It’s a very important book. It may be the most important book I have read within memory, though it is only 126 short pages and can be finished in less than 40 minutes. Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lesson From the Twentieth Century, draws a line between the rise of Fascism and Communist totalitarianism in twentieth century Europe and the current American moment. To the question “Can it happen here?” Snyder answers “yes, it can.” Snyder writes, “We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex.”
Timothy Snyder is a distinguished historian of Eastern European history, who teaches at Yale. In his 2012 book Bloodlands, he provides an analysis and description of the extraordinary destruction of human lives engineered by Hitler and Stalin. His study of the period renders Snyder well-equipped to understand how tyranny emerges. But to the point, he is sufficiently alarmed by what he witnesses in Trump’s rise to power to warn us of what we must do to ensure that Trump’s demagoguery, narcissism and incompetence do not signal the death knell of democracy in the United States. Timothy Snyder is a very smart man and a sober thinker and we should not ignore his warning, nor his advice.
The nature of nationalism
The election that brought Trump to power is often analyzed according to thick polarities in the electorate: Conservative vs. Liberal; America’s heartland vs. East Coast elites; older white males vs. minorities; those without college education and those with. One such dichotomy, which I want to evoke, is that dividing nationalists and cosmopolitans, with an emphasis on the nature of nationalism.
Among the most menacing aspects of the Trump phenomenon is the emergence of white nationalism out of the fringes of society into the corridors of the White House. White nationalism is a variant of nationalism as a whole, which has a history going back to the eighteenth century. The nationalist emphasis we see in the Trump White House and the appeal which put him there have a long history and very ugly consequences.
In its formative period nationalism was a rebellion against the universalism of the Enlightenment. It stood in opposition to rationalism and a cosmopolitan world view. It spawned the creation, in the nineteenth century, of the modern Italian and German states. The Zionist movement, which led to the creation of the modern state of Israel out of the Jewish diaspora, had more to do with the influence of European nationalism than it did with the Bible. And of course, nationalism remains a powerful source of individual identity and international organization today.
Nationalism to Fascism
Nationalists rebelled against what they saw as the substantively empty and alienating values of the Enlightenment and they sought a richer, more fulfilling humanity in association with their fellow countrymen who shared common values and a common culture. It is an understandable impulse. But the looming problem is that nationalism too readily metastasizes into its malignant form, namely Fascism (in its German manifestation, Nazism).
It is this form of tyranny that concerns Timothy Snyder, as it should concern us – not a little, but a lot.