(Small disclaimer: This post is not on Iran, but as with so many things in our modern political environment, it bears a tangential connection and is worth including here.)
If you’re not reading every word that Timothy Snyder is writing these days, you’re doing something wrong. It is hard to imagine a historian better suited to heed the warnings of and alert us to budding totalitarian rule than Snyder. For those who are unfamiliar with his work, Snyder is a history professor at Yale University who specializes in Eastern European history with a focus on the early-to-mid 20th century, i.e. when Stalinism and fascism descended on the continent, resulting in the death of millions. His two most recent books, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, are both excellent analyses of the motivations and processes of totalitarian genocide.
While the United States has yet to reach that level of total darkness, Snyder’s depth of knowledge on these regimes is the reason why it is worth taking his warnings about the possibilities of our current political environment seriously. He recently published a small booklet entitled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century that provides useful advice for spotting and combating actions taken by wannabe tyrants. These include items such as “Do not obey in advance,” “Defend institutions,” “Be wary of paramilitaries,” and “Believe in truth,” among others. It is, without a doubt, the clearest, most concise, and most [potentially] prescient thing I’ve read that helps both explain to and prepare the reader for this new age of right-wing populism that now threatens to dismantle the global political order.
In addition to his books, Snyder has also put out some articles recently that are worth reading. One appeared in the New York Daily News this past weekend. In it, Snyder muses on the Russian meddling in the 2016 election and ends up with an intriguing interpretation. Much to the delight of any former strategic studies student, he applies Clausewitzian reasoning to conclude that the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election was not just mere meddling, it was a lost war. This was not a war in a traditional sense, in which soldiers fought, people died, and territory came under new governance. Rather, this was new kind of war that took place on a new type of battlefield located within what Russians like to call “the psychosphere.”
Wars, like elections, have consequences. But what does a war waged entirely in the virtual arena and the minds of millions of Americans mean for our future? Snyder engages with this difficult question toward the conclusion of the article. He suggests that we may be entering the early stages of a type of “mental occupation” in which “the behavior that we came to accept during the campaign remain[s] acceptable,” or, more generally, that things that were once a short while ago abnormal may start to feel normal. Our politics may change along with our ethics. We might accept the reality as it is directed toward us from the state instead of determining it for ourselves through careful consideration of facts. We might take for granted that our leader uses his office to amass fabulous wealth with no public scrutiny. Indeed, we already have.
The full implications of this type of warfare are not yet clear, even, alarmingly, to the Russian victors, but what is certain now is that we are all living in an age of tremendous uncertainty. That should terrify us. We may overreact or underreact, both of which would lead to potentially disastrous outcomes. Just as damaging, we may not react quickly enough. Snyder posits that the most likely scenario is an unwitting stumble into dictatorship. The risk lies in not recognizing this process before it is too late. In an interview with a German publication last month, Snyder said we have “at most a year to defend American democracy, perhaps less.”
We are now in freefall, and we have no idea where the bottom is. Now is the time to listen to authorities like Snyder. His work should be required reading for all Americans.