I’m reading Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s an analysis of democratic surges in Europe following World War I, World War II, and the fall of communism in 1989. And then the abject failure of the democratic institutions that followed.
Snyder points to this history to inform our present circumstances. His warnings are stark. Democracy is threatened when individuals and institutions falter. Tyranny becomes acceptable.
Shockingly, tyranny revealed itself this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. Three innocent people lost their lives, dozens were injured, as white supremacists protested the planned removal of a monument to Robert E. Lee, the secessionist military commander who led the Confederacy during our American Civil War. On Friday and again on Saturday, we saw expressions of racism, hate, and violence, all elements of tyrannical authoritarianism. It was racism bared raw. Neo-Nazism in full revelation. Hate of others displayed openly.
Heather D. Heyer, of Charlottesville, died when run down by a car driven by a young man from Ohio who has a history of pro-Nazi statements. Police arrested the driver and charged him with murder. Two Virginia police officers—Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates—were killed when their helicopter crashed while providing aerial surveillance of the rioting on the ground. Tragic losses for all of America.
But, why now?
The answer is President Donald Trump. He has used the past year-and-a-half to denigrate the rule of law by attacking our institutions that uphold democracy. He initially refused to speak out against the individuals and groups who promote violence and hate in Charlottesville. During his campaign for president, Trump often directly and indirectly encouraged violence, as when telling his supporters to “beat the crap” out of people who disrupted his speeches. Words matter and Trump uses them to encourage violence and disregard for our core civil institutions and values. It’s shameful behavior and I don’t hesitate for a moment in calling it out.
Snyder addresses the critical importance of protecting democratic institutions in chapter two of On Tyranny. And in chapter four he discusses how tyrannical leaders and their support groups gain power by sowing division through hateful rhetoric, violence and symbols that reinforce their beliefs and mark opponents. Snyder’s commentary on symbols is particularly helpful in trying to sort through what happened in Charlottesville. Look again at the video and photographs from Charlottesville; note the Nazi flags, “alt-right” shields, burning torches, and Nazi salutes. These are dangerous symbols of tyranny.
I’m sensitive to the potential for alarmism. But on the other hand, being too sanguine that everything will just turn out okay leads to complacency and a failure to learn the lessons of history.
On Tyranny traces the fall of democracy to fascism, Nazism, and communism in Europe. It provides 20 lessons we should understand if we are to resist tyranny today, as we must. It’s well worth the read.