Kai: Hey, everybody, this is Kai. I want to share a little bonus conversation with you in advance of next week's show. This is a segment from our colleagues at the Brian Lehrer Show from about a week ago. It's Brian talking with historian, Timothy Snyder, about consequences.
President Biden was just inaugurated yesterday, and we're all very eager to turn the page into a new era, for sure. There are also enormous questions about whether anyone is going to face consequences for what has happened, for the assault on our democracy, among many other things.
We are very interested in those questions on this show, and we will continue asking them, and that's what this conversation is about. Timothy Snyder is the author of a much-discussed book called On Tyranny, and a scholar of fascism, generally. He wrote an essay in the New York Times magazine about, among other things, the enablers in the Republican Party.
His conversation with Brian is really just a great follow up to several of our episodes from during the election, and the history that we have talked through there. Brian starts by asking Timothy about a point he makes in his Times' essay, when he says that what conspiracy theories often do, is they recast the predators and the villains as the victims, and the victims as the villains. That's where this starts, check it out.
Brian: Can we start with that last idea, first, that conspiracy theories turn victims into PAPS, and PAPS into victims, and how it applies in this case?
Timothy: Yes. We're in this interesting moment in American history where sometimes it can help to look abroad, or to look a little bit back in time and remember the kind of lie that we're being told, the lie that Mr. Trump won the election is familiar and at scale. This is a big lie. It can't be supported by facts. It's obviously self-contradictory. After all, why would there be fraud against him, but not against others? It speaks directly to the worst traditions of the country in which it arose because the idea of fraud, of course, is that Black people voting is fraud. That's the basic idea here.
The thing about a lie like this, which is so grand in scale, and which is so evil in inspiration, is that it becomes a matter of belief. If you believe that you have to disbelieve everyone and everything else because the facts of the world and a lot of the people in the world are against this lie. You end up yourself in a world of belief with like-minded people who are willing to take risks. If you really think this lie is true, then, of course, it demands action, it demands that things be put right.
Brian: You write this particular big lie, reverse is the moral field of American history, and we should see it as part of the long American argument about who deserves representation. Do you see the insurrection last week that led to?
Timothy: This book, it's all one story, and it all has the same logic. Mr. Trump's big lie is that he won the election that he lost. The undertone, of course, is if you didn't count those votes in Detroit, you didn't count those votes in Philadelphia, you didn't count those votes in Atlanta, then I win. The undertone of that is, if you didn't count those Black people's votes, then I win. When he says he wins by a landslide, what he means is if you only count the white people, then I win in a landslide.
These things that he's saying in 2020, 2021, go way back into American history, into the deepest, most problematic part of American history, which is, who really gets to be represented in our democracy. Mr. Cruz, when he supported Mr. Trump, on January 6th, he issued a statement before that about 1877 and the compromise. Which historians know, and of course many African-Americans will know, is the moment when it became legitimate in the United States to apply policies of segregation and discrimination, and voter suppression against African-Americans. That's no coincidence.
Of course, Mr. Trump's big lie led to not just a mass or a mob swarming or invading the Capitol, it led to specifically white supremacists storming the capitol and claiming that it's theirs. That's what I meant by an old American arguing about who gets to be represented. Do you get to be represented because you're a citizen and you have a vote, or do you get to be represented because you're an angry white person?
Brian: It's a piece of history that more Americans should know more about, and some compromise. It's called the compromise of 1877. As you point out in the article, in that case, there really was a dispute over whose Electoral College member should be seated in some cases, but some compromise, "I'll let your state's electoral vote count, but in exchange, we're going to end reconstruction and start Jim Crow."
Timothy: "We'll let your guy be president, but in exchange, federal power is going to be withdrawn from the south, and we're going to institute a regime basically of apartheid, which is going to last for the better part of a century, and which is going to haunt the American conscious and American politics, up to the present day. That's the compromise of 1877.
Brian: My guest is Timothy Snyder, historian of fascism. His book is On Tyranny. His New York Times essay is the American Abyss. Maybe you read it this week. You're right that the lie outlasts the liar. You use a Hitler analogy regarding his biggest big lie about German-Jews, and you wonder how Trump's myth of victimhood will function in American life 15 years from now. Can you describe first that particular part of the Hitler story, and then why you brought it up in relation to this?
Timothy: The big lie that I had in mind with Interwar Germany, is the idea of a stab in the back. Germany lost the first world war for simple reasons. It lost the first world war because it had to fight a war on two fronts because the Americans joined the war. Even though Germany basically won on the Eastern front, they got beat on the Western front in 1918 by the Americans supporting the French and the British, and a number of other allies. It's not that complicated. They lost a million men in the summer and fall of 1918, a million Americans were arriving at the same time, they were beaten.
The story that the German commanders told was, "We didn't lose. We never lost the war. We were betrayed on the home front by the left, we were betrayed on the home front by the Jews. This story, which became known as the stab in the back, starts in 1918. The reason, of course, it's troubling for me, and what I think about the American future, is that that story is still present 15 years on, when those commanders are no longer commanding a war, when we're in a different situation, when we're in a great depression, when the Nazis are rising to power, that stab in the back story is part of Hitler's antisemitism.
It's a part of an even bigger lie that Hitler tells about the Jews being responsible for everything, which is wrong for Germany. That's why I'm wondering about this, and it's why I think America is always at a crossroads for a lot of reasons, but also with respect to simple truth and lies. If Republicans, because they have a particular responsibility here, if Republican leaders succeed in keeping this lie going past the Trump era, then Republican politics can become a competition to see who gets to be the bearer of the story of martyrdom. This is what Mr. Cruz and Mr. Hawley are clearly trying to do.
Who gets to tell their voters that they were the martyrs, that they were the ones who were betrayed, they were the ones who were stabbed in the back, they were the ones who deserve revenge? This is what I worry about. Because history tells us that the person who invents the lie isn't necessarily the person who then later brings it to terrible fruition.
Brian: Listeners, we can take some phone calls for Timothy Snyder. I see some of you are calling in already. That's great. 646-435-7280. I want to let him lay out a little bit more of the argument from his essay before we go to the phones. To follow up on what you've just said, on the model of the gamers versus the breakers in the Republican Party, do you think people like Senator Josh Hawley, who you name, really want to break democracy?
Timothy: It seems to me that there's a pattern here, and the pattern, not just today with Hawley and Cruz and McConnell and so on, but the pattern going back to Reagan, really, is that you have this tension in the Republican Party between people who are angry at the system, so-called, and the fact that the Republican Party basically exists by managing the system. That's a tension.
The tension has been overcome by various kinds of ideological maneuvers by saying, "We're governing against the government," or, "We're governing against the elites," or, "We're going to go work for government to make government smaller." The tension is always there. Inherently, the Republican Party is a managing party. It manages elections, it manages a good part of the economy, but a lot of it's voter base, and some of its leaders, are interested in some kind of revolution or some kind of dramatic change.
I think what Mr. Trump's big lie did was make this fissure visible and more real. Because the people who are basically gamers, like Senator McConnell, they went with it for a while thinking that it would peter out. They were with Trump so long as they could get things out of Trump. Then you have people like Mr. Cruz or Mr. Hawley, who of course, just like Mr. McConnell, and for that matter, Mr. Trump, know that the whole thing is a lie. They know the whole thing is a scam and a grift, of course, but they see potential in the lie itself in for the future.
Of course, if you take a big lie like this into the future, what you're saying is, we, not just Mr. Trump, should be allowed to win when he loses, but I should be allowed to win when I lose. When I run for president in 2024, I want to see this same scenario. If I don't win the electoral college, I'm going to cry fraud, and I'm going to expect that Congress is going to appoint me, assuming that there were enough Republicans in Congress to do that.
I want to explain it, but the short answer to your question is yes. I think that anybody who voted against the confirmation of the electoral college vote should probably be considered someone who is not really in favor of American representative democracy. I think the people who led that charge, who opportunistically led that charge, knowing that they were telling a lie or repeating one, namely Sanders, Hawley, and Cruz are most clearly suspect of being people who would be happy to take power amidst the ruins.
Brian: Devin in Bed-Stuy, you're on WNYC with historian of fascism, Timothy Snyder. Hi, Devin.
Devin: Hi. Thanks so much for taking my call. A huge fan, Brian. My question for the guest, how do we hold these kind of white supremacist tactics and these people accountable while we also not handing a ton of power over to the FBI and the CIA and these counter-terrorism forces who historically, they'll be created to go off right away things and then end up being used against Muslims, marginalized communities, the left. I'm sorry, I'm a little nervous, Brian.
Brian: You're doing great, Devin. Don't worry about it.
Devin: There's already an indication of a bargain adding funding to these things. How do we ensure that those things don't get turned towards the left and towards marginalized communities?
Timothy: It's a great question because historically, not just historically, but in the last four years, that's what's happened. If you look at Homeland Security, Homeland Security's own reports indicate that the greatest terrorist threat into the United States is white supremacy. That's what they say. If you look at their actions in 2020, you see all kinds of twisting and turning in order to make the case that one should really be worried about Black Lives Matter.
One part of the answer is that, I think with Biden, there will be a turn away from that emphasis, from this reflexive Republican claim or this reflexive claim that whatever might be happening on the right, what's happening on the left is worse. The numbers just don't bear that out, which is my second point. It's important, I think, for people to be aware of and to repeat that the numbers just show, the facts just show that in the US, and this has been true for years now, the threat from white supremacist, domestic terrorism is much greater than left-wing terrorism, or than Islamic terrorism. If you care about terrorism and violence, that's where the resources should actually be devoted.
Then the third thing that I would point out, because I share your concern about overreaching agencies and unclear mandates, is that we have to have specific individual responsibility for what happened on the 6th of January. Every single person who breached the Capitol that day committed at least one crime, and probably more. I realize there's a presumption of innocence, but for God's sake, at least trespassing, it's clear they all committed, and many of them, much, much more.
There's a problem of a culture of impunity here where these people thought they could just walk in and walk out. It has to be clear that that doesn't happen, and this specifically applies to the president of United States. He is the walking embodiment of a culture of impunity, or if you like it, lead impunity. He as an individual has to be treated like other individuals would be treated. He's not above the law. He has to bear responsibility for this.
Kia: That was historian Timothy Snyder talking with WNYC's Brian Lehrer. For those of you here in New York, you are no doubt already quite familiar with Brian. He's been convening the city and the region every day for decades, and he is not slowing down. In fact, Brian will be convening a weekly national conversation on public radio stations around the country for the first 100 days of the Biden administration. It starts tonight, the day after the inauguration, and I will be joining him tonight and for several of those shows. Be sure to join us. It's every Thursday at 8:00 PM Eastern. You can stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speakers to “play WNYC.”
Otherwise, I will see you for our next show right here in the feed. Talk to you soon. Thanks.
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