Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

Today’s Book-Club Issue:

  • To better understand the impact of Russian involvement in American politics, members chose the historian Timothy Snyder’s new book, The Road to Unfreedom, for the Masthead book club.

  • Snyder’s argument: Authoritarians like Russia’s Vladimir Putin convince people that they, as individual citizens, are powerless to address threats to their country. Eroding a belief in facts is a key element of that strategy.

  • He joined members in the Masthead forums to discuss the rise of authoritarianism in Russia and America. We’re sharing an excerpt of that conversation.

What Should We Read Next?

We’re deciding on a book for the month of September. We’ve assembled a list of contenders from member recommendations and our own reading lists that promise rich reading on political tribes, cyber warfare, and the Florida fantastic. Cast your vote here. And let us know your thoughts and suggestions for future book clubs here.

An Authority on Authoritarianism

Why did Masthead members want to hear from Timothy Snyder? He’s a Yale professor and political commentator, best known for deep-diving scholarship on modern European history. In his last best seller, On Tyranny, he applied lessons from war and genocide in 20th-century Europe to the politics of 21st-century America.

Snyder’s new book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, maintains that “declarative authority,” as The Atlantic’s Anna Marks put it in our Masthead summer reading recommendations. In this book, as in On Tyranny, Snyder adopts a Manichaean vision of a global struggle between tyranny and freedom. Russia is an important actor in this universe; President Vladimir Putin’s actions are slowly eroding factuality in favor of totalitarian control. To stave off authoritarianism in their countries, Snyder argues, people must resist the temptation to believe what they’d like to believe and turn instead toward truth. In America, that’s difficult to do when paranoia about the media permeates political talk. But despite Snyder’s bleak vision of the past and present, he says the future does not need to stay the same.

The Essential Snyder: The Death and Rebirth of Facts

Masthead members spent the past several weeks reading Snyder's book and discussing it in the forums. He joined them recently for an in-depth discussion. Here, we’ve synthesized the conversation, adapting parts of members’ comments in bold. Snyder’s responses have been edited for length and clarity. [Read the full conversation.]

An obscure Russian philosopher is essential to understanding Vladimir Putin. Ivan Ilyin, a Mussolini supporter exiled to Germany during World War II, morally justified totalitarianism. Putin’s ideology draws on Ilyin’s thinking.

Timothy Snyder: It’s striking how many times Putin quotes Ilyin in his writing, and in important circumstances. I focus on Ilyin because, as a specific philosopher, he was important to specific people at a critical time. In the book, I wanted to come across very clearly with the claim that ideas do matter in shaping a nation. I believe that we need to think through ideas from the 20th century again, rather than imagine that they have all somehow vanished. They have not. I start with Russia because it seems to me that Russia has reached a certain mature place where ideology is used to defend radical inequality—what I call the “politics of eternity.” Ilyin’s philosophy recalls an international revival of the political theorist and Nazi-associated German jurist Carl Schmitt’s thinking as well. That’s the next figure we might want to pay attention to.

The “politics of eternity,” as Snyder terms it, is an authoritarian narrative that convinces people they are powerless to take on a timeless threat. “Eternity politicians manufacture crisis and manipulate the resultant emotion,” writes Snyder, but ordinary people invite that persuasion, too.

Snyder: In Germany, one of the ways by which National Socialism was able to rise was its clearing out of the facts of the moment in favor of one big story that made sense of everything. That story was more tempting to many Germans during wartime chaos. What happened was that people shifted from a pluralistic media landscape to a monoculture with a big lie. In America, things are different. President Donald Trump relies more on skepticism about various facts, and people’s need to hear what they want to hear. He gestures at big stories, but mostly he pokes at rapid media. Adapting to and accepting his rhetoric means the ability to change your mind all the time without recognizing that you are doing so.

Authoritarians stoke fear by dismantling factuality, or trust in truth. Totalitarian control over the public's sources of information makes that assault on facts easier. The politics of eternity are a more potent threat to Russia and the U.S. with the internet.

Snyder: In my book, I wanted to show how an old idea in intelligence—turn the enemy against himself—had been made much easier by a new technology. There’s a lot of great research on how the internet distracts people. What Russian information agents have done is treat the internet like the great big psychological vulnerability that it is. Many people think that they are in control of their screen time, when in fact they are facing lots of people with lots of clever ideas about how to break them down. The current trend of anti-factuality would be very hard to move forward without this technology that works at the speed of emotion rather than the speed of cognition.

“If all the [American] federal government did was maximize inequality and suppress votes,” Snyder writes in his book, “the U.S., like the Russian Federation, would be in a permanent succession crisis, with no legitimate way to choose leaders.” At the moment, it's not clear if the U.S. will go down that route. One way to tell will be the outcome of Robert Mueller’s investigation, which will act as a kind of barometer for America's risk of authoritarianism.

Snyder: There are many great minds: left, right, and center. I think the real divisions in contemporary politics are between fact versus . fiction and a social contract versus  a friend-enemy dynamic. If we doubt that factuality is worth pursuing and accept that politics begins from choosing enemies, then the rules of law and democracy are sunk. That’s not a left versus. right thing. For me, the Mueller investigation is to be understood as a defense of factuality and of that social contract—that is, that America is a nation of laws. I like that the investigation moves slowly. I think it has be slow and principled, and that we can’t be too concerned about the immediate political consequences. It makes headlines but, like the Watergate investigations, it is really setting norms for the next few decades.

It might seem nearly impossible to challenge the dark, fatalistic landscape cultivated by “eternity politicians,” short of voting those politicians out. But once an individual citizen recognizes they live in that landscape, they can make a difference.

Snyder: Voting is very important. As is getting other people to vote. As is getting the law changed so that it is easier to vote. Merely the concept of voting can lead us to a place where things have the chance to get better. Citizens of a democracy can do a lot of little things that actually do make a difference: marching, paying for investigative journalism, making eye contact, using the internet appropriately … Everyone can take action. I don’t like the idea of red lines, or tipping points into action, because that suggests there are two stages: first, I don’t have to do anything, and second, Now I can’t do anything. I refer to these stages as the “politics of inevitability” and the “politics of eternity.”

It’s very important to read history so that we can recognize patterns and get an early start on preparing ourselves. It’s not that history repeats—it doesn’t, and if it did, it would mean that nothing we do matters. What we do does matter, and it matters more if we can recognize and react quickly to events. Restoring the “dignity of politics” has to begin with individuals and how they comport themselves. A basic issue here is responsibility. An autocrat rules alone, and so takes responsibility for everything. In a democracy, there must be a people who accept responsibility. That’s not easy and takes work and encouragement. But it’s certainly worth it.

Today’s Wrap-Up

  • Today’s Question: What book should The Masthead read next? Tell us here.

  • What’s Coming: We’ll bring you insights from our members’ conversation with our other book-club author, Tara Westover, who wrote the memoir Educated.

  • Your Feedback: We’ve now done book clubs with the authors Jonathan Haidt (see here), Timothy Snyder, and Tara Westover. How are you liking the book-club discussions and Q&As? Anything you’d like to see? Tell us below.

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