Category Archives: Politics – Tyranny

Review of Timothy Snyder’s, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

© Darrell Arnold– (Reprinted with Permission)

In bite-sized chunks of two to eight (short) pages Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University, offers a practical guide to understanding and possibly averting tyranny. [In his new book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.]

At 126 pages, this small paperback is a great, quick read that offers lessons Snyder has accumulated over years of studying tyrannies around the world. His advice, accompanied by anecdotal stories from authoritarian regimes in twenty chapters, includes: Defend institutions, Remember Professional ethics, Believe in truth, Establish a private life, Be a patriot.

In Chapter 4, “Take responsibility for the face of the world,” Snyder asserts that “life is political”: “the minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote” (33). In everyday life, then, we should be attentive to our effect on the social and political world around us. In Hitler’s Germany, for example, small delinquencies in the everyday cascaded into increasingly larger ones: those who were able to be stamped as “pigs” were easier to later boycott because they were Jewish; and they were so much the easier to target more egregiously later. After first dehumanizing them in speech and with symbols, it was later possible to completely dominate them.

In Chapter five, “Remember professional ethics,” Snyder mentions both how legal and medical professionals came to the service of the Nazi regime. Professional lawyers helped twist the law to the Nazi’s perverse ends. Medical professionals proved quite willing to participate in ungodly experiments with Jews to advance medical knowledge. Collectives of professionals who are committed to the ethical codes of their professions can offer some resistance to dehumanizing practices supported by a government. As Snyder notes: “Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional” (41).

In Chapter eight, “Stand Out,” Snyder reminds us of great individuals throughout history, like Rosa Parks, who were not afraid to stand out and follow their consciences in the face of opposing political forces and who set positive examples for the struggle against domination. In various historical examples, we see it is all too easy to accommodate those who dominate. However, Winston Churchill in 1940 was another counter-example, as he entered into war to help Poland, which was largely seen by many others as a lost cause. As Snyder writes: “he himself helped the British to define themselves as a proud people who would calmly resist evil…. Churchill did what others had not done. Rather than concede in advance, he forced Hitler to change his plans” (54ff.).

Chapter 10, entitled “Believe in Truth,” begins with the prescient statement: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights” (65). Once truth is disarmed, and people simply reject it as the adjudicating criteria for belief, politics can quickly descend into spectacle. Hostility toward verification dominates. “Shamanistic incantations,” which Victor Klemperer described as “endless repetition” of some key phrases, takes over: Think of “lock her up” or “Build that wall.” Magical thinking also comes to dominate, accompanying the confused view that one particular political leader alone can solve the nation’s ills. As in the German example, people come to accept that one just needs faith in the “Fuehrer.” Our post-truth culture increases our vulnerability to this. In Snyder’s words: “Post-truth is pre-fascism” (71)

To break the spell of magical thinking and incantation, it is important to “investigate” (Chapter 11). Clearly, much of the information that we encounter every day is false. Some of it is purposefully meant to sew confusion. So it is important to learn to think critically about sources of information and to pursue a correct understanding of the world. As Vaclav Havel had written, “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living in truth” (78).

In “Practice corporal politics” and “Establish a private life” (Chapters 13 and 14), Snyder highlights the need for contact with people in one’s private life, partially in civil society (churches, clubs, organizations). Since “tyrants seek the hook on which to hang you,” he also advises “try not to have hooks.” Secure private information, for example, on your computer. But also publicly we can join groups that preserve human rights (91). This is related to Chapter 15, “Contribute to good causes”: The contribution can be in time or money, but it is a form of active engagement in shaping the world in accord with our own values and views.

In Chapter 16, “Learn from peers in other countries,” Snyder urges us to not only learn from others but to make friends with those in other countries. And in case the tyranny comes, “Make sure you and your family have passports” (95).

In “Be Calm When the Unthinkable Comes,” Chapter 18, we are urged to consider that demagogues often exploit crises to implement Martial law. In the search for safety, it is precisely in times of crisis that people are often more willing to compromise civil liberties and to allow changes in the constitutional order. Realize this, and counter it if it begins to occur. Understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism. In “Be Patriotic,” Chapter 19, Snyder encourages us to serve the ideals of our rights-based democracy, not to be victims of an authoritarian politics carried out by nationalists who are often completely out of sync with the ideals of the nation. Chapter 20 enjoins “Be as courageous as you can”: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny” (115).

Snyder finishes the book with a short epilogue contrasting two views of politics that he views as anti-historical, the “politics of inevitability” with the “politics of eternity.” Inevitability politicians work with a teleological view of history in which the course of history is maintained to be known in advance. It is anti-historical insofar as such a view presumes that there is no real freedom to escape the final end of history. Eternity politicians are anti-historical in another way. They focus on a past, but as an ideal type, not one comprised of real facts. So, eternity politicians refer to the soul of a country, pure, and often under siege by external forces. In contrast, Snyder sees what we might call a politics of freedom under which “history permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something” (125).

This typology is developed further in Snyder’s “The Road to Unfreedom.” Regardless of whether one finds the typology ultimately compelling or accepts Snyder’s apparent moderate liberalism, one may still admire Snyder’s attempt to highlight the importance of human freedom. Those attracted to Snyder’s book, which I hope will be many, are likely to agree with his appeals that we ought to “begin to make history” (126). Otherwise, various authoritarians surely will do it for us.

Since Snyder wrote his book, the possibilities of an increase in authoritarianism, unfortunately, do not appear to be abating. Rather, there increasingly appear to be very good reasons to heed Snyder’s practical suggestions for a politics of resistance.

The New American Civil War


I have written before about the increasing possibility of civil war in America, as did Robin Wright in “Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?

Here are a few more recent developments to help you connect the dots. In “How Democracy dies? Voter Suppression + Court Packing + Killing Net Neutrality,” A. Siegel paints a frightening picture of the future of American “democracy” and the life of its subjects (citizens).

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. He could have added gerrymandering, building an unfair advantage into the census, the proposed virtual elimination of taxes on the super wealthy and corporations which will eventually lead to an attempt to destroy all of America’s limited social safety net, the conservative news bubble owned by the wealthy, the destruction of the State Department, the EPA, the packing of the courts, and more.

Net neutrality is especially important, as rolling it back is an attempt to control and distort information. You can find another piece of the puzzle in Pam Vogel’s: “Sinclair’s conservative news takeover will rock 15 regions.” If these changes go through, even my small voice will essentially be silenced. (For more on the net neutrality issue see “The Internet Is Freedom, and It Is Under Attack.“)

I hope I’m wrong, but I see even darker times ahead. I think the remnants of American democracy are about to collapse. (Since I wrote the above sentence, E. J. Dionne made a similar point in the Washington Post in “Our Political Foundation Is Rotting Away,” and Thomas Edsall wrote about the same issue in his excellent op-ed “The Self-Destruction of American Democracy.“)

Will Trump Fire Mueller?

tyrant is an absolute ruler unrestrained by law or person, or one who has usurped legitimate sovereignty.

I’m 62 years old and have lived through Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Newt Gingrich, Tom Delay, Dick Cheney, and the American glorification of torture. Yet things keep getting worse. It’s hard to know where to begin, but just this year alone we’ve seen the sabotaging of health care, the firing of the FBI director to obstruct justice, the pardon of Arpaio, withdrawl from the Paris climate agreement, nuclear saber rattling, more voter suppression, the EPA  approving dangerous chemicals and silencing of scientists, the undermining of the energy, education, and most of the other governmental departments, and more. And this is all just off the top of my head. Those who are aware and possess a moral compass should either cry or revolt.

And for what? Mostly for a little bit of money. For tax cuts that won’t even make the rich happier. But now I think we are at a crucial moment, and here’s what I think will happen—although I hope that countervailing forces of which I am unaware will prevent this.

As Mueller’s investigation of Trump closes in, I believe Trump will fire Mueller and the Republicans will not object. This depends on how close Mueller gets, but if he uncovers enough of Trump’s crimes then I think the firing is almost inevitable. I hope I’m wrong.

And the Republicans won’t object because their position has been staked out—party over country. We have seen this over and over, most recently with the revelation by PBS Frontline that when the Obama administration and intelligence officials informed Ryan and McConnell in a closed-door meeting that the election was being compromised by Russia, the Republican leaders said they would not join a statement informing the American public of this fact. Here’s one reporter’s commentary on that meeting:

“It’s a moment when politics and partisan positioning appears to take precedence over national security,” Greg Miller of The Washington Post tells FRONTLINE. “In other words, they are so worried about each other, the Democrats and Republicans as adversaries, that they can’t get around the idea that there is a bigger adversary.”

So if Trump fires Mueller and the Republicans don’t object, then the thin reed upon which an already fragile rule of law rests will collapse. If there is no accountability of the executive branch, then nothing prevents it from shutting down opposition media, jailing political opponents, completely looting the treasury, and all the rest.

And McConnell and Ryan aren’t protected from the onslaught either. Like other conservative Republicans—Cantor, Boehner, Flake, Corker, McCain—they too won’t seem sufficiently loyal to Trump, Bannon, the Mercers, the Koch brothers, and all the rest of the suit wearing gangsters. In the end no one is safe from arbitrary power, even the mafia godfather Trump himself must look over his shoulder. Perhaps they will prefer Pence. But even the oligarchs themselves aren’t secure. By unraveling the social stability upon which their fortunes rest, they too become susceptible to the chaos. It is hard to see how undermining the stability of the country is in their long-term interest.

Aristotle said long ago that when human passion rather than reason provides the basis for law, we are all at the mercy of the changing, irrational passions of men. Aristotle was right.

What all this implies is that white Americans might actually experience what African and Native Americans have experienced for centuries—law based on power alone, with considerations of justice being irrelevant. At that point we live under tyranny, as most people have in human history. Perhaps it is our turn?

Summary of Eric Hoffer’s, The True Believer


Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents … Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” ~ Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, October 19, 2017.)

Eric Hoffer (1898 – 1983) was an American moral and social philosopher who worked for more than twenty years as longshoremen in San Francisco. The author of ten books, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983. His first book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), is a work in social psychology which discusses the psychological causes of fanaticism. It is widely considered a classic.


The first lines of Hoffer’s book clearly state its purpose:

This book deals with some peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions or nationalist movements. It does not maintain that all movements are identical, but that they share certain essential characteristics which give them a family likeness.

All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance …

The assumption that mass movements have many traits in common does not imply that all movements are equally beneficent or poisonous. The book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences. It merely tries to explain… (pp. xi-xiii)

Part 1 – The Appeal of Mass Movements

Hoffer says that mass movements begin when discontented, frustrated, powerless people lose faith in existing institutions and demand change. Feeling hopeless, such people participate in movements that allow them to become part of a larger collective. They become true believers in a mass movement that “appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.” (p. 12)

Put another way, Hoffer says: “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the loss of faith in ourselves.” (p. 14) Leaders inspire these movements, but the seeds of mass movements must already exist for the leaders to be successful. And while mass movements typically blend nationalist, political and religious ideas, they all compete for angry and/or marginalized people.

Part 2 – The Potential Converts

The destitute are not usually converts to mass movements; they are too busy trying to survive to become engaged. But what Hoffer calls the “new poor,” those who previously had wealth or status but who believe they have now lost it, are potential converts. Such people are resentful and blame others for their problems.

Mass movements also attract the partially assimilated—those who feel alienated from mainstream culture. Others include misfits, outcasts, adolescents, and sinners, as well as the ambitious, selfish, impotent and bored. What all converts all share is the feeling that their lives are meaningless and worthless.

A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness, and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It cures the poignantly frustrated not by conferring on them an absolute truth or remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves—and it does this by enfolding and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole. (p. 41)

Hoffer emphasizes that creative people—those who experience creative flow—aren’t usually attracted to mass movements. Creativity provides inner joy which both acts as an antidote to the frustrations with external hardships. Creativity also relieves boredom, a major cause of mass movements:

There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom. In almost all the descriptions of the periods preceding the rise of mass movements there is reference to vast ennui; and in their earliest stages mass movements are more likely to find sympathizers and
support among the bored than among the exploited and oppressed. To a deliberate fomenter of mass upheavals, the report that people are bored still should be at least as encouraging as that they are suffering from intolerable economic or political abuses. (pp. 51-52)

Part 3 – United Action and Self-Sacrifice

Mass movements demand of their followers a “total surrender of a distinct self.” (p. 117) Thus a follower identifies as “a member of a certain tribe or family.” (p. 62) Furthermore, mass movements denigrate and “loathe the present.” (p. 74) By regarding the modern world as worthless, the movement inspires a battle against it.

What surprises one, when listening to the frustrated as the decry the present and all its works, is the enormous joy they derive from doing so. Such delight cannot come from the mere venting of a grievance. There must be something more—and there is. By expiating upon the incurable baseness and vileness of the times, the frustrated soften their feeling of failure and isolation … (p. 75)

Mass movements also promote faith over reason and serve as “fact-proof screens between the faithful and the realities of the world. (p. 79)

The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude … presented as the embodiment of the one and only truth. If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable. One has to get to heaven or the distant future to determine the truth of an effective doctrine … simple words are made pregnant with meaning and made to look like symbols in a secret message. There is thus an illiterate air about the most literate true believer. (pp. 80-81).

So believers ignore truths that contradict their fervent beliefs, but this hides the fact that,

The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual sources … but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. The passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the sources of all virtue and strength … He sacrifices his life to prove his worth … The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to reason or his moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. (p. 85).

Thus the doctrines of the mass movement must not be questioned—they are regarded with certitude—and they are spread through “persuasion, coercion, and proselytization.” Persuasion works best on those already sympathetic to the doctrines, but it must be vague enough to allow “the frustrated to … hear the echo of their own musings in … impassioned double talk.” (p. 106)  Hoffer quotes Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels: “a sharp sword must always stand behind propaganda if it is to be really effective.” (p. 106) The urge to proselytize comes not from a deeply held belief in the truth of doctrine but from an urge of the fanatic to “strengthen his own faith by converting others.” (p. 110)

Moreover, mass movements need an object of hate which unifies believers, and “the ideal devil is a foreigner.” (p. 93) Mass movements need a devil. But in reality, the “hatred of a true believer is actually a disguised self-loathing …” and “the fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure.” (p. 85) Through their fanatical action and personal sacrifice, the fanatic tries to give their life meaning.

Part 4 – Beginning and End

Hoffer states that three personality types typically lead mass movements: “men of words”, “fanatics”, and “practical men of action.” In the beginning: “men of words” lead the movements. (Regarding the radical positions of the Republicans and Trumpism in the USA think of the late William F. Buckley.) Men of words try to “discredit the prevailing creeds” and creates a “hunger for faith” which is then fed by “doctrines and slogans of the new faith.” (p. 140) Slowly followers emerge.

Then fanatics take over. (In the USA think of the Koch brothers, Murdoch, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity, etc.) Fanatics don’t find solace in literature, philosophy or art. Instead, they are characterized by viciousness, the urge to destroy, and the perpetual struggle for power. But after mass movements transform the social order, the insecurity of their followers is not ameliorated. At this point, the “practical men of action” take over and try to lead the new order by further controlling their followers.

In the end mass movements that succeed often bring about a social order worse than the previous one. (This was one of Will Durant’s findings in The Lessons of History.) As Hoffer puts it near the end of his work: “All mass movements … irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred, and intolerance.” (p. 141)


Comey’s Firing: Do We Live in a Kleptocracy?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 17, 2017.)

Every time I sit down to write about something I want to write about—like how to find meaning in a secular age, or the significance of the imminent birth of my new granddaughter—I find my reverie interrupted by the political turmoil surrounding me.

Yesterday’s firing of FBI director James Comey, the most important law enforcement official investigating the Trump White House not appointed by that administration, is more than deeply disturbing. For if no truly independent investigation is forthcoming, then we will never know the extent of the current regime’s crimes. With control of the White House, both branches of Congress, law enforcement, increasing control of the judiciary and law enforcement, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and all the rest, we may really be moving to the unthinkable—a banana republic with one party rule, show trials, and kangaroo courts. And don’t say it can’t happen here; that America is exceptional. It can and America is not.

Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum caputured the fundamental issue in, “This Is Not A Drill,” published in The Atlantic. Frum wonders if the integrity of our government is being fatally undermined: “If this firing stands—and if Trump dares to announce a pliable replacement—the rule of law begins to shake and break. The law will answer to the president, not the president to the law.” So which will it be? If it is the former, if the rule of law is null and void, then there is nothing left to protect any of us from the autocratic whims of the President and his apparatchiks.

And in The New York Times Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the previous three Republican administrations, pleaded with his fellow Republicans in “Don’t Be Complicit:”

A powerful, independent person Mr. Trump did not appoint and whose investigation he clearly feared has been summarily fired. Given his volatility and vindictiveness, his Nietzschean ethic and his overpowering narcissism, this is exactly what one would expect of Mr. Trump.

The fear many Trump critics have had is that he is, as I put it just after the inauguration, a transgressive personality and a man of illiberal tendencies who was unlikely to be contained by norms and customs. He would not use power benevolently but unwisely, recklessly, and in ways that would undermine our democratic institutions and faith in our government.

I desperately hope a few Republicans will heed Mr. Wehner’s pleas, but I’m skeptical. No doubt many congressional Republicans despise Trump, but they all want to be reelected too. Unfortunately to do so they need the support of Trump’s devoted and delusional fan base, so almost all future candidates will probably continue to follow the party line. (Notice that no congressional Republicans have yet called for an independent prosecutor, and only a handful have expressed even the mildest concerns.) I seriously doubt that they will do anything that would be harmful to the Republican brand.

On the other hand, perhaps congressional Republicans will let an independent prosecutor be appointed in the hope that Trump might resign before being impeached. Then Pence would become President, something that many of them would undoubtedly prefer.

Still I doubt that too. With the goal of near complete control of government within their grasp, powerful Republicans will not suddenly retreat. Those attracted to power rarely let principle intervene when on power’s doorstep. The Republicans find their newfound power exhilarating, and all they want to do is use it. Orwell taught us this years ago:

Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

As for negative public reaction, I don’t think the Republicans care. The public is pretty much disenfranchised anyway—by gerrymandering, voter suppression, big money in politics, and 24/7 propaganda. I hate to say it, and I’m sorry that some of my predictions seem to be coming true, but we are now live in a kleptocracy. In the meantime the wealthiest will get their tax cuts, ordinary citizens will be denied health-care, the poor will still be incarcerated in high-tech dungeons, the environment will get more polluted and the climate more extreme, the mentally ill and the unlucky will continue to live on the streets, and more wars will be fought and bombs dropped.

With moral and intellectual excellence denigrated, with power and hyper masculinity praised, the nation itself, like so many of its desperately suffering citizens, is increasingly psychotic.