In Conversation: Chauncey DeVega & Timothy Snyder

Chauncey DeVega
Timothy Snyder

Donald Trump has led America — and the world — through the looking glass. What lies on the other side is a condition of confusion and befuddlement, a perpetual moment of asking “Did that just really happen?” while knowing that the answer is always “Yes.” Because without a doubt, President Trump did in fact just say or do that extraordinary thing.

This existential confusion is by design: It is one of the primary weapons of the authoritarian. One of the ways to ground oneself, to create a defense shield against this malignant reality is to document how political, social and cultural norms are being continually broken. By carefully measuring the cartography of this new American political landscape, we will be better equipped to navigate it, and perhaps to survive it.

As tracked by The Washington Post, president Donald Trump has now publicly lied more than 3,000 times. This is more than any president in recent American history, and likely ever.

President Trump has continued his campaign against the rule of law with threats to take control of the Department of Justice. Republicans in Congress continue to provide cover for his likely collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice. Trump has fully taken control of the Republican Party and its voters: a recent poll reveals that the vast majority of Republicans believe that Donald Trump is honest and tells the truth. Republicans also believe that it is not Trump’s contempt for democracy that threatens America but rather the “news media.”

Trump and his administration are continuing their campaign of “soft” ethnic cleansing by callously and cruelly breaking apart the families of undocumented residents and expelling nonwhite refugees from numerous countries. Predictably, since the launch of Trump’s presidential campaign there has been a notable increase in white supremacist and other far-right violence across the United States.

How do we locate this assault on America’s democratic norms and pluralistic society within a larger historical context? What role does violence play in Donald Trump’s and the broader American right’s political strategy? How does political sadism explain the rise of Trumpism and the unflinching devotion that his supporters have for him? In what ways is American democracy surviving Trump — or will it? What does the future hold for our imperiled republic?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Timothy Snyder, an award-winning professor of history at Yale University and author of “The Road to Unfreedom,” a new book that continues to develop the themes and arguments made in his recent bestseller “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.” This is the fourth in a series of conversations I have had with Snyder about American authoritarianism and the rise of Donald Trump.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Beginning with “On Tyranny” and now with your new book “The Road to Unfreedom,” you have documented the condition of American (and global) democracy in the age of Trump. He has been president for well over a year now. How are we doing?

The basic question is the rule of law. This means the Mueller investigation is critical. It is being done as well as it can be under the circumstances. But the fact that we are relying on Mueller and the FBI shows just how bad things have become.

But the real question, I think, is not defense but renewal and democratization. The things that make me feel better on the renewal side are the renaissance in investigative journalism, groups such as Indivisible, and the young people and other nontraditional candidates running for office.

Yet I think things are definitely going in the wrong direction. For example, too many people believe things that just aren’t true. Too many people are incapable of talking with other people in the real world. We have a president who is really comfortable with dictators and dictatorships.

You sound much more hopeful than I would have expected. To my eyes, matters are very dire. The Republican Party is doing everything possible to undermine Mueller’s investigation and, by implication, the rule of law. Trump is continuing his assault on the free press. Trump has publicly admitted that he is obstructing justice and may take control of the Department of Justice. At a rally a week or so ago, he targeted “Hispanics” for scorn and condemnation from his audience.

Yes, things are looking bad, and they’ve looked bad before. I mean, they looked bad in 1929 too. At the same time, it is both horrifying and normal. We have a weird situation where a man who shouldn’t have been elected did, in fact, get elected. But the dark forces he is unleashing in people were already there.  The question now is, can we fight back? What weapons within the tradition of the republic can we use?

If the House of Representatives can’t see treason when it’s right in front of its face, we should say so. If the Republican Party, way back in 2016, was unable to notice a clear threat to the sovereignty of the country, this means the Republican Party is implicated in that threat. If Trump is going to play on the politics of “us and them” inside the country, we have to be able to recognize that is a downward spiral in which everyone is going to end up worse off. At the end of that spiral, democratic politics are not going to be possible.

Trump is a symptom. He is not the disease. As has been documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other watchdogs, Trump has inspired an outbreak of hate crimes and other violence against nonwhites, Muslims and other groups seen by his voters as being the Other. What role does violence play in Trump and the Republican Party’s movement toward authoritarianism? 

Violence is hugely important, because it is fear that creates the turning points which accelerate the larger negative trends. Fear can be associated with real existential threats or, alternatively, fear can be focused on fictional threats such as those posed by immigrants. The violence is generated by the supporters. An extreme right-wing movement mixes both. You have both an imaginary foe and real violence. We’re in a situation like that right now.

There are other dimensions too. Wealth and income equality, for example, makes it hard for people to feel like they’re living in the same society. At some level, that probably also contributes indirectly to violence.

The other thing is internet exposure. The internet helps accelerate this politics of “us and them.” People see much more of the thing they hate on the internet than they do in real life, so you skip the stage where people talk to one another. You go straight from living in a kind of political fiction to carrying out real violence against real people.

Violence against undocumented immigrants, their families and communities by ICE enforcers is also part of this story. We also must talk about how undocumented people in America are being betrayed by their neighbors who are acting as informers.

The way that this kind of regime change works discursively — as we are seeing with Trump — is that it transforms neighbors into members of a different “race” in a dark sense of the word, or members of some kind of “global conspiracy,” or sometimes both. The theory is, “There’s us and there’s them.” We, the us, are innocent. They, the them, are a threat. The way you turn that into practice is you just start creating these little incentives and opportunities for neighbors to turn on neighbors, maybe to benefit from the fact that neighbors are denounced.

We saw this threat when the VOICE program was introduced by Homeland Security. [Which attached a special significance to alleged crimes committed by immigrants or connected to immigration.] We saw this in the 1930s. If you want to draw people in, you encourage neighbors to denounce each other. Because once people do that, then they’re morally implicated. Then the new regime starts to seem normal to them. They participated in the dynamics of “us and them.” Thus it is no longer theory. It is practice.

Pain plays a very specific role here too. Everybody knows that pain is bad. But what if you are making it happen? What if you don’t resist it? If you are the agent of this pain, then it has to be that what you did was the right thing. They had to deserve it, right? The way that people reacted to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico, versus Texas or Florida, is a great example. In Puerto Rico, they somehow deserve it, and therefore they shouldn’t get help. Whereas in Texas and Florida, maybe they somehow didn’t deserve it.

By not properly helping Puerto Rico — the bad weather was somehow the fault of the people living there — we tie ourselves into the story of “us and them.” That’s how it works. We know this from the scholarship on the rise of Nazism and other right-wing movements during 1933 and 1934.

The assault on American higher education by the right — as seen in the Koch brothers’ efforts to buy individual university professors and entire departments — also explains how Trumpism became possible.

The academy is under siege because it is a space where people, especially the young, can say what they think. It is also a place where people can actually have a period of time in their lives to explore new ideas and be contemplative.

It gives people the concepts, tools and habits to question things. That is why the humanities are under such fire right now. That’s why they’re being defunded. It’s because the humanities are essential for democracy. Engineering is essential for other things, but the humanities are essential for democracy.

In “The Road to Unfreedom,” you introduce the concept of “sadopopulism.” I have used a similar concept which I describe as “political sadism” to describe the fact that Trump is not really a populist but rather part of a larger right-wing effort whose goal is to actually hurt their voters and then redirect the rage at nonwhites, Democrats, liberals, progressives or some other designated enemy. How much of this policy do you think is intentional and strategic? Or is it just something that grew organically out of authoritarian tendencies?

“Sadopopulism” is the notion that you’re doing half of populism. You promise people things, but then when you get power you have no intention of even trying to implement any policy on behalf of the people. Instead, you deliberately make the suffering worse for your critical constituency. The people who got Trump into office, for example, are traditional Republican voters plus people in counties who are doing badly in terms of health care and other measures, and who need help.

Under Trump, of course, things will just get worse in terms of both the opioid addictions and in terms of wealth inequality. But that’s OK, because the logic of sadopopulism is that pain is a resource. Sadopopulist leaders like Trump use that pain to create a story about who’s actually at fault. The way politics works in that model is that government doesn’t solve your problems, it blames your problems on other people — and it creates the cycle that goes around over and over and over again. I started talking about sadopopulism because I got tired of people talking about populism.

It just seems like “populism” doesn’t capture a specific American racial and oligarchic situation where people like Trump come to power, promising that the government is going to do something and then, in power, deliberately do nothing positive.

Not so long ago, the currency of government was achievement. Government had to do something. Now, the currency of government is discourse. Government has to make you feel worse about people around you. That’s an achievement.

Now, could Trump and his allies theorize about this? I don’t know. But they do know what they’re doing. They take their cues back from their constituents. It is a mistake to underestimate Trump. Just because he doesn’t speak in a sophisticated language does not mean he lacks instincts. Trump possesses a skill set.

Have you ever tried to be a carnival huckster? It’s not actually an easy thing to do. You have to fool people. You persuade people to do things that don’t really make sense for them. You do it over and over again, with a sense of conviction.

There is another dimension to this as well. If the death anxieties of the dominant group are activated, then that group is much more tolerant of prejudice, violence and bigotry. It’s about maintaining social dominance and power. Delegitimizing government is a major part of how conservatives use sadopopulism as a weapon.

Trump’s base are people who actually think that the system is supposed to work for them. When it doesn’t, they feel they’re vulnerable in a special way. Middle-aged white males don’t know how much the system does for them. So when the system starts to fail, they react in ways that other groups may not.

At that vulnerable moment, there are two things you can say: The good guys will say, “Look, this shows that we all need a little help sometimes. Let’s build up something like a social democracy.” The bad guys are going to say, “Look, this shows how the Mexicans are taking your jobs, and the Muslims are killing you, and the black people hate you, etc.”

One of the truths that is rarely stated in American public discourse is that the welfare state exists to sustain a more or less politically reasonable middle class. You break the welfare state in this country in order to make the white people crazy. You don’t do it to punish the black people. That’s what you say you’re doing — and maybe you take a pleasure in doing that. But ultimately what you’re doing when you break the welfare state in this country is that you’re hurting white people. Trump and his allies can then direct that vulnerability for political ends.

The title of your new book is “The Road to Unfreedom.” How does that title speak to the crisis in American democracy?

“The Road to Unfreedom” is the road between what in the book I call “the politics of inevitability” and “the politics of eternity.” The politics of inevitability is a sense that everything’s going to be all right. If you’re on the right, it’s the sense that the market is a slave to democracy. We know the rules. There are no alternatives. If you’re on the left it is a belief in the inevitability of social progress. Those stories suggest a pattern which may not exist.

Those stories break because of wealth and equality and because people can’t see a future for themselves. Kids can’t see a future. Neither can their parents. They break because of system shocks such as what happened in 2008 or 2016. Then people are opened up to another kind of politics, which is what’s on the rise now. It’s no longer about the future at all. It’s about a nostalgic past, or a news cycle which breaks your will and your ability to concentrate. It is about a constant struggle between us and them, as opposed to doing something plausible for all of us together.

“The Road to Unfreedom” is meant to be a new term that catches our attention. What’s happening now is not exactly the same as what happened in the 1930s. But it’s definitely a drift away from democracy, the rule of law and, for that matter, from social justice.

Democracy is an aspiration. We need more democracy. We need democratization at every level of society. If you can’t think about having more democracy, you’re not thinking about having a future.



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