that each individual has a role in society and politics.”
CL: A lot of people voted for Trump in a kind of anxiety. What they got, it turns out, was Steve Bannon, and that story is still emerging about what he believes, what he fears, what he intends, what he’s saying to the president. What’s the counter theory of how the country, how this society and others in the world came to the distress that it’s in?
TS: The thing that strikes me about Mr. Bannon—in him and in the text he seems to prepare for Mr. Trump—is this alternative nostalgia which is not conservative. If I understand conservative nostalgia in the US, it has something to do with the period before the 1960s, the kind of the idealized 1950s before the hippies, before the pill, before the war when people worked hard and knew their place.
What’s striking about Mr. Bannon and Mr. Trump is that their nostalgia lands in a different place. It lands in the 1930s, which is only 20 years before but actually hugely different. Mr. Bannon says he wants to bring us policies that are as exciting as those of the 1930s. Mr. Trump uses the term “enemies of the people,” which is from Joseph Stalin. Mr. Trump chose—or Mr. Bannon chose, I’m not sure which—to make the theme of the inaugural address “America first,” which is precisely—as they both know very well by now—the main slogan of people who wanted to keep us out of the Second World War and who opposed FDR. And that’s the crucial issue right there. The difference between the 30s and the 50s is: do you accept the FDR legacy or not? The legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is anti-fascism and the beginnings of the welfare state. If you are nostalgic about the 50s, you’re accepting that we should have fought the Second World War, that that was the greatest generation and you’re accepting—albeit maybe grudgingly—that there should be some kind of American welfare state. Once you go back to the 30s, all of that is up for grabs.
CL: You’ve planted your stake in this hugely interesting, murky argument around Russia and Donald Trump. You say he’s been playing with Russian loans and money and intelligence for years. Is there any sorting out of that big mystery?
TS: It should be said most East Europeans thought Trump had a chance because East Europeans recognized him. They recognized the post-factuality phenomenon because they’d seen it before, and people like Peter Pomerantsev looked at Trump and said, “I mean, that can work.” Many Russian-Ukrainian journalists who I knew personally came to the US in October and November, and they looked around the Midwest and said, “Yeah he’s going to win.” And they were right, and the pollsters were wrong. There’s good reason to keep Russia and Ukraine in mind when we think about ourselves.
We need to worry about Russia as a certain kind of political solution that can be called contagious. You can have a system where you have elections, but those elections don’t matter. You can have a system where the Constitution guarantees checks and balances, but the reality is different. You can have a system where the state is basically directed towards the support of kleptocracy on behalf of one family or a tight elite. That is an example that I would say is not attractive to people like Hillary Clinton but is attractive to people like Donald Trump, and since Donald Trump is now the president, that’s the actual thing that one should be worried about: Russia as a positive example.
That’s why we have to understand the way Russia works. It’s not just this sort of boring yes or no question. Did Russia throw the election or not? Did Putin and Trump meet personally or not? That’s not really the issue. The issue is we have a president who regards the Russian system as a positive model. Therefore we have to understand that model, how it works, how it can be contagious.
“You can have a system where you have elections, but those elections don’t matter.”
CL: That’s something I haven’t heard from Trump—that Russia and Putin are models of leadership. I’ve heard him say that this is a man we didn’t choose, but he could be a useful friend in this world. Do you stretch that evidence a bit?
TS: What he means in particular is Russia would be a useful ally in the war on terror, and in order to evaluate that claim one can’t just think, “Oh Putin, nice guy, not nice guy,” or as Bill O’Reilly puts it, “Killer, not killer.” You have to think: how does the Russian system work? And the way the Russian system has worked since Putin’s elevation to power in 1999—and this is an issue on which Masha Gessen and I profoundly agree—the way the system has worked is that real, fake, and unclear episodes of terrorism have been used at every step to do away with democratic and liberal institutions and to replace them with an ever-harsher and more effective authoritarian regime.
So, when Russia talks about “terrorism,” what Russia is talking about is a means of change in a domestic regime. If you know that, then you hear what Trump says about cooperating with Russia over terror in a different way. You hear it as a way of changing the regime in the United States as well. If you go after terrorism with the Russians you’re going after terrorism in order to change your own system. That’s how and why they do it, and they also invent stuff that just didn’t happen in order to change things around.
I think if we’re going to be serious on the left, we have to recognize that Russia represents the things we don’t like. It has greater wealth inequality than we do. It has greater surveillance than we do. Not only do they surveil people but they actually publish the things that people say, which is one step worse. Russia is a possible negative future for the United States. That’s the cognitive value of Russia.
This interview comes from Open Source, a weekly program about arts, ideas and politics. Listen to the full conversation with Timothy Snyder here.