“There are really no values in the world except for the stark reality that we are born in order to take things from other people.”
—Dr. Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale, describing Hitler’s worldview
As we watch a disordered Tr-mp bring even more disorder to his already disordered regime, and as we watch Republicans shudder at the thought of actually having to take seriously the possibility that Tr-mp has been compromised by the Russians, and as the rest of us hope the things we are seeing will not lead to a neofascist assault on our democracy, I direct you to Wikipedia’s entry on Süddeutsche Zeitung, described as “the largest German subscription daily newspaper” and “the first newspaper to receive a license from the U.S. military administration of Bavaria,” five months after the end of WWII. Wikipedia quotes from the paper’s first issue on October 6, 1945:
For the first time since the collapse of the brown rule of terror, a newspaper run by Germans is published in Munich. It is limited by the political necessities of our days, but it is not bound by censorship, nor gagged by constraints of conscience.
Clicking on that “brown rule of terror” link will take you to Wikipedia’s extensive “Nazi Germany” page where you will find a nice summary of how “Germany was transformed into a fascist state in which the Nazi Party took totalitarian control over nearly all aspects of life.” As you will soon see, some people believe that Americans should do more reading about that ugly part of world history.
I mention Süddeutsche Zeitung (translated “South German Newspaper”and known simply as “SZ”) because of an article it recently published (brought to my attention by Media Matters) with a provocative title, which is actually a paraphrased quote from Timothy Snyder, a Yale University professor of history the paper interviewed:
Before we get to the SZ interview of Dr. Snyder, let us look briefly at his credentials, from his Yale bio:
Timothy Snyder is one of the leading American historians and public intellectuals, and enjoys perhaps greater prominence in Europe, the subject of most of his work. He is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He received his doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1997, where he was a British Marshall Scholar. Before joining the faculty at Yale in 2001, he held fellowships in Paris, Vienna, and Warsaw, and an Academy Scholarship at Harvard. He speaks five and reads ten European languages.
As you can see, Dr. Snyder is no Bill O’Reilly, pretending to be a historian. He’s the real deal. He “speaks five and reads ten European languages,” and has written “six single-authored award-winning books,” the latest being, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. The man knows something about fascism and its history, and in the SZ interview he uses his world-renowned scholarship to evaluate what we have seen three weeks into the Tr-mp regime.
After noting how our American institutions were unable to restrain him, and how Tr-mp’s behavior never evolved despite his electoral success, Dr. Snyder says what most of us have known for some time:
He doesn’t seem to care about the institutions and the laws except insofar as they appear as barriers to the goal of permanent kleptocratic authoritarianism and immediate personal gratification. It is all about him all of time, it is not about the citizens and our political traditions.
If you’ve been paying attention, you don’t need a Yale scholar to tell you any of that. It’s been obvious. But we do need a scholar of history, especially European history, to remind us that “The history of the 1930s is terribly important to Americans (and Europeans) right now, just as it is slipping from our memories.” Dr. Snyder went on to say of the election of Tr-mp,
The temptation in a new situation is to imagine that nothing has changed. That is a choice that has political consequences: self-delusion leads to half-conscious anticipatory obedience and then to regime change.
So many people, on the street and in the media and in government, think “nothing has changed.” They admit Tr-mp is a bit unusual, but will be tamed by the limitations placed on him by the political culture and our institutions. Not so fast, says Dr. Snyder. He tells the German newspaper,
at the moment it’s rather important that Germans be generous with their history and help others to learn how republics collapse. Most Americans are exceptionalists, we think we live outside of history. Americans tend to think: “We have freedom because we love freedom, we love freedom because we are free.” It is a bit circular and doesn’t acknowledge the historical structures that can favor or weaken democratic republics. We don’t realize how similar our predicaments are to those of other people.
We don’t realize it because we are taught, consciously and unconsciously, that we have some kind of immunity to what has befallen other nations. We are sold the idea that nothing like what happened in Europe in the 1930s can happen here. Dr. Snyder says that Americans need to know something we seem not to know:
…that intelligent people, not so different from ourselves, have experienced the collapse of a republic before. [The Weimar Republic, the German state between 1919 and 1933,] is one example among many. Republics, like other forms of government, exist in history and can rise and fall. The American Founding Fathers knew this, which is why there were obsessed with the history of classical republics and their decline into oligarchy and empire. We seem to have lost that tradition of learning from others, and we need it back. A quarter-century ago, after the collapse of communism, we declared that history was over – and in an amazing way we forgot everything we once knew about communism, fascism and National Socialism.
The professor of history said it was strange to learn, for instance, that when he was on a tour in 2011 for his book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, “that Americans had really forgotten about the crimes of Stalin.” He elaborated:
I realized that Americans had simply forgotten that there was Stalinism and terror. That struck me: What else could we forget? The idea of the Holocaust is certainly present, but it is almost totally lacking in context. And without context it is hard to see resemblance. A Holocaust that is reduced to a few images or facts cannot teach about larger patterns. And Americans risk of stressing its uniqueness is that it allows people to dismiss any learning from history. People will ask: “Is he wearing a Hakenkreuz [Swastika]? Did he kill six million Jews?” If the answer is in the negative, then they will reply: “Then history has nothing to do with the present.” Over the last 25 years, we have not only forgotten much of what we once knew but we have raised a whole generation which doesn’t have these reference points.
Perhaps a lack of historical reference points is why so many young people either opted out of the last election or wasted their vote on a third party, acts which were significantly responsible for the election of Tr-mp. Dr. Snyder continues:
When an American president says “America First” or proposes a political system without the two parties or attacks journalists or denies the existence of facts, that should set off a series of associations with other political systems. We need people who can help translate ideological utterances into political warnings.
The professor from Yale is trying to be one of those people:
There was this time where we engaged in political theory and history, where people thought about what fascism and communism meant for democracy. Now, one reason why we cannot forget the 1930s is that the presidential administration is clearly thinking about them – but in a positive sense. They seem to be after a kind of redo of the 1930s with Roosevelt where the Americans take a different course, where we don’t build a welfare state and don’t intervene in Europe to stop fascism. Lindbergh instead of FDR. That is their notion. Something went wrong with Roosevelt and now they want to go back and reverse it.
Now we are getting into the meat of Dr. Snyder’s “political warnings.” I will quote from the interview at length because it is so important to hear those warnings. The SZ interviewer asked him about Tr-mp’s top political strategist, whom I have written about extensively:
SZ: Steve Bannon, has said that he wants to “make life as exciting as it was in the 1930s.” The first two weeks have shown how big his influence is, it seems much bigger than Reince Priebus’s or Jared Kushner’s.
DR. SNYDER: I can’t speak to intra-White House conflicts. I can only say that Mr. Tr-mp’s inaugural address was extremely ideological. During the campaign he used the slogan “America First” and then was informed that this was the name of a movement that tried to prevent the United States from fighting Nazi Germany and was associated with nativists and white supremacists. He claimed then not to have known that. But in the inaugural address he made “America First” his central them, and now he can’t say that he doesn’t know what it means. And of course Bannon knows what it means. America First is precisely the conjuration of this alternative America of the 1930s where Charles Lindbergh is the hero. This inaugural address reeked of the 1930s.
SZ: When Bannon calls himself a “Leninist,” do Americans know what is he talking about?
DR. SNYDER: No, they usually have no idea. It is a good question. Americans have this idea that comes from Jefferson and the American Revolution that you have to rebel every so often. And they sometimes don’t make the distinction between a rebellion against injustice and the extinction of the whole political system, which is what Bannon says that he is after. The American Revolution actually preserved ideas from Britain: the rule of law being the most important. The whole justification of the American Revolution was that the British were not living up to their own principles, were not including Americans in their own system. In a broad way that was also the argument of the civil rights movement: the system fails itself when it does not extend equal rights to all citizens. So there can be resistance and even revolution, which is about meeting standards rather than about simple destruction.
What Bannon says correctly about the Bolsheviks was that they aimed to completely destroy an old regime. We can slip from one to the other very easily, from rebelliousness to a complete negation of the system. Most Americans had a rule of law state for most of their lives, African-Americans are an exception, and so most Americans think this will be there forever. They don’t get that a “disruption” can actually destroy much of what they take for granted. They have no notion what it means to destroy the state and how their lives would look like if the rule of law would no longer exist. I find it frightening that people who talk about the destruction of the American state are now in charge of the American state.
SZ: Tr-mp put a portrait of Andrew Jackson on the wall of the Oval Office, another president that was a populist. But people around him seem to have a wider agenda.
DR. SNYDER: In the same interview with the Hollywood Reporter in which Bannon talks about the “exciting 1930s,” he talks about how he is operating in the darkness. He compares himself with Satan and Darth Vader and says in essence that he misleads the public and the media deliberately.
SZ: The White House statement for the Holocaust Day on January 27 didn’t mention Jews. At first it looked like a mistake but now it is official that it was intentional.
DR. SNYDER: The Holocaust reference is very important on our side of the Atlantic. If Americans have a reference point in world history, it is precisely the Holocaust. The Holocaust, and let’s say Normandy, the Second World War, are the one aperture into a broader history, one where republics fall and extremes triumph. So if Steve Bannon turns the Holocaust into talk about “A lot of people have suffered,” what is happening is that he is closing that aperture. The next step is to say that mainly Americans are the victims. History then dies completely and we are trapped in myth.
Seeing Americans particularly, and Western Civilization generally, as “the victims” is, essentially, the way Bannon sees the world. And Dr. Snyder explains that Americans need “to see patterns, analogies, political lessons” from history, and he links a policy of Tr-mp, inspired by Bannon’s vision, to the Holocaust:
…right now the comparison we need to ponder is between the treatment of Muslims and the treatment of Jews. It is obviously the case that the point of the Muslim ban is to instruct Americans that Muslims are an enemy: a small, well-assimilated minority that we are supposed to see not as our neighbors or as fellow citizens but as elements of an international threat. More than that, Tr-mp’s policy is a provocation, which is probably meant to provoke an event like the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst Eduard vom Rath [which provided a pretext for the Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass”] on November 7, 1938.
Such a provocation can only be pulled off if the press loses its legitimacy and credibility. A Gallup poll last September showed only 32% of Americans have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in mass media. Among Republicans, that number was only 14%. A more recent poll by Emerson College “found that 69 percent of Democrats think the news media is truthful while 91 percent of Republicans consider the Fourth Estate untruthful.” Those numbers on trusting the press have fallen since the advent of Tr-mp and that isn’t an accident. Steve Bannon recently told The New York Times:
You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.
Tr-mp then confirmed that dangerous view in an interview with, of all outlets, televangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network:
I’m not talking about everybody, but a big portion of the media, the dishonesty, total deceit and deception. It makes them certainly partially the opposition party, absolutely. I think they’re much more capable than the opposition party. The opposition party is losing badly. Now the media is on the opposition party’s side…The media is a disgrace, and they’ve called me wrong from the beginning.
Professor Snyder emphasizes how significant and consequential these statements are:
When you say that the press is the opposition, then you are advocating a regime change in the United States. When I am a Republican and say the Democrats are the opposition, we talk about our system. If I say the government is one party and the press is the opposition, then I talk about an authoritarian state. This is regime change.
Bone-chilling. But there is more about regime change from the scholar of European history that will chill your bones:
SZ: Last week Tr-mp called those who take part in demonstrations “thugs” and “paid protestors.” This doesn’t show respect for First Amendment right, it sounds more like Putin.
DR. SNYDER: That is exactly what the Russian leadership does. The idea is to marginalize the people who actually represent the core values of the Republic. The point is to bring down the Republic. You can disagree with them. but once you say they have no right to protest or start lying about them, you are in effect saying: “We want a regime where this is not possible anymore.” When the president says that, it means that the executive branch is engaged in regime change towards an authoritarian regime without the rule of law. You are getting people used to this transition, you are inviting them into the process by asking them to have contempt for their fellow citizens who are defending the Republic. You are also seducing people into a world of permanent Internet lying and away from their own experiences with other people.
Getting out to protest, this is something real and I would say something patriotic. Part of the new authoritarianism is to get people to prefer fiction and inaction to reality and action. People sit in their chairs, read the tweet and repeat the clichés: “Yes, they are thugs” instead of “It is normal to get out in the streets for what you believe.” He is trying to teach people a new behavior: “You just sit right where you are, read what I say and nod your head.” That is the psychology of regime change.
To warm up your bones a little bit, I will include some advice Dr. Snyder has for concerned Americans and some positive things about the American reaction to Tr-mpism so far:
SZ: Today’s media environment is very different from the 1930s, everything happens so fast.
DR. SNYDER: This is part of what contemporary authoritarians do: They overwhelm you with bad news and try to make you depressed and say with resignation: “Well, what can I do?” I think it is better to limit yourself. Read the news for half an hour a day, but don’t spend the whole day obsessing about it. Americans have to pick one thing to be confident about, and then act on it. If you care about and know about refugees, the press, global warming – choose one and talk with people around you about it. Nobody can do everything but everyone can do a little bit. And people doing their little bit will meet others doing the same, and the depression lifts.
He offers more advice:
DR. SNYDER: Americans love to use the word “playbook” which is a metaphor from sports. There is a playbook from the 1930s that some people in the presidential administration are following. This includes picking a minority in your country, associate it with a global threat and use the notion of a global struggle as a way to create national solidarity while neglecting the nation’s actual problems. The Reichstag Fire is the crucial moment when Hitler’s government becomes a Nazi regime. An event of that type, whether unexpected, provoked, or planned by the government, can be a turning point in the United States today.
This goes back to the beginning of our conversation: if we think about the 1930s, then we can be aware of events, and of certain forks in the road. If a terror attack happens in the United States, that is simply the Tr-mp administration failing to keep its most basic promise. It is not a reason to suspend the rights of Americans or declare have a state of emergency. History teaches us the tricks of authoritarians. We can’t allow ourselves to fall for them.
SZ: There were a lot of demonstrations in hundreds of cities, but the opinion of Tr-mp supporters hasn’t changed. They are not moved by the huge crowds. Would this be too early to expect?
DR. SNYDER: These are two different things. With something like the Muslim ban, it is important a lot of people react very quickly because if the government can slice off one group, it can do the same to others. This is a political logic that requires quick action rather than waiting for public opinion polls. Americans were actually better than Germans; they got out right away. Some Americans do seem understand the logic; they move quickly. So the airport protests are not in the first instance about communicating with the Tr-mp supporters; they about making clear to the administration that we recognize what you are doing and that we oppose this logic. Indirectly, the protests communicate to the majority that there are two sides to the issue, and that they should think for themselves.
Communicating with Tr-mp supporters is different. You have to have people out, waving flags and describing themselves as patriots, even as they decry and resist particular policies. It is important for people to consider that authoritarianism, though it claims all the national symbols, is not patriotism. Over time, protests that are for a better America are important to change minds and swing over Republicans – and I should say that I have already seen a number of Republicans whom I know personally in the protests. It needs time, this is more about six months or one year. They just elected him three months ago, for now there is still the frame in place that he will change everything and improve their lives, other things can seem like details so long as this basic hope remains.
It might take a while for people to realize that making America into a Tr-mp family welfare state is not in the interest of Americans whose name is not Tr-mp. One of the main problems is the Internet and the polarization and simple unreality that it generates. It is important to talk about these issues in person. I have a little book called “On Tyranny” [Kindle edition only $2.99] and I will do my best to talk about it with people who think in various ways about politics.
Finally, Dr. Snyder gets down to the warning that inspired the headline of the SZ article:
The marches were very encouraging. These were quite possibly the largest demonstrations in the history of the US, just in sheer numbers on one single day. That sort of initiative has to continue. The Constitution is worth saving, the rule of law is worth saving, democracy is worth saving, but these things can and will be lost if everyone waits around for someone else. If we want encouragement out of the Oval Office, we will not get it. We are not getting encouragement thus far from Republicans. They have good reasons to defend the Republic but thus far they are not doing so, with a few exceptions. You want to end on a positive note, I know; but I think things have tightened up very fast, we have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less. What happens in the next few weeks is very important.