American historian Timothy Snyder is the author of On Tyranny. The slim volume from February 2017 presaged what we could expect from the Trump administration as it became obvious almost immediately that the forthcoming four years would be among the most tumultuous and stressful this country had ever experienced. For those who have yet to read it, it describes, in 20 separate segments, what we must expect and how we must contend, cope with, and combat tyranny, incipient fascism, and proto-fascism of the Trump variety.
On Saturday, The New York Times published a lengthy opinion essay by Snyder titled ”The American Abyss.” It is probably the single most cogent reflection thus far on the meaning of what we witnessed this week that you are likely to read, possibly even throughout the coming year (although the year, of course, is young).
Snyder begins by explaining some basic truths about how Donald Trump operates and how he fits in to what Snyder refers to a post-truth, pre-fascist continuum in America’s political structure. More importantly, he illustrates how the Republican Party has, both before and after Trump’s election loss and the subsequent violence of Jan. 6, essentially divided into two separate factions.
There are those who seek to game the political system for their own ends, to maintain power while paying lip service to democratic principles (the Mitch McConnell wing, which he refers to as the “gamers”), and those who seek to overthrow—or “break”—our democratic system of government altogether (the “breakers” wing, such as Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and others of their ilk).
This is one piece where it’s difficult to adequately excerpt just three or four paragraphs—there is frankly so much truth here that to excerpt it doesn’t possibly do it justice. Snyder shows how the interplay between those who game the system has collided with those who seek to break it, and how we got to this point in time where half the U.S. voting population is susceptible to believing Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.
Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions. Truth defends itself particularly poorly when there is not very much of it around, and the era of Trump — like the era of Vladimir Putin in Russia — is one of the decline of local news. Social media is no substitute: It supercharges the mental habits by which we seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true.
Snyder convincingly explains how Trump co-opted the same type of tactics employed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in order to make “their” truth the only truth, noting that “(Trump’s) use of the term ‘fake news’ echoed the Nazi smear Lügenpresse (‘lying press)’”, and how through the gradual repetition of lies, he transformed the minds of the Republican electorate. The Nazis used radio to hone their lies while Trump used Twitter to develop a cult of personality that would sustain those lies.
Thanks to technological capacity and personal talent, Donald Trump lied at a pace perhaps unmatched by any other leader in history. For the most part these were small lies, and their main effect was cumulative. To believe in all of them was to accept the authority of a single man, because to believe in all of them was to disbelieve everything else. Once such personal authority was established, the president could treat everyone else as the liars; he even had the power to turn someone from a trusted adviser into a dishonest scoundrel with a single tweet. Yet so long as he was unable to enforce some truly big lie, some fantasy that created an alternative reality where people could live and die, his pre-fascism fell short of the thing itself.
In one particularly acute passage, Snyder explains how Trump’s attempt to promulgate what became his most ambitious “Big Lie”—that the election had been stolen through fraud (fraud which, in context remarkably only happened in areas with large Black populations)—actually constitutes a wholesale reversal of the actual truth, and in fact, a wholesale reversal of American history.
Watching white supremacists among the people storming the Capitol, it was easy to yield to the feeling that something pure had been violated. It might be better to see the episode as part of a long American argument about who deserves representation.
It’s not just that electoral fraud by African-Americans against Donald Trump never happened. It is that it is the very opposite of what happened, in 2020 and in every American election. As always, Black people waited longer than others to vote and were more likely to have their votes challenged. They were more likely to be suffering or dying from Covid-19, and less likely to be able to take time away from work. The historical protection of their right to vote has been removed by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, and states have rushed to pass measures of a kind that historically reduce voting by the poor and communities of color.
But the most disturbing thing about Snyder’s essay is how he predicts this will all play out over the next four years, either with Trump in the field or with Cruz, Hawley, or someone else eager to take up the “breaker” mantle. If the Republican electorate continues to wallow in conspiracy mythology, continuing to believe that the 2020 election was stolen, it practically sets the stage for violence in 2024, with Republicans routinely claiming fraud every time they lose an election, the will of the voters be damned.
Trump’s coup attempt of 2020-21, like other failed coup attempts, is a warning for those who care about the rule of law and a lesson for those who do not. His pre-fascism revealed a possibility for American politics. For a coup to work in 2024, the breakers will require something that Trump never quite had: an angry minority, organized for nationwide violence, ready to add intimidation to an election. Four years of amplifying a big lie just might get them this. To claim that the other side stole an election is to promise to steal one yourself. It is also to claim that the other side deserves to be punished.
After reading Snyder’s essay (and again, these few paragraphs can’t do it proper justice), I was left with the strong impression that the path that Republicans choose to pursue over the next four years will make or break this country’s future as a democracy. And that, in turn, will depend on whether Republican voters will ever accept that they were lied to by Donald Trump.
It’s scary, and Snyder doesn’t pull any punches. You will see what I mean.
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