The American historian of the holocaust in Eastern Europe, Timothy Snyder has delivered in On Tyranny: 20 lessons of the twentieth century a best-seller by combining seemingly wise apothogems – be ascourageous as you can, be calm when the unthinkable arrives – with a wailing cry for help from the soul of liberal America in despair at the triumph of Trump.
His warnings that under Trump the USA may slide into totalitarianism have delivered him an audience on talk shows and business magazines. I bought his little book out of love for the great East European dissidents under communism like Havel and Kolakowski who Snyder quotes liberally in this little lament for a broken liberal consensus. I found the form and some of the early ideas intriguing, but ultimately I put this work, which can be read in barely an hour, disappointing.
The essay is an extended implied comparison between tyranny, ancient and modern, and most of all its Nazi manifestation, and the unfolding phenomenon of Donald Trump. If we believe Prof Snyder, we – or at least the citizens of the USA – are at the beginning of the end of democracy. All the signs show an accelerating slide into tyranny: the condemnation of the media, the contempt for the educated elite, the search for new partners, such as Russia (god forbid), in the fight against terror. Snyder even compares the burning of the Reichstag with our contemporary responses to repeated attacks of terror.
Now I am no ingénue about the quality of our democracy or political leadership in a disintegrating culture obsessed with shallow spectacles. Nor am I bedazzled by that impresario of shallow spectacle, Donald Trump. I have predicted here, months prior to the November ’16 election, that Trump would both win the election and fail as President. But to equate Trump’s administration with Hitler or the worst tyrannies of the 20th century reflects a loss of bearings. So too does the diminution of terrorism to little more than a scare campaign engineered by conniving political leaders to usher in dark tyranny.
It does seem that Prof Snyder has allowed Trump to get under his skin, and to distort his better judgement. This tweet in response to the Manchester bombing claimed Trump’s health care reforms would claim the same number of lives as the bombing in just four hours. Enough said really. Twitter makes idiots of even the most intelligent people. Prof Snyder would do well to do as I did several years ago, and abandon his twitter account.
He would do still better to reassess his level of concern with terror over tyranny. Islamic State, after all, operates both. Democratic states need to defend their citizens against both. It is true that democratic states need urgently to repair their quality and stop their decay. But that task must be done together with action against the dark terrors that reach into our lives every week. We must defeat the tyranny of terror.
That is at least one lesson so far of the 21st century. That is a lesson better learned from Michael Burleigh than from On Tyranny.