When the 2016 presidential election put an erratic, inarticulate, Russia-backed, Twitter-addicted, septuagenarian bully and reality-TV star in the White House, I adjusted my reading habits, scrutinizing how the blue blazes this happened and what might be done to avert the further erosion of our democratic institutions.
Bestseller lists confirm that umpteen American readers have done the same.
Predictably, novels like Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) have flown off the shelves faster than you can say, “I wish I’d never heard of Steve Bannon.”
But no one saw On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century coming.
At a spare 126 pages and sized to fit in a jacket or purse — your pocket Constitution will love the company — On Tyranny, by Yale history professor Timothy Snyder, was published at the end of February and leapt to single-digit spots on the non-fiction paperback bestseller lists of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, and ranked number one on Amazon.
It ranks fifth on the Times list this week when Snyder — the son of Christine and Gene Snyder of Wilmington — returns to his home state for a book tour.
On Saturday, he will be at Books and Company, in Beavercreek, at 3 p.m., and at the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Public Library at 7 that evening.
Americans aren’t the only ones reaching for a lifeline to save Western democracy as we know it: On Tyranny will be distributed in 30 countries; the German edition has already sold more than 20,000 copies; and the full text of the book appears, chapter by chapter, on 20 posters on Leonard Street in London.
The work spotlights villains more contemptible than Lee Child dishes up — it casts the history-literate citizen activist as protagonist, and if a political handbook can have a story arc, the one here is the path of fascism through the century now only 17 years gone.
This isn’t a book to read once and misplace. It belongs close at hand, within reach when a pen is laid to another draconian, unconstitutional executive order, a campaign-style presidential rally mimics some mad despot’s unhinged tirade, or the commander-in-chief inexplicably heaps praise on murderous leaders like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un and Rodrigo Duterte.
In the 20 lessons — beginning with “Do not obey in advance” and ending with “Be as courageous as you can” — Snyder describes in detail the means by which modern democratic societies have been dismantled. He suggests specific ways ordinary citizens can protect our country and ourselves from the powers that want “your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen.”
Snyder sounds a call to practice corporeal politics: “Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.”
He cites the successful, collaborative resistance of Poland’s anti-communist Solidarity labor movement in 1980-81. It had its roots in the government’s violent suppression of the Gdansk workers’ strike a decade earlier, and the subsequent assistance of “people from both the Right and Left, believers and atheists, who created trust among workers — people whom they would otherwise not have met.”
Those alliances and actions led to the end of communism in Poland, other Eastern Bloc nations, and the Soviet Union.
Snyder reserves his most urgent warning for what he believes is the inevitable crisis (the historic reference being Germany’s 1933 Reichstag fire) that will be used as an excuse to suspend civil liberties.
Under the chapter heading, “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives,” he writes:
“Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suppression of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.” (For more on this topic, see Snyder’s article in the New York Review of Books: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/02/26/reichstag-fire-manipulating-terror-to-end-democracy/)
In the book’s epilogue, Snyder notes that Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz believed that a sense of responsibility for our moment in history assuages loneliness and indifference.
On Tyranny is an unparalleled contribution to our moment.
Mary Thomas Watts lives and writes in Wilmington.