2017, Books, Non-Fiction

On Tyranny (2017) by Tim Snyder

This is not a philosophical or historical discussion of tyranny. Rather, it is an extremely brief summary of cherry-picked moments in 20th century history created in response to the (first) election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America (though Trump’s name is never mentioned).

If I had read this book in 2017, I likely would have dismissed it. I thought electing Trump was an idiotic thing to do but I generally felt like he would be more incompetent than dangerous and I generally believed, through much of his first term, that I had been proved right. I definitely vacillated between being extremely concerned – though nowhere near as much as some people – and mollified, and I think it was the latter most of the time.

But reading this in the summer of 2024, years after January 6, and as the Republican party and its voting base appears willing to drive America off a cliff, it feels more relevant and perhaps more prescient than I think it would have seemed to me 7 years ago. Snyder may not have been right about Trump’s first term but it sure feels like he might be right about Trump’s second. (The question for posterity will not be “How did the US elect a conman as president?” but, rather, “How did the US elect a conman as president twice, especially after his failed, rather pathetic coup attempt?”)

I still don’t see a ton of value in this book, though. It’s a collection of arbitrarily chosen moments from 20th century European history that Snyder thinks might help Democrats and their supporters resist Trump and whatever has become of the Republican party. It doesn’t feel like it was written for anyone else, which strikes me as a rather large problem, though I think Snyder is attempting to make the book accessible to concerned Republicans. Certainly, anyone who believed in the existence of “Trump Derangement Syndrome” during the first term will not read this book and will not be satisfied it is impartial just because Snyder never mentions Trump by name.

Just like everyone else, I have no idea how to reach these people who think they can control Trump, or who think Trump really wants to reestablish a Christian US, or who think that Trump will somehow bring the US back to the US of their childhood (as if that ever existed), or who just want to own the libs, but I’m not sure this little book is the ticket. This book feels like it was written for people who believed that Trump’s first term in office was the birth of authoritarianism in the US. There are so many ways in which that is not true. It was certainly a step towards whatever the hell will happen under Trump’s second term (which feels inevitable in the summer of 2024 because, apparently, Americans are incapable of preventing it) but it’s hardly the dawn of “tyranny” in the US that Synder implies. (The surveillance state, for one thing, far precedes Trump. That’s just one example.)

Anyway, I’m not sure whether you should read this unless you’re an American who is looking for supposedly practical tips on how to think and behave as of 2025. I’ve read many of the authors Snyder references myself and I’d say those are more worth your time. On the other hand, nobody is going to bother reading those people so I guess this is something you can gift to “independents” who can’t seem to understand why even a potted plant would be better than a conman (who has already tried to, lamely, overturn an election result once!).


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