Books for Our Times: “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” by Timothy Snyder

Fourth in an ongoing series, Books for Our Times

“Tyranny” may, in a book’s title, seem “too much”: too grand, too archaic, too extreme. But this author, a historian, ratifies his use of the term by reaching back to America’s early history: The Founding Fathers themselves used the term “tyranny” — in reference to throwing off the rule of England’s King George, arguing the Federalist Papers, debating the U.S. Constitution.

The author, Timothy Snyder, leads with “tyranny” for good reason: Alarmed at the deteriorating state of American democracy — he published this book, On Tyranny, in 2017, first year of the presidency of proto-tyrant Donald Trump — he wants to return us to first principles, including first terms. Tyranny lies ahead, he holds — if we do not save ourselves. First step in saving ourselves is understanding our peril. This gem of a little book — only 126 pages, which I read in one sitting — paints that peril vividly, rather like the pamphleteers of colonial America.

Americans are not a philosophic people, but Snyder chances the philosophic approach, that is, he discusses ideas — the ideas undergirding American Democracy and lying invisible behind our peril that, because they’ve become “normalized” (a term Snyder doesn’t use), we don’t recognize them. What he seeks to do is furnish us with new lenses and mindset, so we can see and think anew what an invaluable, but imperiled, thing we have. To do this Snyder avoids the jargon that has jammed current political “debate,” using instead evocative but on-point language.

For example, introducing the idea of tyranny: “[T]he Founding Fathers sought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny. They had in mind the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own profit.” “Evil,” “usurpation,” “tyranny” all resonate more than “autocracy,” a term not computing for many Americans. Citing history — Snyder teaches history at Yale University — he writes: As the Founders knew, “Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability, while Plato believed that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants.” Most of his historical examples, as his subtitle cues, come from the 20th century: Russia’s communist revolution and World Wars I and II, notably the latter — i.e., Hitler’s manipulation of Germany’s nascent democracy into a fascist killing machine. Surveying European democracies, he says, “shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

Lest any reader still think the word “tyranny” is too much, let them cast their mind’s eye back over the insurrection of Jan. 6 at the very seat of our government, the U.S. Capitol — the violence of it, the extra-legality of it, the anti-democratic thrust of it — all incited by the proto-tyrant trying to overturn a free and fair election he lost, thereby regaining power, illegally.

To enable understanding of how tyranny comes, Snyder presents his twenty lessons. To keep in proportion to this small-but-big book, I will elaborate just a few, while citing the other chapter titles and themes. Scan these with the idea you’re trying on new lenses and muscling up your mindset:

1: “Do not obey in advance”: “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given” and “Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy.” 2: “Defend institutions”: “It is institutions that help us to preserve decency” and “[C]hoose an institution you care about — a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union — and take its side.” 3: “Beware the one-party state”: More so than ever, Republicans exploit the historic moment “to make political life impossible for their opponents,” demonstrating they “must either fear democracy or weaken it.” 4: “Take responsibility for the face of the world”: “Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so” and “A neighbor portrayed as a pig is someone whose land you can take.”

5: “Remember professional ethics”: This lesson bears underscoring. Professional commitment to “just practice” — practice that is ethical — is crucial when a political leader shows authoritarian intent: “It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers.” Snyder profiles Hitler’s Germany: doctors conducting “ghastly” medical experiments in the concentration camps, businessmen exploiting the camps’ cheap labor, civil servants recording it all. The Nazi atrocities could not happen “if lawyers had followed the norm of no executions without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent, if businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery, if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder.” Professional codes of ethical conduct, “impossible between a lonely individual and a distant government,” confer power and impose the obligation to act. “Then there is no such thing as ‘just following orders.’” It takes a people to make a tyranny. Ethical codes of conduct, of course, should be imposed on political leaders themselves.

6: “Be wary of paramilitaries”: “Armed groups first degrade a political order, and then transform it.” 7: “Be reflective if you must be armed”: Addressed to members of the military and police, Snyder urges that in response to a tyrant’s orders, “Be ready to say no.”

8: “Stand out”: “Somebody has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom.” And freedom itself: The screaming insurrectionists of Jan. 6 interpret freedom as anarchy; are we up to challenging that interpretation? A proper challenger was Winston Churchill, whose resistance to the Nazi threat Snyder traces from his years outside and then in power. “Churchill said that history would be kind to him, because he intended to write it himself. Yet in his vast histories and memoirs, he presented his own decisions as self-evident, and credited the British people and Britain’s allies. Today what Churchill did seems normal, and right. But at the time he had to stand out.” Snyder doesn’t note Churchill’s wit, but I will: It was pointed, not distracting, and it elevated.

9: “Be kind to our language”: “Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying.” This is a point with which I emphatically agree: To avoid easy thinking and eyes glazing over, my own and others, I’ve never in 20 years writing commentary used cliches like “going in harm’s way” or “reaching across the aisle,” but find other words to say it. Snyder cites authors influencing his thinking, notably George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” and seminal books by Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Czeslaw Milosz, Vaclav Havel, et al.

10: “Believe in truth” — a lesson taking on supreme importance since this book’s publication: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.” (Those words bear rereading.) Per Victor Klemperer, literary scholar and Holocaust survivor, “truth dies in four modes” (note how Trump aces all four): First, the open hostility to verifiable reality. “Demeaning the world as it is begins the creation of a fictional counterworld.” Second, “shamanistic incantation”: See “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary.” Third, “magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction”: See Trump’s mutually contradictory campaign promises of cutting taxes, eliminating the national debt, and increasing spending on social policy and national defense. “Accepting untruth of this radical kind requires a blatant abandonment of reason.” And finally, “misplaced faith” in “self-deifying claims” (“I alone can fix it”). “Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant.” In sum: “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”

11: “Investigate”: An investigating mind prevents a “generic cynicism,” which “makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference.” Support investigative reporting and “take responsibility for what you communicate to others.” 12: “Make eye contact and small talk”: “[U]nderstand whom you should and should not trust.” 13: “Practice corporeal politics”: “Make new friends and march with them.” 14: “Establish a private life”: “Tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you” — your legal troubles, your emails. “Try not to have hooks.” Snyder rightly condemns the media for mindlessly taking up Trump’s “timed email bombs” about Hillary Clinton’s email server. 15: “Contribute to good causes”: To create civil society, do good and help others do good. 16: “Learn from peers in other countries”: “The present difficulties in the United States are an element of a larger trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.”

17: “Listen for dangerous words”: This lesson is key. “Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notion of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.” Beware: “Dissidents of the twentieth century, whether they were resisting fascism or communism, were called extremists…. In this way the notion of extremism comes to mean virtually everything except what is, in fact, extreme: tyranny.”

18: “Be calm when the unthinkable comes”: This lesson is also key. “Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.”

19: “Be a patriot”: Trump is a nationalist, “which is not at all the same thing as a patriot. A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best,” while “[A] patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals.” 20: “Be as courageous as you can.”

As seen here, Snyder addresses how to be in perilous times, as much as how to act. Altogether, this is a deeply humanist document. You can safely give it to a Trumpist friend, if you believe rescue is possible: Snyder neither uses inflammatory language nor even cites Trump or Republicans by name. You can also give it to liberal friends who’ve sunk into cynicism, who doubt the efficacy of democracy’s tools under Trumpism’s onslaught. In parting, Snyder decries as “adolescent” the popular need for the “disruptive” leader (my brief against disrupters is their lack of follow-up plan). Better to cultivate, in ourselves and as voters, a sense of maturity, responsibility, history.

Defending democracy is subtle business and this subtle book — a compliment to We the People’s intelligence — shows how. Now, to the rescue of that rare, rare thing in history: democracy.

This book has now spent 88 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. For my commentary on a related book, “How Democracies Die,” see here.

Timothy Snyder

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" Playwright. Contributor, HuffPost.