In his book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder makes the point that we’ve seen the place where the United States is right now before. Not in the United States, silly, but in other countries in the world who have seen their democracies de-evolve into authoritarian regimes, and that if we do not learn from these countries, we could see ourselves living in tyranny, too.
He points out that we are passing from “the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity, from a naive and flawed sort of democratic republic to a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy.”
The Politics of Inevitability
The politics of inevitability is the sense that liberal democracy is the end state of human social organization, and once achieved, we will never go back to earlier more primitive and more brutal governments like totalitarianism, enlightened despotism, or any of the other tyrannies of the few ruling over the many. It started with Reagan and the dissolution of the old Soviet Union and our shining city on a hill ushering in a utopian age of American super-power hegemony in which the rich get richer and the poor are happy for them.
Because we had arrived at the promised land, we no longer needed to understand the details of the past. The patterns of history were no longer relevant, and we entered into a kind of “self-induced intellectual coma” that “stifled policy debate and tended to generate party systems where one political party defended the status quo, while the other proposed total negation.”
The Politics of Eternity
The politics of eternity is the mood ring approach to interpreting the past and projecting it onto the future. It fools us into believing in a mythological past that is easily manipulated since they never really existed and gives us something to strive toward by returning to the past, but since it the past never really existed we can never really achieve it in the future. It is the three-card Monty approach to governance.
National populists are eternity politicians forever longing for the good old days that can only come once we do some horrible evil to some scapegoated segment of our populace. Snyder uses the example of Brexit. Brexiteers promised a return to the halcyon days of yore of the British nation-state before the European union, but there never was a British nation-state. There was an empire and when that dissolved, the United Kingdom joined the EU. There could be no going back to the familiar because the promised Britain never existed. All of the far-right political parties are promising a return to a nation state that never existed. What they really mean is a return to the 1930’s fascism. And, coincidentally, all of those right-wing parties are funded by Russia! Ha ha!
Which is eerily similar to the Ol’ Pussy Grabber’s promise of America First (the name of the committee that worked to keep us from going to war with Nazi Germany) characterized by Steve Bannon’s bright idea that his policies would be “as exciting as the 1930’s” and encapsulated in the slogan “Make America Great Again” as in the same again referred to in the familiar German slogan, “Never Again” (Snyder’s insight, not mine, but a damn good one). Snyder goes on to quote the Ol’ Pussy Grabber as saying, “You know what solves it? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster… [and we need] riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.” Now, ain’t that special, because that sounds like #COVID19 America mixed with the George Floyd protests.
Because the politics of eternity focuses on the past, it stops us from really thinking about the future and solving real problems. It really suits the Ol’ Pussy Grabber’s M.O. keep everything chaotic so no one can blame you for getting nothing done. If everything is total chaos all the time, then there is always a crisis to solve an no opportunity to implement any real plan. The trick for the Ol’ Pussy Grabber has been to manufacture crisis to keep us distracted from his grift and lack of accomplishments. When Bannon introduced him to the politics of eternity, it was a match made in heaven. The Ol’ Pussy Grabber didn’t care what came out of it as long as he got his grift and maintained his narcissistic delusion of perfection, and Bannon didn’t care as long as he burned the US to the ground and instituted a fascist regime.
The Repubes as led by Reagan induced a coma in the sleeping giant that once was America. The #COVID19 manufactured disaster now plunges the hungover comatose giant into a nightmare where the promise of once and future greatness seems pretty alluring. The promise of the politics of inevitability is that everything turns out well in the end and the best part is we don’t have to do anything, so now that we are living the politics of eternity, it is easy to believe that everything will turn out well no matter how many atrocities we commit.
The Solution is History
The solution Snyder proposes is to learn from history. If the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity tell us to ignore history, the solution is to study history. The parallels between the beginning of the twenty-first century and the twentieth century are eerie. Both were characterized with advancing globalization and widening inequality and the democracies that existed in both periods struggled to adapt to their changing circumstances resulting in widespread anxiety and fear which was assuaged by the rise of authoritarian leaders who promised that they alone could fix it.
Since we’ve done this once before, we know how that dance ends. He’s a clumsy dance partner that will insist on leading, leave our feet bloody, and knock over half the other couples on the dance floor all while whispering what an incredible dancer he is into our ear ending in the inevitable date rape. Or Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.
But, there are signs that America is not succumbing to the siren song of strong-armed leadership. And, that brings us to part two of this post, the twenty lessons from the twentieth century or how we can prevent the fascisting of America and the loss of our democracy.