THE ROAD TO UNFREEDOM
by Timothy Snyder
Tim Duggan Books, 279 pages
reviewed by Susan Sheu
“America will have both forms of equality, racial and economic, or it will have neither. If it has neither, eternity will prevail, racial oligarchy will emerge, and American democracy will come to a close.” –Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom
Since 2016, many journalists—as well as academic, political, and literary writers—have been sounding the alarm about the future of American democracy. The writers trying to shake Americans out of their manifest-destiny stupor are a diverse cast, ranging from activists who wouldn’t hesitate to label themselves members of “the resistance,” like New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow, to people like David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, who is still reviled by many on the left for his role promoting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
One of the most prominent writers is Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, who rose to non-academic prominence shortly after the presidential election in 2016 when he wrote a set of guidelines for ordinary citizens to resist the incoming Trump regime. Written succinctly and in the imperative voice, the guidelines implored the reader to have courage, not to panic, but to know that the window to act against an authoritarian regime is shorter than anyone realizes. The list spread quickly on Facebook and other social media platforms and was the genesis for the short book (Snyder refers to it as a pamphlet) published in 2017, On Tyranny.
A number of activists, including this reviewer, used copies of On Tyranny as a means to engage with members of the press and Congress, along with letters and in-person deliveries, to remind them of the foundations of democracy. Grounded in history and scholarship, but with the same urgent and communal language as his viral Facebook post, On Tyranny is part civics and history class refresher and part boost of nonpartisan moral courage against a nationalist, anti-democratic President. Snyder’s 2018 book, The Road to Unfreedom, a far more scholarly book, provides twentieth-century context for the twenty-first century worldwide rise of authoritarians, in particular Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
Snyder is willing to speak of secular and civic institutions in terms of virtue and morality; a central theme in both of his recent books is that there is no free lunch for citizens of any society that is worth living in. Lulled into a cycle of outrage and entertainment by demagogues and hucksters, ordinary people trapped in the “the politics of eternity” will feign innocence in order to avoid responsibility. Mistaking ignorance for goodness, they create an “immaculate victimhood” that obscures and denies inconvenient historical facts. Some of this behavior is out of self-preservation, a desire to follow long-standing political norms as a matter of tradition, so as not to appear paranoid or radical.
Putin and Russia expert Masha Gessen notes in “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” an essay published a few days after the 2016 American election in the New York Review of Books, the impulse among ordinary people, the media, and leaders of both major political parties is to normalize a new leader, even though “Trump is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat—and won.” Politicians and powerful individuals such as Russian oligarchs and American billionaires who gain from autocratic governments have no interest in change but instead manufacturing crises and focusing on external bogeymen to deflect from the rot that infects their own system of government. In Russia, these fictional external threats may be violence and unrest from Chechen rebels or Ukrainian protesters; in United States, they may be hordes of Latin American immigrants coming over the southern border, local politicians implementing Muslim sharia law, or Black Lives Matter protesters.
Snyder is willing to speak of secular and civic institutions in terms of virtue and morality; a central theme in both of his recent books is that there is no free lunch for citizens of any society that is worth living in.
Snyder and others have written about the similarities of the current American administration to the early Third Reich and the relative ease in convincing a plurality of citizens that a Reichstag Fire, a Benghazi, or another terrorist act had taken place. But what concerns Snyder is the political and military tinderbox of social media and virtual groups purporting to represent minority and activist communities while elevating conspiracy theories. While politicians seeking to win office may claim that there is more that unites Americans than divides us, the factions that make up the United States electorate often rely on two different media-crafted versions of reality—one that has been claiming for the last few decades that there is no man-made climate change, nor any remaining bigotry against LGBTQ people and communities of color, and one that relies upon scientific observation and data to state that American democracy has a long way to go to become a representative one. False flags are only obvious in hindsight, and as Snyder writes of Putin’s victory in 2000 in the wake of the murky Second Chechen War, “The ink of political fiction is blood.”
In the United States, the anti-democratic regime has been in power for less than two years. But blood has been spilled. The 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia culminated in a white supremacist driving into a crowd of liberal opposition protesters, murdering one and injuring several others. In July of 2018, a gunman who had previously threatened journalists opened fire in the Annapolis, Maryland offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper, killing five employees. The Southern Poverty Law Center calculated a 12.5% increase in hate crimes from 2016 to 2017. More bloodshed is almost certain because of the administration’s rhetoric against its political “enemies” and those who profit from these divisions. Supporters of an authoritarian regime and other people easily swayed by internet memes and Facebook posts advocating taking up arms against imaginary enemies, including the free press, Snyder would argue, are falling too easily into the politics of eternity. Snyder refers to this desire for revenge as “sadopopulism:”
Like all immortality, eternity politics begins by making an exception for itself. All else in creation might be evil, but I and my group are good […] Those who accept eternity politics do not expect to live longer, happier, or more fruitful lives. They accept suffering as a mark of righteousness if they think that guilty others are suffering more. Life is nasty, brutish, and short; the pleasure of life is that it can be made nastier, more brutish, and shorter for others.
Or, as a Trump supporter characterized her disappointment during the government shutdown to a New York Times reporter in January 2019: “He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.” In his revealing why some citizens of Russia and the former Eastern Bloc countries eventually support their fascist leaders, Snyder also explains the racism and resentment that account for the punitive and trolling nature of Trump voters in America when they describe their perplexing reasons for supporting a destructive and corrupt regime as “owning the libs.” He writes, “It was more important to humiliate a black president than it was to defend the independence of the United States of America. That is how wars are lost.”
Like Snyder, Gessen, writing in the New Yorker, examines threats to democracy through a moral lens. To do so, she indicates, requires making the future present:
There will come a time after Trump, and we need to consider how we will enter it. What are we going to take with us into that time—what kind of politics, language, and culture? How will we recover from years of policy (if you can call it that) being made by tweet? How will we reclaim simple and essential words? Most important, how will we restart a political conversation?
Gessen’s perspective derives from her years in the Soviet Union and later Russia, as well as her family’s history of having served as apparatchiks (functionaries) under the Soviet and Nazi regimes: Gessen’s great-grandfather was one of the Bialystok Judenrat appointed by Nazis in the Jewish ghetto, her grandmother was an official Soviet censor, and Gessen herself served as an editor for a Putin-regime-sponsored, propaganda-filled science magazine. Her family history is one of collaboration in the belief that tinkering with the authoritarian regime from the inside serves a greater good than open rebellion. Gessen’s conclusion, based on three generations of personal history with dictators, is that it is not possible to know whether collaboration or resistance leads to the least harm. But with an irrational person like the current American president, everyone must maintain an accurate moral compass.
Snyder’s scholarship, particularly on the authoritarian regimes of Central and Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, gives context to Gessen’s conclusion. He places his work in the tradition of Thucydides’ writing about the Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece, citing the imperative for “discussions of the past insofar as this was necessary to clarify the stakes at present.” Using the political and historical frame of “the politics of inevitability” vs. “the politics of eternity,” Snyder avoids poorly understood terms like “neoliberalism,” “trickle-down economics,” and “identity politics.” Snyder refers to “inevitability” as a nation’s mistaken belief that a trust in market forces and Enlightenment liberalism is enough to avoid autocracy. “Eternity,” as Snyder writes of it, is belief in mythic narratives of past greatness as guides for the future. In the politics of inevitability, little is required of the average citizen other than to believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, or that an abstract ideal such as “American exceptionalism” will be strong enough to withstand illiberal assaults to the rule of law.
In the politics of eternity, people define themselves by sharing a set of enemies who they believe have always been the aggressors: “Facts do not matter, and responsibility vanishes.” The politics of eternity look like an Orwellian world of constant wars, whether they are military, cyber, or cultural; patriotism is defined as unwavering support for leadership and fealty to a national history that is subject to official revision and mass forgetting. Rulers place little faith in discourse and diplomacy and live in underlying despair that any individual’s actions, including voting, can change powerful groups’ control over politics and resources. Neither eternity nor inevitability will lead to prosperity and equality, and both assume a passive, powerless electorate, guided by a lofty and untouchable cadre of leaders or the unseen, amoral hand of the market.
While the United States and other countries falling under the sway of autocrats do not share Russia’s unique history, they are also vulnerable to convenient fictions that enable men like Donald Trump to stitch together unlikely alliances of aggrieved voters, rich men with ambitions to oligarchy, and religious extremists who benefit from patriarchal authoritarianism, to gain power while giving lip service to traditional values and a mythical past.
Snyder’s opening chapter descriptions of the early years of the Soviet Union set up the idea that the “simulacrum of democracy” or “managed democracy” is the most valuable Russian export in the twenty-first century, as first imagined by Ivan Ilyin, Vladimir Putin’s favorite philosopher, not long after the Bolshevik Revolution. Ilyin’s mythic notion of Russian God-granted exceptionalism, a “special relationship of the soul,” required a leader a who would fulfill a preordained role. Manipulating this strange formula allowed Putin and the new class of post-Soviet oligarchs to “help robbers present themselves as redeemers.” While Russia appeared poised to dismantle its autocratic history after the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the oligarchs sought to manage the outcomes of elections to maximize their continued wealth and dominance: “Democracy never took hold in Russia, in the sense that power never changed hands after freely contested elections.”
While the United States and other countries falling under the sway of autocrats do not share Russia’s unique history, they are also vulnerable to convenient fictions that enable men like Donald Trump to stitch together unlikely alliances of aggrieved voters, rich men with ambitions to oligarchy, and religious extremists who benefit from patriarchal authoritarianism, to gain power while giving lip service to traditional values and a mythical past. Once he has consolidated power and removed enough obstacles, like independent judges and a free press, a leader like this has no plans to share or willingly give up governing. No enforceable succession principle exists in countries governed by the politics of eternity, which makes the idea of government dependent on the persona of the leader and not an independent set of laws and institutions.
Snyder’s sections on Ilyin also serve to illuminate connections between contemporary fascism and its reactionary policies towards women and religious minorities and the brutal treatment of the LGBTQ community. The ipso facto innocence of Russian fascism begins with the purity of a mythical Russian past against the Western external threats of jazz and sexual freedom in the 1920s. Putin, after his initial gestures towards democracy in the late 1990s, began to speak of gay rights as part of a degenerate Western agenda to corrupt traditional societies like Russia. While Putin’s policies and values appear to originate with Ilyin, American ultra-conservative obsessions with issues like immigrants, gun rights, and abortion originate from fundamentalist interpretations of Christian religion and are spread by far-right conspiracy theory propaganda outlets such as Fox News, the Daily Caller, Breitbart, Info Wars, and the amorphous QAnon social media network. There is a free flow of content from these fringe media sources to the current administration’s talking points and policies, making it difficult for observers to see where the line where the Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson show ends and Donald Trump’s bizarre daily tweets and other public statements begin.
Journalists from ProPublica and others researching the connections between white nationalists in the United States and Europe have noted that the movement’s leaders share not only separatist and nativist ideologies but also traffic in the same kind of viral whataboutism in the form of far-right memes and conspiracies. Snyder argues that Donald Trump’s racist claim that Barack Obama was a Muslim who was born in Kenya originated in this European-Russian corner of the internet. These cross-national far-right movements spread chaotic and dubious news reports and give the appearance of popular support to separatist and anti-democratic leaders such as Britain’s Nigel Farage, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Hungary’s Viktor Ortoban. Kremlin-supported movements contributed to the disastrous Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the fascist regime in Hungary, and with the 2018 arrest of Russian agent Maria Butina, it appears likely that the Russian effort to destabilize elections and the political process in the United States traveled not only through the vector of internet bots and trolls but also through funding the powerful conservative gun lobbying firm, the National Rifle Association.
Snyder examines Putin’s transformation from seemingly innocuous Western-style leader to repressive oligarch ruler in 2011, when pro-democracy protesters questioning the legitimacy of the Russian election unsettled him. He bolstered his vulnerable government and machismo public image with shirtless, muscular photos of himself in nature, pursuing policies of ostracizing LGBTQ citizens, and blaming protests on Hillary Clinton, the American Secretary of State, a powerful female diplomat working in the administration of a liberal African American president.
Snyder argues that Putin’s implied bargain for Russians in a time of insecurity was for “masculinity as an argument against democracy.” This explanation, that “it’s the misogyny, stupid,” makes sense in the context of the worldwide rise in fascism. In a recent article in The Atlantic, “The New Authoritarians are Waging War on Women,” Peter Beinart observed that the current crop of authoritarians throughout the world, including Europe, the United States, Brazil, and the Philippines, share the rhetoric of imprisoning, ridiculing, physically assaulting and killing female opponents, whether they are elected officials, powerful women in the media, or protesters. In all of these countries, women have been holding positions of authority at higher rates than in previous decades. That this violent and misogynistic language has appeared to be a unifying theme in seeking and consolidating their power shows how threatening women and other minority groups are, violating what political scientist Valerie Hudson calls the ancient social contract: “Men agreed to be ruled over by other men in return for all men ruling over women.” In the United States, Beinart argues, this counterrevolutionary ire explains conservative Christians’ support for the Donald Trump:
Commentators sometimes describe Trump’s alliance with the Christian right as incongruous given his libertine history. But whatever their differences when it comes to the proper behavior of men, Trump and his evangelical backers are united by a common desire to constrain the behavior of women. That alliance was consecrated during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when Republicans raged against Judiciary Committee Democrats for supposedly degrading the Senate by orchestrating a public hearing for Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault.
Snyder and other writers have noted that Russia’s attacks on Western democracy and its values of equality came at the same time that Putin expanded his reach into neighboring countries, proposing that Russia become the center of a global counterweight to the U.S. and the E.U., which he called Eurasia. In early 2014, the Russian-government sanctioned news agency RT spread misinformation and sowed dissent among the American left and mainstream press to compel them to ignore Russia as an expansionist threat and turn away from the notion that Ukraine might be under invasion from Russia in favor of the spurious reports that rebels in Ukraine were stealing an election and terrorizing law-abiding citizens. Exploiting some of the American left’s innate “susceptibilities” to trust Russian foreign policy narratives more than NATO’s revealed that Russian intelligence knew enough about American politics and culture to bombard social media and influential writers with false news in “the attention economy,” with the goal of creating useful idiots and an overall climate of paralytic skepticism and uncertainty as a means of control:
If Russians believed that all leaders and all media lied, then they would learn to dismiss Western models for themselves. If the citizens of Europe and the United States joined in the general distrust of one another and their institutions, then Europe and American could be expected to disintegrate. Journalists cannot function amidst total skepticism; civil societies wane when citizens cannot count on one another; the rule of law depends upon the beliefs that people will follow law without its being enforced and that enforcement when it comes will be impartial. The very idea of impartiality assumes that there are truths that can be understood regardless of perspective.
Snyder argues that the idea of American exceptionalism enabled the current, two-year-long political crisis in the form of the Trump government. “The politics of inevitability tempted Americans to think that the world had to become like the United States and therefore more friendly and democratic, but this was not the case.” (Because of that confidence, we allowed democracy to fall into such disrepair that it was ripe for attack through the Trojan horse techniques of cyber warfare, to the point where too many voters in 2016 would “lose control of reality.”
“Authoritarianism arrives not because people say they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.” —Timothy Snyder
In August 2018, Paul Krugman, the noted economist and regular New York Times contributor, made a related case against American exceptionalism in an op-ed called “Why It Can Happen Here.” Trump voters’ main concern isn’t the economy, he writes. Instead the administration and its boosters care about white nationalism and “illiberalism”—which is not conservatism but instead the willingness of autocratic leaders and their supporters in Poland, Hungary, and now the United States to make up for their minority-vote status by embracing voter suppression, “destroy[ing] the independence of the judiciary, suppressed freedom of the press, institutionalized large-scale corruption and effectively delegitimized dissent.” A few weeks later in an Atlantic essay, “America’s Slide Towards Autocracy,” David Frum wrote that while liberal candidates’ victories in the midterm elections may have provided a temporary correction, there will be no quick cure for American democracy. Extreme beliefs lead to divided notions of reality. Shared institutions and values, and commitment to the same set of facts and history need strengthening:
Restoring democracy will require more from each of us than the casting of a single election ballot. It will demand a sustained commitment to renew American institutions, reinvigorate common citizenship, and expand national prosperity. The road to autocracy is long—which means that we still have time to halt and turn back. It also means that the longer we wait, the farther we must travel to return home.
“We should be asking what each one of us can do to assert a fact-based reality at any given time,” offers Masha Gessen. Despite the ubiquity of lies from the administration and the consequent warping of reality, insisting on truth and accurate representation is the most basic way to resist:
That would require thinking, reading, and speaking critically: not treating an outburst as though it were politics, a tantrum as though it were diplomacy, and a delusion as though it were aspiration. The good news is that this is not an entirely impossible task.
From Snyder, Krugman, Frum, Gessen, and others writing about how we arrived in this timeline and how we will get out comes the imperative that we must demand more from our leaders, the press, and the powerful people who control our media, and we also must demand more of ourselves. As Snyder writes near the end of The Road to Unfreedom, “Authoritarianism arrives not because people say they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.” In this sense, Donald Trump and his administration’s lies and his party’s complicity are especially dangerous in the era of fragmented and viral media. The path back to a functional, vibrant, and sovereign democracy will require unprecedented political will.
Susan Sheu lives in Los Angeles and received the 2017 Bennington Prize in Nonfiction for her memoir-in-progress, The Rag and Bone Man.