Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University specializing in the history of Central and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust, speaks at Oslo Freedom Forum 2019 on May 27, 2019 in Oslo, Norway.
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- Timothy Snyder is a history professor at Yale University and an expert on the rise of authoritarianism.
- Snyder is the author of “The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America,” among other books.
- He spoke to Insider about what he sees as grave threats to democracy in the United States.
Timothy Snyder does not want to be a downer, he says, but he is not feeling too optimistic about America these days. A history professor at Yale University, and the author of a series of books on authoritarianism and the road to tyranny, he looks at the United States these days and wonders if the country as we know it will still exist in a few years.
In a recent article — marking one year since a former president, who lost an election, sought to thwart the peaceful transfer of power — Snyder painted a grim scenario where something like the January 6 insurrection had succeeded. How would the country, and the rest of the world, react to the installation of a leader who clearly did not win?
In an interview with Insider, Snyder discussed Donald Trump, democracy, and what he fears could happen come 2024.
It’s been a year now since the January 6th insurrection. What do you think the state of American democracy is? Are we on firmer ground now, a year out?
Well, I mean, obviously things could be worse. The January 6th insurrection a year ago could have succeeded. We could be living in a country that is wracked by civil and indeed violent conflict after Donald Trump succeeds in, at least temporarily, staying in power, thanks to some kind of conspiracy of his supporters, the Department of Justice, supporters in Congress and so on, right? So things could be worse. And I wouldn’t wanna deny that.
Unfortunately, that scenario is not one that is just in the rearview mirror. It’s also one that is right in front of us. The problem with a failed coup, which is what January 6th, 2021, is, is that it is practice for a successful coup. So what we’re looking at now is a kind of slow-motion practice for a repetition of all of that, but this time with the legal parts of it more fully prepared. What I’m afraid of is that now, in the shadow of a big lie — namely, that Trump actually won — the states are preparing the legal steps that will enable Trump to be installed as president the next time around. And that in turn will lead to a terrible sort of conflict, the kind that we haven’t seen before.
Some people look at January 6th and they see that — as bad as it was — it did not succeed, obviously. And, in fact, the leading players were kind of bumbling, right? I think that some have dismissed January 6th as a foolish stunt that got out of hand, but that never stood a chance of succeeding. I guess maybe you could both agree with that, but also think that’s something that could be a lesson for them going forward.
Let me try a comparison. If you think that democracy just succeeded on January 6th, sort of on its own strength, then you’re missing the backdrop. In the course of the year 2020 there were a lot of important individuals and institutions, ranging from civil society to business, who were aware that there was some possibility that Trump would go for it, even if he lost, and were making preparations for that all year long. Without those preparations, it’s very likely that Trump would have succeeded, or at least he would’ve come close enough to succeeding that we would be in terrible, bloody chaos for a very long time.
It’s like you’re imagining an athlete winning a gold medal in the Olympics and thinking, ‘Okay, that guy never actually practiced. He just showed up that day, in Tokyo, and won the medal’. The reason why democracy succeeded in 2021 is that a lot of people put in a lot of hard work ahead of time. And if it’s going to keep succeeding, a lot of people are going to have to keep doing a lot of hard work. That attitude, that things just kind of happened because they happened — if we have that attitude, we’re not going to put in the work and we’re going to have this problem a second time around.
The second thing to say about that is that, sure, sometimes coups fail, and when they fail the people who carry them out look foolish. But we’re kind of in a strange spot in the US. Normally when you try a coup and you fail, you face some kind of consequence, right? In an authoritarian regime, your political life is terminated in some unpleasant way. In a democratic regime with a rule of law, you face legal consequences.
We in the US are in this weird middle state, where you can try to carry out a coup, and pretty obviously break the law in all kinds of ways, and nevertheless, you can kind of just hang out and remain in politics. We’re in a very awkward place, a strange place, where this sort of thing can repeat itself,
Are you encouraged at all by the work of the January 6 committee and also the charges that the Department of Justice unveiled, where they’ve actually started charging people with seditious conspiracy?
I hate to always be negative, and I won’t be, but let me just start with a proviso. It’s really too bad that, thanks to the archaic institution known as the filibuster, we don’t have a bipartisan January 6th committee. We did have majorities in both the house and the Senate for something like that, but nevertheless, it doesn’t exist. And that’s a shame because democracy depends upon reflection and self-correction, and the January 6th committee is about reflection and self-correction, and so it’s too bad that it couldn’t have been done in the broadest way possible.
That said, the work that it’s doing is incredibly important. Democracy depends upon facts. Democracy depends upon knowing what’s going on, operating in the shadow of a big lie, as a lot of us are doing — and even those of us who don’t believe in the lie have to deal with it all the time — is incompatible with democracy. Myths and personality cults, and massive doses of self-deception, are incompatible with democracy. Figuring out just what happened, step by step, is compatible because it gives us that chance to reflect and to improve and to move on. So the work that the January 6th committee is doing is absolutely indispensable.
I was going to ask you about the Democrats’ response in January 6th, but actually your response there makes me want ask you about the Republicans’ response. Because does the Democrats’ response even matter if one of the major political parties is completely behind what you call ‘the big lie’? There was a brief moment, after January 6th, where it seemed like the leading members of the Republican Party were going to break from Donald Trump and his claims. But it definitely seems like that’s a way to get yourself kicked out of the party these days.
To answer your literal question, it does of course matter what the Democrats do. It matters whether they try to figure out the truth. It matters whether they dig in and do the hard work of having to challenge their colleagues in the Senate, in the House, which of course is not that pleasant for the Democrats. That all matters very much because, without a legal and historical sense of the events of January 6th, we’re not going to be able to keep going as a democracy. All of that baggage, from the Civil War forward that we don’t clean up, just stands in the way of a democratic future. So it does matter what the Democrats are doing.
The Republicans are facing a different kind of problem than the Democrats. Their problem is that, if they don’t stand up to the big lie, and to the big liar himself, then they are doomed to become an authoritarian party. The logic of the big lie is such that, since you’re claiming that the other side cheated you are then going to cheat yourself. You’re basically promising your supporters that you’re going to cheat. You’re telling your supporters that a vote for us is not really a vote to try to win an election, a vote for us is just to kind of get us vaguely close enough that we can then fix the election, thanks to voter suppression and voter subversion and all the things that we’re preparing now. So the Republicans face this very different ethical situation, which is that the longer they operate within the shadow of the big lie, the more they’re gonna be remembered by posterity as a party that became authoritarian and possibly broke the system.
I think, by the way, that a good number of them realized that. I think, by the way, that a good number of them are trying to find some way to get out from under this. And I hope that I hope that more of them find the courage to try to do so.
Do you agree with the assessment that this is the worst crisis for democracy since the Civil War?
I think we’re in the same territory as the Great Depression and the Civil War. And those were moments when the United States was very lucky with its leaders. I mean, it’s no coincidence that we tend to remember Lincoln and Roosevelt as the presidents that stand out. I would add the Great Depression to that because I think the Great Depression was also a moment when it could have all gone south. But yes, we’re on historically dangerous territory.
Obviously, when people refer to the Civil War, I mean, one response to that can be that that’s, you know, hysterical, right? We don’t appear to be on the verge of a violent conflict between two heavily armed sides. So how do you see that playing out? Where could this lead?
First of all, I just want to say that, for the people who actually study the origins of civil wars, not just in the US, but as a class of events, America doesn’t look good right now, with its high degree of polarization, with its alternative reality, with the celebration of violence — the example of Kyle Rittenhouse. Those social scientists who actually work on this topic — neutrally — see indicators in the United States, which suggests that we are on the brink of some kind of conflict.
You’re asking me about my scenario? My scenario is not very complicated. My scenario is that if, as is very possible, we install a president in January 2025 who has lost by a clear margin — let’s say 10 million popular votes, and let’s say 89 electoral votes — it’s not very difficult in that situation for the loser to become the winner, thanks to just a few gimmicks. A few states just have to withhold their electoral votes; the House of Representatives then votes, according to state delegations; the Supreme Court then blesses the whole configuration; and then all of a sudden you have an installed president of the United States.
I think by 2025 it’s going be very hard for a lot of Americans to accept something so blatantly undemocratic, the more so since people will have known that this kind of plot was in the works for several years. So my scenario is at that point you would then have uncertainty as to who the President of the United States actually was — uncertainty among the population and also uncertainty within the institutions of government, both bureaucracy, the civil administration, but also unfortunately the armed parts of the government: the armed forces, the national guard.
So that’s the scenario. It’s not very complicated. And unfortunately, it’s the kind of thing that one has seen in other countries. And it’s not really all that implausible.
Speaking of other countries, what parallels can you draw, with the caveat that we know history doesn’t repeat, exactly? What do you see as analogous to the situation that the United States finds itself in today?
There are all kinds of comparisons. History doesn’t repeat, but it does instruct. And it also instructs the people who are trying to undermine the rule of law. An easy, contemporary example is Hungary. Hungary is a place where, legalistic step by legalistic step, the spirit and reality of democracy and the rule of law were removed, such that Hungary, although it still has elections, is a country, which you can’t really characterize as a functioning democracy. That is the road that we are on. And that is a model, not a historical one, but a contemporary one for a lot of Republicans right now. Hungary’s going to be more and more present — in fact, it’s already been present, for example, on Tucker Carlson — as a kind of positive ideal for rule: an authoritarian regime, on the basis of a minority and kind of ritual elections.
Going back a few years: Russia. Russia pioneered what’s called the ‘administrative resource.’ That is, you have elections, but the elections are arranged in such a way that you know who’s going to win. And you can’t really point to exactly where things went wrong because they went wrong at a whole bunch of different levels at the same time. But nevertheless, your guy always wins. We’re moving in that direction. We’re moving towards the administrative resource.
A more distant historical parallel: the failed democracies of the 1920s and 1930s. A similarity there is that, thanks to obstreperousness and complicated parliamentary rules, laws weren’t passed and people all over Central and Eastern Europe began to think that parliament, or what we call Congress, is just not very important. It would be better to have a strong leader. Someone who at least reflects our mood. Someone who can get things done. As it becomes difficult for our Congress to pass laws, and as Republicans deliberately, of course, make it difficult for our Congress to pass laws, that kind of sentiment is also building in the US.
Where do you trace the beginnings of guess what you would call the Republicans’ weakening commitment to democracy? Is it the rise of Donald Trump and his personality call and his unique characteristics? Is he a product of a conservative movement that had been, for years, kind of slowly moving away from the idea of democracy as a value?
You have to go way back in US history. There’s always been a party which wanted to suppress the votes of all of Black people and call that democracy. For a long time, that was the Democratic Party. They switched, after civil rights in the sixties, and it became the Republican party. But this is kind of the original sin of American democracy — that we’ve always had a political party which wants to suppress votes and game the system.
I think there are three recent developments, though. One is the surgical precision by which we now carry out gerrymandering, which means that the Republican Party, in particular, is playing only to the loudest voices in its own choir and is ever less representative of the general public. The second change is social media, within which I would include also foreign interventions in our social media. Social media is a bit like a gerrymandering of the brain. It allows voters to collect themselves into clusters and not have contact with anyone else. And that radicalizes things.
And then the third is, I mean, give credit where credit is due: the personality cult of Donald Trump. The Republicans have not had a figure like this before, who is willing to call them out on their own hypocrisies, basically to expose them nakedly for the worst things that they do, as opposed to the values that some of them still would like to express in politics. They’ve never had a kind of cult of personality like this, where everything was out in the open. That creates a new kind of popularity. I think it’ll be hard for Republicans to rally around, at this point, someone else to carry out a second coup, partly because I think no one has both the combination of a sheer indifference to ethics and the popularity that Mr. Trump has at this moment.
It sounds like you’re saying if in 2024 the Republican nominee were Ron DeSantis or Tucker Carlson, who seem to have the same political values — Tucker Carlson, as you mentioned, openly admires [Hungary’s] Viktor Orbán — that the threat to democracy would be greatly diminished, which seems to reduce the threat to the person of Donald Trump.
I wouldn’t want to say it’s a good situation to have a whole cast of characters who want to come to power under the cover of a big lie, using non-democratic means. That’s still not a good situation that we have a DeSantis or a Carlson or a Josh Hawley or possibly a Ted Cruz — that we have a whole list of people who’d be willing to come to power that way. That’s not a good situation. But, at the moment, it’s Mr. Trump who captures the imagination of a lot of the American electorate. To carry out a coup of this kind, you’ve gotta get close enough to make it plausible. And you have to have somebody who’s absolutely ruthless. And I think he remains, therefore, the best of the worst, or the worst of the worst, depending upon how you want to look at it.
I want to ask you about President Biden. Obviously, he’s given a couple of speeches recently that have explicitly labeled not just Donald Trump but the Republican Party as a threat to democracy. How do you grade his response to January 6th?
It’s a tough time right now for Mr. Biden in public opinion. I think he has been put in a very difficult situation — in a way, an historically unprecedented situation. With the exception, we just don’t have presidents coming to power at a time when the existence of the republic has been challenged. And unlike Lincoln, Biden, can’t begin from the position of some kind of clear victory. That is to say, the people who oppose American democracy are still out there in the field. Mr. Trump is in Florida doing his thing, every day. And there’s no clear way to remove them from the picture.
So he has to be president, and he has to do the normal things that a president does, which is try to get laws passed. And he has to, simultaneously, embody the values of our democratic Republic. It’s a tough combination. Because he’d like to be able, I think, to stand above all of this. And then, after a year, it’s become clear that he just can’t. I think all of these attitudes have been correct. I just think it’s unfortunate — going back to the comparison to FDR, unlike FDR he doesn’t have big majorities in his first term. If he had big majorities, a lot of the stuff that we’re talking about would be moot. We would have a bipartisan investigation. A lot more laws would’ve been passed.
And above all, we’d already have electoral reform, which is the single most important thing: making it easier for Americans to vote would be good, not only for the whole system, it would also be good for the Republicans because it would force the Republican closer into the role of being a party which has to seek votes, has to care about public opinion, has to represent people, rather than the worst parts of a system. If Biden had a bigger majority, then all that stuff would’ve already happened. I think he’s come to power at a really uninviting time. His first year has been, let’s say a lot better than we think — it’s been a lot better than the atmospherics would suggest.
President Biden’s approval rating, some polls suggest, is in the 30s and Democrats look like they’re on the verge of losing their majority in the House and their 50-50 control of the Senate. Polls also suggest that a large majority of the public is concerned about the state of democracy. They do not particularly like Donald Trump. Yet they seem ready to return the Republican Party — a party that’s committed to Donald Trump and his lies about the 2020 election — to power. How do you reconcile all that?
I think there are several things going on there. One, just lots of people, regardless of party commitment, don’t see the kind of legalistic threat building up to a second coup attempt or an installation of a president. In early 2020, and this is perfectly understandable, people don’t necessarily see that the combination of voter suppression and vote subversion and a candidate who’s going to break all the rules in a few years that this — that this combined with Republican victory in both the House and the Senate makes the end of democracy in the US, unfortunately, conceivable. People don’t see that because it’s a complicated institutional story and people would prefer to vote in 2022 on the stuff they’re thinking about in 2022. That’s understandable, but it’s really unfortunate.
The second thing, which is going on here, is that there’s a kind of irony in our system, which is that Democrats tend to trust the very institutions that Republicans are corrupting. Republicans are the ones who, if you poll them, are more likely to say somebody’s gonna fix the election. Democrats just aren’t worried enough about this because they tend to believe the institutions are going to work, that everybody will come together, etcetera. And so I think it’s hard in particular for Democrats to think, okay, it’s 2022, we have to vote like hell because otherwise we’re going to have Trumpland — in a worse version — two years down the line.
And then the third thing that’s going on is just people are sick of COVID. People are sick of living unusual lives. People are sick of all these restrictions on them, understandably. And people are going to vote their mood. That’s just the way democracy is.
The things that we’re talking about, we should talk about and try to get them across, but there’s also just this basic matter that people are unsatisfied with COVID. And Republicans know this and they’re trying to keep COVID going as long as possible because they think it favors them. And they’re probably right. People want to go back to normal life and until they go back to normal life, it’s hard to have a normal election where the kinds of things we’re talking about will get to the surface.
Let’s revisit this scenario where Trump and the Republican Party have claimed victory and have had some legal cloaking of this claim that has installed the loser of the election in power. You talked about competing allegiances among, perhaps, different branches of the military. It would be a very unclear situation of who, legally, different institutions in the United States should be pledging allegiance to.
How do you see that playing out a year later? If Trump is in there as a minority, loser-president, seen as illegitimate by 55% of the American public, what’s that look like for him and for the rest of the country?
I mean, look, god forbid, I don’t want all this to happen. And I think there’s time to prevent it from happening. But I don’t think the scenario that you’re talking about is the one that we have to worry about. I think the scenario we have to worry about is that there isn’t a US at that point. The kind of conflict that begins January 20, 2025, isn’t the kind of conflict that ends with one president being just unpopular, or even seen as illegitimate. It’s a kind of conflict that ends with governors seeking some kind of safe haven for their states. It’s a kind of conflict that ends with Americans moving from one part of the country to another to be with people with whom they feel safer. It’s the kind of conflict that ends with some kind of basic political reconstruction, where the US as we know it doesn’t have to exist.
That’s the thing I think that people have the hardest time getting through their minds. Like the US, as we know it, doesn’t have to exist. It’s built upon these constitutional foundations, which are very flawed and which are now being intensely abused. If those constitutional foundations lead to something which is broadly unacceptable, we’re going to be in unknown territory, which can go to unknown places. But it’s very often the thing that you take for granted the most, like the existence of your own country, which is the thing that you should be paying the most attention to.
That’s a lesson which the Soviets learned in 1991, right? It’s 30 years since the Soviet Union came to an end. We can look back at that and say, ‘aha, it came to an end because it was a flawed communist system.’ And sure, that’s true. But we didn’t expect it to come to an end, and they didn’t expect it to come to an end. The fundamental lesson there is that big, powerful systems that you don’t think can come to an end can come to an end if you don’t get a hold of the internal problems — what they used to call the internal contradictions. We have some internal contradictions. We say we’re a democracy, but we’re becoming ever less so in practice. And if we don’t get a hold of that, the system as we know it may not continue at all.
That’s what I’m worried about, sincerely. And I like to think — maybe I’m naive — that if folks on both sides of the aisle, Republicans, Democrats, and others, could imagine themselves into a 2025 where the existence of the country is actually in doubt, if we could think ourselves forward to that, and then think back to where we are now, it might moderate things that we’re doing.
My basic feeling is that the Republicans are right to think they can game their way to power. But by the time they game their way to power, it’s not clear that there will be anything to have power over. And I don’t think they’ve thought their way through to the end of that. And I think they need to, and everyone needs to, so that we can, you know, so that we can operate in such a way where at least our republic is still around a few years from now,
To clarify that: you’re thinking less that scenario where it’s a shooting war between the army and the navy or competing factions in the military, and more like what we’ve kind of seen with blue states and climate change, for example, under Trump, where they kind of announce we have our own foreign policy, and we’re actually going to band together and pursue our own policies. Speak directly to us, not Washington, DC. That’s not America.
I think some combination of that is what we’re talking about. The more you get into details, the more you’re going to be wrong, because the details won’t be exactly what we think. In that scenario, I think Trump is president of something, but I’m not sure he governs from Washington, DC, and I’m not sure the thing that he runs is called the United States of America.
In that scenario, he and the Supreme Court get to get to run something, but I’m not sure it’s most of the country at that point. The military, you know, is subordinate to civilian command, which is a proud tradition that we have, but it’s not clear who the civilian commander actually is, that’s a real problem. And if there are conflicting orders coming down, or if different commanders within our armed forces are giving conflicting orders, then you have a situation where either you’re going to have a literal civil war or people are going say, ‘Hey, the way to prevent violent conflict is to have some kind of peaceful separation along some kind of lines.’ That will suggest itself. The model that I have in mind now is Yugoslavia.
It all seems wild and science-fictiony at this point, but if you reason your way through to 2025 with an installed president, and you don’t see some scenario like this, you must be thinking, ‘Okay, Trump can get installed and nobody will care.’ And I just don’t think that’s plausible. I just don’t think the combination of Trump himself — who’s wildly unpopular along among a lot of people and who has already effectively announced that his policies next time around will be still more radical — and installation will be accepted by Americans and American institutions. That’s a step that I can’t make mentally. I don’t see how installing Trump won’t lead to a major challenge to the existence of the republic.