Wajahat Ali Interviews Timothy Snyder for Read the Resistance, August 2017
For the August 2017 installment of Read the Resistance, an online book club that highlights written works of and about resistance, we asked award-winning playwright and The New York Times contributor Wajahat Ali to recommend a book that exemplifies resistance to him. His pick? On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.
Below is an audio recording from the book club conversation between Ali and Snyder, originally streamed on Facebook Live, as well as a written transcript. Click here to read more on Ali, Snyder, and On Tyranny, and here to learn more about Read the Resistance.
WAJAHAT ALI: Welcome to this month’s episode of PEN America’s Read the Resistance, a book club started in the summer of 2017 to highlight works of and about acts of resistance. My name is Wajahat Ali, and I’m honored to pick this month’s book—Professor Timothy Snyder’s best-selling On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Professor Snyder is currently the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He is an expert on central and eastern Europe and the Holocaust. He knows a thing or two about tyranny, fascism, communism, and the rise of Nazism in Germany. He also speaks 11 languages. Just 11! And he is the author of five books and co-editor of two. Thank you for joining us, Professor. Don’t judge me. I barely speak three languages.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: They are probably harder languages than the ones that I…
ALI: I know, I hope that you just don’t look too down on me. I’m going to start off and make an assumption—and please correct me if this assumption is incorrect—that Donald Trump’s political campaign and his subsequent election inspired the book. Is that an accurate assumption?
SNYDER: It’s certainly half of the story. I mean, I was alarmed in 2016. I wrote a number of things. I was the first person, I think, back in April, to write about the Trump-Putin story, which now occupies us so much. In September, I wrote a piece about the likelihood of Russian intervention in our election. So it’s been on my mind. Of course, the campaign troubled me, with the way he ran his rallies, recalled things that I knew from the 1920s and 1930s, the way he used language also rang some alarm bells. But it’s that against the context of everything I think I know about Europe. The way the book works is that I’m trying to gather everything I think I know about Europe in the middle of the twentieth century and put it across in a way which is useful to Americans. So the Trump election caught me in the middle of a career where I’ve been preoccupied chiefly with the rise and the destructiveness of regimes of the extreme right and the extreme left. Yes, I mean, it’s the Trump election, but I’m not reacting to it in a vacuum. I’m reacting to it on the basis of the things that I know, thanks to my teachers and my students, and what I read.
ALI: And for those who haven’t read the book, this little aspect of Europe that Professor Snyder is talking about are these very peaceful, subtle times of coexistence, such as the rise of Fascism in Italy, and the rise of Stalinism, and the rise of Nazism in Germany. But specifically, Professor, you mentioned his language, what about his campaign, his rhetoric, do you think had the parallel with this aspect of Europe that kind of triggered these warning signs in you?
SNYDER: There are a number of things. Let’s start with the use of language. Mr. Trump, I think intuitively, has the kind of talent which allows him to use techniques which we know from the 1930s and 40s, like, for example, repetition of slogans until they seem like common sense. For example, the definition of “the people,” as meaning some people, which is maybe the fundamental fascist trick. You talk about the nation, or das Volk, and what you mean is people like us, you don’t mean everyone else. You create an implicit friend and enemy—us and them. Another thing he did which is very familiar in his campaign was the transition, the passage, from the rhetorical to the physical. So you’re talking to people, and while you’re talking to people, you’re also gesturing. For example, you’re gesturing at reporters and asking your people to treat the reporters as enemies, to boo them and hiss them. Or you are asking your people to throw other people out of the arena. That’s very familiar, where you move from words to deeds without having a reason. That’s typical fascism—you do things without thinking about them. You do them because the leader makes them seem normal to you.
The second thing which was very important in the campaign, which is characteristic of all forms of modern tyranny, was the hostility to truth. It’s fascism that does away with everyday truths and replaces them with myths, myths of the virtuous nation, myths of the mystical connection to the leader. Communism does away with everyday truth, and replaces it with a vision of a perfect future. What the twenty-first century authoritarians do is they clog up the public sphere with lies, then they call the reporters the liars, and then they rejoice when everyone is confused. That’s the Putin style, and it’s also the Trump style. But whatever historical example of modern tyranny we’re are looking at, that attack on the truth or on factuality is really at the root. And that’s something that Mr. Trump proved himself to be skillful at from the very beginning. And this is really important, because without factuality, you can’t have trust. Without trust, you can’t have the rule of law. Without the rule of law, we can’t have any of the aspects of democracy or freedom that we take for granted.
ALI: And you write about truth and language. Specifically, I want to focus on that for a second. You also write that, “Post-truth is pre-fascism.” And apparently I’m the enemy of the American people, because I write for The New York Times, and I appear on CNN. And you talk a lot in this book about the use and abuse and the erasure of language as a necessary condition for tyrants to thrive. We’re now living with fake news and “alternative facts.” So how can we expand language and knowledge when we as a society are lost in a ocean of data, social media, livestreams, and Twitter hashtags, and we just announced yesterday that apparently Russia bought Facebook ads, in addition to the social media bots it created to disrupt the 2016 election cycle.
SNYDER: OK, you’ve got a lot in that question. I’m going to try to unpack it from the point of view of what we can do. Because it’s very important not to look out at the chaos and say, “Oh, this chaos is a wave coming toward us. It’s not of our making.” It’s partly of our making. We need to say, “First of all, many of us on the left have been too shaky about facts.” Many of us have seen facts as simply a matter of perspective, but I think we have to get over that very quickly. Without factuality, the pursuit of factuality, it’s impossible, among other things, to build resistance. Because what are you resisting? How are you going to resist it? That requires factuality. Another thing that we have more control over than we think is the internet. How we use the internet. How much time we spend in front of the internet. The average American spent seven hours in front of screens in 2016. Had it been six hours, I don’t think Mr. Trump would have won. We can choose how we treat journalists on the internet. Since we’re all publishers now, we can decide that we’re going to first look at newspapers. The Post, The Guardian, The Times, whatever it is, I don’t care about the politics, whatever it is that has actual investigative reporters moving their bodies around, covering actual stories, learning things. We’ll first read that, and then we’ll post on the internet, and that way we change what the internet is like. As for Russia, the way to think about Russia if you’re American, the way to think responsibly about Russia is, Russia is how we can be. Russia is what we’re on the way to becoming. If we want to live in tyranny with radical income inequality forever, where factuality is impossible, we know that such a thing exists because that is contemporary Russia. The reason why Russia was so influential in 2016, apart from the fact that we were unprepared and we were living in our national bubble, we weren’t paying any attention and we were making Russia experts like me crazy the whole year, but apart from that is the fact that in some sense we prepared ourselves for this. In some sense, by paying too much attention to the internet, by being too relativist about facts, and also by doing things like letting local news die, we created a climate of skepticism and cynicism which Trump and his Russian campaign, because it was a Russian campaign, he had no traditional American campaign, Trump and his Russian campaign just drove a truck through that hole that we created for them. So if we’re going to scratch our way back, it has to start from us, but there are things that we can do.
ALI: You seem very adamant that it was a Russian campaign. Specifically for you, what is it about Trump, his personality, that Russia seeks to use or exploit, and what’s their endgame?
SNYDER: Well, when we say that Trump is a Russian figure, we have three or four different things in mind. The first is that Trump’s career is a typical kind of Russian economic career, and that it’s based very much on political connections to more important Russian authorities than himself. Mr. Trump is a failed American businessman who was rescued by mysterious, or ever less mysterious we should say, infusions of Russian capital to build buildings that he otherwise would not have been capable of building. So he’s in a Russian patron-client relationship, in that sense he’s a Russian candidate.
Another way that he’s a Russian candidate is that the campaign expertise, in particular Paul Manafort, came from a Russian world and used Russian tactics, which it should be said Mr. Trump himself I think is naturally very talented, like, for example, the complete and utter disregard for the truth. That was new in 2016. Politicians lie. Politics is the art of controlled mendacity. That’s the way politics is, but to just completely deny that there is truth, that was very Russian. That’s something Trump did with success in 2016, and that’s something that a lot of Russia experts recognized while it was happening.
Now, why were Russians doing what they were doing? Because, from the point of view of Moscow, now let’s look at it from their point of view and not from our point of view, from the point of view of Moscow there isn’t democracy in Russia. There can’t be democracy in Russia anytime soon. The people who control huge amounts of money sit at the top of the political system. They don’t want that to change anytime soon. Their problem is that Russians can look out at the world, they can look out at Europe, they can look out at America, and they can see places where people are both freer and richer. So Russian foreign policy is a kind of strategic relativism. Russian leaders are not trying to make Russia a better place to live; they’re trying to make everywhere else a worse place to live. And the way that they do that is by sowing chaos. The easiest and cheapest and most effective way to do that is to sow distrust, to make people distrust journalists, to make people distrust the media, ultimately to make people distrust factuality and such. Because if we all distrust everything, much as people in Russia unfortunately do, then we’re unable to keep our own political systems running.
Trump was a wonderful vehicle for this sort of thing because he is like a one-man chaos factory, basically. It’s not so much that they want him to pursue this or that policy, although I think they would be happy if he did, it’s that they correctly see in him someone who embodies that kind of politics where nothing is ever really going to happen because nobody ever really believes in anything and everyone’s going to be cast around by these crowds of emotion from day to day. If he passes pro-Russian policies they win, but if he doesn’t they also win. To an extent that Americans may not realize, they have already won. The United States as a great power has faded to an extent that I think is not … and so quickly. It’s hard to think of a historical example of a country which has lost so much power so quickly. You have to go back to Germany in the 1940s really. In the point of view of an embassy in Africa or embassy in Southeast Asia, it looks like we’re done as a superpower. That’s not something which is dawning on Trump’s supporters, but is in fact the way the world is looking out there. In that sense Russia is winning, but now in things that we don’t notice, like the destruction of the State Department. Without diplomats, America can not project its own interests or its values, and that’s one way that the Russians win. The Russians don’t like the U.S. State Department because, much more than the military, on a day-to-day basis, it’s the diplomats which protect American power and values, and the diplomats are not there anymore.
ALI: Yeah, I’m in D.C. right now. I have a lot of friends who work in the State Department, and many of them say instead of chaos it’s inertia. We’re talking about empty halls, no assignments, no leaders, and perhaps as you’re mentioning, this state of inertia, this state of inactivity in itself is a victory for Russia. Not necessarily the type of chaos you see in Hollywood movies, but this kind of slipping in almost a dysfunctional, comatose state where nothing can actually function because of a lack of leaders, lack of institutional responsibilities, lack of smart folks who are actually in these positions that, I don’t know if you were reading, there were mass resignations at the EPA recently. This was this week itself. So it seems from that angle, unfortunately, Russia is winning, but I want to make another connection to what you were mentioning between Russia and news. Is it too bold to say that Fox News and “Fox and Friends” are functioning like Trump’s RT in America? Am I too wild with this connection here?
SNYDER: There’s a cycle here, and it goes back to what we’re responsible for in the world. We pioneered the notion of news as political entertainment with Fox. We’ve accepted it, let’s say. We can’t take responsibility for the Murdoch family, but we’ve accepted the notion of news as political entertainment, and that then was taken up by the Russians, who do it much better than we do because they’re facing fewer constraints. Maybe they’re just more talented. They certainly have higher production values. Like if you line up Fox next to Perviy Kanal or something, the Russians are completely superior when it comes to production values, and they’re much faster and more entertaining. But they’ve basically taken an American model to its logical extreme, and then that logical extreme, the Russian propaganda, or rather, not so much propaganda, but the Russian ability to undermine trust from day to day and report facts as fantasies, that’s then imported back into the United States by way of Mr. Trump.
So I would think of it more as a cycle and as a common problem where, no matter where you are in the world, you don’t want media concentration. You don’t want there to be a blurring of the lines between news entertainment, and above all, what you want is to support investigative journalists because they’re the people who make a difference. Literally everything we know about the Russian war in Ukraine or about the concentration of wealth in the Kremlin or about the Trump Administration we owe to one group of people, a very small group of people who are investigative journalists. So that’s a precious resource that from Vladivostok to San Francisco, people of goodwill have to try to support. And if you’re in America, it’s pretty easy to support them, you just have to subscribe to newspapers, which pay the salaries of these people, and it seems very simple but that will make and has made a huge difference.
ALI: And as a person in this industry I can tell the listeners that we desperately need an infusion of donations for investigative journalism. There has been a severe cutback for sake of videos and clickbait just for this disrupted industry to survive. When we’re talking about investigative journalism and we’re trying to connect the dots, there’s one other aspect of Russia here that I want to bring in, which was very troubling to me. Again, you make a lot of patterns and connections throughout the book, and you cite how oftentimes, throughout the twenty-first century specifically with the rise of fascists governments and tyranny, there has been almost a deliberate exploitation if you will of terrorism, words like extremism, and national security for consolidation of power. You had two examples which stood out to me, which was Putin who did it in Russia with his attack on Chechen rebels and Hitler’s consolidation of power, the Reichstag fire. For Trump, with what’s happening right now in the world, what do you think will be his Reichstag? Do you think he’s waiting for it? Something to hold onto and exploit?
SNYDER: So let me take a step back and explain in a general way what a Reichstag fire scenario is. In Germany in 1933, Hitler had become chancellor after a democratic election which his party had won, and Germany at that point was still a republic. It was a staggering republic. There were many violations of the rule of law, but it was still a republic at that point. He took advantage of an act of terrorism to say, “This has changed everything. It has to change the rules.” And he blamed the act of terrorism on a large group of people who were not involved in it, namely the far-left and the center-left German parties, and imprisoned their leaders, put them in camps. And it’s really from that moment forward that we can talk about Nazi Germany.
Now that is like page one of the modern tyrant playbook, is a Reichstag fire scenario, where something happens which is shocking, like buildings blowing up in Moscow in 1999, and you use that moment of shock to transform the entire situation, to move yourself from one kind of system to another kind of system. The reason why I worry about this in the United States is that it’s partly because we have a president who I don’t think has any sense of civic responsibility whatsoever. His only sense of responsibility is to himself, but also it worries me that the president and his party do not have normal policies, which they can offer to people as some kind of positive vision of the future. We basically have zero. I wish that the Republicans had such policies. I think it’s normal in a two-party system for two parties to have two different visions of the future with different policies which offer people something. All we have at the moment are promises to disrupt or destroy things which people already have and take for granted, like health insurance. In that type of a setup, you’re much more tempted to go for a Reichstag fire scenario because you don’t really have anything to offer anyone except this promise of a security after the shocking event.
What worries me is how our leaders, but most importantly we, choose to interpret whatever shocking events happen between now and the midterm elections. As citizens, it’s very important for us to see this, the logic of this whole scenario, out in advance, and to realize that however shocking a terrorist attack or a war or whatever it might be is, it’s our job to keep the whole political system inside the rules. If we’re appealed to, if we’re told this is a special circumstance, this is an exception, we need a state of exception, we have to resist that, because that’s the way that you lose everything very quickly.
ALI: My concern as an American and also as a Muslim is God forbid another domestic terrorist attack by an ISIS sympathizer or radical that can easily be used and abused by Donald Trump to not only further certain policies, such as the travel ban, which in my house is called the Muslim ban, by the way, but certain other forms of authoritarian power unfortunately. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
SNYDER: Can I say something real quick about that?
ALI: Yeah, of course.
SNYDER: The point of the Muslim ban is to make terrorism more likely not less. That’s the point of the exercise. They’re trying to make terrorism more likely. That’s how I read this. There are plenty of things you could do to make terrorism less likely. Singling out Muslims by naming a series of predominantly Muslim states from which no terrorism has ever come is just I think a deliberate provocation to Muslims.
The other thing to note in this connection is the reaction to Charlottesville. In Charlottesville, typically in the United States, what happened in Charlottesville is someone associated with the far-right murdered somebody. Most of the terrorism in the United States comes from domestic far-right groups. It’s about three-quarters according to the government’s own statistics. But what Mr. Trump was careful to do, and again this is the sign of the political talent that he has, what he was careful to do was to say, “On the one hand, on the other hand.” And in so doing, he’s setting up the left, i.e. his opponents generally, as future possible terrorists. Now how this feeds into a Reichstag fire-type scenario is this: Let’s say something happens and we don’t know who did it, which was the case with the Reichstag fire. It was quite unclear. Mr. Trump with Charlottesville has set up the implicit possibility, “Oh, it could be my opponents.” His opponents didn’t do anything in Charlottesville, but that’s how he set it up. So the next time around, if something surprising happens, he’s set it up so he can say, “Oh, that was my opponents.” And then that prepares the way for various kinds of political changes.
ALI: And his opponents it seems, right now, are the media, and the free press, and anyone who critiques him and even his response to Charlottesville. I think it’s instructive just to mention so people don’t forget that in Charlottesville it was an act of domestic terrorism. A young, 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer deliberately drove a car through a crowd killing Heather Heyer. A few days later people are forgetting this. In Barcelona, the same exact act of terrorism happened by ISIS sympathizers, and within two hours, Donald Trump called it an act of terrorism, condemned it on Twitter, and then also promoted the lie of General Pershing apparently dipping his bullets in pig’s blood to kill Muslims. And as a Muslim I can tell you that regular bullets work just fine, Professor Snyder. You don’t need to kill pigs. But there was no moral relativism whatsoever, no both sides being blamed, and it was an interesting juxtaposition that I think is kind of lost in the onslaught, if you will, of Trump chaos that we’re witnessing.
SNYDER: There are a couple of really important things going on there in addition to what you mentioned. One is responsibility. If you want to be the leader of a country, and you want that country to have some moral basis on which it can reform itself, you have to take responsibility. When people in your country do things that are wrong or right, you have to be prepared to say what they are. This president doesn’t have a sense of positive responsibility, that he takes responsibility or that we take responsibility. There’s only the responsibility of others. And I realize this may be a point which is particularly painful or opposite for Muslims, but it’s a general issue. It’s only the others who do bad things from the Trump perspective, and we never have to take responsibility for anything that happens.
The other thing which I want to point out is that in politics, not just here, but in the twenty-first century generally, there is a fruitful, as it were, cooperative relationship between people who are on the extreme of both sides. So for a system like the Trump one to run, you need terrorism, just not too much. You need terrorism from the other side. You need what you call Islamic terrorism because you need that to justify your own position. So there’s a kind of fusion that takes place, where you don’t actually want to get rid of it, you want there to be a certain amount of it, and that fusion was on display in Charlottesville precisely in the copying of methods. I would have thought that Americans would have made more of a big deal out of the fact that now American Nazis are copying the methods of the people that they say they’re protecting us from. But you don’t protect people from being killed by a car by killing them with a car.
ALI: Right. No, it just so happens the perpetrators were of a different ethnicity and religion, and it didn’t get the same type of coverage or response. But to many people of color in America that’s nothing new, unfortunately. You mentioned something in your book, which I think is pretty profound, and it’s toward the beginning, where you said tyranny exists due to “anticipatory obedience,” and in this chapter you cite the famous Stanley Milgram Experiment from Yale, where people assumed that they were giving shocks to folks, and they were commanded to give shocks, even though they weren’t really, and then the shocks escalated, and in some of these cases the people giving the shocks thought that the other side died or were paralyzed, and they just walked away without seemingly regard or care as to the patient’s well-being, but they did it because they were told to do it. This type of anticipatory obedience, if it’s happening right now in America, do you think it’s a function of citizens feeling utterly detached from the establishment in the sense that—I’ve traveled America, people say, “Listen, I can’t exercise control. It’s the elites. I don’t have access to the media. I don’t have access to government. I don’t have access to big business. I’m just an average José or Joe. I have no power whatsoever.” Is there this sense of powerlessness that leads to a type of anticipatory obedience? Am I too far off in this connection?
SNYDER: I think it’s a sense of powerlessness, but we’re actually much more powerful than we think. So let me step back and talk about anticipatory obedience because it’s something that historians agree about, and there are very few things that we agree about. Those of us who work on Nazi Germany, there are all kinds of disputes, but one of the things that we agree about when we think about 1933 is the importance of anticipatory obedience. Hitler—for that matter other tyrants, other dictators—they’re not super villains who just stride onto the scene and are immediately all-powerful. In the beginning, they need consent, and the consent that they get, it doesn’t have to be enthusiastic, it can just be the consent of the looking away, the not doing anything, the not erasing the swastikas from the walls, the not talking to people when they use vulgar political language. We now understand that that kind of anticipatory obedience of looking at a new authority and subconsciously adjusting to it is a necessary stage for almost all regime changes of the kind, unfortunately, that we Americans are now in the midst of. That’s why that’s lesson one in the book. There are 20 lessons in On Tyranny. That’s lesson one for a reason, because if you obey in advance, you disable yourself. If you obey in advance that means that you make yourself into that person who obeys in advance, and then six months later, you’re just going to rationalize what you did, which we can already see in the United States. We’ve already seen people doubling down, tripling down, justifying, rationalizing why they did nothing in the first six months of this regime, when it would have made a difference.
Also, politically, not obeying in advance is very important because it’s the first six, nine, twelve months which are most politically important. So if you blow that chance, you become much less important. Now why do we say we’re more important now than we usually are? I understand why people feel alienated or alone or powerless. It’s a big country. Wealth is very concentrated. Washington, D.C., can be very far away. I get all of that. But it’s nevertheless true that, when regimes are changing, the actions of citizens actually count for much, much more than they ordinarily do. There’s a moment, the moment a regime changes self, where literally everything we do, say, don’t do, don’t say, has much more weight than it ordinarily might, precisely because the change requires our consent. So if we can find ways not to express consent, whether that’s the way we use language, whether that’s supporting investigative journalism, whether that’s marching on the street, whether that’s starting small new organizations, anything that we do actually adds up and makes a tremendous difference. That’s why this is all so important.
ALI: Another lesson in the book is defend institutions, and we talked about journalism, specifically investigative journalism, but which institution right now do you believe is most vulnerable in this current administration and must be protected?
SNYDER: Let me spin it out just a tiny bit. I’m talking about the Constitutional institutions, the ones that keep us decent: the checks and balances of the judiciary, the legislature, and the executive. The legislature has largely taken itself out of the picture, which means that we’re now thrown back onto the judiciary, which means the rule of law. I think we’re hanging by our teeth to the rule of law, and that’s the one thing that might get us back out of this. So, if you’re thinking of an institution to be concerned about, supporting lawyers who are paying attention to laws and trying to keep the executive on the rails is a very good thing to do.
The second set of institutions which might overlook are the professional institutions. Not only lawyers, but there are doctors and other groups who are trying to do important advocacy work. If you’re a professional that has expertise, you can make a political difference without sounding too political. And the third are the NGOs. Taking part, paying money, filling up the space between the individual and the government makes a huge difference. It’s especially crucial now. I’m sorry I interrupted you. You were trying to say?
ALI: No, no, I was just saying as a recovering attorney that gives me some hope that my peoples can be some protagonists for once because, in the book, you mention this and I was saddened to learn that lawyers were vastly represented amongst the commanders of the Nazi special forces that carried out mass murder of minorities, and it was interesting to see how the bureaucrats and educated professionals sometimes end up being the quickest to turn into Sith lords.
SNYDER: The whole history of Nazi Germany, for that matter, the history of the Stalinist Soviet Union or of authoritarianism generally involves these evasions of responsibility by individuals but also by groups. You can write about the history of Auschwitz and just say that was a bunch of bad people if you want to, but if you’re going to write a serious history of Auschwitz, you have to point out that there were the civil servants who 10 years before had maybe been doing normal civil service. There were the doctors who 10 years before had maybe not been manipulating people and mutilating them. There were the lawyers who were the skeleton of the SS. There were the lawyers who 10 years before were just law students. There were the businessmen who saw Auschwitz as a site of cheap labor. It’s these groups which are familiar, and it’s these groups whose individuals—but also its leadership—whose vocational groups, whose professional groups, have to take stands. That makes a huge difference. I have to say, it’s not like all lawyers have been doing such a great job. Jeff Sessions perjuring himself at his confirmation hearings is not particularly exemplary, but there have been lots of American lawyers who have done lots of good things. Since I live mentally in the 1930s, that has been the contrast which has been a favorable surprise for me.
ALI: I should give you a DeLorean to get out of the 30s and join us in 2017, but I’m glad you’re there to make these parallels for the rest of us. I want to end on a hopeful note and the book does end on a somewhat hopeful note and gives us, like I said throughout this interview, these very strong parallels. The next to last question is what country or recent country can give us in America a successful lesson for resistance?
SNYDER: That’s a great question because the essence of the book is not that we’re doomed. The essence of the book is that history can help us spread out the field of possibility so that we understand how bad things can get, but also so that we can learn from people who have been across those passages and who have generously left behind for us their wisdom. The book is not my wisdom. The book is the wisdom of people from the twentieth century who have seen it, lived through it, and come out the other side, and now it’s our turn. We have to see it, live through it, come out the other side, and the idea of the book is that when we come out the other side, we will be better citizens, we will be better people, we’ll be better prepared for the next challenges. On Tyranny is a book about treading water. It’s about staying afloat. At the end of this, hopefully we’ll know how to swim. We’ll be able to move, be able to not just protect but improve those institutions—not just model being advanced, but have our own ideas about how the future is going to look better.
There are plenty of examples of people resisting with success. Whether it’s Poland in the 1980s against communism, whether it’s Ukraine in 2014 against postmodern kleptocracy, there are plenty of examples of civil resistance that have mattered beyond the United States, and of course, in the history of the United States. I don’t write about U.S. history in the book because what I’m trying to do is make our own situation come into focus by using examples from far away. But of course, in our own history, there are examples, for example, the Freedom Rides, the Civil Rights Movement, where civil resistance in the United States has turned history in a direction that it didn’t have to go. We are in a historical moment in the sense that the future really is wide open, there are lots of possibilities ahead of us, and we can turn it. We’re still now at a point where we can turn it. It’s really important not to burn this time. It’s important to see this time for what it is and to act in this time and thereby to change this time.
ALI: And the final question that I have for you, going off of that hopeful note or call to action, is you mentioned patriotism and courage in the book, and for you right now with what we’re witnessing in America with this administration and with all the strife and chaos, define what an American patriot and courage looks like today for you.
SNYDER: The patriotism means loving your country, and love means wanting something to be its best self. The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that a nationalist looks you in the eye and says, “You’re wonderful just the way you are, now let’s go get those other people because they’re the source of all of our problems.” A patriot says, “I love my country, and therefore I want it to live up to these values. Whether these values are the rule of law, whether these values are civil rights, whether these values are the American dream and social advancement for everyone, I want my country to live up to those values.” So a patriot is somebody who is always critical because without criticism you cannot move into the future. Today a patriot is somebody who’s giving his body somewhere, doing something that he or she wouldn’t have been doing otherwise, recognizing this is a historical moment.
Courage—if you’re an American citizen, and especially if you’re a white American citizen, now is the time when you can do a huge amount without any risk to yourself. For many people in the United States, this is like the bonus moment where you can get out, you can write, you can march, you can make a difference with no risk. If things don’t go well, there are going to be considerable risks later on for everybody, but while the risks are limited, people have to get out and practice being a little bit courageous. That’s really important because for the huge majority of us in the United States, there are many more repressive regimes where this is not true. There are regimes which look now like our future might look, like say Russia, which you’ve mentioned, where it takes a lot more courage. Now it just takes a little bit of courage, but you have to practice that little bit of courage or else you don’t get into the habit of it, and it’s not there for you when you need it. But for most of us, the main kind of courage that’s needed now is just the courage to stand out, just the courage to say this is not normal and therefore I’m going to behave a little bit differently. That’s all that most of us need to do.
Of course, there are others of us, whether they’re people of color or whether they’re non-citizens, for whom doing anything at all to attract the attention of the rest of us, the gravity of the situation requires much more courage, but that’s also very important. I wrote this book from the particular perspective of someone who’s looked at other authoritarian regimes and from that, I can see possible futures for the United States. It’s very important that Americans, especially white Americans, listen to recent immigrants and listen to African Americans and other people of color because there’s often insight there about possible futures because there’s often deeper understanding about American pasts. And I realize this requires courage because we don’t always listen, but it’s a special kind of courage when immigrants and people of color try to help us out. Because frankly we need it, we all need each other at this point.
ALI: It seems like that’s the movie where the reluctant hero has to step up and acknowledge that he or she can be the protagonist of the narrative. And to quote Jesse “The Body” Ventura from the classic 1987 movie Predator, “I ain’t got time to bleed,” and so all of us have to step up and your book is a very instructive manual. Alarming, terrifying in many aspects, showing the stunning parallels between what we’re witnessing now and what happened in the early twentieth century and mid-twentieth century in Europe. But also, it gives us some hope that we can actually help turn the tide, and anyone who’s been listening to these conversations knows that it’s very easy and cheap and hip to be cynical and apathetic. Hope and changing the narrative requires some work, but I believe the book is an act of resistance and gives us certain tools and patterns from history that at least show us that there can be an alternative ending that is more positive, more inclusive, more tolerant, and allows our better natures to emerge. So thank you Professor Snyder for writing the book. Thank you for joining us for this conversation, and thank you all for listening to another episode of Read the Resistance. Buy the book on Amazon.com. It’s a best-seller, but Professor Snyder will not weep with the extra book sales and follow him on Twitter, and if there’s anything else you want to promote right now or say, take it away Professor Snyder.
SNYDER: I want to say buy the book at your independent bookstore if you’ve got an independent bookstore, and I also want to say, history is not about all or nothing. It’s not about waiting until the game is over. It’s really about doing something. In the 20 lessons there are things that almost everybody can do. And if we all do something regularly, especially if it’s something with people we didn’t know before and something in public, if we all do something, that really can turn the tide.
ALI: Thank you so much.
SNYDER: It’s been my great pleasure. Thank you.