A few years ago, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands was both popular and esteemed. I found it an uncomfortable but powerful read. I mentioned it and two students – a Russian Jewish student whose grandfather had fought in the Russian army, been tortured in one of the Russian purges, but died loyal to Stalin and a student whose ancestors were from those borderlands ordered it. (My mention was cursory; it was after all American lit; both were hungry to know more about the obscure world of their ancestors.) I gave it to a son-in-law, who had heard Snyder discussing it with intensity and even despair. I can remember discussing passages with colleagues in philosophy and history – especially lies spoken and assented to as the truth stood (and died) before their eyes: families starved, Stalin argued, to sabotage Stalin. Snyder’s aim and success was to make that unreal world and its victims live. He eloquently countered the great arrogance of Stalin’s assumption (so often proved true) that a million deaths was merely a statistic. Of course it was futile – no one person can make millions live on a page. An intense experience to read, Snyder’s research must have truly looked into the abyss. Today, I tracked references at Chicagoboyz; several praised it. I haven’t read his later works.
May 2 may not be a bad day to remember both the hundred million that died under communism but also the tens of millions that died under fascism. And Snyder is a remarkable scholar.
So, skimming Instapundit today, an item on Snyder quotes a Salon interview; the title is longish – “It is inevitable that Trump will try to stage a coup and overthrow democracy” – and so is a section to give you his argument:
In your book you discuss the idea that Donald Trump will have his own version of Hitler’s Reichstag fire to expand his power and take full control of the government by declaring a state of emergency. How do you think that would play out?
Let me make just two points. The first is that I think it’s pretty much inevitable that they will try. The reason I think that is that the conventional ways of being popular are not working out for them. The conventional way to be popular or to be legitimate in this country is to have some policies, to grow your popularity ratings and to win some elections. I don’t think 2018 is looking very good for the Republicans along those conventional lines — not just because the president is historically unpopular. It’s also because neither the White House nor Congress have any policies which the majority of the public like.
This means they could be seduced by the notion of getting into a new rhythm of politics, one that does not depend upon popular policies and electoral cycles.
Whether it works or not depends upon whether when something terrible happens to this country, we are aware that the main significance of it is whether or not we are going to be more or less free citizens in the future.
My gut feeling is that Trump and his administration will try and that it won’t work. Not so much because we are so great but because we have a little bit of time to prepare. I also think that there are enough people and enough agencies of the government who have also thought about this and would not necessarily go along.
What can citizens do? What would your call to action be?
The whole point of my new book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” is that we have a century of wisdom and very smart people who confronted situations like our own — but usually more demanding — and that wisdom can be condensed.
What my book does is it goes across the arc of regime change, from the beginning to the end, and it provides things ranging from simpler to harder that people can literally do every day.
The thing that matters the most is to realize that in moments like this your actions really do matter. It is ironic but in an authoritarian regime-change situation, the individual matters more than [in] a democracy. In an authoritarian regime change, at the beginning the individual has a special kind of power because the authoritarian regime depends on a certain kind of consent. Which means that if you are conscious of the moment that you are in, you can find the ways not to express your consent and you can also find the little ways to be a barrier. If enough people do that, it really can make a difference — but again only at the beginning.
You may think this is, well, extreme. A coup against one’s self? For one thing, he is the president, with a majority in the House and Senate. And I’m not so sure his policies are that unpopular – at Yale, perhaps. Besides, this is a president who has spent his first hundred days trying (and if not always successfully, with clear intention to keep trying) to “deweaponize” the heavy handed executive power operating through the bureaucracy his predecessor established (and his opponent clearly intended to continue).
And if the coup takes power from bureaucracy – well that isn’t a coup, that’s democracy. Those who have a different concept may see disruption but we see a contractual relation reasserted – we haven’t seen ourselves as serfs but as active agents. Trump, whatever his faults may be, aims to devolve the power of government: Pruitt and Zinke and DeVos and Price have all been chosen not because they want to bring power to a leader or to Washington, but to return it to the states and the communities and individuals. This is not statism and calling it fascism doesn’t make it so. If fascism isn’t a strong state, exactly what is it? Without the state’s power, how are dictates enforced?
If the problem is nationalism, we might define its American form. We express it in an emphasis on individual rights, a belief in property and gun rights that let each family take an individual stand. Most of all, of course, it celebrates the Bill of Rights. We emphasize the free market: economically, intellectually, in the press and in the church. These are derived from what a Czech who’d been here a couple of years found arresting, our optimism. But optimism has served us well; it isn’t sentimental. It is optimism over the long haul. An editor of The Federalist Papers observed that their arguments always chose the long gain over the short one: this generation sets up the safeguards, the rights of property and thought, so that later generations will know what works, what is true. That is our tradition – and it is nationalism that chides us for not doing a better job in our generation. An openness – to products, to essays, to ideas, to beliefs – and a willingness to test them is each generation’s gift to the next. And each finds new facts, arguments, often support for old beliefs and generalizations and sometimes revolutionary new ones – and most often, of course, edits the old to fit new contexts.
Our nationalism was also characterized by a belief in representative taxation and its obligation as contractual. And our nationalism, tied as we were and remain to the Anglosphere, was loyalty to ideas that could be declared, believed and respected by others. Our nationalism has always been an Enlightenment universalism – one that joins in an allegiance to common law and property rights, to free speech and press and religion. Our nationalism celebrates ideas not blood.
I glanced over the comments: I am influenced by Reynold’s take on many modern issues because I am comfortable with them. And so, I suspect, are many who commented. Few had read Snyder’s earlier work (I have only read Bloodlands) but it is hard to see him as narrowly partisan (though, of course, he swims in the fetid lake at Yale). It isn’t just that he reads ten languages – he thinks with the breadth such immersion can give. However, turning to the comments on Salon, which agreed with him, I found myself not just impatient but alienated.
They see Trump, with his emotive and imprecise discussions, as a fascist; I am more likely to see fascists as those who limit speech on campus, on streets, and in newspapers across America. I see a fascist in a black hood setting a two-story high fire in Berkeley and taking baseball bats to glass windows in New York on inauguration. I see fascists in hiring committees and peer review that limit “what works” from discussions in the social sciences. They see fascists in Trump’s jokes about the press corps (despite his extraordinary – and quite different from Obama and Hillary – openness to that same corps). Not surprisingly, I see fascism in the warrants against Fox’s Rosen.
This long year I’ve been reading Hannan’s work and Curry’s Common Sense Nation and Morgan’s Inventing the People and God and Churchill and Dyer’s arguments about slavery and natural law. These are all full of the energy of Anglosphere exceptionalism. They all run against Snyder’s observations. Perhaps it is in our human nature, but our tradition works against lining up villagers before great ditches, depeopling one village after another. Centuries of other traditions nurtured values (and constraints) we hope Trump understands – and if he doesn’t, Pence and Mattis and Tillerson and Gorsuch and about everyone else he has appointed do. Does Snyder really feel that we, like the director of United Airlines, will forget it is humans we are dealing with here? The more distant the government, the more powerful – the more regulations about our health care or the food in school cafeterias or how a state handles its historic landmarks or how a farmer handles his wetlands – the more “humans” disappear into abstractions. And those borderland villagers and urban true believers were less used to making their own contracts or having their own guns.
Those without optimism feel paternal: they need to shut down the marketplace. God knows what foolish ideas or products or religious beliefs the common man might be seduced by. Well, we, with our emphasis upon bourgeois equality and dignity, are likely to respond, yes, God knows, and we will, too, if given time and freedom to test them.
My respect for Snyder didn’t lead me to question my own beliefs – I’ve been too stoked by the jingoistic (maybe) reading of my retirement. And I’ve, myself, seen those ideas work for over 70 years. But it does worry me that someone who has shown in the past he is thoughtful has this certainty and perspective.
How will the sides be drawn? Geographically, the newspapers we read, our beliefs in climate change or that abortion is murder or the restaurants we choose? It will, I suspect, like the British and American civil wars before contrast those who believe in a more royalist, hierarchical and bureaucratic society and those who believe in a more representative, individualistic, bourgeois one. But I’d just as soon the battles were – as I suspect they will be – at the ballot box.