As Mark Zuckerberg begins to testify before Congress this week and President Donald Trump accuses the news media of circulating “fake news,” questions about the integrity of the media and foreign interference in United States elections continue to dominate American political discourse. Last week, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder released a new book, “The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America,” in which he reflects on the current state of global democracy and connects modern-day issues to his area of expertise — Eastern European and Russian history.
“The overall idea is that we need history to get our bearing precisely in moments when it seems like everything is up for grabs,” Snyder told the News. The slogan “‘America First’ comes from the 1930s, and it is the idea that the enemies are at home … That is the spirit in which Mr. Trump has governed.”
Snyder’s book, which follows his 2017 New York Times bestseller “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” focuses on the political lessons that can be learned from European history — particularly from the end of the Cold War — and the ways in which modern politics and ideologies flow not just from the west to the east, but also from countries such as Russia to the United States and the United Kingdom. For example, Snyder noted, the concept of “fake news” is not an American idea — it has been around for more than a decade in Russia.
In his interview with the News, Snyder also noted other current phenomena that threaten American democracy, including the “surgical precision” of gerrymandering, the ability of businesses to influence elections through donations, voter suppression laws and interference from abroad.
Snyder’s book highlights what he calls the “collapse of the politics of inevitability” — the notion that, in stable, capitalist nations, democracy naturally arises as the only possible political order. On the contrary, Snyder argues, the emergence of non-democratic political systems in capitalist European nations has led to the propagation of a new political concept, which he calls “the politics of eternity.”
“Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood,” he writes in the book.
It is this new form of political thought that has come to define modern politics, Snyder said.
Last week, Snyder appeared on CNN’s global affairs interview program Amanpour to discuss his new book. During that interview, Christiane Amanpour characterized Snyder’s description of methodical Russian tactics that seek to undermine the United States and its democracy as “chilling.”
“You are describing a supine West,” she said. “The part of the world with the rule of law, with all sorts of checks and balances and institutions that are meant to maintain, as America has always called itself, the exceptional nation.”
Snyder responded that for a nation to be exceptional, it must behave exceptionally.
Snyder told the News that he was inspired to write his new book while doing research on Eastern European history for another book. After various political events, including the 2016 presidential election and the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, he said, he began to see that his research was applicable to western nations.
Snyder also directly criticized Trump’s governing style and his perceived admiration of tyrants.
“He doesn’t really get along with leaders of major democracies — for example, [Chancellor of Germany Angela] Merkel — but he’s very attracted to, and openly admiring of, tyrants, people who get around the system, like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” Snyder told the News. “He’s openly happy when presidents show that they can become authoritarian leaders who can rule indefinitely.”
The Road to Unfreedom has received positive reviews from critics and lay readers alike. Kirkus Reviews called the work “a highly distressing, urgent alarm to awaken Americans to the peril of authoritarianism.”
Ben Kaslow-Zieve ’21, a student in Snyder’s undergraduate history course “Eastern Europe since 1914,” said he plans to read the book and that it addresses a number of important issues.
“It’s great to see Professor Snyder connecting so many of the issues we learn about in his class to the modern political climate,” he said. “The topics his book touches on are central to our democratic system, and history provides a unique lens for us to reflect critically on the state of modern America.”
“The Road to Unfreedom” is 359 pages long.
Niki Anderson | firstname.lastname@example.org