Tyranny, Trump and Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder, a historian of the Hitler-Stalin era, has written an eloquent and heartfelt little book—On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Centurywarning that democracy could perish in the United States of today just as it did in Europe in the 1930s.

Just as no couple making love for the last time ever realize it is the last time, he wrote, so no person voting in a free election for the last time realizes it is the last time.

On Tyranny contains 20 timeless principles for defenders of democracy.    The principles are illustrated by ominous stories of how the mass of people failed to resist Nazi and Communist tyranny and inspirational stories of how a few did.

Then come claims that Vladimir Putin is like Hitler and Stalin and that Donald Trump is like all three, and a call to be ready to resist.

Snyder has done well to remind Americans of the fundamental principles of democracy and the need to defend them.

But the need for the reminder didn’t originate with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  As Glenn Greenwald, Conor Friedersdorf and others have warned, these dangers have existed since enactment of the USA Patriot Act in 2001, and before.

During the Bush and Obama administrations, the government has claimed the power to engage in acts of war, order assassinations, spy on citizens, and bypass due process of law and also to imprison anyone who reveals what is going on.  Until this changes, every President is a potential tyrant, not just Donald Trump.

Donald Trump does have the mentality of an authoritarian dictator.   Snyder is dead right about this.  Trump has no respect for facts, for law and for civil liberties.   Truth, for him, is whatever he wants it to be.  He incited violence against protesters at his rallies.  He does not respect the authority of court decisions.  He has tried to create a cult of his own personality.

But contrary to what Snyder told an interviewer, it is highly improbable that Trump would attempt a coup.   It is not only that Trump lacks the ability to engineer a coup.   He has no need to engineer a coup.

If Trump were plotting a coup, he would be trying to insert his henchmen into key positions in government, particularly the military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies.   He has, in fact, been unable to fill key positions in these or any other top positions in government.

A coup would require the cooperation, or at least the acquiescence, of the Pentagon, FBI, CIA and NSA.  There is no reason why heads of any of these organizations would prefer President Trump to President Mike Pence or, for that matter, President Hillary Clinton.   They already have free rein.   What would they have to gain?

And you don’t need a coup to have the powers of a dictator.  All you need is exercise the existing powers of the Presidency.

Under Trump we can expect more criminalization of street protests and dissent.  We can expect the Department of Justice to cease to enforce the civil rights laws and to cease to be concerned about violations of civil liberties by local police departments.

We can expect a doubling-down on existing wars and the possibility of new wars with Iran or other countries.   We can expect acts of war, targeted assassinations and maybe a return to torture.   None of this requires a coup, full-blown fascism or even a change in existing law.

An authoritarian president need not suspend elections.   Elections can be rigged without taking such drastic action.   The greater danger is not that elections will be canceled, but that they will cease to mean anything.

All you need to control elections results is intensification of what is already going on—new laws making it more difficult for minorities and other targeted groups to vote, arbitrary cancellation of voter registrations of African-Americans and Hispanics, and use of touch-screen voting machines whose results can be altered without leaving a trace.    None of these things originated with Donald Trump.


As I have written several times previously, Donald Trump is temperamentally, intellectually and morally unfit to be President.  His ignorance, vulgarity and shameless greed make him a national embarrassment.

But in terms of policy, he is not much different from Vice President Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Nor is there serious conflict between the Republican and Democratic leadership on the issues that matter most.  There is a bipartisan acceptance of perpetual war, a national police state and neoliberal capitalism, which Trump does not challenge.

Snyder’s book would lead you to think that Trump is like an alien virus, outside the American political tradition, injected into the U.S. body politic by Vladimir Putin.

In fact, Trump is the product of a rich history of American racism, nativism, military aggression, mob violence and vigilantism.

The Ku Klux Klan, which Hitler regarded as an inspiration and role model, was once a nationwide political force, with 4 million members.   I am old enough to remember Senator Joe McCarthy, who aroused fears similar to what Snyder expresses now.

We Americans don’t need to go abroad for examples of fascism.


Another issue with On Tyranny is Snyder’s underlying political agenda.

Snyder is a war hawk concerning Ukraine.   His capsule history of the Ukrainian conflict is accurate as far as it goes, but one-sided in a way that would justify military confrontation with Russia.   The fact is that not just Russia, but also the USA, has intervened in Ukrainian politics— for example, U.S. support for a coup that brought neo-Nazis into the Ukrainian government.   Neither side is acting in the interests of the Ukrainian people.

He has said Ukraine belongs in the European Union.  But if Ukraine, with its bankrupt government and current heavy burden of debt, had joined the EU, it would have wound up in the same position as Greece.   Speculators could have bought up Ukraine’s assets, including its rich farmland, at bargain prices.

This is an example of what I call neoliberalism, a word that Snyder considers out-of-bounds.

Snyder is a proponent of globalization.  He pointed out that Hitler was an opponent of globalization.   But that doesn’t mean that what people call “globalization” is always and everywhere a good thing.

Global institutions, in the 1920s and 1930s as now, have mainly served the interests of international banks and corporations.   Nations are the largest political unit subject to democratic control.   Assertion of national sovereignty is necessary (though not enough) for any real social reform.

And real social reform is the key to defeating what Donald Trump represents.


None of this is to deny the merit of Snyder’s On Tyranny.  It is good to be reminded of the similarities of German Nazism and Soviet Communism.  It is good to be reminded of the insights of Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel, Eugene Ionesco, Victor Klemperer, Leszek Kolakowski and Stanley Milgram.  Snyder’s 20 lessons are worth remembering.

But the issues they raise are permanent issues.   They were relevant before Donald Trump became a political figure, and they will be relevant after he leaves office or is removed.


Timothy Snyder Home Page.

On Tyranny: Yale Historian Timothy Snyder on How the U.S. Can Avoid Sliding Into Authoritarianism, an interview of Timothy Snyder on Democracy Now!

Historian Timothy Snyder: “It’s pretty much inevitable” that Trump will try to stage a coup and overthrow democracy, an interview of Timothy Snyder by Chauncey DeVega for Salon.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder – a review by Tim Adams for The Guardian.

The Reichstag Fire Next Time by Masha Gessen for Harper’s Magazine [Added 6/28/2017}

Vintage book On Tyranny to be published on London posters by Katherine Cowdrey for The Bookseller.   The posters used to illustrate this post were created by graphic arts students at Kingston University, London.   Click on the images to enlarge them.

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One Response to “Tyranny, Trump and Timothy Snyder”

  1. Springwater Farm Says:

    Qualifying Snyder’s warnings ON TYRANNY may not be most helpful now.


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