President Trump's encouragement of violence against media he perceives as oppositional, which took place on Twitter last week, is just one of his many many steps on the slippery slope towards authoritarianism and fascism. These steps by him and his administration urgently need to be resisted. I know of no better guide to such resistance than the American historian Timothy Snyder's marvelous little book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.1 The book contains exactly what the title says, thus drawing heavily on experiences from the twentieth century. It is generally considered bad manners to compare contemporary phenomena to counterparts in Nazi Germany, but I dont't think this particular code of polite behavior should be carried too far, as there are important parallels to be drawn between, e.g., Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler - parallels that we need to understand. Snyder does not shy away from this. His book is organized in the following twenty concrete lessons.
1. Do not obey in advance.
2. Defend institutions.
3. Beware the one-party state.
4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
5. Remember professional ethics.
6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
8. Stand out.
9. Be kind to our language.
10. Believe in truth.
12. Make eye contact and small talk.
13. Practice corporeal politics.
14. Establish a private life.
15. Contribute to good causes.
16. Learn from peers in other countries.
17. Listen for dangerous words.
18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
19. Be a patriot.
20. Be as corageous as you can.
Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.
I also recommend the May 29 episode of Sam Harris' podcast, where Harris interviews Snyder about the book. Some 26 minutes into the episode, Snyder emphasizes the pivotal role of Lesson 1:
- [This lesson] is number 1 for a bunch of reasons. [...] It is at the core of what historians understand about authoritarian regime changes: Nazi Germany in particular but also in general. Namely, that at the very beginning, whether it's the takeover in Germany itself or it's the Anschluss in Austria, [...] authoritarian leaders require consent. This is a really important thought, because when we think of authoritarians, we then think of villains and then we think of super-villains, then we think of super-powers, we imagine these guys in uniforms who can stride across the stage of history and do whatever they want. And maybe towards the end, something like that is true, but at the beginning it's not. At the beginning, interestingly, people will in a sense have more power than they do normally, because they have the power to resist. The problem is that we don't usually realize that. [...] We tend to [...] look for the new true north and align [our compasses] with that. We follow along; we drift. Most of the time that's appropriate, but sometimes it's an absolute disaster.
1) Also very much reading is Snyder's 2012 book with Tony Judt: Thinking the Twentieth Century. More than once in the last couple of years, I've found myself wishing that Tony Judt were still around to help us navigate these difficult times. Alas, he isn't, but Timothy Snyder is among his best replacements.