The End of American Democracy: 30 Seconds to Midnight

A professor at Yale University talks about what history can teach us.

Matthias Kolb

"History teaches us the tricks of authoritarians. We can’t allow ourselves to fall for them," says Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University and the author of numerous books of European history. (Gage Skidmore/ Flickr )

This article was first posted by Süddeutsche Zeitung.

"We have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less. What happens in the next few weeks is very important."

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University and the author of numerous books of European history, including Bloodlands and Black Earth. His most recent book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, will be published at the end of the month. This is the English version of an interview published in Süddeutsche Zeitung on February 7, with some additional information due to current developments.

Donald Trump has been president for three weeks. How would you describe his start?

The first thing that we have to notice is that the institutions have not thus far restrained him. He never took them seriously, acts as if they don’t exist, and clearly wishes they didn’t. The story that Americans have told themselves from the moment he declared his candidacy for president, was that one institution or another would defeat him or at least change his behavior — he won’t get the nomination; if he gets the nomination, he will be a normal Republican; he will get defeated in the general election; if he wins the presidency will mature him (that was what Obama said). I never thought any of that was true. He doesn’t seem to care about the institutions and the laws except insofar as they appear as barriers to the goal of permanent kleptocratic authoritarianism and immediate personal gratification. It is all about him all of time, it is not about the citizens and our political traditions.

You wrote an article for Slate in November, comparing the rise of Donald Trump with the rise of Adolf Hitler. Why did you feel the need to publish such a piece?

It’s very important that we use history to our advantage now, rather than finding in history taboos and ways to silence one another. The history of the 1930s is terribly important to Americans (and Europeans) right now, just as it is slipping from our memories. I was not trying to provoke one more fruitless series of conversations about comparability. I was trying to help Americans who were generally either shocked (people who voted against Trump) or surprised (people who voted for him, who generally thought he would lose) find their bearings in a new situation. The temptation in a new situation is to imagine that nothing has changed. That is a choice that has political consequences: self-delusion leads to half-conscious anticipatory obedience and then to regime change. Anyway, I didn’t actually compare Trump to Hitler, I didn’t use these two names. What I did was to write a very short history of the rise of Adolf Hitler to power without using his name, which might allow Americans to recognize certain similarities to the moment they themselves were living through. I know that these comparisons are a national taboo in Germany, but at the moment its rather important that Germans be generous with their history and help others to learn how republics collapse. Most Americans are exceptionalists, we think we live outside of history. Americans tend to think: We have freedom because we love freedom, we love freedom because we are free.” It is a bit circular and doesn’t acknowledge the historical structures that can favor or weaken democratic republics. We don’t realize how similar our predicaments are to those of other people.

You use the Weimar Republic as a warning example.

I wanted to remind my fellow Americans that intelligent people, not so different from ourselves, have experienced the collapse of a republic before. It is one example among many. Republics, like other forms of government, exist in history and can rise and fall. The American Founding Fathers knew this, which is why there were obsessed with the history of classical republics and their decline into oligarchy and empire. We seem to have lost that tradition of learning from others, and we need it back. A quarter century ago, after the collapse of communism, we declared that history was over — and in an amazing way we forgot everything we once knew about communism, fascism and National Socialism. In this little article for Slate, I was trying to remind us about things that we once knew.

How similar is the situation between Germany of the 1930s and today’s United States?

Of course, not everything is similar. Some things are better now than they were in the 1930s but some things are worse. The media is worse, I would say. It is very polarized and it is very concentrated. In Germany before the state shut down German newspapers, there was authentic variety that we don’t have now. People in the 1930s generally had longer attention spans than we do. On the other side, the United States is a larger country, with pockets of wealth distributed widely, and it is more connected to the world. The main advantage that we have is that we can learn from the 1930s. Again, it’s very important to stress that history does not repeat. But it does offer us examples and patterns, and thereby enlarges our imaginations and creates more possibilities for anticipation and resistance. 

When did you realize this lack of knowledge about 20th century history here in the United States?

I got an early hint of that when I was touring the United States for my book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. This was in 2011 and I realized that Americans had really forgotten about the crimes of Stalin — which is strange because we were educated, during the Cold War about Stalinist terror. I thought that Americans would be surprised because I was saying that number of Soviet citizens killed (although still horrifyingly large) was much smaller than we had been taught. Instead I realized that Americans had simply forgotten that there was Stalinism and terror. That struck me: What else could we forget? The idea of the Holocaust is certainly present, but it is almost totally lacking in context. And without context it is hard to see resemblance. A Holocaust that is reduced to a few images or facts cannot teach about larger patterns. And Americans risk of stressing its uniqueness is that it allows people to dismiss any learning from history. People will ask: Is he wearing a Hakenkreuz, did he kill six million Jews? if the answer is in the negative, then they will reply: then history has nothing to do with the present. Over the last 25 years, we have not only forgotten much of what we once knew but we have raised a whole generation which doesn’t have these reference points.

You would argue that this knowledge had existed before but it was forgotten.

Scholars knew much more know about the 1930s — whether we are speaking of National Socialism, fascism, or Stalinism. But publics are much less interested. And we lack, for whatever reason, the concepts that we used to have that allowed us to connect ideas and political processes. When an American president says America First” or proposes a political system without the two parties or attacks journalists or denies the existence of facts, that should set of a series of associations with other political systems. We need people who can help translate ideological utterances into political warnings. Thinkers of the middle of twentieth century are now being read again, and for good reason. The American canon included native and refugee ex-communists who came to this country of the 1930s, refugees from fascism and National Socialism in the 40s, and the Cold War liberals of the 1950s. There was this time where we engaged in political theory and history, where people thought about what fascism and communism meant for democracy. Now, one reason why we cannot forget the 1930s is that the presidential administration is clearly thinking about them — but in a positive sense. They seem to be after a kind of redo of the 1930s with Roosevelt where the Americans take a different course, where we don’t build a welfare state and don’t intervene in Europe to stop fascism. Lindbergh instead of FDR. That is their notion. Something went wrong with Roosevelt and now they want to go back and reverse it.

President Trump’s political strategist, Steve Bannon, has said that he wants to make life as exciting as it was in the 1930s.“ The first two weeks have shown how big his influence is, it seems much bigger than Reince Priebus’s or Jared Kushner’s.

I can’t speak to intra-White House conflicts. I can only say that Mr. Trump’s inaugural address was extremely ideological. During the campaign he used the slogan America First” and then was informed that this was the name of a movement that tried to prevent the United States from fighting Nazi Germany and was associated with nativists and white supremacists. He claimed then not to have known that. But in the inaugural address he made America First” his central them, and now he can’t say that he doesn’t know what it means. And of course Bannon knows what it means. America First is precisely the conjuration of this alternative America of the 1930s where Charles Lindbergh is the hero. This inaugural address reeked of the 1930s.

When Bannon calls himself a Leninist,” do Americans know what is he talking about?

No, they usually have no idea. It is a good question. Americans have this idea that comes from Jefferson and the American Revolution that you have to rebel every so often. And they sometimes don’t make the distinction between a rebellion against injustice and the extinction of the whole political system, which is what Bannon says that he is after. The American Revolution actually preserved ideas from Britain: the rule of law being the most important. The whole justification of the American Revolution was that the British were not living up to their own principles, were not including Americans in their own system. In a broad way that was also the argument of the civil rights movement: the system fails itself when it does not extend equal rights to all citizens. So there can be resistance and even revolution which is about meeting standards rather than about simple destruction. What Bannon says correctly about the Bolsheviks was that they aimed to completely destroy an old regime. We can slip from one to the other very easily, from rebelliousness to a complete negation of the system. Most Americans had a rule of law state for most of their lives, African Americans are an exception, and so most Americans think this will be there forever. They don’t get that a disruption” can actually destroy much of what they take for granted. They have no notion what it means to destroy the state and how their lives would look like if the rule of law would no longer exist. I find it frightening that people who talk about the destruction of the American state are now in charge of the American state.

Trump put a portrait of Andrew Jackson on the wall of the Oval Office, another president that was a populist. But people around him seem to have a wider agenda.

In the same interview with the Hollywood Reporter in which Bannon talks about the exciting 1930s,” he talks about how he is operating in the darkness. He compares himself with Satan and Darth Vader and says in essence that he misleads the public and the media deliberately.

The White House statement for the Holocaust Day on January 27 didn’t mention Jews. At first it looked like a mistake, but now it is official that it was intentional.

The Holocaust reference is very important on our side of the Atlantic. If Americans have a reference point in world history, it is precisely the Holocaust, the Holocaust and let’s say Normandy, the Second World War, are the one aperture into a broader history, one where republics fall and extremes triumph. So if Steve Bannon turns the Holocaust into talk about a lot of people have suffered” what is happening is that he is closing that aperture. The next step is to say that mainly Americans are the victims. History then dies completely and we are trapped in myth.

Which are the differences in how Germans and Americans remember the Holocaust?

Let me answer this in a different way. Normally when I speak to German journalists, I try to emphasize parts of the history of the Holocaust that Germans overlook or minimize, and how those can allow Germans to overlook certain kinds of historical responsibility or draw lessons that are too narrow. In the United States it is obviously very different. It is not a matter of taking a debate about national responsibility and try to make it broader by making it more inclusive of what we know about the historical Holocaust. It is rather a matter of how a distant non-German nation can try to see patterns, analogies, political lessons. And right now the comparison we need to ponder is between the treatment of Muslims and the treatment of Jews. It is obviously the case that the point of the Muslim ban is to instruct Americans that Muslims are an enemy: a small, well-assimilated minority that we are supposed to see not as our neighbors or as fellow citizens but as elements of an international threat. More than that, Trump’s policy is a provocation, which is probably meant to provoke an event like the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst Eduard vom Rath on November 71938.

When Bannon calls the press the main opposition party“ that should make everyone concerned. This is not only intended to cheer up Trump supporters.

When you say that the press is the opposition, than you are advocating a regime change in the United States. When I am a Republican and say the Democrats are the opposition, we talk about our system. If I say the government is one party and the press is the opposition, then I talk about an authoritarian state. This is regime change.

Last week Trump called those who take part in demonstrations thugs” and paid protestors.” This doesn’t show respect for First Amendment rights, it sounds more like Putin.

That is exactly what the Russian leadership does. The idea is to marginalize the people who actually represent the core values of the Republic. The point is to bring down the Republic. You can disagree with them, but once you say they have no right to protest or start lying about them, you are in effect saying: We want a regime where this is not possible anymore.“ When the president says that it means that the executive branch is engaged in regime change towards an authoritarian regime without the rule of law. You are getting people used to this transition, you are inviting them into the process by asking them to have contempt for their fellow citizens who are defending the Republic. You are also seducing people into a world of permanent Internet lying and way from their own experiences with other people. Getting out to protest, this is something real and I would say something patriotic. Part of the new authoritarianism is to get people to prefer fiction and inaction to reality and action. People sit in their chairs, read the tweet and repeat the clichés: Yes, they are thugs” instead of it is normal to get out in the streets for what you believe.” He is trying to teach people a new behavior: You just sit right where you are, read what I say and nod your head. That is the psychology of regime change.

Today’s media environment is very different from the 1930s, everything happens so fast.

This is part of what contemporary authoritarians do: They overwhelm you with bad news and try to make you depressed and say with resignation: Well, what can I do?” I think it is better to limit yourself. Read the news for half an hour a day, but don’t spend the whole day obsessing about it. Americans have to pick one thing to be confident about, and then act on it. If you care about and know about refugees, the press, global warming — choose one and talk with people around you about it. Nobody can do everything but everyone can do a little bit. And people doing their little bit will meet others doing the same, and the depression lifts.

You posted 20 Lessons from the Twentieth Century“ on your Facebook page in November. Did your students here at Yale ask for advice? 

No, that wasn’t it. It was unprompted, I was in Scandinavia during the election. I thought Trump would lose, that it would be close but he would lose. On the plane on the way back I started thinking about what we could learn from history. When I had written about Trump earlier in 2016, it was about his connections to Russia. The 20 lessons was the first attempt to bring something I understand about European history to my fellow Americans in a way that is politically salient. I don’t usually write directly about American politics; I am an American but insofar as I have something to offer it is rather because I know something about contemporary and historical Eastern and Central Europe. Nobody asked me, but this was a way for me to start acting. We have to do something. This is what I can do.

Do not obey in advance“ is the first recommendation in this Facebook post. You also reference the Reichstagsbrand“ as a warning sign. How should the American public react?

Americans love to use the word playbook,” which is a metaphor from sports. There is a playbook from the 1930s that some people in the presidential administration are following. This includes picking a minority in your country, associate it with a global threat and use the notion of a global struggle as a way to create national solidarity while neglecting the nation’s actual problems. The Reichstag Fire is the crucial moment when Hitler’s government becomes a Nazi regime. An event of that type, whether unexpected, provoked, or planned by the government, can be a turning point in the United States today. This goes back to the beginning of our conversation: If we think about the 1930s, then we can be aware of events, and of certain forks in the road. If a terror attack happens in the United States, that is simply the Trump administration failing to keep its most basic promise. It is not a reason to suspend the rights of Americans or declare, have a state of emergency. History teaches us the tricks of authoritarians. We can’t allow ourselves to fall for them.

There were a lot of demonstrations in hundreds of cities, but the opinion of Trump supporters hasn’t changed. They are not moved by the huge crowds. Would this be too early to expect?

These are two different things. With something like the Muslim ban, it is important a lot of people react very quickly because if the government can slice off one group, it can do the same to others. This is a political logic that requires quick action rather than waiting for public opinion polls. Americans were actually better than Germans, they got out right away. Some Americans do seem [to] understand the logic, they move quickly. So the airport protests are not in the first instance about communicating with the Trump supporters; they [are] about making clear to the administration that we recognize what you are doing and that we oppose this logic. Indirectly, the protests communicate to the majority that there are two sides to the issue, and that they should think for themselves. Communicating with Trump supporters is different. You have to have people out, waving flags and describing themselves as patriots, even as they decry and resist particular policies. It is important for people to consider that authoritarianism, though it claims all the national symbols, is not patriotism. Over time, protests that are for a better America are important to change minds and swing over Republicans — and I should say that I have already seen a number of Republicans whom I know personally in the protests. It needs time, this is more about six months or one year. They just elected him three months ago, for now there is still the frame in place that that he will change everything and improve their lives, other things can seem like details so long as this basic hope remains. It might take a while for people to realize that making America into a Trump family welfare state is not in the interest of Americans whose name is not Trump. One of the main problems is the Internet and the polarization and simple unreality that it generates. It is important to talk about these issues in person. I have a little book called On Tyranny and I will do my best to talk about it with people who think in various ways about politics.

We are here in New Haven, a liberal bubble. Do you encourage your students to do that?

They are doing it. An undergraduate who is from New York took the train all the way to the southwest, just to talk to passengers. Young people have to do that. The risk is that they shift from taking freedom for granted to taking unfreedom for granted, without realizing that it is precisely their choice and their voice that can make the difference. And keep in mind that these conversations can create common ground. Some of the reasons some people voted for Trump make sense. You simply dismiss all of them according to your own stereotypes. It is not always as simple as the East Coast people will tell you. Trump has unleashed public racism of a kind we have not seen for decades. That is true. This racism in turn releases energies that can change the whole system. Also true. But at the same time, he would not be president without white people in crucial states who voted for Obama twice. So you can’t simply dismiss all of these people as racists, because in some cases their votes also brought us our first black president. A lot of Trump voters would have voted for Bernie Sanders, who is a Jewish socialist. There are problems and that have to do with globalization and inequality that can’t be wished away. Maybe not every citizen can articulate these problems in the best way, but many voters have good reasons to be worried about globalization. Hillary Clinton did have actual policies that would have helped — that’s the tragedy. But she wasn’t able to communicate that she understood the problem.

On Facebook there are a lot of countdowns: 3 years, 11 months, 1 week until President Trump’s first term is over. How is your mood, do you see hope? 

The marches were very encouraging. These were quite possibly the largest demonstrations in the history of the United States, just in sheer numbers on one single day. That sort of initiative has to continue. The Constitution is worth saving, the rule of law is worth saving, democracy is worth saving, but these things can and will be lost if everyone waits around for someone else. If we want encouragement out of the Oval Office, we will not get it. We are not getting encouragement thus far from Republicans. They have good reasons to defend the republic but thus far they are not doing so, with a few exceptions. You want to end on a positive note, I know; but I think things have tightened up very fast, we have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less. What happens in the next few weeks is very important.

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Matthias Kolb is the U.S. political correspondent for the website of Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s leading daily newspaper. He covered both the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections being based in Washington, D.C., but tries to leave the city as often as possible to do stories about life outside the D.C. bubble. He is also a contributor to German public radio Zündfunk.
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