Leading Historian Believes 'It's Pretty Much Inevitable' Trump Will Try to Stage a Coup and Overthrow Democracy
American democracy is in crisis. The election of Donald Trump feels like a state of emergency made normal.
Trump has threatened violence against his political enemies. He has made clear he does not believe in the norms and traditions of American democracy — unless they serve his interests. Trump and his advisers consider a free press to be enemies of his regime. Trump repeatedly lies and has a profoundly estranged relationship with empirical reality. He uses obvious and naked racism, nativism and bigotry to mobilize his voters and to disparage entire groups of people such as Latinos and Muslims.
Trump is threatening to eliminate an independent judiciary, and wants to punish those judges who dare to stand against his illegal and unconstitutional mandates. In what appears to be a violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, Trump is using the office of the presidency to enrich himself, his family and his inner circle by peddling influence and access to corporations, foreign countries and wealthy individuals. Trump and his representatives also believe that he is above the law and cannot be prosecuted for any crimes while in office.
What can the American people do to resist Donald Trump? What lessons can history teach about the rise of authoritarianism and fascism and how democracies collapse? Are there ways that individuals can fight back on a daily basis and in their own personal lives against the political and cultural forces that gave rise to Trump’s movement? How long does American democracy have before the poison that Donald Trump and the Republican Party injected into the country’s body politic becomes lethal?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University. He is the award-winning author of numerous books including the recent “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” and “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.” Snyder’s new book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” explores, among other things, how the American people can fight back against Donald Trump’s incipient authoritarian regime.
The election of Donald Trump is a crisis for American democracy. How did this happen?
We asked for it by saying that history was over in 1989 [with the end of the Cold War]. By saying that nothing bad could never happen again, we were basically inviting something bad to happen.
Our story about how nothing could never go wrong was a story about how human nature is the free market and the free market brings democracy, so everything is hunky-dory — and of course every part of that story is nonsense. The Greeks understood that democracy is likely to produce oligarchy, because if you don’t have some mechanism to get inequality under control then people with the most money will likely take full control.
With Trump one sees the new variant of this where a candidate can run by saying, “Look, we all know — wink, wink, nudge, nudge — that this isn’t really a democracy anymore.” He doesn’t use the words but basically says, “We all know this is really an oligarchy, so let me be your oligarch.” Although it’s nonsense, and of course he’s a con man and will betray everyone, it makes sense only in this climate of inequality.
In my writing and interviews, I have consistently referred to Donald Trump as a fascist. I have received a great deal of resistance to that claim. Do you think this description is correct? If not, then what language should we use to describe Donald Trump?
One of the problems with American discourse is that we just assume everybody is a friendly democratic parliamentarian pluralist until proven otherwise. And then even when it’s proven otherwise we don’t have any vocabulary for it. He’s a “dictator,” he’s an “authoritarian,” he’s “Hitler.” We just toss these words around. The pushback that you are talking about is 95 percent bad. Americans do not want to think that there is an alternative to what we have. Therefore, as soon as you say “fascism” or whatever it might be, then the American response is to say “no,” because we lack the categories that allow us to think outside of the box that we are no longer in.
Is this a function of American Exceptionalism?
Yes, it is. We made a move towards intellectual isolationism in a world where no kind of isolationism is possible. The fact that democracies usually fail is a rule which can’t apply to us. If you examine American society, there are high points and low points. But there is certainly nothing which puts us in a different category than other people who have failed, whether it’s historically or whether it’s now.
I don’t want to dodge your question about whether Trump is a fascist or not. As I see it, there are certainly elements of his approach which are fascistic. The straight-on confrontation with the truth is at the center of the fascist worldview. The attempt to undo the Enlightenment as a way to undo institutions, that is fascism. Whether he realizes it or not is a different question, but that’s what fascists did. They said, “Don’t worry about the facts, don’t worry about logic, think instead in terms of mystical unities and direct connections between the mystical leader and the people.” That’s fascism. Whether we see it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we forget, that is fascism.
Another thing that’s clearly fascist about Trump were the rallies. The way that he used the language, the blunt repetitions, the naming of the enemies, the physical removal of opponents from rallies, that was really, without exaggeration, just like the 1920s and the 1930s.
And Mr. [Steve] Bannon’s preoccupation with the 1930s and his kind of wishful reclamation of Italian and other fascists speaks for itself.
How did the news media and others get this so wrong? Why did they underestimate the threat posed by Donald Trump and his movement?
What we ended up with, from Bill Clinton onward, is a status-quo party and an “undo the system” party, where the Democrats became the status-quo party and the Republicans became the “undo the system” party. In that constellation it’s very hard to think of change because one party is in favor of things being the way they are, just slightly better, and the other party has this big idea of undoing everything, although it’s unclear what that really means in practice. So no one is actually articulating how you address the problems of the day, the greatest of which would be inequality. When neither party is creative, then it’s hard for scholars to get their ideas into meaningful circulation.
Why is Trump not being held accountable for all of his failures, scandals and incompetence?
Mr. Trump is primarily a television personality. As such, he is judged by that standard. This means that a scandal does not call forth a response, it calls forth the desire for a bigger scandal. It just whets the appetite for a bigger scandal because a television serial has to work on that logic. It’s almost as though he has to produce these outrageous things, because what else would he be doing?
I think another part of it has to do with attention span. It’s not so much a lack of outrage — people are in fact outraged. But in order for a scandal to have political logic, the outrage has to be followed by the research, it has to be followed by the investigation, it has to be followed by an official finding.
In your book 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?
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.
What can citizens do? What would your call to action be?
The whole point of my new book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” is that we have a century of wisdom and very smart people who confronted situations like our own — but usually more demanding — and that wisdom can be condensed.
What my book does is it goes across the arc of regime change, from the beginning to the end, and it provides things ranging from simpler to harder that people can literally do every day.
The thing that matters the most is to realize that in moments like this your actions really do matter. It is ironic but in an authoritarian regime-change situation, the individual matters more than a democracy. In an authoritarian regime change, at the beginning, the individual has a special kind of power because the authoritarian regime depends on a certain kind of consent. Which means that if you are conscious of the moment that you are in, you can find the ways not to express your consent and you can also find the little ways to be a barrier. If enough people do that it really can make a difference, but again only at the beginning.
What are some of the more difficult and challenging things that people can do?
The last lesson in “On Tyranny” is to be as courageous as you can. Do you actually care enough about freedom that you would take risks? Do individuals actually care about freedom? Think that through. I think if enough of us take the little risks at the beginning, which aren’t really that significant, this will prevent us from having to take bigger risks down the line.
We are still at a stage where protest is not illegal. We’re still at a stage where protest is not lethal. Those are the two big thresholds. We are still on the good side of both of those thresholds and so now is the time you want to pack in as much as you can because you could actually divert things. Once you get into a world where protest is illegal, then the things that I recommend like corporeal politics, getting out on the streets — they have to happen but they are much riskier. It’s a much different kind of decision.
How much time does American democracy have left before this poison becomes lethal and there is no path of return?
You have to accept there is a time frame. Nobody can be sure how long this particular regime change with Trump will take, but there is a clock, and the clock really is ticking. It’s three years on the outside, but in more likelihood something like a year. In January 2018 we will probably have a pretty good idea which way this thing is going. It’s going to depend more on us than on them in the meantime. Once you get past a certain threshold it starts to depend more on them than on us, and then things are much, much worse. It makes me sad to think how Americans would behave at that point.
Then Trump and his forces have the momentum because, again, we the American people are up against the clock.
I hate to sound like a self-help person but I’m going to. Every day you don’t do something, it makes it less likely that you will ever do something. So you’ve got to get started right away. “On Tyranny” is a suggestion of things that everyone can do. There are plenty of other great ideas from people coming from other traditions, but the basic thing is you have to change your protocol of daily behavior now.
Don’t obey in advance, because you have to start by orienting yourself against the general drift of things. If you can manage that, then the other lessons — such as supporting existing political and social institutions, supporting the truth and so on — those things will then come relatively easily if you can follow the first one, which is to get out of the drift. To recognize that this is the moment where you have to not behave as you did in October 2016. You have to set your own habits now.