The Yale historian warns about the risk of totalitarianism under Trump. That’s great for selling books — but scholars are alarmed.
He is in New York to promote The Road to Unfreedom (Tim Duggan Books, 2018), his chronicle of the rise of authoritarianism, and juggling a labyrinthine schedule compiled by his two assistants and publicist. He’s doing two to three events a day, and, when I share a cab with him after one of his talks, he frets about the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil and what it portends for the state of democracy worldwide. Mostly, though, he stares out the window, desperate for a nap. Promoting a book is usually a sprint, but Snyder has been running a marathon for close to 10 years now, and it doesn’t look like he’ll get to rest any time soon.
Not yet 50, Snyder has already ascended to a level of cultural influence and political currency rarely reached by academics. He is perhaps the most visible living interpreter of the Holocaust, Stalinism, and totalitarian violence writ large. He’s been on The Daily Show, Real Time With Bill Maher, Amanpour, and countless C-Span panels. He’s received orders of merit from three countries and published multiple bestsellers. His previous book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017), spent over a year on the New York Times best-seller list and has sold nearly 500,000 copies in the U.S. Last February, he presented a copy to the pope.
In short, Snyder has captured a mood. If you’re a liberal freaked out by Trump, Snyder is the dark prophet you’ve been waiting for. If you tend to believe that the worst might happen, Snyder is here to confirm your fears.
there are very different ideas there are
still very different ideas the hypnosis
of the end of history is something that
we have to break ourselves out of the
fist thing that I think I’ve understood
is that the catalyst or if you want the
lubricant of regime change is mistrust
right the sense of uncertainty the sense
that nothing is real or nothing is true
if you are having that feeling now as
many Americans are you are right we’re
Russians were about a decade ago okay
they’re much further along now right
there they’re in a different place now
as people say but if you have that sense
that you don’t know who to trust as
journalism real as history real you know
should I listen to white men wearing
ties actually the answer is generally no
right and make it but but make an
exception right make an exception oh no
no I think I feel I feel like Sean
Spicer has totally ruined this look for
me but but i but i don’t know where else
to go so like maybe you know maybe you
can help you out afterwards anyway that
that mistrust is the rubric mistrust
makes it happen right because if you
don’t think anything’s true and you
don’t trust anyone then the rule of law
can’t work and if the rule of law can’t
work then democracy is going to fall
right democracy depends on the rule of
law rule of law has depends on a certain
basic level of trust that basic level of
trust it’s not that we agree about
everything but that we agree there’s a
world in there facts in it if you lose
that then you lose rule of law then you
lose democracy right and the people who
are going after trusts the people who
are tweeting random things at 5:30 in
the morning right they are consciously
ripping out the heart of democracy it’s
not the skin right it’s not the muscle
that’s going to resigned it’s not the
bones it’s going right for the heart
it’s skipping the step of democracy
right it’s going right for the heart
it’s ripping out the thing which makes
democracy possible the final thing the
number 19is the one about patriotism in generalthe ones towards the end of the book aremeant to come later but you knowsometimes events outpace you or catch orcatch you up as Vic and I like to saycatch you up be a patriot set a good thegenerations to come they will need itwhat is patriotism let us begin withwhat patriotism is not it is notpatriotic to dodge the draft and to mockwar heroes and their familiesit is not patriotic to discriminateagainst active duty members of the ArmedForces and one’s companies or a campaignto keep disabled veterans away fromone’s property it is not patriotic tocompare one search for sexual partnersin New York with the military service inVietnam that one has dodged it is notpatriotic to avoid paying taxesespecially when American workingfamilies do pay it is not patriotic toask those working taxpaying Americanfamilies to finance one’s ownpresidential campaign and then to spendtheir contributions in one’s own inone’s own companies it is not patrioticto admire foreign dictators it is notpatriotic to cultivate a relationshipwith Muammar Gaddafi or to say thatBashar al-assad and Vladimir Putin aresuperior leaders it is not patriotic tocall upon Russia to intervene in anAmerican presidential electionit is not patriotic to cite Russianpropaganda at rallies it is notpatriotic to share an advisor withRussian oligarchs and is not patrioticto solicit foreign policy advice fromsomeone who owns shares in a Russianenergy company it is not patriotic toread a foreign policy speech written bysomeone on the payroll of a Russianenergy company it is not patriotic toappoint a national security advisor whois taking money from a Russianpropaganda organ it is not patriotic toappointed Secretary of State an oil manwith Russian financial interests who isthe director of a Russian Americanenergy company and has received theorder of friendship from Putin the pointis not that Russia and America must beenemies the point is that patriotisminvolves serving your own country thepresident is a nationalist which is notat all the same things a patriot anationalist encourages us to be ourworst and then tells us that we are thebest a nationalist quote althoughendlessly brooding on power victorydefeat revenge wrote Orwell tends to bequote uninterested in what happens inthe real worldunquote nationalism is relativist sincethe only truth is the resentment we feelwhen we contemplate others as thenovelist bunnyville keys put itnationalism quote has no universalvalues aesthetic or ethical a patriot bycontrast wants the nation to live up toits ideals which means asking us to beour best selves a patriot must beconcerned with the real world which isthe only place where his country can beloved and sustained a patriot hasuniversal values standards by which hejudges his nation always wishing it welland wishing that it would do betterdemocracy failed in Europe in the 1920s1930s and 1940s and it is failingnot only in much of Europe but in manyparts of the world today it is thathistory and experience that reveals tous the dark range of our possiblefutures a nationalist will say that itcan’t happen here which is the firststep towards disaster a patriot saysthat it could happen here look that wewill stop it thank41:03I don’t I don’t have a silver bullet forthat but I do have some ways of tryingto get one’s mind around it the first isthat is is technological I mean it justit just turns out that the Internet doesnot open the broad you know the broadsweep towards the positive globalizationthat Al Gore was dreaming of right inthe 1990s that just isn’t true just likeit wasn’t true with a book which broughtus the Wars of Religion right just likeit wasn’t true a radio which brought usfascism all of these new I mean notalone right but all of these newtechnologies are extremely unpredictablefor some like transition period that maylast a hundred years right there they’revery unpredictable so art like our kindof and this is something this is abubble that I think Hillary Clintonherself was caught in her campaign wascaught in people on these coats werethought and people did not realize whatthe internet actually was right what itwas actually doing and this is I meanthere’s an empirical thing here there’sa technical thing here the empiricalthing is people just did not realize howhow siloed off we had become I didn’trealize it until I actually startedtalking to real took when I wascanvassing and talking to Trump votersin the Midwest and then I realized likethis is so dumb but it was at thatmoment that I realized just howdifferent my facebook feed was fromother people’s because if you hear fromwhat seemed to be 25 independent sourcesthat Hillary Clinton is a murderer andyou’ve been hearing it for six monthsyou might well believe itall right I mean that’s not surprisingwhich is the technical thing not enoughpeople again really a Clinton campaignwhatever realized thatDonald Trump actually had a campaignadvantage right we talked incessantlyabout being a ground game ground game Isaw the ground game you know it’s likeit’s twice all agree I what the groundgame in the AK in the ground game whichis below the ground game right and whatthe Russians called a psycho sphereTrump had a tremendous advantage howmuch of that was actually is campaigninghow much there was actually the RussiansI don’t know but in terms of the bots interms of the technical distribution ofthe false news at the generation andtechnical distribution he had a hugeadvantage and what turned out almostcertainly be a decisive advantage theseare things that we have to understandand get our mind around now in terms ofwhat we can do I mean obviously like youknow Zuckerberg can do a lot and peoplewho are in charge of news distributioncan can do a lot there are two littlethings I mean one is kind of just adeclaration I think 2017 is already andis going to be a heroic year forjournalism I mean and I be absolutelymean heroic like if this is going toturn around it’s going to be because ofpeople pursuing old fashioned storiesand old-fashioned ways and printing andpublishing very often in print journalswho can afford or at least try to try toafford to be able to do such things andand I mean it’s also generationally likethere are a lot of really interestingyoung people who now see journalism asedgy and they’re right right like thewhole threat like that the phrasemainstream media that’s not like what’smainstream is the derision of the mediathat’s the mainstream right being ajournalist is now edgy and dangerous andinteresting right and I think maybehistorically meaningful and you know thelittle thing I say in the book which isobvious I’m sure you all do it is thatwe need to pay for a bunch ofsubscriptions because if everybody paysfor subscriptions that will actually beenough to subsidize investigations rightand that I mean even we know that peoplelike us often don’t do that right and ifwe all did it that would make a hugedifference and then finally there’s likethere’s the internet self policing whichis it we have to think we have toremember that we are all now publishersright and so therefore we all everyevery individual makes a difference interms of what is actually beingdistributed right if we think about itthat way then each of us can make usfeel better to write like if you pickedreporters from the real world followtheir workget to know them as it were and thendistribute their work online then you’rebeing a publisher who’s doing a littlebit of good so let the day-to-day levelthat’s something that we can do thankthat the cleat and actually the questionwe just had the cleavages are going tochange they’re already changing and inEurope they’re it’s further along thanthan here because certain things arefurther along in Europe and here but Ithink the real dividing lines are factand post fact and andanti-authoritarianism authoritarianismand I think the anti I think I agreewith your premise the anti-authoritariancase is unfortunately a case that has tobe made right it can lose but I thinkthat’s the case that has to be made andit goes back to how one wins also theanti-authoritarian z– have to include agood deal of my view conservativespeople who vote Republican right peoplewho people who think there should be aConstitution although they would havethey would disagree about policy youknow perhaps with me right theanti-authoritarian camp is gonna have toinclude a lot of folks like that as wellso so so my answer is that of courseyou’re right I mean the Bill of Rightsis there for the reason you give that’swhy the Bill of Rights is there it’s notthere because it’s popular it’s therebecause it would be unpopular right whowants to separate church and state it’dbe so much more fun to have my you knowmy church right I mean who’s not temptedby that right few people okay so likeokay I was going to list all I want afavor anyway there are a fewdenominations who have maybe not beatsbut in general like we you belong forrare tradition if you belong to atradition which has never try to takeover the state at some point or found astate right so how is dividing churchand state popular it’s not meant to bepopular it’s meant to be sensible thesethings are not meant to be popular andso that means they have to be defendedprecisely but I think I think there isenough of a consensus aroundConstitution that one can at least startthere as a way of shaming people orgathering people but I mean my basic mybasic notion is that you get yeah itgoes on very deep it’s whether you’regoing to authoritarian oranti-authoritarian and the people whoare trying to change things already knowthey’re authoritarians right so here wejust one of the comments when HillaryClinton stated at the time that Russiawas taking over Crimea and invading ruleand she compared it to sedating landtakeover and everybody scoffs better shehad to pull it back but I don’t knowwhether you thought that was more aptthan some B’s well I mean on andElizabeth who was a very gifted andconservative Russian historian made thesame comparison and lost his lost hisjob for it no of course it’s apt rightso here’s like here’s how Americans joinyou with history the Americans deal withhistory as though history were an mp3and if it doesn’t sound exactly the samewhen you punch the button as it did theprevious time then you think something’swrong right that’s what American says ifit does if it doesn’t repeat perfectlyso if Americans will say oh well thereno there no swastikas so no jackbootsI’m changing the channel I’m afraid likethat’s our Nats our national response tothe history this whole taboo thing aboutthe 1930s is a way of saying well in thein the naive view and the naive viewit’s a way of saying okay we don’t knowanything about history that’s fine rightbecause no analogies can be perfectI mean Crimean sedate land is actuallyan extremely good analogy it’s a veryclose analogy right but none is going tobe perfect right and so saying oh that’sjust an analogy or that’s a way of justnot thinking about history and once youdon’t think about history you’re doneyou’re finished because history is theonly thing which teaches you how peoplehave successfully resisted it’s also theonly thing we teaches you howinstitutions are constructed right sothe moment you say oh no comparisonsyou’re done forget it right it’s over soit’s a very it’s a very dangerous verydangerous move and in the dark versionthe non naive version in the darkversion it’s quite deliberate you knowyou say well I you know I am NOT exactlylike Hitler and therefore it’s okayright and we’re getting to that pointright you know they’re nothing is wrongI’m overstating this slightly but notmuchnothing is wrong because they’re onconcentration camps yet no no no no youknow and there weren’t you know thewrong concentration camps in in January1933 either right okay
With the flourish of his pen on Monday, President Trump imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as everyone in Khamenei’s office or appointed by him. It was a point of high drama in the escalating brinksmanship between the United States and the Islamic Republic. It was the closest that Trump has come to formally calling for a regime change. “The Supreme Leader of Iran is one who ultimately is responsible for the hostile conduct of the regime,” the President told reporters. “These measures represent a strong and proportionate response to Iran’s increasingly provocative actions.” Usually, the United States will sanction a head of state—such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro—as a signal that the leader is no longer deemed legitimate. In other words, Washington believes that a leader has to go.
Trump was opaque, even puzzling, about his intentions, however. “America is a peace-loving nation,” he said. “We do not seek conflict with Iran or any other country. I look forward to the day when sanctions can be finally lifted and Iran can become a peaceful, prosperous, and productive nation. That can go very quickly; it can be tomorrow. It can also be in years from now. So, I look forward to discussing whatever I have to discuss with anybody that wants to speak. In the meantime, who knows what’s going to happen.”
The new executive order also targeted the Revolutionary Guard commanders involved in shooting down a sophisticated U.S. drone last week. The Trump Administration intends later this week to impose sanctions on the U.S.-educated Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was the chief interlocutor during the two years of negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015. Zarif once quipped that he and the former Secretary of State John Kerry spent more time with each other during that period than they spent with their wives. As Iran’s top diplomat, Zarif regularly travels to New York to attend U.N. sessions. He was here in April and had been expected to return next month.
At a White House press conference, the Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, vowed that the new sanctions will “lock up literally billions of dollars more of assets.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was visiting Saudi Arabia on Monday, charged that Khamenei’s office “has enriched itself at the expense of the Iranian people. It sits atop a vast network of tyranny and corruption.” The new sanctions, Pompeo said, will deprive the Iranian leadership of the resources it uses to “spread terror and oppress the Iranian people.”
Ironically, the punitive new measure may not have major economic impact—at least not to the degree that the Administration advertised. “It’s a lot of hype, but it doesn’t mean much economically. It’s unlikely to have a damaging effect” on Iran beyond the sanctions that have already been imposed, Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former Treasury sanctions specialist who is now at the Center for a New American Security, told me. “It’s in the realm of the symbolic.” The sanctions are “a sideshow to a threat of military escalation and all-out conflict,” she said. They fuel a narrative focussed on Iran rather than the United States—and the fact that Trump blinked when he called off a retaliatory military strike last Thursday.
Former Treasury officials also claim that Trump did not need to sign a new executive order—beyond the hype and media attention it produced. The authority to sanction either entities or officials affiliated with the Iranian government has existed since 2012, when the Obama Administration issued an executive order, Kate Bauer, a former Treasury official who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said. “It’s clear that this Administration wants to send a message,” Bauer said. “This is a response to the recent escalation and the shooting down of the drone.”
The main impact of the new sanctions may be political—diminishing rather than encouraging diplomacy or deëscalation. Pompeo said that Tehran “knows how to reach us,” if it decides to “meet our diplomacy with diplomacy.” But Tehran immediately rejected talks. At the United Nations, the Iranian Ambassador Majid Takht-Ravanchi told reporters that Tehran would not succumb to pressure. “Nobody in a clear mind can accept to have a dialogue with somebody that is threatening you with more sanctions. So, as long as this threat is there, there is no way that Iran and the U.S. can start a dialogue,” he told reporters, before a closed-door session on tensions in the energy-rich Gulf. In a tweet, Zarif said that Trump’s advisers and allies “despise diplomacy and thirst for war.” Other Iranian officials condemned the new sanctions as “economic terrorism.”
Trump’s decision, a year ago, to unilaterally reimpose other sanctions—splitting with the five major powers who also brokered the nuclear deal—has battered Iran’s economy. In April, Washington vowed to sanction five nations that remain major importers of Iranian oil if they didn’t cease all purchases; the move cut off Tehran’s main source of revenue. Iran’s oil sales today are about a sixth of what they were in 2016. Inflation has exceeded fifty per cent in some months, with the price of basic necessities skyrocketing. The I.M.F. projects a six-per-cent economic contraction for Iran in 2019. Yet the Iranian economy is still far from crippled. The Islamic Republic has not witnessed the kind of economic protests that erupted nationwide in late 2017 and early 2018, Western diplomats in Tehran have told me
Sanctioning Iran’s supreme leader and his entourage could even backfire, some experts suggest. The Trump Administration’s goal is to get Tehran to make concessions on its missile development, regional interventions, and human-rights record, as well as its nuclear program. But “these sanctions will make discussions toward a new treaty very, very difficult,” Adnan Mazarei, a former deputy director of the I.M.F.’s Middle East program who is now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told me. “They send a bad political signal. The recent events—especially shooting down a U.S. drone—make Iran feel more comfortable and self-confident from a domestic perspective. It could say, ‘We won the last round and maybe we can talk now.’ ” No longer, Mazarei said. Tehran has boasted that it shot down the Global Hawk drone, one of the most sophisticated surveillance aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, with a homemade rocket. On Monday, the chief of Iran’s navy, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, warned that his forces could shoot down more U.S. aircraft flying in the Gulf, “and the enemy knows it.”
Over all, sanctions are an imperfect tool, former Treasury specialists told me. They can work—but they may take years, even decades. North Korea has been sanctioned to the hilt, but Trump’s negotiations with Kim Jong Un have yet to reduce his nuclear program, which is far more sophisticated than Iran’s. Iran is still more than a year from the ability to produce a bomb, whereas Pyongyang is estimated to have between twenty and sixty bombs. Sanctions to get Rhodesia’s white minority government to the negotiating table to end the country’s civil war took almost fifteen years. Sanctions are also most effective when the world unites behind punitive economic measures, as the U.N. did in invoking sanctions on Iran four times between 2006 and 2010. Today, the deepest split in U.S. relations with its transatlantic allies is over Iran policy.
As prospects of diplomacy dimmed on Monday, Trump signaled his willingness to deploy military force. “I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “A lot of restraint. And that doesn’t mean we’re going to show it in the future.”
But our Constitution has at least one radical feature: It isn’t designed for a society with economic inequality.
.. Our Constitution was not built for a country with so much wealth concentrated at the very top nor for the threats that invariably accompany it: oligarchs and populist demagogues.
.. From the ancient Greeks to the American founders, statesmen and political philosophers were obsessed with the problem of economic inequality. Unequal societies were subject to constant strife — even revolution. The rich would tyrannize the poor, and the poor would revolt against the rich.
.. The solution was to build economic class right into the structure of government. In England, for example, the structure of government balanced lords and commoners. In ancient Rome, there was the patrician Senate for the wealthy, and the Tribune of the Plebeians for everyone else. We can think of these as class-warfare constitutions: Each class has a share in governing, and a check on the other. Those checks prevent oligarchy on the one hand and a tyranny founded on populist demagogy on the other.
.. Our founding charter doesn’t have structural checks and balances between economic classes: not between rich and poor, and certainly not between corporate interests and ordinary workers. This was a radical change in the history of constitutional government.
And it wasn’t an oversight. The founding generation knew how to write class-warfare constitutions — they even debated such proposals during the summer of 1787. But they ultimately chose a framework for government that didn’t pit class against class.
.. James Madison’s notes from the secret debates at the Philadelphia Convention show that the delegates had a hard time agreeing on how they would design such a class-based system. But part of the reason was political: They knew the American people wouldn’t agree to that kind of government.
.. Many in the founding generation believed America was exceptional because of the extraordinary degree of economic equality within the political community as they defined it.
.. Equality of property, he believed, was crucial for sustaining a republic. During the Constitutional Convention, South Carolinan Charles Pinckney said America had “a greater equality than is to be found among the people of any other country.” As long as the new nation could expand west, he thought, it would be possible to have a citizenry of independent yeoman farmers.
.. Starting more than a century ago, amid the first Gilded Age, Americans confronted rising inequality, rapid industrial change, a communications and transportation revolution and the emergence of monopolies. Populists and progressives responded by pushing for reforms that would tame the great concentrations of wealth and power that were corrupting government.
On the economic side, they invented antitrust laws and public utilities regulation, established an income tax, and fought for minimum wages. On the political side, they passed campaign finance regulations and amended the Constitution so the people would get to elect senators directly. They did these things because they knew that our republican form of government could not survive in an economically unequal society. As Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “There can be no real political democracy unless there is something approaching an economic democracy.”