Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny:20 Lessons from the 20th Century


“Make eye contact and small talk with strangers, he encourages; it is part of being a citizen. (“People who were living in fear of repression remembered how their neighbors treated them,” Snyder writes.) Defend American institutions and civil society groups by joining them, advocating for them or even supporting them financially, Snyder urges. (“Institutions do not protect themselves.”) Beware of loyalty symbols — be it a sticker or armband, or even a hat, (MAGA) I imagine — however innocuous they seem, because they are often used to exclude. (“When everyone else follows the same logic, the public sphere is covered with signs of loyalty, and resistance becomes unthinkable.”)

And then there’s this ominously concise suggestion: “Make sure you and your family have passports.”

Snyder points to clear and recognizable actions that a leader or a party can take to suffocate freedom — such as exploiting terrorist attacks to curtail individual liberties or enabling the rise of pro-government paramilitary forces — but he is especially attuned to the abuses of language. Showing no compunction in going there, Snyder compares the rhetoric of the Führer and the Donald to highlight phrasing that serves the interests of the leader and no one else:

“Hitler’s language rejected legitimate opposition: The people always meant some people and not others (the president uses the word in this way), encounters were always struggles (the president says winning) and any attempt by free people to understand the world in a different way was defamation of the leader (or, as the president puts it, libel).”

Snyder warns against the treacherous use of patriotic expressions and the mindless repetition of political catchphrases, whether in the news media or from the government. “Think up your own way of speaking,” he challenges readers. “When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework,” and permit a narrowing of vocabulary and thought that only empowers the strongman.”

Trump loves to actually wrap himself in the flag in public. He uses every “patriotic” trick he can as do his supporters. His father was a member of the KKK a racist organization, that claimed to be a “patriotic organization” although it was founded by a Confederate general. We see the love of phrases like MAGA which is the same as Hitler’s Make Germany Great Again and his racist mythology of the Aryan great blond beast of Wagnerian operas.

The popular understanding and interpretations of Trump are dominated by his words and phrases — “Sad!” “Fake news!” — and by his use of those words to rouse supporters, identify opponents and distort verifiable reality. “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” Snyder writes. “If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.” And Trump thrives on spectacle; indeed, his rise has been based on it.

A leader’s constant repetition of “shamanistic incantations,” as Snyder puts it, and the people’s misplaced faith in an oracular strongman over evidence and reason — these are ways truth begins to fade. Throughout history, despots have “despised the small truths of daily existence, loved slogans that resonated like a new religion, and preferred creative myths to history or journalism.”
And that elevation of mythology over truth has consequences. “Post-truth,” Snyder writes, “is pre-fascism.”

Trump is a conspiracy theorist and has nothing but contempt for facts, truth, investigation, reality and in favor of hatred, bigotry and lies. Fascism cannot accept facts and must control the narrative at all times and at all costs.

Perhaps the greatest contribution in Snyder’s clarifying and unnerving work is buried in its epilogue, and it shows the slippery intellectual path from freedom to tyranny. After the Cold War, he writes, we were enthralled by the politics of inevitability, the notion that history moved inexorably toward liberal democracy. So we lowered our defenses. Now, instead, we are careening toward the politics of eternity, in which a leader rewrites our past as “a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood.” Inevitability was like a coma; eternity is like hypnosis.

I urge all progressives to read and study Snyder’s work. Also I believe that Americans need to be mindful of the seriousness of Trumpism and its threat to global peace and democracy. Trump is a madman and like other insane fascist/Nazis has no conscience, no soul, no empathy or remorse, He cares about power, wealth and his own security. He will not change and neither will his supporters, even after he and his supporters are removed the damage that they have done to the nation and world will last generations.

Published by Frank Farmer

Blog owner, retired professor

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