Book Review: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

128 PP.; $5.26 (PAPERBACK) $3.99 (KINDLE)

Yale historian Timothy Snyder has written a book on all matters concerning state tyranny—how it comes to be, what to look out for, and how to resist it. Some of his worries are plainly obvious (“Any election can be the last”), while some of his practical advice is dishearteningly ominous—“Make sure you and your family have passports.”

Snyder clearly sees in the Trump presidency a potential, or even likely, authoritarian outcome. As one of the world’s premier experts on the tragedies of the twentieth century (his Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin are required readings for those who wish to fully understand the horror story that was World War II), he is all too familiar with the kind of flawed thinking (or unthinking) the average person on the street undergoes in reaction to dictatorial power grabs. There’s equivocation: “A previous administration did the same thing.” Underestimation: “Either he’ll have to change his program or he won’t be able to get anything done.” Wishful cynicism: “It’s all talk—he won’t actually try to implement any of the things he said he would during the campaign.” Institutional optimism: “Congressional retaliation, judicial oversight or even security-state obstruction will stop him if he tries to do anything too heinous.” And political indifferentism: “Those in power are really all the same—and folks, after all, were ringing the fascist alarm bell over Mitt Romney and John McCain too.”

For a historical example of wishful cynicism and institutional optimism, Snyder quotes from a Jewish newspaper, published after the 1933 German elections, that doubted Hitler’s victory meant the policies circulated in Nazi propaganda would actually come to be: “[The Nazis] will not suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob. They cannot do this because a number of critical factors hold powers in check.” Incredible as it seems in retrospect, this was a fairly common attitude toward Nazism at the time. Snyder is emphatic that similar delusions not afflict the opposition to Trumpism.

As alluded to at the beginning, On Tyranny is a very practical book. A lot of weight is given to the everyday measures anyone can take to resist authoritarianism. Snyder encourages readers to, among other things, be polite to strangers, make new friends, join social organizations, donate to power-checking institutions, clear up any legal issues (“Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.”), say “no” to undue requests from authority, remove “signs of hate” (e.g., swastikas), read books, and get away from screens.

In fact, a particular disdain for screens—television or computer—runs throughout the book. “The succession from one frame to another [on television],” Snyder writes, “can hinder a sense of resolution. Everything happens fast, but nothing actually happens.” And the internet, Snyder believes, bears much of the blame for Trump’s nomination: “In the 2016 presidential election, the two-dimensional world of the internet was more important than the three-dimensional world of human contact.” This is perhaps an overvaluation—Trump voters were, after all, the typical Republican ones—but, nonetheless, the general sentiment is correct. Distortions travel fast online and the truth is rarely as simple or as eye-catching. A myopic fixation, when not merited, is the same thing as a lie.

One piece of important, practical advice suspiciously absent from Snyder’s list is to try winning people over to the anti-authoritarian side. That is, to win arguments about what should be done. To propose concrete solutions to genuine problems. To convince people that the ideas of solidarity and individualism aren’t at odds. To speak with persuasive rhetoric and clear reasoning.

Snyder seems to disparage this approach when he quotes Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco describing his youthful failings at winning anti-fascist converts:

About fifteen of us would get together to talk and try to find arguments opposing [the Nazis]. It was not easy…From time to time, one of our friends said: ‘I don’t agree with them, to be sure, but on certain points, nevertheless, I must admit for example the Jews…’ etc. And this was a symptom. Three weeks later, this person would be a Nazi.

There are other flaws with On Tyranny—ones that, in less troubling times, would perhaps be fatal enough to dismiss the book altogether. These, however, are troubling times, and Snyder still has the right lines on all the most important things. For instance, as he puts it, “Modern tyranny is terror management.” Trump and his media sycophants will depend on acts of individual terrorism to scare the public into surrendering life and liberty for the undeliverable promise of total security. Snyder also astutely notes the defensive utility of Trump’s erratic, unreflective behavior, “Once we subliminally accept that we are watching a reality show rather than thinking about real life, no image can actually hurt the president politically.”

The atomization of society, coupled with the balkanization of information online, played a role in getting Trump elected, and whatever else Trump may be, he’s certainly frivolous to the point of being fatal. He’s a quasi-fascistic, nepotistic banana republican and the perfect president for the troll age: a complete joke who by sheer force of American credulity is now no laughing matter. Read Snyder’s book on how to resist tyranny, then do all you can.