Timothy Snyder, a historian of Modern Eastern Europe at Yale and the most rhetorically gifted defender of the anti-Russian US foreign policy establishment, must have been rubbing his eyes in wonder last year as the theatrics of the Republican primary gave way to the rise of an ersatz Führer. How to describe those private security men ejecting protesters from rallies if not as the first recruits to an American SS? How long until the diatribes against Muslims were followed by a demand that they wear yellow crescents on their lapels? What is the Wall if not a way to secure an American Lebensraum? As the cabinet appointments snapped into place, there was Rex Tillerson, ready to renew the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, while Trump’s economic advisers seethed about trade deficits as if they were unjust war reparations. Only one thing was lacking: a headline on Breitbart News declaring ‘Mar-a-Lago Destroyed in Arson Attack, Illegal Mexican Brick-Layer Apprehended’.
Snyder’s On Tyranny (Bodley Head, £8.99) doesn’t quite go so far as to assess Trump against a Weimar checklist. His book consists of twenty lessons drawn from the 20th century meant to shock us into recognising that there is a new dictator in our midst. Some hyperbole is understandable, perhaps even warranted. Yet by resorting to mention of Hitler so early and often, Snyder risks sapping the sort of resistance he wants to encourage. It isn’t clear, first off, why he feels the need to dwell on the one non-national historical analogy to Trump that American liberals are capable of making unaided. Of course Trump has some things in common with right-wing demagogues of the past, but Snyder neglects the next, more difficult step: explaining how Trump, and the context in which he arose, is different. The new president did not come to power thanks to the collapse of a liberal Weimar-like regime, but rather after a quarter of a century of domestic liberal triumph and consolidation. Trump is not an ideologue of interwar vintage: he doesn’t have any ambition to mould ‘new men’, or to make the economy subservient to ‘the people’. He doesn’t seek to abolish the free press, so much as to turn its cycles of hysteria to his own advantage. When Ronald Reagan came to power, many liberals were convinced he would bring forth the nuclear apocalypse; they were relieved to learn he only wanted to do away with the unions.
It would be easier to respect Snyder’s call for resistance if it matched the menace he described. If Trump really were on the road to dictatorship, as Snyder insists he is, one would expect a plan for stopping him at any cost. Instead of advising Americans to read Milan Kundera and Timothy Garton Ash, one would expect him to be referring them to Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook. If Trump is bent on dictatorship, doesn’t it make more sense, instead of suggesting Winston Churchill (whose bust is back in the Oval Office) as a model of resistance (‘Rather than concede in advance, he forced Hitler to change his plans’), to recommend an American version of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, or of Georg Elser, the German factory worker who tried to blow Hitler up in a beer hall? The sort of injunction Snyder issues – ‘Do not obey in advance,’ ‘Believe in truth,’ ‘Make eye contact and small talk’ – is either too vague to be practicable or too meek to meet the moment.
The lapses are all the more curious given that Snyder comes from southwest Ohio and knows swing-state territory no less intimately than the ‘bloodlands’ of Eastern Europe. Yet he shows little interest in the difference between Ohio Trump voters (many of whom previously voted for Obama) and Silesian Nazis. Part of the problem is that Snyder has drawn his lessons from the golden age of human rights: the 1990s in Eastern Europe, when some who had once spoken truth to power actually came to power. But the heroes of the 1990s have not aged well: their ‘anti-politics’ often hobbled their pursuit of anything resembling justice. (The Havel of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, is perhaps the latest example.) Snyder believes that in their triumphalism, the liberals of the 1990s entered ‘a self-induced intellectual coma’, and lowered their guard. But he doesn’t see much reason to revisit the course that liberal democracy itself took. The ‘problem of oligarchy’, the ‘gerrymandered system’ and the ‘odd American idea that giving money to political campaigns is free speech’ are asides in Snyder’s account, not the main business.
It isn’t quite clear what Snyder means by some of his ‘lessons’. ‘Defend institutions,’ he says, but what if such institutions as the Supreme Court are quietly assembling the ingredients of reaction? Snyder is correct that Trump is willing to discredit US institutions (the press, the military, the voting system, the intelligence services), even if the reason he immediately antagonised the judiciary was less to undo it than to ready it for future use as a scapegoat. ‘Remember your professional ethics,’ Snyder writes. But it is doubtful whether Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, who was charged with defending the Muslim ban, was in fact following professional ethics or behaving politically when she justified her refusal to implement Trump’s executive order. ‘Beware the one-party state,’ Snyder writes. But what about the two-party state that rejects the views of more than half the population, and was redesigned, starting in the 1890s, to grant state legislatures the power to restrict the access of third parties to the ballot? ‘Learn from peers in other countries,’ Snyder writes, but nowhere does he mention several of the countries which themselves have, or recently had, Trump-like leaders: Berlusconi in Italy, Dukanović in Montenegro, Gruevski in Macedonia, Duterte in the Philippines, Jimmy Morales in Guatemala: all of them either backed by the US, or within the American sphere of influence. Neo-authoritarianism is not a political disease originating in yesterday’s Germany or today’s Russia.
Victor Klemperer once compiled a glossary of keywords that appeared under Hitler. Snyder adds some of his own: Hitler’s ‘struggle’ is Trump’s ‘winning’, Hitler’s ‘defamation’ is Trump’s ‘libel’, and so forth. Snyder is good at noticing the corruptions of language and what they portend (though what to make of Trump’s favourite word, ‘beautiful’?), but as Corey Robin has pointed out, the lesson of Snyder’s hero Hannah Arendt is that we shouldn’t attend to what Trump says so much as to what he does. Snyder’s book started off last November as a Facebook post when Trump’s words were all we had to go on, but that is no excuse for the absence of a political strategy. One way to address Trump voters is not by telling them that he is lying or that he is horrifying – they get that – but rather by showing quite coolly the ways in which he is betraying their expectation that he would restore some measure of equity between the elites and the rest of the public. Christian conservative voters who will have thought Trump a bitter pill worth taking for the sake of judicial appointments hold other values that Trump threatens. The press conference after the airstrike against Syria was a prime example, with Trump referring to ‘children of God’ as a sop to his base while currying favour with the liberal foreign policy establishment which only months ago was, like Snyder, comparing him to Hitler, and now proclaims him the new global sheriff.
Snyder might argue that any attempt to grasp what drives Trump voters reeks of appeasement, that time is short, and that once there were those who said we should ‘wait and see’ how Erdoğan and Orbán would turn out, and who were willing to forgive these men their techniques of rule if they brought a political realignment against domestic elites. But no political coalition to check Trump’s swerving agenda and remove him from rule can afford to squander the new political opportunities and ideological lability that Trumpism and its airing of deep-seated resentments has exposed. It would be a dismal outcome if the resistance to Trump were reduced to what Snyder is calling for: the restoration of America to where it was one year ago.
It can’t have been lost on Snyder that by calling his book On Tyranny, he was inviting comparison with another book of the same title. The original On Tyranny is a commentary by Leo Strauss on a dialogue by Xenophon in which a poet named Simonides counsels a tyrant named Hiero on how best to exercise his rule. Strauss’s study was presented along with a critique by Alexandre Kojève, the Russian-French philosopher and proto-EU bureaucrat, who himself once played a Simonides of sorts to Charles de Gaulle. Unlike Snyder, Kojève gives a good working definition of tyranny ‘in the morally neutral sense of the term’ as what happens when one part of the populace, ‘guided by an authority which the fraction recognises spontaneously’, imposes on another part its ideas and actions without taking into account the desires or ideas of the suppressed group, and without any attempt to compromise with it. When the group with power resorts to force and terror, that is tyranny ‘in the pejorative sense’, Kojève says. But the question he goes on to ask is more urgent: what propels the tyrant forward? He falls back on Hegel for the answer: tyrants are driven by an appetite for recognition that will be satisfied only when they are recognised by all of humanity. Trump’s craving for recognition is perhaps notable only in the bareness of its expression, but what is particular, and particularly dangerous, about him is that instead of trying to gain more recognition from more people, he has shrunk the imaginary number of those who count as ‘the people’. The first task of resistance to Trump will be to expand it.