The title is On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, written by Timothy Snyder and published in the UK by Bodley Head. It is terrifying and illuminating, and in my view it must be read as widely as possible.
George Santayana said; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Professor Snyder’s short book (a mere 126 pages) is a succinct and up-to-the minute reminder of the past, and therefore a timely analysis of the real dangers manifested by the present occupant of the White House. Nowhere in the book does he mention the name of the President, but it is of course clear exactly who he means. The past of which Snyder reminds us includes the events in Germany and Italy during the fascist era, and in Russia during the rise to power of Vladimir Putin.
Snyder’s twenty lessons cover some familiar ground, at least in the early pages, but all are written with great clarity. The book gains weight and power as it proceeds. I was particularly impressed by his analysis of the perversion of facts and language, and the Orwellian doublespeak in which journalists, judges, political opponents, senators and almost everyone else are suborned. Even Orwell did not think of “fake facts”.
Snyder is also acerbic about Brexit. His critique of what is happening in this country now, this month, this week, last week, strikes me as a new insight, original and extremely alarming. Even if you aren’t worried stiff by the current US President, the Brexit passage alone will energize a whole new area of dread and dismay in your soul, especially perhaps if you voted to Leave.
Snyder cites a writer I had never heard of before, Victor Klemperer, a German scholar and chronicler. Born in 1881, a Jew but also a German patriot, Klemperer remained in Germany throughout most of the second world war. From his daily experiences Klemperer analysed in his journal the way in which Adolf Hitler and his Nazi appointees subverted language to reject legitimate opposition. (E.g. presuming to speak for “the people” without any kind of constituency.) Klemperer said there were four modes of address associated with Hitler:
1. Open hostility to verifiable reality, presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts.
2. Shamanistic incantation, endlessly repeating fictions to make them plausible until they become familiar shorthand – examples include “Germany was stabbed in the back” and “The Jewish conspiracy” – and in modern times “Crooked Hillary”, “Build that wall”, etc.
3. Magical thinking, or openly embracing contradiction. E.g. boost military spending, renew the infrastructure, eliminate the national debt, and also promise to cut taxes, all somehow at once.
4. Misplaced faith. E.g., he alone can solve all the problems, unquestioning belief in him as a leader and salvation, a self-image of himself as an outsider from the political class, an ordinary man who has a chance to speak for other ordinary people.
Reading this, it was quite a wrench to remember that Klemperer was talking about Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, and not the ignorant and dangerous lout who in the present day has taken power in the USA.
Snyder describes how despotism takes hold, the tyrant opportunistically using some unforeseen disaster or violent event to enhance power. Hitler’s hold on Germany was confirmed after the fire at the Reichstag, Putin used terrorist outrages to climb the ladder of power in Russia. This sort of thing is what I myself fear most, simply because it is likely to happen. The President has shown himself to be a weak and ineffectual leader, one after another of his executive orders nullified by the checks and balances of the American system … he covers his sulk by going away to play golf with his rich friends, then jets down to his Florida playground. But what would be the consequences for democracy of another 9/11, of a major natural disaster, of another Hurricane Katrina, of a new financial crash?
Read this book soon. A year from now you might not be able to.