Timothy Snyder

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The 1970s: Watergate, malaise, gas lines, etc. 

Ah, the good old days.

Elizabeth Drew, the great Nixon Era reporter has written also of this moment’s bookend scandal–likely the biggest political misconduct in our nation’s history–arguing that a consensus must slowly be built among both parties before an impeachment possible–or even desirable. 

In a vacuum, that’s right. Except we live in far more fractious times, with the country riven pretty strictly among party lines, apart from some resolute Never Trumpers on the right. The Mueller firing will likely come and so may pardons, with Republicans still unmoved to act, the retention of power more important than even nation. Just consider Newt Gingrich, who once compared Ronald Reagan to Neville Chamberlain for merely meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev but now serves as an enthusiastic apologist for an actual Kremlin stooge. 

That’s why authoritarianism is a real threat. Not due to soft spots in the Constitution or the great power of the office of the President, but because normal governance has already ceased. In one fashion or another, Trump will go down. Will America as well? That depends. This era isn’t the 1970s nor the 1930s despite resembling at moments an unholy amalgam of the two. An X factor is present that represents the response of the populace to a White House run amok.

Two excerpts follow.


From Timothy Snyder’s Guardian piece “Trump Is Ushering In a Dark New Conservatism“:

Thus the nostalgic moment for this White House is not the 1950s, usually recalled warmly by American conservatives, but the dreadful 1930s, when fascists of the new right defeated conservatives of the old right in Europe. Whatever one might think of conservative nostalgia for the 1950s, it is notable for what it includes: American participation in the second world war and the beginnings of the American welfare state. For conservatives, it all went wrong in the 1960s. 

For the Trump administration, it all went wrong rather earlier: in the 1940s, with the fight against fascism and the New Deal. Stephen Bannon, who promises us new policies “as exciting as the 1930s”, seems to want to return to that decade in order to undo those legacies.

He seems to have in mind a kleptocratic authoritarianism (hastened by deregulation and the dismantlement of the welfare state) that generates inequality, which can be channeled into a culture war (prepared for by Muslim bans and immigrant denunciation hotlines). Like fascists, Bannon imagines that history is a cycle in which national virtue must be defended from permanent enemies. He refers to fascist authors in defense of this understanding of the past.•


From “We’re On the Brink Of an Authoritarian Crisis by Brian Beutler of the New Republic:

Should Trump fire Mueller, with the tacit assent of Republicans in Congress and the DOJ leadership, there will be little recourse. It is feasible (though difficult) to imagine a GOP House and Senate passing an independent counsel statute to restore Mueller to his job; it is nearly impossible to imagine them doing so by veto-proof margins. And should Trump pardon himself and his inner circle, it is dispiritingly easy to imagine Republicans reprising their familiar refrain: The president’s power to pardon is beyond question.

If this crisis unfolds as depicted here, the country’s final hope for avoiding a terminal slide into authoritarianism would be the midterm election, contesting control of a historically gerrymandered House of Representatives. That election is 16 months away. Between now and then, Trump’s DOJ and his sham election-integrity commission will seek to disenfranchise as many Democratic voters as possible, while the president himself beseeches further foreign interference aimed at Democratic candidates. Absent the necessary sweep, everything Trump will have done to degrade our system for his own enrichment and protection will have been ratified, and a point of no return will have been crossed.•

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If Twitter pulled the plug on Trump for his repeated slanders, how would he go about presenting his alternative reality? He could rely on traditional-media blitzes as he did yesterday when he flubbed both history (Andrew Jackson) and current events (Kim Jong-un), but he would receive pushback from most non-Fox interlocutors and accommodating an endless parade of talking-heads wouldn’t leave him much time for running the country and golfing.

In the direct aftermath of the recent Tax Day protest, Trump took to his favorite online platform and repeated the claim he and other Republicans offer whenever #Resist assembles in large numbers: The protesters were few and paid. It’s obviously an effort to undercut the legitimacy of those marching for essential American ideals.

When interviewed in the middle of February in Süddeutsche Zeitung,Yale historian Timothy Snyder explained the tactic this way:

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.•

At that moment, Snyder believed we had a year to save liberal democracy in the U.S. In an excellent new Q&A with Chauncey DeVega of Salon, the academic says he believes the Administration’s heretofore failed efforts at legislation make a unconstitutional, near-term power grab even likelier. I will say that the sycophantic media reaction to the Syria bombings probably made might seem more right than ever to a jittery, unhinged Oval Office.

Gun to his head (figuratively, I mean), Snyder guesses the attempt at authoritarianism will fail. He also provides a smart analysis of why a cartoonish TV personality like Trump is judged by a very different standard by a wide swath of the public.

An excerpt:

Question:

In your book [On Tyranny] you discuss the idea that Donald Trump will have his own version of Hitler’s Reichstag fire to expand his power and take full control of the government by declaring a state of emergency. How do you think that would play out?

Timothy Snyder:

Let me make just two points. The first is that I think it’s pretty much inevitable that they will try. The reason I think that is that the conventional ways of being popular are not working out for them. The conventional way to be popular or to be legitimate in this country is to have some policies, to grow your popularity ratings and to win some elections. I don’t think 2018 is looking very good for the Republicans along those conventional lines — not just because the president is historically unpopular. It’s also because neither the White House nor Congress have any policies which the majority of the public like.

This means they could be seduced by the notion of getting into a new rhythm of politics, one that does not depend upon popular policies and electoral cycles.

Whether it works or not depends upon whether when something terrible happens to this country, we are aware that the main significance of it is whether or not we are going to be more or less free citizens in the future.

My gut feeling is that Trump and his administration will try and that it won’t work. Not so much because we are so great but because we have a little bit of time to prepare. I also think that there are enough people and enough agencies of the government who have also thought about this and would not necessarily go along.•

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It’s appalling that basically sane and intelligent people like James Baker still can’t discern the grave danger American democracy is now facing. Not even the removal of the word “Jewish” from the Holocaust Remembrance Day announcement, an attempt at a Muslim ban and repeated attacks on the judicial branch and press have awakened them to this reality.

In an interview in the international edition of Süddeutsche Zeitung that is required reading, Matthias Kolb questions Yale historian Timothy Snyder about the fascist threat to the U.S. that is the Trump Administration, which doesn’t want only to rule but to also destroy the rule of law. History, decency and liberty are also on the chopping block.

While Snyder’s spirits have been buoyed by the early resistance, he believes we don’t have much time to save the Republic, especially with a non-responsive legislative branch. “What happens in the next few weeks is very important,” he warns.

An excerpt:

Question:

When [Steve] Bannon calls the press the main “opposition party“ that should make everyone concerned. This is not only intended to cheer up Trump supporters.

Timothy Snyder:

When you say that the press is the opposition, than 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.

Question:

Last week Trump 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.

Timothy 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 way 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. …

Question:

On Facebook there are a lot of countdowns: 3 years, 11 months, 1 week until President Trump’s first term is over. How is your mood, do you see hope?  

Timothy Snyder:

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.•

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