Historian Timothy Snyder: After Charlottesville, "we are hanging by our teeth to the rule of law"

Author of "On Tyranny," who predicted a coup months ago, says Trump is still waiting for his "Reichstag fire"

Published August 26, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

Timothy Snyder; Donald Trump   (AP/Virginie Lefour/Evan Vucci)
Timothy Snyder; Donald Trump (AP/Virginie Lefour/Evan Vucci)

During his recent campaign-style rally in Phoenix, Donald Trump sounded disturbingly like Mussolini or Hitler, lying with almost every breath, threatening his political enemies with violence and exalting his own greatness. As happened with those authoritarian demagogues in an earlier era, Trump's public was enthralled by their leader while the majority of the American people (and the world) were disgusted.

After the white supremacist terrorism in Charlottesville -- which killed Heather Heyer and injured dozens more -- Donald Trump gave aid and comfort to the racists, neo-Nazis and other members of the fascist movement known as the "alt-right".

In total, during Donald Trump's presidential campaign and through to the first eight months of his regime, he has offered a consistent and reckless embrace of political violence, racism, bigotry, nativism, intolerance, ignorance, lies, egomania, malignant narcissism, militant nationalism and greed, as well as political graft and corruption.

Will America's political and cultural institutions be able to withstand Trump and the Republican Party's continued assault on the country's democracy? How does Trump's response to the racist violence in Charlottesville fit into his broader fascist agenda? What has gone so wrong with American political culture that neo-Nazis and white supremacists were emboldened to march and riot in Charlottesville? Is America at a political and cultural breaking point because of Donald Trump's presidency?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University. He is the award-winning author of numerous books including the recent “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” and “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.” Snyder’s new book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” explores how the American people can fight back against Donald Trump’s authoritarian regime.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. A longer version can be heard on my podcast, available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.

We talked several months ago about Trump's election and the state of American democracy. Much has happened since our first conversation. How is the country doing?

I think the most predictable thing, because it does not have to do with legislation, was the moral effect that his presence would have.

This works three ways. It works by what Trump does and says. For example, the outrageous things he says about the press and his obsession with violence. It also works by the things he doesn’t say and the things he doesn’t condemn. "On the one hand and on the other hand" is a way to destroy values and virtues, because if the leader of the country does not have a firm opinion about good and evil then it becomes very hard for other people to have firm opinions about good and evil.

People who have opinions which are in fact absolutely evil are supported by this kind of relativism. With the attempted terrorist attacks, defacing the Holocaust Memorials, and defacing the Lincoln Memorial -- which just happened, by the way -- you are looking at the demoralization of a society.

The second big trend is that we are hanging by our teeth to the rule of law. That was my judgment at the beginning of his presidency and it is still my judgment now. The rule of law is what gives us a chance to rebuild the system after this is  all done.

The investigation into Trump and his inner circle's collusion with Russia to undermine American democracy continues. I believe that it is much more likely than not that Trump's agents colluded with Russia. What happens then? Will Robert Mueller's findings tear the country apart?

I may be a little more optimistic about this than you are. I think one of the good things about the law is that it is slow. It gives people time -- which can be a big problem. For example, the big problem with the Russia scandal and investigation is that even though people have been trying to explain what happened  or a year and half now, a large part of the American population then says, "That's your fake story, we prefer our fake story." But I think the slow pace of the law also gives people a chance to change their minds. It will be very divisive in the end.

 I think I agree with you that there are people who will never accept the truth about Russia and what Mueller may discover. As we saw in Charlottesville, the so-called alt-right and Nazis more generally are not taking part in an American movement -- they're taking part in an international movement. They have the literal backing from neo-Nazis in Europe for their march in Charlottesville. Matthew Heimbach and Richard Spencer have both talked about Russia as their guiding star, and leading the way for the world. They’ve both expressed their personal admiration for Vladimir Putin.

Of course, the Russia scandal is not going to bother the white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other parts of the so-called alt-right because they want it to be true. They want Trump to be a Russian puppet.

How does the white supremacist terrorism in Charlottesville and Trump's reaction to it fit into what you predicted in your book "On Tyranny"?

There are several points in "On Tyranny" where I try to make clear how important language is. This is a good example of a moment where we have to be careful about language precisely because the chief executive is not careful about it. Again, when you do the "on the one hand and on the other hand" evasion you are changing it from a moral conversation into a sociological conversation. This is sucking the evil out of the situation by making the Nazis equivalent to everybody else.

Trump's premise that there were also "very fine people" marching with the neo-Nazis and other fascists is absurd on the face of it.

The right-wing marchers in Charlottesville were carrying torches, which is an imitation of Nazi methods. They were chanting anti-Semitic slogans. They were chanting "blood and soil," which is a foundational concept of Nazism. Mr. Trump is kind of saying that the Nazis are one side and then everybody else is the other side. What that does is it promotes Nazism. In effect, Mr. Trump's statements are recruiting people to it. Because now the president is saying, "Well, that’s one side of the conversation."

It’s true, perfectly normal people can fall into radical political views. If that were not true we would not have a problem. That’s exactly why everybody else who is not the president of the United States has to use the vocabulary of historical references to Nazism, the vocabulary of good and evil, and the vocabulary of American values -- whether those are constitutional or whether those are moral -- to make clear exactly what this is.

In Charlottesville, the neo-Nazis and other members of the alt-right were chanting "Blood and soil" and "Jews will not replace us." What other slogans should the public be listening for? How is the language going to escalate?  

That’s a great question. One of the things I’ve tried to get across to people both in my book and interviews is that there were processes underway in America which are a bit reminiscent of the 1930s in Germany. It is very important to recognize when people are deploying those symbols and those images.

Let’s break down a few things that the neo-Nazis and the broader "alt-right" said in Charlottesville. "Blood and soil": What "blood and soil" means is that the government doesn’t matter, law doesn’t matter, politics begins from nature, and nature just means race. What race means is the struggle to control territory. Politics doesn’t start from rules or law, politics starts from violence. Politics is just the struggle of races for territory. When someone says "blood and soil," what they’re saying is we need to re-begin politics as a murderous racial war which continues until one race survives.

When they say "Jews will not replace us," what they have in mind is the Nazi idea that Jews are the source of all the ideas and laws which stop the racial conflict from going forward. Therefore Jews are the primary enemies. What that slogan does is it transforms politics into the idea that you have to first clear away the Jews before you can have the racial struggle which "blood and earth" describes. Then the third example of a Nazi slogan -- which is a literal citation when they say, "Heil victory" or when they say "Heil Trump" or when they say "Heil" anyone.

If you heard it in a film you would recognize that "Heil Trump" is just "Heil Hitler" they’re literally using the call and response of a Nazi mass gathering. They know they’re doing this.

There is another political way to think about it, which is to consider what it means for the future. What the president is trying to do is to establish that there were terrorists on both sides. I think there is a political purpose to establishing that vocabulary, because if he can get his base to think that there are terrorists on both sides then it becomes easier to blame not the Nazis but rather other people -- those who oppose Trump -- if there is another terrorist incident.

If you can get through the idea that the opposition to Trump was half responsible, then when the next thing comes and there will be a next thing, you can say the left is mostly responsible.

Language is essential here for legitimizing certain understandings of political reality. "Alt" establishes a false equivalence that legitimizes right-wing violence.

The term alt-right was created by the right-wing themselves. That’s Richard Spencer’s term. They use the word "alt-right" because it sounds more modern than "fascism." "Alt-right" makes it sound young and heavy. That’s their word. It’s other people trying to create this geometry where there is "alt-right" on one side and "alt-left" on the other side. Then the magic of that becomes the "alt" which is bad.

It’s not the "alt" that matters, what matters is the actual views of the people in question. In Charlottesville we had an organized rally of white supremacists and Nazi organizations on one side. We had people who were not Nazis on the other side who happen to have all kinds of different views. The student body of Virginia has different views. The people who chose to protest have different views. What this "alt" language does is you’re trying to keep the middle confused. You’re trying to say to the middle, “It’s just the extremes fighting it out."

That makes it much harder for people to say, "Those are Nazis. Those are people carrying torches. Those are people chanting Nazi slogans. Those are people calling for the end of the constitutional order of the United States." What actually happened in Charlottesville is a Nazi rally which led to domestic terrorism.

I believe that a robust corporeal politics is necessary to stand against the neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other members of the right-wing that support Trump and were active in Charlottesville. I am concerned about the cycle of violence that may come as a result of the white supremacist terrorism which took place there.  

The crucial thing is to be sober and measured about what happened in Charlottesville, as well as the neo-Nazi movement in America more generally. Although terrible, it is of a scale that can be overwhelmed by organized civil resistance. It is important to not get into a dialectical mode where they do something and therefore we do some version of the same.

I think it’s important that the much larger number of people who do not think America should be an isolationist country take part in overwhelming civil resistance. The truth is that those who opposed Trump knew what was likely going to happen if he won. There could have been an overwhelming response, like what happened with the Women's March.

When that happens, when it’s obvious that for every Nazi there are a hundred or a thousand people who believe that America should be a constitutional republic, it should be a country of the rule of law, a country of citizens with rights -- if that’s clear, it changes the whole dynamic.

What is the best-case scenario going forward and what is the worst? What scares you and what gives you hope?

Well, the best-case scenario is generational renewal where people who are in their teens, 20s and 30s politicize themselves; take this as an opportunity to decide what they’re for and what they’re against. The worst-case scenario is that the core of the 25 percent or so of Americans who were behind Trump are an impenetrable block of unwavering support -- and that there is some kind of incident which is much worse than Charlottesville. In the long term I’m also very worried about an America where civic sensibilities are totally bowled over by the output of lies from the White House.

We talked about this several months ago. Was Charlottesville Trump's "Reichstag Fire" moment?

That’s not Trump's Reichstag Fire. But it is nonetheless very bad because it revealed that we’re in a situation where the president will exploit something like this, where he suggests that there is no difference between Nazis and those who oppose them. A few years down the line, we’ll look back at this as a moment where we failed but then later we rallied. This is not the Reichstag Fire -- the Reichstag Fire incident would be some act of terrorism where Trump does not make evil something relative, but where he uses it as an occasion to suspend basic civil rights. That has not happened yet. Because when there is another incident, we know that the president could say, "Look, that was the 'alt-left.' Therefore we have to crackdown on the 'opposition'" -- which is most of the politically active population in the United States. That’s a very drastic position at the end.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Alt-right Authoritarianism Charlottesville Donald Trump Fascism Neo-nazis Timothy Snyder White Supremacists