Shortly after Donald Trump won the election, Timothy Snyder, a professor of European history at Yale, posted a long note on Facebook that began: “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”
Snyder went on to lay out 20 lessons from the 20th century as they apply today. Then the post went viral, and became the basis of his new book On Tyranny.
The central theme was the relationship between truth and tyranny. “You submit to tyranny,” he wrote, “when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.”
Snyder’s piece speaks directly to our present moment, given our president’s relationship with the truth.
One of the first things Trump did upon taking office was, naturally, to lie about the size of his inaugural crowds. Most recently, he lied about the firing of FBI Director James Comey. As my colleague Matthew Yglesias points out, Trump’s initial rationale for purging Comey was an abject lie and makes no sense given what we’ve since learned.
In this interview, edited for length and clarity, I talk to Snyder about Trump’s increasing indifference to the truth and how it aligns with his post-election concerns about tyranny and fascism. We also discuss the role of truth in a liberal democracy, and why illiberal regimes thrive on confusion and cynicism.
His message is simple: If there is no truth, there are no facts; if there are no facts, there is no rule of law; and if there is no rule of law, you can’t maintain a liberal democracy.
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