The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Carlos Lozada Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP

What to do when tyranny comes.

The early cau­tions that Don­ald Trump could be­come an Amer­i­can strong­man, tram­pling our sad checks and loser bal­ances, came in the late spring of last year — and they were both dire and a bit con­flicted. “Trump is an ex­tinc­tion-level event” for Amer­i­can democ­racy, An­drew Sul­li­van de­clared in New York magazine, even while won­der­ing if he was over­re­act­ing. And Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Robert Ka­gan’s broad­side, “This is how fas­cism comes to Amer­ica,” was as much an at­tack on a feck­less Repub­li­can Party for falling in line be­hind Trump’s nom­i­na­tion as a sure­fire pre­dic­tion of what was to be.

Now, nine months later, the warn­ings have be­come more spe­cific and re­signed, and thus even more be­liev­able. Trump may at­tract scorn and ridicule — think of the late-night jokes, low ap­proval rat­ings and all that #NotMyPres­i­dent stuff — but he elic­its ever stronger fears of home­grown au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. In the lat­est At­lantic, David Frum paints a plau­si­ble land­scape of Amer­i­can il­lib­er­al­ism circa 2020, when vot­ing is harder, self-cen­sor­ship is ram­pant, Congress is sub­mis­sive, graft is per­va­sive and truth is ever hazier. This is the grad­ual eclipse of lib­erty, “not by dik­tat and vi­o­lence, but by the slow, de­mor­al­iz­ing process of cor­rup­tion and de­ceit,” he writes.

His­to­rian Ti­mothy Sny­der does not of­fer a cor­rec­tive to the pes­simism of this genre — he is a scholar of the Holo­caust, af­ter all — but begins to il­lu­mi­nate a path for­ward from it. “On Tyranny” is a slim book that fits along­side your pocket Con­sti­tu­tion and feels only slightly less vi­tal. Steeped in the his­tory of in­ter­war Ger­many and the hor­rors that fol­lowed, Sny­der still writes with brac­ing im­me­di­acy, pro­vid­ing 20 plain and mostly ac­tion­able lessons on pre­vent­ing, or at least fore­stalling, the re­pres­sion of lives and minds.

Don’t count Sny­der among the Amer­i­can ex­cep­tional ism crowd, at least not as the con­cept is usu­ally un­der­stood. “Amer­i­cans to­day are no wiser than the Euro­peans who saw democ­racy yield to fas­cism, Nazism, or com­mu­nism in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury,” he writes. “Our one ad­van­tage is that we might learn from their ex­pe­ri­ence.” The U.S. po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, he notes, was de­signed “to mit­i­gate the con­se­quences of our real im­per­fec­tions, not to cel­e­brate our imag­i­nary per­fec­tion.”

The author dwells on “the pol­i­tics of the ev­ery­day” to show the small ways peo­ple suc­cumb to or fend off the en­croach­ment of tyranny. Much of the ini­tial power granted to non­demo­cratic leaders is given freely, via “heed­less acts of con­form­ity,” long be­fore pop­u­lar docil­ity is re­quested or re­quired. Sny­der re­calls how, when Hitler threat­ened to in­vade Aus­tria, reg­u­lar Aus­trian ci­ti­zens looked on, or joined in, as lo­cal Nazis de­tained Aus­trian Jews or stole their prop­erty. “An­tic­i­pa­tory obe­di­ence is a po­lit­i­cal tragedy,” the author writes.

The early days of the Trump pres­i­dency have seen acts of sub­ver­sion by civil ser­vants, in­clud­ing dam­ag­ing leaks and so­cial-me­dia re­bel­lions, sig­nal­ing op­po­si­tion to par­tic­u­lar poli­cies or ac­tions by the new ad­min­is­tra­tion. Sny­der em­pha­sizes that the pro­fes­sional classes — civil ser­vants as well as doc­tors, lawyers and busi­ness­peo­ple — bear spe­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity when in­di­vid­ual free­doms are at risk. “It is hard to sub­vert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show tri­als without judges,” he writes. “Au­thor­i­tar­i­ans need obe­di­ent civil ser­vants, and con­cen­tra­tion camp di­rec­tors seek busi­ness­men in­ter­ested in cheap la­bor.”

Pro­fes­sional as­so­ci­a­tions, with their codes of ethics, best prac­tices and col­lec­tive voices, can com­mand at­ten­tion, cre­at­ing “forms of eth­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion that are im­pos­si­ble be­tween a lonely in­di­vid­ual and a dis­tant gov­ern­ment,” Sny­der ex­plains.

That hardly means there is no role for that lonely in­di­vid­ual. Sny­der de­votes sev­eral of his lessons to the power of small de­ci­sions in the face of erod­ing democ­racy. “The mi­nor choices we make are them­selves a kind of vote,” he ar­gues. “Our words and ges­tures, or their ab­sence, count very much.”

Make eye con­tact and small talk with strangers, he en­cour­ages; it is part of be­ing a ci­ti­zen. (“Peo­ple who were liv­ing in fear of re­pres­sion re­mem­bered how their neigh­bors treated them,” Sny­der writes.) De­fend Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions and civil so­ci­ety groups by join­ing them, ad­vo­cat­ing for them or even sup­port­ing them fi­nan­cially, Sny­der urges. (“In­sti­tu­tions do not pro­tect them­selves.”) Be­ware of loy­alty sym­bols — be it a sticker or arm­band, or even a hat, I imag­ine — how­ever in­nocu­ous they seem, be­cause they are of­ten used to ex­clude. (“When ev­ery­one else fol­lows the same logic, the pub­lic sphere is cov­ered with signs of loy­alty, and re­sis­tance be­comes un­think­able.”)

And then there’s this omi­nously con­cise sug­ges­tion: “Make sure you and your family have pass­ports.”

Sny­der points to clear and rec­og­niz­able ac­tions that a leader or a party can take to suf­fo­cate free­dom — such as ex­ploit­ing ter­ror­ist at­tacks to cur­tail in­di­vid­ual lib­er­ties or en­abling the rise of pro-gov­ern­ment para­mil­i­tary forces — but he is es­pe­cially at­tuned to the abuses of lan­guage. Show­ing no com­punc­tion in go­ing there, Sny­der com­pares the rhetoric of the Führer and the Don­ald to high­light phras­ing that serves the in­ter­ests of the leader and no one else:

“Hitler’s lan­guage re­jected le­git­i­mate op­po­si­tion: The peo­ple al­ways meant some peo­ple and not oth­ers (the pres­i­dent uses the word in this way), en­coun­ters were al­ways strug­gles (the pres­i­dent says win­ning) and any at­tempt by free peo­ple to un­der­stand the world in a dif­fer­ent way was defama­tion of the leader (or, as the pres­i­dent puts it, li­bel).”

Sny­der warns against the treach­er­ous use of pa­tri­otic ex­pres­sions and the mind­less rep­e­ti­tion of po­lit­i­cal catch­phrases, whether in the news me­dia or from the gov­ern­ment. “Think up your own way of speak­ing,” he chal­lenges read­ers. “When we re­peat the same words and phrases that ap­pear in the daily me­dia, we ac­cept the ab­sence of a larger frame­work,” and per­mit a nar­row­ing of vo­cab­u­lary and thought that only em­pow­ers the strong­man.

The pop­u­lar un­der­stand­ing and in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Trump are dom­i­nated by his words and phrases — “Sad!” “Fake news!” — and by his use of those words to rouse sup­port­ers, iden­tify op­po­nents and dis­tort ver­i­fi­able re­al­ity. “To aban­don facts is to aban­don free­dom,” Sny­der writes. “If noth­ing is true, then all is spec­ta­cle.” And Trump thrives on spec­ta­cle; in­deed, his rise has been based on it.

A leader’s con­stant rep­e­ti­tion of “shaman­is­tic in­can­ta­tions,” as Sny­der puts it, and the peo­ple’s mis­placed faith in an orac­u­lar strong­man over ev­i­dence and rea­son — these are ways truth begins to fade. Through­out his­tory, despots have “de­spised the small truths of daily ex­is­tence, loved slo­gans that res­onated like a new re­li­gion, and pre­ferred creative myths to his­tory or jour­nal­ism.”

And that el­e­va­tion of mythol­ogy over truth has con­se­quences. “Post-truth,” Sny­der writes, “is pre-fas­cism.”

To break free of the in­can­ta­tions, we must loosen the hold that our tele­vi­sions and phones have over us, Sny­der ar­gues. “Get the screens out of your room and sur­round your­self with books,” he urges, like the good aca­demic that he is. “The char­ac­ters in Or­well’s and Brad­bury’s books could not do this — but we still can.”

It is not an en­tirely per­sua­sive course, as if tele­vi­sion and on­line de­bates did not have the power to in­tro­duce new ideas or vi­tal re­port­ing into pub­lic cir­cu­la­tion. In fact, this very book — eas­ily the most com­pelling vol­ume among the re­sis­tance lit­er­a­ture emerg­ing in re­sponse to Trump — took inspiration from a Novem­ber 2016 Face­book post by the author.

Per­haps the great­est con­tri­bu­tion in Sny­der’s clar­i­fy­ing and un­nerv­ing work is buried in its epi­logue, and it shows the slippery in­tel­lec­tual path from free­dom to tyranny. Af­ter the Cold War, he writes, we were en­thralled by the pol­i­tics of in­evitabil­ity, the no­tion that his­tory moved in­ex­orably to­ward lib­eral democ­racy. So we low­ered our de­fenses. Now, in­stead, we are ca­reen­ing to­ward the pol­i­tics of eter­nity, in which a leader rewrites our past as “a vast misty court­yard of il­leg­i­ble mon­u­ments to na­tional vic­tim­hood.” In­evitabil­ity was like a coma; eter­nity is like hyp­no­sis.

“The dan­ger we now face is of a pas­sage from the pol­i­tics of in­evitabil­ity to the pol­i­tics of eter­nity, from a naive and flawed sort of demo­cratic repub­lic to a con­fused and cyn­i­cal sort of fas­cist oli­garchy,” Sny­der con­cludes. “The path of least re­sis­tance leads di­rectly from in­evitabil­ity to eter­nity.”

A pos­si­ble de­tour from that path may be found in “On Tyranny,” a mem­o­rable work that is grounded in his­tory yet im­bued with the fierce ur­gency of what now. Carlos Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post.


With Pres­i­dent Trump in of­fice, Ti­mothy Sny­der writes, “The mi­nor choices we make are them­selves a kind of vote.”

ON TYRANNY Twenty Lessons From the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury By Ti­mothy Sny­der. Tim Dug­gan Books. 128 pp. $7.99

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