Historian Timothy Snyder warns that America is already in its own "slow-motion Reichstag Fire"

Salon talks to Snyder about how Donald Trump uses pain and suffering as a weapon to remain in power

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 18, 2020 12:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Capitol Hill (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Capitol Hill (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump continues to make it clear that he does not intend to leave office peacefully if he is defeated by Joe Biden and the Democrats on Election Day. Moreover, Donald Trump considers any election in which he is not the "winner" to be null and void. Trump's appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the United States Supreme Court is an obvious quid pro quo to secure his "reelection" if his attorneys and other agents can sufficiently sabotage the vote on Election Day and beyond.

On Thursday, Trump again followed the authoritarian's playbook when he bragged to his supporters at a rally in North Carolina that U.S. Marshalls essentially executed Michael Reinoehl, an anti-fascist activist accused of killing a right wing paramilitary member during protests in Oregon last August.

Celebrating the extra-judicial killings of one's political "enemies" is a common feature of fascist authoritarian regimes and the types of leaders admired and imitated by Donald Trump.

Donald Trump's commitment to and use of political violence is a matter of public record. Two of the most recent examples include how Trump's followers in Michigan allegedly planned to kidnap and possibly murder Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer. During his debate with Joe Biden, Trump also commanded white supremacist paramilitaries to be prepared to attack his and their "enemies" if he loses on Election Day or is otherwise removed from office.

Trump also wants Joe Biden and other leading Democrats imprisoned and perhaps even executed because he deems them to be "guilty" of "treason" and a "coup" attempt against him. Donald Trump and his Attorney General William Barr have also threatened to use the United States military against the American people if they dare to protest the outcome of the 2020 Election if Trump somehow finds some extra-legal (if not outright illegal) way to stay in office.

Because he is a political sadist and master of misery and pain, Donald Trump is using the coronavirus pandemic as a weapon to physically and emotionally abuse the American people in order to make them more compliant and subservient to his regime. Like other autocrats and authoritarians, he is also using the economic and human devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic to personally enrich himself, his family, and allies as a way of guaranteeing the latter's loyalty.

In all, as with his obsessive rhetoric about "law and order," like other fascist authoritarians Donald Trump and his regime define the "law" in ways that benefit themselves and disregard the law when it does not serve their interests. Through that logic democracy is a tool for the Trump regime to stay in power indefinitely if they "win" and to disregard the outcome on Election Day and beyond if they are voted out of office by the American people.

Trump's strategy of attacking America's democratic norms, institutions, and culture is a constant torrent where the targets are corrupted, weakened, and then finally routed through sheer exhaustion.

In a new essay at The Bulwark, senior Democratic Party strategist James Carville summarizes this existential moment of crisis for the United States as:

Very seldom in American history have there been periods when people can nobly wage a crusade to create real and lasting change. But when these crusades do occur, when those moments arrive, what we do to vanquish the threat to freedom builds something everlasting into the framework of our society.

The American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, Seneca Falls, Stonewall, and Selma, were all historical flashpoints where Americans displayed their patriotism against oppressive forces in a resounding way. These movements overthrew an empire, ended slavery, staved off totalitarianism, and paved the way for the establishment of fundamental civil rights and liberties for women, LGBTQ+ and black Americans.

We find ourselves again at such a turning point. Donald Trump's authoritarian presence behind the Resolute Desk is amongst the gravest threats America has ever faced from within. And Americans have risen to meet this threat.

The Trump regime has created a defense in depth against the American people. A key part of Trump's defensive strategy consists of how those Americans and others who are expecting one dramatic and climactic assault on the country's democracy have been lulled into a type of complacency and surrender.

As wielded by Donald Trump and other fascist authoritarians, the poison they have injected into the country's body politic and democracy is actually quite slow acting, where the victim becomes used to chronic pain before finally succumbing.

Why does America's mainstream news media continue to avoid describing Donald Trump and his regime as fascist authoritarians? What are they afraid of? How has that evasion helped to empower and normalize Trumpism?

In what ways have Donald Trump and his regime used the coronavirus — and the pain and social injustice it has revealed and made worse — as a weapon against democracy and the American people?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Timothy Snyder. He is a Professor of History at Yale University and the author of the bestselling books "On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century" and "The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America." His new book is "Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary."

At the end of this conversation, Timothy Snyder warns that the United States is in the midst of a years-long slow-motion Reichstag Fire emergency that Election Day 2020 may not resolve.

You can also listen to my conversation with Timothy Snyder on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

Donald Trump's attacks on democracy are escalating. He continues to say that he will not respect the outcome of the election if he loses to Joe Biden and the Democrats. There are some public voices who have been warning about Trump and authoritarianism and fascism for several years. You are foremost among them. Why did more people not listen to the warnings?

It is structural. At present it is harder to reach people who do not already agree with you. This is true even for those of us with a public platform and big audience. More contact is virtual and less in person. It is also harder to surprise people. Ultimately, it is very hard to reach people before an algorithm does. By then a person's mind is already made up one way or another.

The second answer is that many Americans really like authoritarianism. Sure, the conventional wisdom says that Americans like freedom. Some of them do. Some of them do not. The Americans who do not like freedom are not going to be reached or otherwise have their minds changed. It is as simple as that.

In my view, it is less about reaching people and more about getting them to take action. People sometimes ask me, "Why do you preach to the choir?" To get people to do things. It is not enough to have the correct idea. If people act, even if it is a small thing, that makes a difference. 

And of course, there is the challenge of the American exceptionalism consensus. The belief that America is insulated from authoritarianism because of our institutions took a long time to fight through. That myth was the direct target of my book "On Tyranny."

Why are so many journalists and other members of the political class continually surprised by Donald Trump's cruelty and assaults on democracy and norms? Trump is not changing. He is only getting worse. Why be surprised? Such a reaction is very crippling and ultimately counterproductive. It helps Trump to win.

That denial is a function of what I describe as "the politics of eternity." There is an ongoing stream of small to medium-level provocations from authoritarian movements and leaders. Those actions give a positive hit to their supporters and a negative hit to their opponents.

Everyone becomes addicted to the experience, be it pleasant or unpleasant. What you are describing is how many in the news media and elsewhere wait for Donald Trump to do the latest most outrageous thing — and then it is reported as being outrageous. That gives them a hit of sorts, a jolt to the system. Then they wait for the next outrageous thing, and so on. But the problem is that there is no thinking or theory to offer context for what is happening.

Too many people are still defaulting to these ideas that America's "institutions" are going to solve the problems of authoritarianism and Trumpism. Or history is somehow on America's side. If a person does not have some way of theorizing what Donald Trump is, then everything he does is a surprise to them. If you lack the theoretical framework to understand Trump and what is happening, then you will also lack an understanding of how to push back against it. You are helpless.

So many of the discussions are still focused on Donald Trump and what he is not. What we need to be able to do is to say what Trump is. Once you say what Trumpism really is, then you can start to fight it.

We talk about the pandemic as though it is a series of failures. No, the pandemic is not a series of failures. It is the "achievement" that Donald Trump is going to be most remembered for.

More than 200,000 people dead from the pandemic is a type of "achievement" for Trump. It took real effort to make that happen. 

I'm not saying that he intended it from beginning to end. I'm not saying that there was a plot in January that 300,000 will be dead in December. What I am saying is that outcome is a result of the decisions made by Donald Trump. If the American people and most of the mainstream news media and other observers keep seeing Donald Trump in terms of omissions such as "he is not a normal politician" then we do not see and understand him for what he really is, whatever that may be.

Donald Trump is a white man. He is old. He wears a tie. What could he possibly be except somewhere in the zone of normal? That erroneous assumption contributes to why so many people are still surprised by his behavior.

Donald Trump is evil. His movement is evil. They meet all the criteria for evil. Yet, there is a willful avoidance of using that language to describe him by the mainstream news media, political elites, and other opinion leaders and public voices. If they admit that Donald Trump and his movement are evil, then there is an obligation to do something about it. To my eyes, that avoidance is a defense mechanism that will not save them or anyone else from Trump and his movement.

Evil is a helpful word to use here. I have been using that language in my new book "Our Malady." There is an almost taboo-like hesitation to move into truly ethical judgments in our discussions of Trump and his movement. As long as we are avoiding discussions of good and evil then his behavior is normalized. Avoiding that language of good and evil also leaves the public with a hope that this crisis will somehow turn back to normal.

There is a psychological dynamic at work here too. If a person did not name Trumpism as evil before, then it is hard to name it as such later on. If a political commentator or other observer did not see the danger of Trump and his movement back in 2016 then they are probably not getting it correct now even at this late point.

I think your word "fear," though, is very well taken. But I'd push that out in a different direction.

Fear is also an important concept here. Trump is running for reelection based on fear – much more so than in 2016. In 2016, it was a mix. Trump and his campaign were talking about infrastructure. They were trying to go to the left of the Democrats on some issues. Whereas in 2020, it's now just pure fear. A fear that Black people are going to rape white women in the suburbs, and they are going to burn down the cities. The pandemic is either Black people's fault or it is a conspiracy, or it is not really happening. Fear is being consciously created and then manipulated. The Democrats are really running against a Reichstag Fire. The Democrats are not really running against a political party and Donald Trump's campaign.

How can we better explain to the Democrats that Trumpism is a type of political and social movement, and normal politics, those old rules, no longer apply here in America?

History shows that people can learn to like pain. They can also learn to like inflicting pain on others. That is what the Democrats are up against. They are not competing against some theory of politics where voters and the public are purely rational and motivated by "the issues."

Donald Trump is a president who happily circulates as much pain as he can on the rationale that his people are going to suffer for him — and they're going to enjoy suffering because of their idea that other people are suffering more. Trump's supporters are suffering for a cause which is other people, Black people, immigrants, some Other, suffering more than they are.

Should the Democrats therefore imitate Donald Trump and the Republicans? The fact that there is now a Trump death cult does not mean that there should then be a Biden death cult. That would be absurd on any number of levels.

The coronavirus intersects with American fascism, Donald Trump, and his movement – including the Republican Party as a whole. How are you making sense of that relationship?

Because I was so close to death, the significance of those observations and experiences was brought home to me more than it would have been otherwise. America's racial and economic inequality is all the more obvious in life or death situations. The coronavirus of course reveals those disparities in an even more stark light.

Even before 2020 begins we are in a system where America does not have universal health care. Why? Because there is some type of practical everyday consensus that it is OK to have bad health care in this country. Such disparities in treatment are racial: In America we do not have a right to health care because then that would mean that Black people and Brown people and immigrants and so on would also have access to health care and then somehow abuse it — so goes the racist logic and history in this country.

Health care in the United States overlaps with race for white people in another way as well. The argument that is made to white people is "you are the frontiersmen, you're the rugged individualists." In that imaginary, white people know not to talk about pain or disease. There is the sadism then of some white people being pleased because they suffer less than other people. And you have the masochism of those same white people being willing to suffer, basically for nothing.

When the first reports of the coronavirus begin in March and April it was clear that it is taking the life of Blacks and Hispanics and Native Americans at a much higher rate than whites. Now that we have more numbers, it is much more fatal. In America white people live longer than Black people. 

Once that fact is widely known it becomes normalized. For many white people, it is normal for Black people and Brown people to suffer more than them.

What do we know about the connections between a humane society and authoritarianism?

There is a strong connection. In my new book "Our Malady" I explore this.  

For example, on an individual level, when you can't talk, you do not have freedom of speech. When you can't move, you do not have freedom of assembly. When you do not think that you are going to have a future, then freedom is no longer a meaningful concept.

If you cannot afford health care, you're afraid. If you're ashamed to talk about health care, you're less free. If you're aware of that the access to health care is going to be competitive and somebody who's less sick than you might come ahead of you because they have better insurance and better connections or whatever it might be, then you are less free. Pandemic or not, it all creates a situation where there is not an unnecessary reservoir of anxiety and fear. And that totally unnecessary reservoir of anxiety and fear can be directed to other places.  

The talent that Donald Trump has is to either generate that anxiety or to take the anxiety and fear that already exists in America and to direct it in the ways that he wants to. Authoritarianism works through taking abuse and trauma and pushing it in other directions.

Donald Trump understands that he cannot win a free and fair election. Trump knows that the pandemic and the economic downturn can give him the sources of energy that he just might be able to use to stay in power some other way than an election. Donald Trump is in "the worse, the better" territory now, because he understands abuse, pain, trauma, fear and related things. Evil understands evil. Trump understands that the more anxiety and fear is out there, the larger the chances he must somehow turn the election in his direction and then pick up the pieces.

Election Day is imminent. How do you respond to those critics who would say that, "You were talking about a Reichstag Fire! It didn't happen! You are an alarmist. Hysterical! None of that happened!" What would you tell such people?

Obviously, we are in a slow-motion Reichstag Fire right now. That is what is happening. Donald Trump is not as skilled as Hitler. He doesn't work as hard as Hitler. He doesn't have the same level of confidence as Hitler, but he's clearly looking for that Reichstag Fire emergency. Trump tried to make Black Lives Matter into that emergency. "Antifascists" and "thugs" and "law and order" and so on is part of that effort. Donald Trump keeps trying to make the Reichstag Fire work.

If Trump is not successful, then that is a credit to the people who are resisting. Donald Trump is not involved in a political campaign; it is emergency politics in the constant search of an emergency. Whether Trump and his allies can line up the emergency politics with the emergency, I do not know. But that is all that Trump and his allies have got on their side — and it all they are going to have through to Election Day.

By Chauncey DeVega

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

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