On Tyran­ny: Twen­ty Lessons from the Twen­ti­eth Century

  • Review
By – April 26, 2017

The argu­ment made in this cau­tion­ary book is that the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump has cre­at­ed a polit­i­cal chal­lenge to our demo­c­ra­t­ic form of gov­ern­ment not dis­sim­i­lar to the total­i­tar­i­an move­ments of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Sny­der argues that in our response to the threat pre­sent­ed by the new admin­is­tra­tion, we are no wis­er than Euro­peans who saw democ­ra­cy yield to fas­cism, Nazism, and communism.

Sny­der, the Housum Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty, is the author of Blood­lands: Europe Between Hitler and Stal­inand Black Earth :The Holo­caust as His­to­ry and Warn­ing, and is also a mem­ber of the Com­mit­tee on Con­science of the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um. Few schol­ars are bet­ter able to con­nect the cir­cum­stances that led to the rise of Hitler to the present divi­sions that face Amer­i­can soci­ety. Sny­der views our demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions under dan­ger: We believe that we have checks and bal­ances, but have rarely faced a sit­u­a­tion like the present: when the less pop­u­lar of the two par­ties con­trol every lever of pow­er[…] will we in ret­ro­spect see the elec­tions of 2016[…] as the Ger­mans viewed the elec­tion of 1932.” Else­where, Sny­der notes that dur­ing the cam­paign Trump charged that the Amer­i­can media was dis­hon­est and banned reporters from his ral­lies. Like the lead­ers of author­i­tar­i­an regimes,” Sny­der writes of Trump, he promis­es to sup­press free­dom of speech by laws that would pre­vent crit­i­cism. Like Hitler, the pres­i­dent uses words like lies to mean state­ments of fact not to his lik­ing, and pre­sent­ed jour­nal­ism as a cam­paign against himself.”

Giv­en Trump’s dark pic­ture of Amer­i­ca as a nation vir­tu­al­ly in decline as he iter­at­ed the cri­sis in his inau­gur­al address, Sny­der argues that a politi­cian like Trump in invok­ing ter­ror­ism as a threat to our secu­ri­ty is actu­al­ly attempt­ing to train our­selves to sur­ren­der free­dom in the name of safe­ty. Peo­ple who attempt to assure you that you only gain secu­ri­ty at the price of lib­er­ty, claims Sny­der, usu­al­ly want to deny you both. When an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent and his secu­ri­ty advis­er speak of fight­ing ter­ror­ism along­side Rus­sia, what they are propos­ing to the Amer­i­can peo­ple is ter­ror man­age­ment: the exploita­tion of real, dubi­ous, and sim­u­lat­ed ter­ror attacks to bring down democracy.”

Sny­der recalls that a les­son of the 1933 Reich­stag fire is that our nat­ur­al fear of ter­ror­ism must not enable us to destroy our insti­tu­tions. He con­cludes by cit­ing James Madi­son and Han­nah Arendt: Madi­son warned that tyran­ny aris­es on some favor­able emer­gency,” and Arendt wrote that fol­low­ing the Reich­stag fire I was no longer of the opin­ion that one can sim­ply be a bystander.

In this slim vol­ume, Sny­der warns read­ers of the anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic tropes that dis­tin­guish the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. Obvi­ous­ly this is not an opin­ion shared by mil­lions of Amer­i­cans who vot­ed for him. But giv­en the many exam­ples he draws from the peri­od of Hitler and Stal­in, his polemic should not eas­i­ly be dismissed.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

Discussion Questions