'On Tyranny' Explores New Threats Facing American Political System NPR's Robert Siegel talks with historian Timothy Snyder about his new book, On Tyranny, which 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 them.

'On Tyranny' Explores New Threats Facing American Political System

'On Tyranny' Explores New Threats Facing American Political System

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NPR's Robert Siegel talks with historian Timothy Snyder about his new book, On Tyranny, which 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 them.


Timothy Snyder has written some sprawling, compelling books about war, genocide and the descent into dictatorship in mid-20th century Europe. So the Yale historian's latest book called "On Tyranny" is a departure. It is a slim, almost pocket-sized work subtitled "Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century." Snyder writes out of concern about the rise of Donald Trump, and his lessons range from such personal instruction as stand out and establish a private life to more common political fare like listen for dangerous words and beware of paramilitaries. Timothy Snyder joins us in the studio. Thanks for coming in.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: I'm very glad.

SIEGEL: Why did you write this book?

SNYDER: Well, you just called it a departure. I would call it an arrival, an arrival back into the United States. I'm an American, but I'm not a historian of the United States. I'm a historian of Eastern and central Europe. So I've spent the last 25 years writing, as you say, these books about how regimes change and about how political atrocities are committed. So this is the first time that I'm writing about America. And I feel compelled to do so because I'm afraid things can change here very fast.

SIEGEL: Do you find in Donald Trump's nationalism alarming parallels with things you've written about in Europe - fascism, Stalinism?

SNYDER: I guess the place to start is that America's not an exception. The myths that we tell about ourselves are not true. We're not wiser than Germans in the 1930s. So I can't say for sure which way things are going, but what I do know is that our institutions don't defend themselves. The institutions only make it when people themselves do the little things that they can do as individuals. So - but to answer your question briefly, I am concerned about regime change in the United States, yes.

SIEGEL: Let me put to you what might be a less-than-alarming interpretation of the Trump presidency. There's no uniformed youth movement behind it. It's not a political party of its own. Donald Trump sees the leadership of a party, which frankly isn't entirely on board with him. Fascism requires both fascist leaders and fascist followers, and the followers just aren't following. That would be - that would be an alarming view of things.

SNYDER: But what it wouldn't be, Robert, is an argument for doing nothing. We're in a shocking situation where there are far more negative things that one could also cite, like, for example, that the president basically never says he supports democracy. The president has never given any indication that he understands or respects the rule of law and the things that the presidents have done so far. And this speaks directly, I think, to the central threat, suggests that he is deliberately spreading a world of unreality.

And this is exactly why we have to understand history, because where fascism, to use your word, begins is with the neglect or the repudiation of the real world. Fascism says what you and I experience as facts or what reporters experience as facts are irrelevant. All that matters are impressions and emotions and myths.

And so when the president and his aides set out to create a world of alternative factuality, that is the catalyst which helps us slide from one system to another. So yes, there are things on both sides of the balance, but I would say the very last thing we should do is look at this situation and say, oh, it's all going to be fine.

SIEGEL: Trump aides in response to the allegation of their generating fake news would say, no, the mainstream journalists are totally against Donald Trump. They're going with unsourced or unnamed sources in stories that are more argumentative than expository. And in fact, we are setting a wildly inaccurate record straight.

SNYDER: In the descent from a world of factual discourse into a world of emotions and alternative realities, the first step you take, whether you're the Russian media, whether you're Breitbart is that you manufacture lots of stuff that isn't true. The second step is that you claim that everyone is like this. You spread this kind of cynicism that you shouldn't really trust anybody, everybody's just a partisan, everyone just has their own skin in the game. And then once that belief spreads we're then in the world that I'm talking about, which is ripe for fascism.

SIEGEL: One of your lessons is to establish a private life. And in talking about privacy, you cite the hack of Hillary Clinton's email or of John Podesta's email, perhaps more directly, as an example of an invasion of privacy. You criticize the media for covering that as news. You know, I - when that hack took place there had been demands from the primary season for Hillary Clinton to divulge the transcripts of her speeches to Goldman Sachs. I found the transcripts of her - they're actually sort of public conversations with Goldman Sachs - and I read them. I thereby took part in what I guess was indirectly an invasion of her or John Podesta's privacy. Am I wrong to do that?

SNYDER: Yeah. I mean, you may be - you may be obligated to do it the way that sometimes doctors and lawyers are obligated to do things, but I think you should feel bad about it. And it goes back to your question about fascism. Sometimes things happen that we don't understand are threats. And this was one of them. So let's use a big word, totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is not about some state that appears out of nowhere and suddenly is all-powerful. There can't be any such thing. Totalitarianism starts when the difference between your public life and your private life is effaced. If we can't have exchanges with our friends and family, with loved ones that won't at some point be made public then we can't have private lives. And if we can't have private lives then we're not really free people.

SIEGEL: Although what I learned from reading the transcripts of these interviews that she gave for people who worked for Goldman Sachs was that number one, she was incredibly fluent and fast on her feet, talking about China and other issues of foreign policy. Number two, it wasn't as if she was in the belly of the beast, scolding her hosts, which had been implied earlier in the primary season. She was in her element. And I thought reading those transcripts may have been an invasion of someone's privacy, but it was due diligence on my part.

SNYDER: I think as a reporter, perhaps you had to do it since everyone else was doing it. But I think we have to have some rules, just like there - with a doctor there's patient confidentiality or with a lawyer there's confidentiality because it can't be right, Robert, that every time someone hacks my emails it's news for someone else.

SIEGEL: Did you write this for young people, for young liberal people? How would you describe your readership?

SNYDER: So this is a book for all Americans. It is, though, as you suggest quite rightly, slightly more a book for the young because what I fear we've done in this country is raise a generation of young people under the slogan that history was over, that things are basically going in the right direction and always will. And now many of those young people have been delivered a shock. And the danger is that having been shocked they will switch from thinking, oh, well, everything's going to be fine to everything's not going to be fine and not realize that history is precisely about what you yourself can do. People in their 20s have a chance to be a historical generation. I hope they take it.

SIEGEL: Timothy Snyder, thank you very much.

SNYDER: Hey, it's been my pleasure.

SIEGEL: Timothy Snyder is the author of "On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century."


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