On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
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This event took place on Wednesday, February 21, 2018
JIM KETTERER: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
I am Jim Ketterer, and I am the director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs (BGIA) program. In this program, we have students who come here to New York City every semester and during the summers. We have the students here who are interning at various organizations around the city and taking Bard College courses in international affairs.
We do these lectures once a month. It is the James Clarke Chace Memorial Lecture Series, named after James Chace, who was the editor of the World Policy Journal and Foreign Affairs and was a Bard professor and the founder of the BGIA program. In his memory we do these lectures, and once every semester we do them in partnership with the Carnegie Council. We are so happy to be back here, and we want to thank Joel Rosenthal, the president of the Carnegie Council, and all of the staff here who are such wonderful partners with us and hosts for these great events.
I should also note that this event is supported by Foreign Affairs as are all of our events at BGIA, and you can go to our website and find out about all the many other great things we are doing, events and otherwise.
We are very happy to have with us tonight Professor Timothy Snyder, who is the Levin Professor of History at Yale and a permanent fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna. He will be in conversation with Smita Narula, who is a distinguished lecturer at Hunter College and the director of the Human Rights Program at Roosevelt House.
Without further ado, I turn it over to the two of you.
SMITA NARULA: Thank you so much, Jim, and good evening, everyone.
I would like to start by just saying something about the book, which I have in my hand right here. If you have not had a chance to pick it up, I highly recommend you do so, including immediately after the event, or you can even listen to it on Audible. I understand, Tim, that you do your own narration for your audiobooks. Is that right?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: That's true.
SMITA NARULA: I have had the pleasure of both listening to and reading this book, and Tim has a wonderfully soothing voice, even as portions of his book are quite chilling and unsettling.
The book, for those of you who are still unfamiliar with it, is a New York Times best-seller, and it explores the new threats faced by our political order and how we can look back to the 20th century for lessons on how to overcome these threats, 20 lessons in particular on how we can resist the decline into tyranny drawn from our author's vast body of work on how the Europeans of the 20th century yielded democracy to fascism, Nazism, or communism.
Tim, I think it is fair to say that this book is a departure from your previous publications, all compelling, thought-provoking books that take a deep dive into war, genocide, and the descent into dictatorship in the mid-20th century. But here we have an almost pocket-sized book, a manifesto if you will, but not a manifesto for a political party or an institution or an organization, but for everyday citizens interested in defending our democracy from what you describe as "profound threats to our political order."
Tell us what led you to write this book in this style and why now?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: First of all, I want to thank all of you for being here. It is a beautiful night out in New York, and it is the kind of springlike day which might have filled you with hope, and instead you chose to come to listen to me and Smita talk about tyranny in the United States, so I am grateful for your presence and for your priorities.
The book is a departure, but it is also an arrival. It is the first thing that I have ever really done as an American. I am an American, of course, but my work has been on, as you kindly remember, the 20th century in Eastern and Central Europe. What happened is that some of the things I think I knew or some of the things which were familiar to me from my historical work suddenly seemed to appear in my home.
One way to think about it is the "it." The question, can "it" happen here? The answer is always yes, by the way. The answer to that is never no.
For me, I took for granted, having written about Nazi and Soviet terror in places and times not so different from our own, where the perpetrators and the victims and the bystanders were people not so very different from us—in some cases, they were our relatives—I took it for granted that the "it" could happen. And I took for granted that the "it" could happen to people like us because my teachers, when I became a historian of Eastern Europe, were people who had survived the Holocaust or had lived through communism, or in the case of my doctoral supervisor, both. That is people like us, our teachers are people like us. If he can teach me, and I can have a conversation with all of you, that is people like us.
I think the third thing which was happening was that as a teacher of people who work on East European history, I was confronted with the younger generation from Eastern Europe—Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians—who had been dealing with the things that we are dealing with now basically for their whole lives as adults. Many of the lessons that are in this book are from the experiences of people in their 20s who had seen after 1989—after that moment when history was supposed to be over and freedom was supposed to be easy and democracy was supposed to come automatically with capitalism and all that nonsense—rather, democracy move away from them their entire politically aware lives. So that is the third thing.
So it can happen, it happens to people like us, and it is happening now. I came to all of this looking at it from Eastern Europe historically, politically, contemporarily, and I recognized certain patterns in the Trump campaign, and so when he won, my first reaction was to try to translate what I thought I knew into recommendations about what we all can do.
SMITA NARULA: You do not call the president by name in any part of the book. What was behind that decision?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: There are a couple of things. The first is he had been elected when I wrote the book. I wrote the book in December of 2016. I wrote the lessons in the hours and days after he won in November of 2016. In that sense, it was not about him.
There are many ways in which focusing on him allows us to dodge the problem. If we say he is an aberration of the system or if we say he is mentally ill or if we say he is a historical blip, if we say any of these things, what we are doing is abrogating our own responsibility, both for the fact that he got elected in the first place but also for how we have to react.
The point of the book, the reason it was so fast and so short and also in a way so direct, was that I was trying to get us to act quickly while there was still time. If we spent all of our time trying to decide which way Mr. Trump is mentally ill or exactly which form of racist oligarchy was going to be established, if we spent all of our time on that, waiting and analyzing, we were going to miss the moment which was politically relevant.
The book is not about him. It is prompted by him. It is prompted by things that he did. It is prompted by things like his urging his supporters to murder his rival, it is prompted by things like the violent character of his rallies, it is prompted by the way he uses the English language. It is prompted by him, but it is not about him, it is about us. It is about what the American republic could be if it were defended.
SMITA NARULA: I wanted to segue from that, just going right into the first lesson of the book and to really make this about us: "Lesson 1: Do not obey in advance. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do."
What I hear you essentially saying is, "Do not consent to your own oppression," which is I suppose easy to say but profoundly difficult to do.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: Yes. That's good. A lot of the things in this book sound very easy, and some of them are in fact easy. But a lot of them are harder than they sound. There is a reason why Lesson 1, "Don't obey in advance," is Lesson 1, and that is that it is actually difficult, and if you fail Lesson 1, Lessons 2 through 20 are irrelevant to you because you will never get there.
Lesson 1 requires you as an individual to do something which is unusual, which is to say: "I, as an individual, define this situation as exceptional. I am drawing a line around myself and saying I am not going to act according to what's happening around me but according to something which is within me." That is hard. People think they are free. Freedom is hard. Freedom is doing the thing that everyone else is not doing. It is not saying, "I'm free, I live in a free country, yada yada." Freedom is that moment where you lean out and you are doing the things that other people are not doing, and that is Lesson 1.
Where it comes from is the study of Nazi Germany. One of the few things that historians of Nazi Germany agree about—because they are a disagreeable bunch in general—is that Hitler gained much of his power by consent, that especially in 1933 and into early 1934 the regime was possible because people allowed it to happen, because people normalized what was going on around them. That is one of the few things we think we understand historically.
Psychologically the way it works is that we have a very strong tendency to follow rules. We are all following rules right now. Smita is asking questions, I'm answering them, you're sitting, you're not square dancing, except for those people in the back. Usually we do what is expected of us, and usually that is appropriate. The reason why this is psychologically hard is you have to say: "I'm an individual. I'm actually going to break these norms that I'm feeling around me."
The other reason it is important is morally—to use an old-fashioned word—it is important because if you do obey in advance, not only do you help authoritarians come to power, but you become the person who helped them come to power, which means that for the rest of your life you explain why it was that you had to do that. You become the person who makes the excuse for that person who obeyed in advance, and that is a phenomenon which is already, by the way, massive in American society one year on.
SMITA NARULA: That is making me think about what will I say to my children ten, 20, 30, 40 years from now, my grandchildren, about what I did in this moment, and that is what you are asking us to think about now.
The second lesson you go straight into is to defend institutions: "Institutions do not protect themselves," you say, "so choose an institution you care about and take its side." Which of our institutions do you feel are either most vulnerable or most under attack, and are there any institutions that we need to transform instead of defend?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: Let me say just a word about why this is number two because there is a kind of logic to it. Institutions have to be defended because individually we are hopeless. One of the great American myths is that freedom means that you are that last person on a blasted heath somewhere holding the automatic weapon and defeating the aliens, and that is freedom.
Or to be more serious, I will give a more serious example from our culture: Holocaust movies are always about rescue, and it is always about the unusual person who carries out the rescue. I work on the Holocaust. This is what I do, and it is true that there were some unusual people who as individuals saved other individuals, but in fact what mattered was institutions; in fact, what matters were whether institutions were preserved or whether they were destroyed. That is what determined whether Jews survived or not.
Institutions are magnifiers, institutions are what allow us to be decent, they are what allow us to feel like we are not alone. If power actually gets you alone, then you are hopeless. We love that photo of Tiananmen Square with the lone person holding back the tank, but he did not actually hold back the tank. It is a beautiful image, but that is not how freedom actually works.
We can disagree about which institutions matter most, but there has to be some way of getting us together. Also, there have to be some agreed-upon ways which limit the power of the government.
In terms of what is most threatened, I would say the fundamental institution which is most threatened—this comes later in the book—is factuality, which is like a pre-institution. Factuality, which is the realm of journalists and the realm of scholars like us, the realm of a lot of different people, that is the institution which allows all other institutions. Because if we do not believe there is truth in the world, we don't believe there are facts, we cannot cooperate, and then institutions become impossible. To be specific, journalists are under threat.
There are institutions also which are not under threat but which just do not work, like checks and balances. It has not actually worked out that well. I am all in favor of it, but unfortunately in this country on our good days we have a two-party system rather than a checks-and-balances system. So if the same party is in Congress as has the White House, you cannot really expect very many checks and balances, and we are not getting them. Congress has not failed, but it also is not restraining the president very effectively.
I absolutely agree, though, with the premise of your question: there are institutions that have to be renewed. This is a book about treading water, this is a book about how not to drown, this is a book about keeping the American republic going, which I think is actually the correct way to frame the issue.
The idea of the book is that if we practice some of the things that it recommends, then we would be better citizens and better able to form new institutions at the end. I think the institutions that need to be formed are largely the small ones.
It is heartening to see people doing that, whether it is the lawyers—a lot of them here in New York—getting together in non-governmental organizations (NGOs), whether it is Indivisible across the country, whether it is small groups helping other people run for state office. It is the small things which have to be revived, I think.
SMITA NARULA: I think what I found incredibly compelling about the book—the book to me was both very chilling and also very empowering, chilling because you bring the weight and this depth of knowledge of history to bear and ask us to have an active relationship with history as we see our own history develop before us today. That can feel very weighty, it can feel very chilling. Yet you also call on us to engage in small, everyday acts, making eye contact and small talk, putting away our screens and enjoying a long read. "Lesson 13: Practice Corporeal Politics: Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them."
Could you say something about the transformative potential of small acts?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: That is in a way what the book is all about. It is about the small acts which seem easy but which in fact require a tiny bit of courage, and then the magnification effects that a tiny bit of courage on your part has for other people.
Many of the lessons, some that you have already mentioned, are about very simple things. Like for example, do you go outside or not? Do you just get angry over Facebook or do you actually march? That for me is a really fundamental difference. And it is a choice because Facebook actually takes up the energy that you need for marching, or even worse it makes you feel like you have done something when at the end of the day you actually have not. You feel tired and dissipated. You are just dissipated. That decision to go out and put your body in a new place changes the way you think, and it means that you end up meeting people you would not have met otherwise, which is generally not true of the Internet.
It also has this interesting quality that you might actually persuade someone, not that that is easy. I feel like we have gotten to this point in America where everyone thinks we cannot persuade anyone of anything else because we are all completely in our own silos. It is hard, but it is actually possible in real life. It is not possible on the Internet. The Facebook exchange which ends with someone writing, "You have persuaded me with your rational arguments," that Facebook exchange has yet to happen, even though I have been making this joke for two years now. It still has not happened, and it will not.
But when you actually talk to people in real life, you talk to people who are a bit different and they talk to people who are a bit different, and there is some chance that that will make a difference. So little things like getting your body out, and making eye contact; it is interesting, that is the lesson that has inspired the most questions in the year since I have written this book, precisely that one.
In a way, it gets to the essence of one of the things about this book, which is that it is about not sleepwalking. It is what you said about history: if we take history seriously, we cannot sleepwalk; if we take history seriously, we realize these things are possible, we are partaking in them. We are either making them more or less possible with everything that we do all the time. Therefore, if we sleepwalk, we are making them more possible. There is no exit. History is existential that way. So every little thing has an effect outside of you, but it also has an effect on how you comport yourself, has an effect on your self longitudinally over time.
SMITA NARULA: I expect you all to be making eye contact at the reception afterward.
I want to come back to your point about courage, coming to Lesson 8, which is: "Stand Out: Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different, but without that unease there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow."
My question stemming from that is: I have found that the burden of action is often carried by those who have the most to lose. Yet it could be argued that the moral responsibility of taking action should be borne by those who have unjustly gained or who have been unjustly enriched by the status quo. But your book speaks uniformly to all readers. Do you think some bear more moral responsibility than others to take the actions that are described in your book?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: That is going to be a "yes, but." Absolutely, there are people who bear greater responsibility for the calamity that we are in now, and some of them are not in the United States. The practical question is how does one actually get those people to acknowledge the responsibility that they bear?
One way to characterize, I think, the fix that we are in is that we are in a crisis of responsibility, where precisely the people who have power are the ones who talk about how they cannot do anything. The extreme is actually the president of the United States, who is the executive of the most powerful country in the world, and yet he is hopeless in reacting to something as basic as a cyberattack on the United States. All he can say about it is, "Well, you can't prove that I was right in the middle of it" as opposed to "I'm going to defend my country" or "I'm going to take responsibility for the good of my country."
That is an extreme example, but in general the way that he does the presidency is to make it into a kind of game where nothing is ever possibly his fault. That is a big part of our culture, and it is a big part of the problem.
I agree with the premise, and actually I worry a lot about how President Trump sets an example for people like himself. I worry a lot about the demography. I worry a lot about a group that might have been a little bit more decent and now are less decent because of the way he behaves, people who maybe do not identify with him but see him in some way as normal. I agree with the premise, and yet it is going to be people—the people who see things faster are often the people who are not the ones who are privileged, and the people who do things first are often not the people who are privileged.
Unfortunately, there is a racial element to this as well. You can go after me about this in Q&A, but it tends to be the white males who are slower to see just how egregious this is, and they of course bear in terms of the voting the greatest responsibility for where we are. So yes, that would be good. I am not going to wait for that, though.
SMITA NARULA: That leads me to another question, which is about protest, and coming off the question of privilege and protest. You said in the book and you have just said now: "It can be organized on social media, but nothing gets real until it hits the streets. But not all protestors are treated equally, and in fact the state's response to protest can be very racialized." And we have seen that, right? We have seen very disparate responses to protests depending on who is protesting.
When white supremacists are allowed to walk freely, brandishing guns and tiki torches, but peaceful Native American protestors or black activists are deemed "black identity extremists" or pelted with rubber bullets and tear gas and arbitrary arrests, it makes the call to protest carry this very heavy weight and burden. I was wondering if you could say more about the burden of protest and the racialized response to it.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: I completely agree with you. I could even push the question a bit further and point to the difference between citizens and non-citizens. Non-citizens who protest in this country are acting from a different kind of courage than citizens because they have things to lose. They can, and in some cases have, been deported.
Yes, I agree with that completely, and it goes back to the corporeal politics. You captured in a way very well what I am trying to say to people who might think, I don't have to protest yet. One of the reasons you have to protest now if you are in a relatively privileged position is that for other people it is already harder than it is for you, and your presence on the streets will change the nature of the protest.
This is an old logic, but everybody knows it. If you wait until you feel you really have to protest, the game is already over. So you have to get onto it first, partly for precisely this reason, so that it is harder to characterize it as being just some Americans and not all Americans, and pragmatically speaking so that police react differently to protests. It is really important for protests to be bigger than they are, and it is really important to always protest earlier than you think you have to. This is true for everyone.
This is such a good question, because what has already happened in Eastern Europe and what happened in the 1930s and 1940s is that people wait to protest. They think—the privileged people in your categorization—I can always protest, but that is not true. It can be criminalized. Ask the Russians. You can get to a point where it is illegal, and then the nice law-abiding people will generally not protest at all, and then the game is over.
SMITA NARULA: And it is being criminalized in various states.
I wanted to step back from the specific lessons and pull back a little bit to the premise of the book, which is that we are facing new threats to the political order. I have in my own conversations about these issues and in my own work as a human rights scholar and defender encountered two distinct schools of thought.
One is that the current administration is a dramatic, radical departure from what has come before it, and the second is to see it as a natural extension or logical extension or natural combination of longstanding processes, namely deepening economic inequality, the corporate capture of our democracy, which you also talk about, and of course our long and undeniable history of upholding racism and defending white supremacy. My question is: Are these threats to the political order in fact new, or are they the result of longstanding processes, or does it depend on who you ask?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: I am going to punt a little bit and say both. The important thing for me is that we are able to recognize a moment when we do things or when we ought to do things that we would not have done a moment before.
I am very sympathetic, and I agree with my African American friends and colleagues who say, "This is just the same thing but maybe turned in a slightly different direction so that you have happened to notice it." I am very sympathetic to that point.
But in political terms—and this is a political book—we need to be able to agree, as many of us as possible, that this is a moment where we need to do something. We need to do something.
I am going to try to answer the question by saying that I think there are some things here that are new, but I think some of the best ways to fight them is by remembering the old. The whole method of this book is not to say, "Tim Snyder understands the 20th century." The whole method of this book is to say Victor Klemperer or Václav Havel or other people who experienced moments that were in some ways like ours left us interesting things to think with. I think those things still work. In fact, I think I am seeing them work among some Americans in 2018.
But I think there are some new things or some things which we have not seen for a while. One of them is economic inequality on this scale. We have now reached a point where the top decile in America owns about 78 percent of the wealth. We are getting up to the Russian standard, which is 87 percent. If we measure the wealth at the top 0.1 percent that Americans owned, we have now reached where we were in 1929. This is extremely significant. I think it is quite significant—and you know all this, but I will mention it anyway—that for 90 percent of the American population there has been no positive change in wealth or income since 1980, which basically means we have produced a couple of generations now where this idea of social advancement or the American dream is not there.
That is an explanation. That is something which has crept up on us, but that is an explanation for Mr. Trump and in general for a kind of politics which, rather than promising something in the future, only promises the past.
Another thing which is new is the Internet, and it is new basically in a bad way. I am happy to discuss this back and forth, but I think it is basically a bad thing, all told, at least in politics. Havel and Klemperer did not have to deal with the Internet. It is now possible to reach more quickly to more people's most basic anxieties, fears, and prejudices than it was before, and it is more possible with modern forms of propaganda to tailor your message to what you think people will already want to hear.
There is something new, I think, about the contradictory character of a lot of propaganda. The Russians, for example, had no problem—they did this in Ukraine and they did this to us—in saying, for example, "In Ukraine they are all fascists" to one demography and then to another demography saying, "All of the Ukrainian state was created by the international Jewish conspiracy." They have no problem with that because they are targeting the message. Likewise with us, they have no problem saying to blacks, "You should defend yourselves, and you should buy guns," and saying to whites, "You should defend yourselves, and you should buy guns." They have no problem being completely contradictory because unlike old-school propaganda they have the technical tools to target particular groups and push them off in a certain direction. I think that is new.
It is not just them, they are just better at it than we are, but the American right does that now as well. You see it after the school shootings in Florida, for example. This is what happens.
The other thing which I think is slightly new, although it happened with fascism, too, is that the far right is now much more internationalist than the far left. They learn from each other. When Russia invades Ukraine, the flag which is used for the pseudo state in Southeastern Ukraine under Russian occupation is the Confederate battle flag, just to take an example.
SMITA NARULA: One other thing that I think is so profound about the book and the contribution that it has already made is this idea of not only taking personal responsibility and the call to action now, but to do things that are transformative also of your surroundings. You talk about taking care of the face of the world, pulling down the symbols of hate, not walking by a swastika and just saying, "Well, that's up now," but taking it down, or listening for dangerous words and really being critical in your thinking about how words like "terrorism" and "extremism" are being used and who they are being applied to and why.
I just was thinking maybe you could say a little bit more about that, because I think one of the things that really struck me in your descriptions of Europe and the rise of fascism or Nazism is there is just the incredible normalization of the daily march of dehumanization that takes place, and it takes place in this very almost banal way today, in such an onslaught of what is on the media and what comes to us that we can just simply walk by it until it becomes the new normal. Can you speak to that?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: As a student of the Holocaust, one of the things that really worries me, troubles me about American discourse about the Second World War and Hitler is that people tend to say, "Well, look, we haven't killed 6 million Jews, therefore everything is fine." Essentially, like if you have not gotten all the way to the end of the Holocaust, then nothing has happened, which ignores that to get from 1933 to 1945 a whole lot of things had to happen in a certain order.
We are not in 1941, but we are kind of in 1933, and in 1933 what matters is what you are talking about, which is the semiotics—the signs, the symbols, the public sphere. This is another thing which historians of Nazi Germany also agree about.
I am going to run out of the list pretty quickly, but another thing that we agree about is that the swastikas that were painted on the walls or the Stars of David that were used to mark Jewish shops were incredibly important. These are the things that actually enabled the regime to change, because as you say, they instructed people what they were supposed to normalize.
This is one thing which really is a lesson that can be learned, because at the beginning the people who were painting the swastikas and the Stars of David, those were private initiatives. The Schutzstaffel (SS) was an NGO. It was. The SS was part of the Nazi Party. Later it is merged with the police and is the main instrument of the Holocaust, and I do not mean to make light of it, but those were citizens doing one thing.
One thing that Americans have done better than the Germans of 1933 is that they have been more aware of their surroundings. So there are NGOs in the United States—in this city, for example—who get up early in the morning and paint over swastikas. This matters so much. It matters to all the people who do not see the swastika that day, and not just the Jews, everybody.
But it also matters to the people who do the painting. It is a very nice example of a little thing that you can do. And it is weird. It is maybe weird. It is maybe illegal sometimes to paint. But doing that little thing is liberatory.
SMITA NARULA: I think much of what these processes have enabled is the surfacing of conversations that are sometimes uncomfortable but so necessary to have. Also, looking back at more historic symbols like Confederate statues or Confederate flags or even just a few blocks away from here the question of whether Christopher Columbus's statue should be standing in the middle of Columbus Circle. I think very recently there was a decision to keep the statue there but to add a plaque to it, to add some context.
It is not just the new symbols that are appearing or the old ones that are reappearing, but going back to our collective history and our collective understanding of what is our history and questioning that as well. Would you say that is part of the process?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: Absolutely. The new encounters with time and the past are happening in lots of different dimensions. Some of the conversations that I have had have been with Holocaust survivors, the ones who are still with us, and over and over again—I know some of these people because of my work, but some of them I don't. They write me and they say, "This reminds me of X." Then children and grandchildren also, "This reminds me of the thing that my mother, my grandmother mentioned." That is a historical conversation which I was not expecting to be having. I just thought I would mention that.
With the 1930s there is another thing I would say. We in America need to remember that in the 1930s we got lucky. We got lucky. We had good leadership in the 1930s. It made a difference that we started to build a welfare state, it made a difference that we entered the Second World War. Neither of those things was necessary. Possibly both of them were unlikely. But they happened, and it made a great deal of difference.
In the 1930s, the American attitudes about race or the American attitudes about Jews, for that matter, were perfectly in the European mainstream. We were not better than all those Lithuanians and Latvians who we find it so easy to criticize now. The Baltic States actually took more Jews than we did, not even as a matter of population before the Holocaust.
We have a certain tendency to say—this is a very American thing, the "city on the hill"—that evil happened over there, and we were over here being good. No. We were over here making the same anti-Semitic arguments about why we could not take refugees that everyone else was in the 1930s. We do not confront that.
More broadly, we do not confront how politics in the 1930s in the United States—you probably all know this—how close it was to politics in the 1930s in Europe and how popular fascist ideas were here. You could get 20,000 people in Madison Square Garden not just for a far right rally, but for a Nazi rally in New York City, of all places.
I am getting to the Confederate statues because we have to remember that when we say "America First" or when our president says "America First," that is a positive reference back to an alternative America where we remained isolationist, racist, where we did not do anything for the world, where we remained in that far right mainstream of the time. That is what America First means. America First meant opposition to the welfare state, opposition to involvement abroad, and in general it meant keep the refugees out. That is an alternative America which almost happened.
I am getting to the statues because the statues, as you probably all know, do not have anything to do with the Civil War, that is, they do not rise organically from the Civil War. The statues are monuments to the ethnic cleansing or the racial purging of African Americans from the center of American cities. That is what they are, that is what they stand for, that is what they were meant to communicate to African Americans, and that is what they do communicate to African Americans.
Monuments are not history in the sense that they somehow permanently represent something. They are history in the sense that they arose in particular historical circumstances, and then historians get very unpopular when we explain what those circumstances actually were.
I am not going to talk about every statue in New York because I am from Connecticut, but I will make a general point, which is—I am actually from Ohio—that one thing which history really shows is that statues change all the time. They change all the time. The argument that we have to have a statue today because we had one yesterday, that is historically false. They change all the time. So the question is do you think about it critically, or do you think about it uncritically, because they are going to change.
SMITA NARULA: I am going to get one more question, and then I am going to open it up because I am sure there are many questions in the audience. I am going to ask you to look back and then help move us forward.
Looking back, elsewhere you have said: "I'm a skeptic. My tendency is to look at examples from other places and to ask what we could learn. The point of using the historical examples is to remind ourselves that democracies and republics usually fail. The expectation should be failure rather than success."
This book was published in February of 2017 and a lot has happened since then. Looking back on this year, are we failing, or is the resistance strong?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: B-minus. There is a lot of grade inflation at Yale. I am sure there isn't at Bard, but at Yale it is kind of a problem.
B-minus. In terms of what has happened, I would like to think that a lot of the things I warned about from Mr. Trump have actually come true. I wish I had been wrong about those things, but just so that that is on the record, he has actually embodied a complete disregard for most of the unwritten conventions and a lot of the written rules of the way America is supposed to work; he has actually turned out to be the perhaps unwitting, but almost certainly witting, pawn of a foreign power; it has turned out to be the case that we Americans were not really ready for this sort of thing, most of us.
On the other hand, some of the institutions have done really well. My heroes are the reporters. My heroes are the investigative journalists. Without them, we do not have a clue. Without them, Mueller doesn't have a clue. Without them, Mueller doesn't know where to begin.
Also, without investigative reporters we do not have the Panama Papers, we don't have the Paradise Papers, we don't have a sense of just how unequal our countries have become. We do not know that $7 to $21 trillion dollars has been offshored without the reporters. The reporters are giving us the chance, basically.
To put it a different way, without them we have no chance. If this had happened in some world without The Guardian and without The Washington Post and without The New York Times, without the 2,000 or so investigative reporters, which is not very many, if it happened in that world, we would already be done with. Trump knows this. He is a skillful politician in many ways. His instinct that the reporters are a problem is correct, because the reporters keep the factual world going. A lot of them have done really well. I would say this is a heroic age. I think that people are going to look back and say this was a heroic age of investigative reporting.
The lawyers have done—not all of them, one of them perjured himself to become attorney general. Yes, he perjured himself to become the highest law official in the land. It is extraordinary, but it doesn't rise to the top.
But the lawyers have done really well, which is sensitive for me because in Germany in the 1930s, the lawyers flipped. In a very proud legal tradition, they found ways of justifying what was happening, and many of the commanders—most of the commanders—of the Einsatzkommandos who carried out the beginning of the Holocaust and other atrocities in 1941 were lawyers, were people with law degrees. So that is one that I am sensitive about. A lot of American lawyers have done very good things.
There are not enough people—there are a lot of people doing great things. People are running for office. That is hugely important. People are realizing that elections are not just rituals and that you have to win sometimes and you have to take risks sometimes. That is great. I think we are not yet at the point where enough people realize what is at stake.
SMITA NARULA: From my own perspective doing human rights work, I think the people have done really well not only in standing up and coming forward with courage, but bringing themselves into conversations, sometimes very uncomfortable, in very personal, transformative ways. It takes a lot to resist the onslaught of news and information.
I have actually been quite emboldened and impressed by also the solidarity that has been shown between social movements, the role of women and people of color in leading these struggles of undocumented youth, of the youth post-gun shootings who are right now on the streets and in the White House demanding that they be listened to. The pendulum is swinging in one direction, but there is an equal force, I think, that is also pulling people onto the street and away from their screens.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: That is wonderful, and that is true. A couple of things that really strike me in your closing remark: The first is in a way how old-fashioned the individuality is. When one of those high school kids in Florida actually talks, he gives us a chance. He puts him or herself out there, and even though he or she is 17 or 16 or whatever, he or she is going to get slaughtered on social media. This is already happening. And of course, being a teenager, they know that. So there is a very old-fashioned way—this is what the Greeks said, that democracy is only possible if the physical individual person stands out and is present and is recognizable as a person.
SMITA NARULA: I think that is a good point on which to open it up to all of you, and to say thank you so much.
QUESTION: First of all, thank you very much. I am John Hirsch with the International Peace Institute.
At the Munich Security Conference last Saturday, the Polish prime minister publicly stated, if I can get his actual remarks, that "Jews were perpetrators in the Holocaust as well as Poles, and this is part of their effort to criminalize anybody who criticizes Poland for any role in the Holocaust."
Do you have any comment about—here we are in the United States obviously. What do you think the reaction ought to be? I have seen nothing from the American government.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: Yes. I am going to make a big response to this. This is something I have been thinking about a lot about democracy. One of the things, if you are on the left, you think: Well, maybe we shouldn't talk about democracy. Our democracy is flawed. Maybe we shouldn't impose our ideas on everybody else, and so on.
One of the things that I have been noticing is that you either go forward or you go back. There does not seem to be that ideal place where you say, "We're just going to make our democracy perfect." What has happened is that America is rolling back.
There is no stable state. There is no point where you can say, "Well, we're just going to take care of America first." That is actually impossible. What happens is that when you say we are just going to take care of America first, everybody, whether it is the Burmese or the Poles, takes a cue from that. That is what has happened.
The mass murder of the Rohingya has something to do with the fact that the State Department no longer takes its own Human Rights Department seriously. To be fair, the diplomats who do that work do, but the top of the State Department does not, and the president of the United States obviously does not.
The fact that the Poles say the things they do and pass the laws that they do has to do with the fact that our own approach to history is anything goes. We have the chief of staff to the president talking about the Civil War as being something that should have been worked out among reasonable people, we have the president of the United States saying the same thing. We have the president of the United States saying that among Nazis are very fine people.
I am happy to criticize the Poles and so on, but we are very important in all of this. The way that we talk—we cannot close off the rest of the world. The rest of the world takes its cues from us one way or the other, and now they are taking their cues the other way. I am happy to get down into the details about Poland, but I think for us that is the most important thing.
QUESTION: You talk about the need for people to go out and march and demonstrate and be on the streets. A whole lot of students from Broward County traveled for eight hours to get to Tallahassee, and they demonstrated, and they were on the streets. Yet on this very same day, a majority of Republicans in the Florida legislature voted down a bill to ban assault weapons. Doesn't that point out the fact that the most important thing is to get involved in politics and fight for all these democratic values in the government?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: I really do not think it is an either/or. There are 300 million people in this country. It is going to do a lot of them good if they protest.
One of the things about protesting is that it means that you have taken some kind of a stand, you have done something which is relatively easy. Another thing about protest is that it means that you meet people, and then you start a neighborhood organization, which may or may not lead to running for office. I do not think it is an either/or.
I do not think protest makes it less likely that people run for office. On the contrary, for a lot of people it is a first step. If you look for the 20-somethings and 30-somethings who are running for office now and starting to win, a lot of them protested. A lot of them were in this city for the Women's March. A lot of them traveled to this city for the Women's March. So I don't think it is either/or.
But I want to agree with you fundamentally that it is very important that people run for office, it is very important that people realize that districts are winnable, it is very important to realize that you can go out there and you can actually win an election. Yes, that I agree with completely. I just don't think it is an either/or.
QUESTION: First, thanks very much for a most fascinating and very helpful, I think, discussion for all of us.
I wanted to ask you perhaps a comparison with the 1930s with respect to two institutions or two groups, shall we say? One is the religious institutions of the day here in the United States vis-à-vis religious institutions, whether they be in 1930s Germany or in the communist era of Eastern Europe. The other institution, which is I suppose specifically relevant to the fascist era, is business. I wonder how you would compare and contrast. I tend to think that on both of those scores what we have today is quite a bit more hopeful, but I am interested to hear your comments.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: I think I agree with you. My immediate response whenever I get a question like that is to talk about all the ways the 1930s are like today, but I am going to restrain that impulse and answer your question straight up, because I think you are right.
One of the things which is striking about business and National Socialism, it is not that business brought the National Socialists to power, that is not really true. It is not that the businessmen were for the most part Nazis. They were generally men of the right, and they did generally partake in the idea that: "We'll stay on top of this transition. We'll be able to manage this person."
But then once they couldn't, then strikingly they found ways to adapt, and they found ways to profit. Two of the most obvious are taking over Jewish firms and property. When you get to the point where the government starts distributing property from one place to another, it is hard for certain businessmen to resist that. Another even more striking example is the concentration camps, which were business operations. Auschwitz was a place, among many other things it was a site of cheap labor, which important German companies found irresistible.
With religion I want to make a slightly different point, which is that I think there is a discussion always about whether Christianity is a thing you have or Christianity is a set of actions that you perform, let's say. In this country, I agree with you that it is better, but in this country there is also the trap, very profoundly and visibly so, of saying Christianity is the thing that we are rather than Christianity is something that you do.
There are relatively few examples in Germany itself—Bonhoeffer is the most famous—of Christians saying, "Christianity is a thing that we do." Thus far, it looks a little bit better here on both fronts.
With business here, the interesting thing here is that businesses—let me make another point here about libertarianism. There is an idea in America—I am agreeing with you that it is not as bad, but I cannot resist ending on a negative note—which says freedom is about making it to the top. That is an idea that people find very attractive, even when in other ways they might think that they are on the left, or they might think they are progressive or new or whatever. But that idea that freedom means making it to the top, that is not that many intellectual steps away from social Darwinism and indeed National Socialism. When Hitler talked to businessmen, what he said was: "You guys have made it to the top. The whole world should be like that. It should just be survival of the fittest." That is the language that he spoke to them.
What I would suggest now is that normatively to American business, yes, a lot of firms are doing an awful lot of good things, and there are a lot of really smart and for that matter, wealthy people who are on the right side of all of this. But we are going to need to have a language which is not a libertarian language of "We're free because we made it to the top." That is not going to be enough.
QUESTION: Sondra Stein.
I would like to ask you, it seems besides Trump in your face every day with all his repulsive behavior that this is really very organized. Big money has been planning this for a long time at the local-state level, redistricting. And the new tax law—I read years ago that once they make enough debt, then they squeeze out all the social programs. So it is not willy-nilly. It is very organized by very wealthy people over a long time.
TIMOTHY SNYDER: I am not going to disagree with that, and it speaks to the gentleman's earlier question. The only way to counter people who have a plan is to have a plan. The only way to win statehouses is to win statehouses. The only way to fix gerrymandering is to win elections. That is the only real way.
Whatever one thinks about the goals, one has to say, I think, with sobriety that for the last 35 years the Republicans have been better planners than the Democrats have, both in terms of ideology and in terms of winning and in terms of actually thinking about questions of power. The Democrats have become a little bit too much a party where they think we're going to win the presidency and then other things will sort themselves out, and then you do not win the presidency and other things do not sort themselves out even if you do.
So I agree with you. I guess I would just add that there is something special about Mr. Trump. He isn't actually a product of these plans that you are talking about. The people who are planning, whether you mean the Koch brothers or someone else, they were not actually planning for Trump. And Trump brings some things to the table which are both very special and very risky. His charisma is both very special and very risky. The fact that he is in bed with non-American oligarchs makes him a risky proposition. But for now, I agree with you that he enables a lot of things which have been in the works for a long time to go through.
Of course, you are 100 percent right that having deliberately added $1 trillion to the deficit they will now say: "Well, of course, we can't afford the basic things in the richest country in the history of the world that are normal in other places. We can't afford those things." That is what they are going to say next. Of course that is true.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
First of all, thank you for your kind words about lawyers. Some lawyers eventually become judges, and the failure of the judiciary was fundamental, I think, to the success of the Nazi regime.
It is quite clear obviously that Trump wants to populate the federal judiciary and also the Republicans at the local level, the state judiciaries, with people who very much share their point of view. And when they do not, as was the case in Pennsylvania where the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ordered that the districts be redrawn, there is now a movement afoot to impeach those justices.
How can we preserve the independence of the judiciary? Is it even possible? And isn't it fundamental to holding our ground against Trump?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: Yes. I am going to give you a range of answers. None of them is completely satisfactory.
The first is that I am going to be Joe Conservative for a minute here, and I am going to bemoan the loss of history and the loss of civics in American schools. The ideal of how checks and balances are supposed to function, the tripartite character of the American federal government as described in the first few articles of the Constitution, people just do not know that. They just don't, and it is worse than it used to be, measurably worse than it used to be.
People think that there is a "leader." That is a word that I really do not like for disciplinary reasons because it is professional deformation, because "leader" means Führer; in Italian, leader is Duce; in Russian it's Vozhd. These are words that we do not like in other contexts.
We do not have a leader. There is no leader in the American Constitution, yet people talk about leaders, leaders, leaders, leaders all the time. A leader is someone who emerges in an exceptional situation and does not have to follow the rules. He does not need rules, he just needs followers.
I realize this is long term and organic, but we have to have civics. The Constitution cannot just be something that a certain small elite remembers at the last moment.
The second thing is I agree with you that it is fundamental. An interesting thing that I think we are observing is the shift in who cares about, for lack of a better word or cliché, law and order. You simply cannot say that the Republican Party is a law-and-order party anymore. It is not. They are not a law-and-order party. If you think it is okay for the sovereignty of the United States to be violated, you are not a law-and-order party; if you think it is okay to interfere in an ongoing FBI investigation, you are not a law-and-order party. The actual law-and-order people, a lot of them are aware of this, I mean the ones who are in charge of law and order . . .
What I am saying politically is I think that there is room here for someone to say without the nasty implication of law and order, but for someone to claim the ground of saying: "We are in fact a state where the rule of law matters. We care about the law. Our people care about the law." I think there is politically room for that.
I agree with you that what we are holding onto or what is holding onto us, the thing that we still have, is the rule of law. I agree with you that actually having that—of our three parts of government, that part is actually doing something which is not negative. With a few qualifications, it is the only part. It is what is keeping us going.
I am going to say one more thing about the rule of law. There is an argument that ought to be made I think to the American right, or at least to American business, about the rule of law, and it is this: If you lose the rule of law at the top with respect to presidents, if you allow yourself to slip from being a republic—with all of the qualifications about how flawed a republic we are—to an oligarchy, what happens is that a few businesspeople do very well, but most of them are going to do much worse. The whole economy is going to contract, and it is going to be a few people doing better, but a lot of them being worse.
I feel like no one on the American right, for lack of a better word, is talking about how important the rule of law is for the economy, for this economy that we kind of take for granted. What happens when you move to oligarchy is that the economy shrinks and that the vast majority of people, the ones who are not in the immediate environs of what the Russians call "the family," the ones who are not right around power, they are going to be worse off.
I guess what I am trying to say is that this argument for law should reach into quarters where it has not reached yet.
SMITA NARULA: I also think it is a nice sort of reminder to come back to the book.
I would like to come back from the last question too. I was very pleased to hear you name that institution, as a human rights lawyer myself very concerned about what is happening to the judiciary and how it is being weakened, and to come back to one of your lessons to say: "Pick an institution and defend it."
I also think something that the book does—and I will conclude on this—is that it asks us "to sort of look up from our screens, our lives, to get out of this reactive state which is exactly where authoritarian leaders want us to be and to choose where we target our focus with laser-like precision and to go after and defend or transform or whatever needs to be done in a very proactive, profound, and courageous way." I think that is one of the institutions, but this is a call to all of us, this manifesto you have given, to step out of that reactive place, to claim our power in small ways and big ways.
I thank you for being here. I thank you for being in conversation with us. I thank you all for choosing to be here tonight to turn your attention with laser-like focus on what needs to be done ahead, and I hope you will all purchase the book, which is available in the back, and I know that Tim has a new book coming out called The Road to Unfreedom, which I am sure he would be happy to talk about in the reception.
My thanks to all of you for being here, and let's carry on. Thank you.