The Interview

Beware creeping U.S. authoritarianism, Yale's Timothy Snyder warns

Yale history professor worries that Trump is undermining America's democracy and institutions, and says there could be unpleasant fallout for Canada and the world.

History expert says Trump is undermining American democracy, and Canada should be concerned

In his latest book 'On Tyranny, 20 Lessons from the 20th Century,' Timothy Snyder urges people to not sit by while the foundations of democracy are chipped away.

(See Susan Ormiston's interview with Timothy Snyder on Sunday night's The National on CBC television at 10 p.m., or watch the online stream.)


Donald Trump has been labelled many things since becoming U.S. President — a nationalist, a patriot, but also an authoritarian and a tyrant.

Yale University history expert Timothy Snyder believes Trump is undermining American democracy and its institutions.

Snyder pulls examples from the rise of fascism and communism in Eastern Europe to warn that democracy can fail — even in North America — and that it is the duty of citizens to actively uphold it.

In his latest book On Tyranny, 20 Lessons from the 20th Century, Snyder urges people to not sit by while the foundations of democracy are chipped away. It's a guidebook for modern citizenry and a call to action to stand up for democracy by following 20 simple guidelines, including Believe in Truth, Defend Institutions, and Listen for Dangerous Words.

Snyder tells CBC News he never mentions President Trump in his book, but highlights the characteristics of a tyrannical leader, which he believes are on display in the U.S. today.

And he warns Canadians that they can't afford to be complacent.

Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Here are excerpts from his conversation with Susan Ormiston.


Q: This book, On tyranny, is almost like a clarion call for citizens — a big warning. Democracies can fail and nations can return to a tyrannical past. Why did you write this book now?

A:Well, it's 25 years of being a historian of Europe and the worst parts of European history — Soviet terror, Nazi terror, the Holocaust — focused in a month, November of 2016. Realizing 'Ahah! We now have to use history to get ahead of all of this,' and how we can't afford not to heed the lessons of the past.

So I try to put it in this forum where we can get the wisdom of the 20th century, and get out ahead of what's coming to us in America.

Q:  A lot of people would think that democracy is unassailable in North America. We've had it for so long, nothing can tear it down. Are we wrong?

A: Yes — absolutely, absolutely wrong.

First of all, the danger is always in us. Democracy is a kind of political insurance against ourselves. So it's important not to be complacent.

If I were Canadian, which obviously I'm not, I would be looking down at the U.S. now and saying … hmm. Why is it that some states in the U.S. have already basically shifted to a one-party system? Or what's wrong with the American financing of elections? Or, hmm, is it a problem when major politicians have money stuck offshore?

I would be looking now at the United States as a lesson, because if it can happen in the U.S. — and it is happening in U.S. — then I would say everyone would be right to be on guard.

Q: Well, it's part of our national anthem to be on guard. Do you see signs of authoritarianism in the United States, and do you see evidence of  "mission creep" to such a close neighbour like Canada?

A: Is there authoritarianism in the U.S.? Sure, there are plenty of Americans who don't think about the Constitution, they think about leaders. There are plenty of Americans who like the idea of having a direct relationship with a leader, as opposed to all these annoying laws and institutions. And that's authoritarianism.

Another thing which is authoritarian about us, and which I think you all should watch out for, is the political fiction.

People are losing the ability to distinguish between what's true and what they want to hear.

Q: I hear people saying they're so confused they don't believe anyone anymore, so they're not taking part.

A: That's what 21st century authoritarianism looks like.

What authoritarians do is they say, 'Look, there's no truth at all. Sure you don't trust me — but don't trust them, or them, or certainly not the media. Don't trust anybody.'

And so just stay on your couch, basically ... just do nothing. Affect a pose of cynicism. Be equally skeptical about everything.

But if you're quite skeptical about everything, you're also equally powerless about everything. And that's how these systems work. That's why this is so dangerous.

Q: I'd like to segue to a couple of the lessons in the book. Lesson No. 4 is about symbols, why they're so important. You say they are the face of what we believe and we need to guard them carefully. What do you mean?

A: This is something that comes from 1933 in Germany.

One of the things that scholars now understand about Hitler's rise to power is that the face of the world — the swastikas or the Stars of David marking Jewish stores — that these things are very important. That we pick these things up subliminally and they teach us what's possible, they teach us what's acceptable.

We know that's true, which means that it's very important for us not to let those swastikas stay on walls in the U.S.

There are just now more swastikas than there used to be. And there are also people taking them down, which is very important.

Q: In lesson No. 10 (Believe in Truth), you wrote that  the biggest wallet pays for the most blinding light. Are we being blinded?

A: Yeah. So the truth is self-defence.

That means that anybody can say, 'Look, that's a fact.' But once we say there are no facts, then it's all emotion. It's all what feels right to me. What we do is we're ceding the field to the people who are good at making things feel right to us. That's called spectacle.

And yes, spectacle is winning.

The President of the United States has one qualification, which is that he played a rich businessman on a television show. He has no other qualification. That's a spectacle, that's fiction.

Q: Lesson No. 17 in your book is 'Listen for dangerous words,' like terrorism and extremism. How do authorities use those words to restrict our freedoms?

A:What leaders will do when they want to shift out of a normal situation to an extreme situation is they will say "terrorism" or they will say "extremism." And they will declare something that sounds like a state of emergency, and they'll say 'Look, this is temporary. But just for now, no civil rights — just for now … suspend elections or have elections under different rules.'

And then, of course, that temporary state of affairs becomes permanent. And then the regime has changed. That's what Hitler did back in 1933, and that's become a pattern for authoritarians.

So we have to listen for that. Terrorism is a real thing in the world. But rulers use it to change systems.

Q: How much danger do you think we collectively are in? I mean, I'm sitting here in Canada … we don't feel that kind of threat. How urgently do we need to pay attention to the lessons here?

A: I don't mean to sound fatalistic about this, but I do think that we're in a moment like, say, 1945 to 1950 in Europe or like 1989 to 1995 in Europe. We're in a moment where things are changing.

Things are definitely in motion, which means that what we do as citizens counts for more rather than counts for less. So, I don't think the Canadian attitude can possibly be 'This is a spectator sport.'

If you treat it as a spectator sport then you lose, because eventually the teams on the field rush the stands.

About the Author

Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.

Photos by Evan Mitsui/CBC