Yale Historian Warns About the Rise of Tyranny in the US

Yale University’s Timothy Snyder is a historian and author who has devoted much of his career to understanding the rise of tyranny in different parts of the world. He sits down with our contributor Ana Cabrera to discuss the health of American democracy and a worrying trend taking root in the U.S.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Since Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate, many have speculated that he would be emboldened or as you just heard, unfettered, not chasten. Yale University’s Timothy Snyder is a historian and author devoting much of his career to understanding the rise tyranny in different parts of the world. And he sat down with our contributor, Ana Cabrera, to discuss his concerns about the trend taking route in the United States.

ANA CABRERA: You have devoted so much of your studying, your teaching, your writings to understanding the rise of fascism and tyranny in different parts of the world. You’re sounding the alarm about what you are seeing here in the U.S. right now. How concerned are you about America’s democracy?

TIMOTHY SNYDER, AUTHOR, “ON TYRANNY”: I think I’m the right amount of concerned. When America’s democracy was founded in the late 18th century by people we revere, it wasn’t founded on the idea that Americans were a special people. It was founded on the idea that tyranny is easy and democracy and republics are hard. The whole system was set up to prevent one man or one party from accumulating all the power. That system has been tested for more than 200 years. It’s been seriously tested now. But I think I’m the right amount of worried because everybody should be worried to be a citizen in a democracy is to understand that you have to take a certain amount of risk yourself. The system doesn’t sustain itself on its own.

CABRERA: Can you talk about what it is that concerns you the most?

SNYDER: Absolutely. Well, in the last few weeks, as we watched the impeachment and the impeachment trial unfold, we’ve seen challenges to the basic founding documents of our country. The whole idea of the Declaration of Independence is that no man is above the law. The reason why independence was declared by the colonies was that King George was breaking established rules, established contracts. But the underlying principle was that everyone should be governed by the law. Mr. Trump’s defense in the impeachment trial was precisely that he is above the law, that whatever he says is the law, that we should wait and see what he says and then adapt the law to that. That is precisely what tyrants over the centuries and authoritarians over the last century have always said. Our second basic founding document, the constitution, is basically a design how to prevent someone from becoming a tyrant. It assumes if we have three parts of the government, they will balance each other. But what we saw unfold in the impeachment trial was the opposite. The Congress gave way and then Justice Roberts also gave way. So, at the end of it we have a much, much stronger executive claiming nearly absolute power, which is something that the founders precisely were trying to prevent.

CABRERA: You say Justice Roberts gave way. How did he give way?

SNYDER: Well, I’ve been doing an old-fashioned thing which is actually reading the text of the constitution, and according to the constitution, the chief justice presides, that is to say he’s in charge. The senators are meant to be jurors. What Chief Justice Roberts allowed to happen was that jurors decided that they could do things like say how they are going to vote in advance, that the jurors could decide to do things like not listen to evidence, that the jurors they could decide basically the shape of a trial. If you’re in a small claims court or if you’re in a divorce court or if you’re in any kind of court in the United States, those kinds of principles where the judge just gives up would be unthinkable. So, basically, what we saw was a trial that wasn’t a trial. And so, both in the forum and in the outcome, the Supreme Court ends up being marginalized and not just the Congress.

CABRERA: Trump has been impeached. He’s been acquitted. And since all of that he’s gone on to fire two of the witnesses who testified during the impeachment process. One of them being Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a purple heart recipient and military veteran. And he, you’ll recall, testified during the House impeachment process that he felt it was his duty to respond to a subpoena, to speak the truth. And his lawyer said in a statement, the truth has now cost Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman his job, his career and his privacy. He did what any member of our military is charged with doing every day. He followed orders, he obeyed his oath and he served his country, even when doing so was fraught with danger and personal peril, and for that, the most powerful man in the world buoyed by the silent, the pliable and the complicit has decided to exact revenge. And Tim, the president didn’t even try to suggest this was anything other than revenge. And now, Trump is saying the military should look into potentially disciplining Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman. What does this tell you?

SNYDER: Well, it tells me three things. I mean, personally, about Mr. Trump, it tells me that his desire to protect himself, his ego, his appearance, his sense of being right is bottomless. Because if there’s anything that you should hold back from doing, it’s from punishing someone like Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman. The second thing it tells me or rather remind me is how important the lines of authority actually are even within the Executive Branch. We have never had a system where the president instructs the military what rules should be followed in terms of military justice. So, even within the Executive Branch there’s some lines that are very important. The third thing, though, that it calls up to me is a memory of what purges are like. Because that, of course, is what is happening. People who refuse to toe the line, a line of fiction, a line which said that Ukraine plotted against the United States and not Russia, a line that said a server was in Ukraine, which has never been the case, a line which said that Ukraine was corrupting us when we were trying to corrupt Ukraine, in fact, under the Trump administration, a line which was false, a set of statements which were clearly false and which Republican senators also know to be false. That you don’t follow a line like that and then get purged, that’s what happens in authoritarian systems — or rather in totalitarian systems.

CABRERA: And what else is playing out this week within the Justice Department in the Roger Stone case, in which we now have four prosecutors who are part of that case who have withdrawn from that case, two of them resigned from their office altogether after they were undercut, after giving their sentencing recommendation. They were undercut by senior members of the DOJ after the president publicly complained about the sentencing that they were recommending. In fact, you know, he’s a friend of Roger Stone and he clearly showed how he felt the outcome was unfair. That was according to him. What implications could this have?

SNYDER: Well, there are two major ones. I mean, one that we’re already beginning to forget is just how deep and long lasting the consequences are when a foreign power plays around with American elections. So, people like Roger Stone or, for that matter, Mr. Trump, who was both involved and as a beneficiary, are naturally going to be affected by the fact that a foreign power was involved. The fact that Russia mattered in 2016, that Mr. Stone helped Russia to matter in 2016, that Mr. Trump did as well, affects what they do in 2020 and for the rest of their lives. So, this is one more argument for trying to make our democracy sovereign, rather than something who is open to international money and international influence. But the second and even more important implication is that this is a direct attack on the rule of law. The basic idea of our whole legal tradition is that law comes before the individual person. And the more power you have, the more you have to respect that principle. If you’re in Mr. Trump’s position, what he’s done is the very last thing that he ought to be doing. And this is a basic principle of our system. Without the rule of law, nothing else is possible, including freedom, including all the other values which people, Republican, Democrat, independent or whatever they might be, say are important.

CABRERA: What role does the media play? Because we obviously help determine what is news and then we amplify that to make sure the information gets out to the public. Are we partially to blame and what do we do about that?

SNYDER: I think the basic problem we have with the media is that we don’t have enough media that actually searches or hunts down, create and record facts. What we don’t have are enough reporters. We don’t have people covering local news. We don’t have enough independent editorial boards on local newspapers who would be giving their own independent opinion about impeachment that might be different from opinions coming out of New York or Washington or out of the two — the two political parties. We don’t have enough creation of enough new material anymore, so we all get locked down in these emotional, polarizing debates where everything seems obvious immediately. So, I mean, the big media has made some mistakes, of course. Treating everything as about personality makes things easier on authoritarians, but our big problem with the media is that we just don’t have enough facts.

CABRERA: Well, and, at this point, it also feels like the facts and truth doesn’t seem to matter. It doesn’t break through. You look at “The Washington Post”‘s fact-checker, which shows the president has said more than 16,000 false or misleading statements since he’s been in office. And yet the president continues to present what it is he wants people to believe. And he repeats it over and over and over again. And his supporters specifically buy it. Why is that?

SNYDER: Since people first thought of democracy, we knew it would be hard, because human beings naturally want to hear what they want to hear. And Mr. Trump is very good at telling people what they want to hear. And the Internet is basically a device for finding out what you want to hear and giving it to you. So, this is the same challenge that we have always had in a new form. And what it means is that you can’t be cynical. You can’t give up on the truth. You can’t give up on facts. You have to say, I’m on the side of facts, because facts give us a chance to have deliberative democracy, give us a chance to have law, gives us a chance to have decency and, for that matter, prosperity, because one of the things that I think the people who don’t care about facts aren’t thinking about is that, ultimately, not just democracy, but functioning markets depend upon factuality. And if we get rid of it completely, we’re going to have not only authoritarianism, but our prosperity will very soon be at risk as well.

CABRERA: The president communicates with a lot of slogans and mantras and things that are easy to remember. He gives his supporters something to rally around, right, like make America great, like America first. You say this is a form of politics of eternity, which started in Russia. Explain.

SNYDER: OK. Well, with the slogans, it goes way back. I mean, the idea of the slogan like “Lock her up” or “Drain the swamp” is to get people rallied, so that they think we’re in, they’re out, we’re the real nation, the other people are not the real nation, they’re corrupt, whatever it might be. That’s older than Russia. That goes back to fascism and other kinds of authoritarianism. By politics of eternity, I mean the kind of politics which we see very much the 21st century, where not much policy actually gets made. If you look at Trump’s four years, there’s basically zero policy, in the sense of big laws that could affect people’s lives. The one big law is a tax cut for corporations and the rich. And that’s not really policy. That’s just gravity. That’s what happens when you do nothing. The politics of eternity is teaching people that politics is not about changing the world, politics is just about characterizing the world. We’re good, they’re bad, we’re in, they’re out. And we know this because we say it to ourselves with these persuasive and appealing slogans over and over and over again.

CABRERA: What do you think America’s adversaries, people like Putin, are thinking as they’re witnessing what’s happening right now in America?

SNYDER: We — I mean, we are helping Putin’s system last, because the whole justification for Mr. Putin’s system in Russia is that, sure, things in Russia are corrupt, sure, we’re an oligarchy, sure, the media lie to you all the time, but look out at — look at other countries, it’s just the same. Basically, what’s happened in the U.S. in the last four — three years confirms this. Our institutions, unfortunately, have become more and more like the caricature which the — that the Russian media portrays them as being. The impeachment trial is a very good example. You have the solemn picture of Justice Roberts talking about this being the supreme deliberative body in the world, which is obviously, in the circumstances, a joke, right? And making our institutions a joke is exactly what helps authoritarians like Mr. Putin survive. If there’s no example of things going better, it makes their life much, much easier. I mean, a big, sad thing which is happening is that there is no longer an American example. The American example has always been imperfect in many ways, but there is now no longer an American example that dissidents in China or oppositionists in Hong Kong or journalists in Russia or Poland or Hungary or wherever could point to, thanks to Mr. Trump.

CABRERA: We know that President Putin and Russia launched a disinformation campaign to interfere in the 2016 election here in the United States. And the FBI director, Christopher Wray, just recently said they’re already seeing signs of Russia trying to interfere in the upcoming election. But, this time, it’s not just Russia. And, according to a recent investigative report in “The Atlantic,” journalist McKay Coppins writes that the Trump campaign and some of his domestic allies, partisan media, outside political groups, have begun to — quote — “adopt the same tactics of information warfare that have kept the world’s demagogues and strongmen in power.” What do you think we should be bracing for?

SNYDER: Well, this — I mean, this is what I was worried about way back in 2016 when I wrote “On Tyranny” and “Road to Unfreedom,” what — because what Russia does is not particular to Russia. What Russia does is how an oligarchy with a good understanding of the media stays in power. What you do is, you figure out what people want to hear, not just by a leader’s instinct, but by way of technical tools, which, thanks to Facebook and Google, you can actually learn, and then you target your messages to them. And you don’t care that your messages are lies. In fact, it’s better if your messages are lies, because you want people to think that there’s not really any truth and to just accept the story which sounds better. So, what we can expect is, I think, a battle between what I think are the underlying political values. And I don’t think it’s about classes. I don’t think it’s about — I think the underlying political values now are truth and falsehood, truth as the basis for policy, falsehood as the basis for enmity. I think that’s — some variant of that is the real clash that’s going on, which doesn’t mean that that somebody is always good and somebody is always bad. I just think that’s fundamentally the issue. The fundamental question is, can you win a campaign proposing policy based on facts against someone whose basic idea is just to stir the pot with the most advanced technical tools possible and to rile people up? That’s not an American dilemma now. That’s now a world dilemma. That’s everywhere. We’re, unfortunately, normal and no better than anybody else. And if we face that fact and see what the challenge is, I still think we have a chance.

CABRERA: What do you see as the role of social media companies then to prevent some of that disinformation from getting through?

SNYDER: Yes, the social media companies have a big problem with the idea of responsibility. I mean, what they think freedom is, is the freedom of a few individuals to do very well. But there’s a big, what the economists call externality, there’s a big cost, which is that people’s average levels of knowledge are declining and people’s ability to engage with the world around them in various ways is also in decline. I think there has to be a rethink of social media, just as there was a rethink of the printing press and a rethink of radio and of every major new communications technology, where responsibility in some form has to be injected back into the system. I think it’s — I think it’s ludicrous for Facebook to present itself as just passing on what other people do. What Facebook does is, it amplifies the authoritarian habit of looking for the emotion of fear. That’s what it does. That’s its design model. It looks for what makes you anxious and fearful and makes you feel tribal and childish, right? It looks for that. It’s a tool that does that. That’s it — that’s by design. So it has an inbuilt authoritarian bent. If it wants to be neutral, it has to pull away from being authoritarian and make some changes to itself which support factuality, which could certainly be done. We know some of the ways do that. But, I mean, for me, the key word is responsibility. Whether you’re talking about foreign actors like Russia or domestic actors, the platforms, with their guise of just being neutral, are what make it all possible. Without the platforms, this couldn’t happen.

CABRERA: As you know, there are a lot of Americans who don’t just accept the status quo. They’re very engaged in democracy and this election that’s upcoming. I see a lot of hashtag resist online and people calling themselves the resistance. In this way, is it a productive use of their advocacy for American democracy, or do you feel like it’s misguided?

SNYDER: I think the word resist is good, because it calls attention to the fact that what’s happening isn’t just a change of policy, but a change of regime. We are living through a slow regime change in the U.S. towards some kind of more authoritarian oligarchy. And so, regardless of our positions on individual policies or statements of the president, we can say, I would like to resist that general tendency. I don’t want authoritarianism. I want oligarchy. That’s a start. But, of course, in the end, it’s more important to know what you’re for and to be able to say what you’re for. I’m for this kind of education in the classroom. I’m for freedom of speech for humans, but not for digital beings who don’t have souls. I’m for economic inequality, which gives people a chance to imagine a better future. I’m for a system where everybody actually does have one vote, and there’s no voter suppression, and so on and so forth. So, I don’t — I think the idea of resistance is fine, because it calls attention to the drama of the moment and is a dramatic moment. But, at the end of the day, you also have to have a notion of what liberty and what law and what these values actually look like, so that you’re not just letting the people who are changing the regime in the wrong way call the shots and define the concepts.

CABRERA: Professor Timothy Snyder, I really, really appreciate this conversation. Thank you so much.

SNYDER: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Tim O’Brien, senior advisor to the Bloomberg 2020 campaign, joins Christiane to discuss stop and frisk, Michael Bloomberg’s treatment of women and other criticisms of the presidential candidate. Historian Tim Snyder tells Ana Cabrera about his book “On Tyranny” and the health of American democracy. Elizabeth Cohen and John Pomfret give Christiane an update on coronavirus.