During a recent trip north to Santa Barbara, I escaped the rain in a used bookstore and struck up a conversation about America with the clerk. We talked about the limited shelf life of so many political books, especially those with words like “Trump” in the title. But after we migrated over to the nonfiction paperbacks, one immediately struck me as both evergreen and useful. It’s called On Tyranny, a 2017 book by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, and it is so small that it can nearly fit in the palm of my hand. It looks not unlike an instruction manual.
I am still making my way through Snyder’s 20 lessons from the 1900s, many of them learned from the errors made by a complacent Germany ahead of Hitler’s rise. “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism in the twentieth century,” Snyder argues. “Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now would be a good time to do so.”
One of Snyder’s most poignant and subtle recommendations, arriving in chapter 17, is to listen for dangerous words. “Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary,” he writes, rather lyrically. That resonated as I listened Thursday to President Trump, after a reporter reminded him that the treason of which he’d been accusing his many adversaries is an actual crime punishable by death, and he merely nodded. When asked who might suffer that penalty, he named the former head of the FBI, his ex-deputy, and “people probably higher than that.” There aren’t too many people higher than that.
Hours later, that dystopian rhetoric began transforming into authoritarian reality. Trump signed a directive allowing attorney general William Barr broad, unprecedented powers to conduct a review of the intelligence community’s investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign, ordering the CIA and the other 15 federal intelligence agencies to essentially to give Barr everything he needs. Whatever Barr wants declassified, he’ll declassify — which we can anticipate, given our experience with the Mueller report, to be a nightmare of misinformation tailored to the president’s narrative.
It is carte blanche for his attack dog to comb through a mountain of intelligence and craft a story to punish whomever Trump wants punished. Without any restraints, we can expect mockeries of justice unlike things we’ve seen since, well, trials of police officers for killing black people. It will almost certainly be disgraceful. Trump lackey Corey Lewandowski already was on the airwaves Friday alleging that former Vice President (and potential general election rival) Joe Biden was behind the Steele dossier and that Comey, McCabe and others would all be on trial by “March or April of the next year.”
Not long before that move, Barr’s Department of Justice indicted Wikileaks leader Julian Assange on 17 counts under the Espionage Act, essentially criminalizing acts that investigative journalists practice every day. It was a conscious defecation on the First Amendment and inadvertently or not, it helps further clear the path for Barr to enable Trump to not only solicit more foreign help for next year’s election, but to discourage investigation of wrongdoing — by federal intelligence officials and their informants as well as journalists.
And what are the Democrats doing? The pundits claimed that Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, had Trump “rattled” when she insisted that he was engaged in a “cover-up” and that he’d thrown a “tantrum” when she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer went into the Oval Office on Wednesday to ostensibly discuss a path forward on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. In the wake of a number of court decisions turning back Trump’s efforts to hide his financial information, Pelosi insisted that she has “leverage.” But then Trump went and posted a doctored video of her and ordered an investigation of the investigators. Still think he is going to “self-impeach” next November?
I support a Congressional investigation of Trump, largely because the special counsel didn’t come close to investigating everything that is possibly crooked about this president. But I keep thinking about Pelosi’s interview with the New York Times in early May, when she seemed concerned enough that Trump may not willingly cede power if he loses the election, but that the key to avoiding that outcome to a) “own the center” and b) win by a margin so big that he’ll have to respect the election. That is not just some magical thinking. It’s almost some pre-Voting Rights Act thinking. It doesn’t fit with the America so many of us knew even before Trump, nor does it recognize that centrism isn’t likely to help Democrats recover in areas where their African American turnout atrophied (or was suppressed) in 2016. While grasping his danger, Pelosi appears to simultaneously misunderstand the America that Trump so skillfully exploited on his pathway to power.
Everything should be unmistakable now. The president just ordered the nation’s top law enforcement official, who is supposed to be independent of the White House, to investigate and prosecute his political enemies within and without the government. And his own unofficial advisor is so assured that this will happen that he went on the de facto state television network to tell Trump’s acolytes watching all over the nation that there will be trials within 12 months. They may be talking about scheduling hangings before too long, knowing these people. Free and fair elections in America were a rumor before this, sadly, and now the ramparts have fallen.
Not that this needs another thing, but the Pentagon announced that after weeks of Trump’s saber-rattling towards Iran, the United States is sending 1,500 more uniformed personnel and a dozen fighter jets to the Middle East in a “mostly protective” role, even though there is no evidence of what they’ll be protecting. So we’re heading towards being on (even more of) a war footing.
I respect the faith of Democratic leadership in the institutions that Trump is trying so desperately to erode in order to evade prosecution and to remain in power, but we are to the point where their reluctance to acknowledge the emergency is putting the rest of us in jeopardy.
Authoritarianism had been a mere theoretical exercise during the early days of Trump’s presidency. It was a discussion to be had as the president exhibited certain tendencies, embraced a despot or five, or ignored a few dozen democratic norms. But now, it’s getting real. The so-called Leader of the Free World wants a promotion. The title isn’t enough for him. Are we going to keep talking about this as if it isn’t actually happening?
There are retaliatory tools available to the Democrats within the system they so treasure, and no, I am not talking about some wordy resolution or proclamation. I’m certainly not talking about the prayers Pelosi said that she said for Trump, nor the intervention that she wants his family to stage. She can lead one of her own, and even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will never allow his removal, the nation’s voters will see the House put the president on trial for his alleged crimes, for which many of us have read the evidence. They will turn on their televisions and see government at work for them, rather than it eating itself for the benefit of Trump’s own salvation.
As Snyder wrote, “It is institutions that help us preserve decency. They need our help as well.” We as citizens can only do so much. At some point, the institutions have to preserve us.