On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Timothy Snyder’s cogent essay “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” draws on his careful study of 20th Century European history. It gives a list of 20 rules, or ‘lessons’ on how a democratic republic can prevent the rise of a tyrant.
The very first of these lessons bears repeating:
1. Do not obey in advance
After going through historical examples such as Austria when it simply conceded to Hitler, the author argues that much of the power of authoritarian tyrants is freely given. This power accumulates, and there are innumerable small opportunities to slow it down or stop it. To make this more concrete, the author says:
If lawyers had followed the norm of no execution without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent, if businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery, if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it
This clarified to me how much small acts of resistance, in aggregate, can make a big difference. Tyrants are not supervillains, they have layers of people supporting them, and the more support they have, the more terrible things they can do. Outside of government, the next most important layer is the professional class, i.e. lawyers, doctors, business leaders, etc. These people have an important place in that they are in a position of power, relative to most, but not directly working for the State, so they have far more freedom to resist than a government employee.
2. Defend Institutions
This chapter is about supporting the institutions that make our democracy work. The press, courts, NGOs like Charities. On the Press, I’ve been subscribing to The Economist for global news, and Washington Post for national news. As for NGOs, the ACLU has arisen in 2017 as a potent source of resistance to the president’s agenda, and supporting it financially is a small step toward checking the worst impulses of this administration.
For an example of a court to support, look at the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, it is a federal court with one of the largest jurisdictions, second only to the Supreme Court. It made a good decision in stopping the executive order that attempted to unilaterally block travel from seven majority-muslim countries. The fact that the president went on a twitter rant about the judge that made this decision should not be ignored, that is the behavior of someone who, if given more power, would use it in the worst imaginable way.
Another point to remember is this:
The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.
This cannot be overstated, during the 2016 election I naively assumed that the delegate system, the GOP elites, the Press, and the electoral college would all have the good sense to prevent Donald Trump from getting elected. That seemed like such and obvious thing, but it was a mistake to think that way. And on this side of the election, with him in the White House, it is a mistake to think that the courts and the press alone will help. The GOP Congress is at least putting up somewhat of a fight, but it’s the kind of fight about the size of the cuts to the EPA budget, not whether it should happen at all. Still, the fact that Congress has not simply carried out all the the administration’s requests is heartening.
But again, angry townhalls help, they remind the members of congress who they work for, and that they should continue to exercise their power as a check on the executive branch. Be a part of this as well, call congress, send them faxes, show up at townhalls and open comittee meetings if you can. This is what democracy is about, not just voting.
There are many lessons that I won’t reiterate here, but several that I will, this one stood out to me as especially important:
6. Be wary of paramilitaries
When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.
This stood out to me because of a few events that have happened in Oregon that made it clear to me that even though the state is majority Democrat, it’s got deep pockets of armed anti-government types. Just look at the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, or the recent “Trump Free Speech” rally, where many of the attendants were armed. If these people are given purpose and a feeling of legitimacy, and organized, they could mean the difference between a weak president and a strong tyrant.
16. Learn from peers in other countries
The big point of this book is that tyranny can happen here, in the United States, today or tomorrow, next year or two decades from now. The design of the Constitution was a careful balance to create a less efficient, diffuse distribution of power. It doesn’t interpret itself, and there is an enormous body of law, regulations and executive orders outside of it, some of which may contradict the Constitution, but resolving those conflicts are left to courts and civil servants, all humans who have the same biases and blindspots as those living in 1930s Germany, or 1990s Russia.
Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.
Now is a good time to do so indeed. You and I, your doctor, lawyers, your extended family, mechanics, the strangers you don’t talk to on the bus, the people walking their dogs at the park, the janitors keeping our floors clean, the electricians fixing our wiring, all of us, bear some responsibility in preserving what we are so fortunate to take for granted. The book goes into more detail, and I cannot recommend it enough. Don’t assume that this will take care of itself, it needs us all to stay alert but calm, putting pressure where we can to keep the whole system together. There is a lot to lose, and we don’t have to lose it.