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Timothy Snyder on Putin, Junk News and the Trump Trap

The historian’s last two books speak clearly and directly to a world in which democracy is in crisis.




Photo: Frauemacht

The title alone suggested that historian Timothy Snyder saw what was coming during the 2016 presidential campaign, when he wrote On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Later, he would finish all but the last chapter of his newest book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, before Donald Trump was elected president. Snyder had spent a year traveling across the U.S. talking to people in churches, synagogues and other venues, which, he told Capital & Main by phone from Seattle, “helped me write the last chapter of Road. The two books worked together.”

Indeed, both books speak clearly and directly to a world in which democracy is in crisis. In our conversation, shortened and edited here for clarity, Snyder talks about Trump’s assault on democracy, his dangerous connection to Putin’s Russia, as well as what we might do to turn this all around. Snyder will speak in the Los Angeles area tonight and Tuesday morning. See here for details.


Capital & Main: Why is the recent history of Russia and Ukraine, and the European Union important for us here in the U.S.?

Timothy Snyder: The lines from Ukraine in 2014, to the U.S. in 2016, are extraordinarily strong and clear. Things that begin in Russia could end here. Tendencies in Russia, like wealth and inequality, can have similar consequences. I realized during the Ukrainian revolution and Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 that I had to account for the extraordinary effectiveness of Russian propaganda. Americans and Europeans were not looking at the actual events. Instead, they were reacting to these propaganda tropes. I realized we’re starting to enter into a new world where a significant event like a revolution or a war can be made over by Internet and television propaganda. That’s a development which led directly to what happened to the U.S. in the 2016 election.

You write in the new book that freedom “depends upon citizens who are able to make a distinction between what is true and what they want to hear.”

If you think the truth is just what makes you feel good, then the people who make you feel good temporarily are going to be able to take away your freedom and prosperity in the long run. People on the left and the right share a certain amount of blame for that in our culture. The facts allow you to protect yourself from the ruler. This is fundamental to democracy.

Does Russia represent a major warning for us in this regard?

What the Russians have achieved is a system that kind of looks like a democracy — people vote every so often, but nobody believes in it anymore. That’s a really distressing place to be. You go to vote because it’s expected, but you don’t believe in it. You don’t believe in anything at all. The Trump phenomenon moves us in that direction, because Mr. Trump is himself a fictional character. He operates in a world of almost complete unreality and Americans are having an ever-harder time finding common ground for conversation, partly because more and more of us believe in political fictions and fewer of us are sure where we should look to try and get the facts.

What are the potential consequences of Trump’s alleged collusion with Vladimir Putin?

The first is that we cannot expect the executive branch to pursue policies that will be in the interest of the U.S. On domestic policy we’re not doing anything to make the country stronger for the future. We’re not securing our elections, we’re not building up the state department, we’re not working on climate change. We’re not doing the things that would be fundamental to protect ourselves from the Russians in particular.

What are the dangers of Trump’s instinct towards creating an oligarchy?

Oligarchy for the Greeks meant rule by the few. For Aristotle, by the wealthy few. We have to watch out for three things. We are a country with an ever greater concentration of wealth. Wealth and inequality in the U.S. now is as bad or maybe a little worse than it was in 1929. And in any country, that makes democracy difficult, because when people are too wealthy or too poor, it’s very hard to communicate, to feel like you’re in the same civic space.

The second thing to watch out for is Russia. Putin has shown how you can govern in conditions of extreme wealth and inequality, by ritualizing elections, and by a policy of constant everyday spectacle where you have the media under your control and you provide people with reasons to be outraged all the time.

The third thing is Mr. Trump himself. His view of how the world works is quite rightly characterized as an instinct. “The rules are for losers, and they don’t apply to people like me. I want to make deals with other men who see the world in the same way.” That world view doesn’t have to be interesting or sophisticated to do an awful lot of damage. You find the other guys who break all the rules and try to make a deal with them. That, in itself, is devastating, because it weakens American power. Our virtue is that we have certain rules. Nobody looks at us anymore as a champion of any kind of principle.

Copyright Capital & Main

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