Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is a deceptively small book. You will be surprised to get it in your hand. But really, it doesn’t need to be all that much larger. It shouldn’t take most people more than an hour to read. But in that time, if you are an American who has been paying attention since November 2016’s election, you will be shaken to your core. In short discussions written in language simple enough for even the porridge-headed voters of today, Snyder has explained what could be coming as a result of a minority making a stupid, selfish, bigotry-driven and wrong-headed choice at the polls, and what, if anything, we can do about it.
On Tyranny is part warning from history, part meditation for today. Its concision suits people for whom the subtleties of politics and history might be too much like doing homework. As we have found, not a lot of people read anymore, and fewer still read with depth and comprehension of complex issues. This book is the antidote to that; it is short enough for even the non-reader, and general enough for the non-expert. However, if you are a reader, or if you haven’t stopped learning despite having left school, On Tyranny is an excellent introduction to the issues at hand. Although it is mainly geared toward the unique and perilous state of America in 2017, readers abroad may find it helpful to understand these issues, especially in light of other obvious attempts by the hostile forces of the Kremlin to undermine Western solidarity, whether in the case of the folly of the Brexit vote, the Dutch elections (at which they fortunately failed), or the upcoming French and German elections. If hacking and misinformation are the new version of “war continued by other means,” then there can be no doubt that such a war is under way. Knowing what to watch for next can only serve the cause of liberal democracy and all that it promises.
Broken into twenty simple points, On Tyranny lays out the case for recognising and resisting tyranny. For our purposes, a “tyranny” may be defined as a government which acts in its own interests, rather than those of the people who empowered it. You could use other words to describe the same thing, some of which may appear over-dramatic or overused, including oligarchy, autocracy, dictatorship. Some definitions may be helpful here. “Tyranny” is an ancient Greek word, τύραννοσ (tyrannos), which Liddell & Scott defines as “an absolute sovereign, unlimited by law or constitution.” If you do not already see the relevance of this definition, then perhaps you are reading the wrong book review.
Much of the advice that Snyder has to offer you will have heard before, elsewhere, in various pieces. That does not make it any less relevant or important, and the real service that Snyder has performed is to put all of these small essays together in one place.
One of the writers “name-checked” by Snyder is the indespensible Hannah Arendt, author of many books on the philosophy of authoritarianism, including the classic Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt’s background in philosophy and her analysis of the Third Reich after its fall has been invaluable for some sixty years, and is especially relevant now, both to Snyder’s work and to readers in general who fear that the experience of Germany in the 1930s is on the verge of being repeated, only this time in the United States. Arendt’s coinage of the expression “the banality of evil” does seem particularly relevant to our own banal, fact-free, cyber-manipulated era. Other writers to whom Snyder gives a nod include Romania absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco and, of course, George Orwell. But On Tyranny is not a book that depends on readers having a deep and extensive résumé of books that they have read on authoritarianism. Snyder’s work, instead, is quite clear and simple.
Professor Snyder’s advice could almost be written as bullet points, or indeed as the chapter headings, as is the case. Here are a few that leap out at me: Do Not obey in advance (1); Defend Institutions (2); Be wary of paramilitaries (6); Be kind to our language (9); Believe in Truth (10); Investigate (11); Establish a private life (14); Contribute to good causes (15); Listen for Dangerous Words (17); and even Be Calm when the unthinkable arrives (18). These notions are frightening: I think that we are right to be frightened. I have never hoped more in my life that I am wrong. I would far rather be proven to have been an alarmist than to be too relaxed about the whole selling off of American institutions, and the American experiment itself, to the highest bidder, and to an enemy who wants to see the Western liberal democracies weakened and fractured, all to achieve his own ends.
The advice the Snyder gives is simple and direct. It cautions not only to firmly establish real-world (as opposed to virtual) connections with others, but to be on high alert and react against anything that sounds like a betrayal of your values, or the values with which you were raised. We have already seen a great deal of that positive spirit, from the Resistance and Women’s marches and the demands by constituents that their representatives appear at Town Halls to answer for their votes and policy positions. Snyder goes further, however, tells us to have a life off-line (I’ve been a fan of this one for years), look people in the eye in the real world, don’t wait for someone else to remove the swastika graffiti that have suddenly appeared but to do it yourself, to use language properly and not fall into the trap of using Trumpian vocabulary, which like Orwell’s Newspeak serves the end of making communication meaningless… the list goes on.
For my part, I would say that we need to be reading history. I’ve been surprised by All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, for instance. During the Watergate affair (1972-74), their editor at the Washington Post was reading about the biggest previous scandal, the Teapot Dome affair, which occurred during the Harding administration (1921-23). In both cases, patterns repeat, whether it’s a case of stealing oil leases for personal profit or staging break-ins which are only the tip of an iceberg of a far more massive plot. Understanding what those patterns looked like in the past makes us able to see them in the present, as they happen. We also need to support and read real, reliable journalism and print media, whether it’s the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker… we must go to good journalism, and encourage it with our money. We need to read Hannah Arendt, as well, to understand the language of the totalitarian, and the banality of evil. We need to support Congressional investigations, especially the Senate Intelligence investigation into Russian influence. We need to hope and campaign for an FBI investigation that will tell the truth about the interference in the 2016 election, and engineer a remedy. And finally, we need to be ready, especially for the unthinkable, but for anything. The Watergate scandal took two years to unfold. No opinion that I have read suggests that the current Russian scandals will take anywhere near that length of time, but the question of how they will unfold and what they will bring is murky and uncertain. History, as much as she is my favourite Muse, is not always straightforward, clear-spoken guide. Sometimes, she is the Pythia.
Since the Tiny Inauguration, we have seen contempt for the norms of government, with sweeping and callous attacks on vulnerable populations, stalled investigations, some Republican Members of Congress putting Party before Country, other Republicans who are doing their damnedest to look as though they are part of a cover-up, a steady stream of disinformation, lies, and noise from the White House itself, a Press Secretary who is — at best — out of his depth, and at worse malfeasant, and actions by some members of the Trump campaign — and family — which are more Banana than American Republic. The cabal seems intent on stripping government back to levels of impotence and irrelevance not seen since the 1850s, and to engineer a comprehensive breakdown of governance which will enrich a select few at the hands of the many. This has been the Russian model. It should not be the American one. That is not the America that we were sold, or promised. And we must not stand for it to be destroyed.
So read On Tyranny. Then read it again, and share a copy with a friend, or a stranger. We must understand the stakes, and we must have a guide to help us through the times to come. This book may not be perfect, but it is an excellent starting place.
Finally, I want to share my fondest hopes. It is that the administration of the 45th “President” is short and quickly undone. In many ways, it appears that we are already headed in that direction. Like George Bailey in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, we now see what the world could be like without strong democratic institutions. The drumbeat of disapproval for this new reality continues to grow, but we haven’t gone back to the snow-covered bridge yet. I want Trump to be nothing more or less than the Asterisk. In the list of Presidents, number 45* and 2017 should be represented as the incumbent and the year that we learned that we had to hold our democracy tighter, more firmly, if we want to keep it for ourselves and not sell it to the highest bidder. The Asterisk of History should indicate “an illegitimately conducted, externally manipulated election result,” and that the 45th and least honorable figure to hold the office of the American President was removed upon learning of his treachery and deceit. It should be the year that we rejected nepotism, cronyism, and the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many. It should be the year that we understood — and decided to protect — the fragility not only of the Western democratic experience, but its value as the best hope for the most people to move forward.
But it’s up to all of us to prove those hopes to be correct.
And if the Red Hats don’t like it, they can go to hell.
Reviewed 30 March 2017.