Chapter 19–Epilogue Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on March 3, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1316

Chapter 19

Snyder explores the difference between being a patriot and a nationalist, showing how patriotism is a resistance to tyranny. Using the example of Donald Trump’s behavior, Snyder first defines what patriotism is not: It is neither a dodging of a military draft nor a denigration of the military. Patriotism does not involve campaigning to keep disabled veterans away from their own party, evading taxes, and admiring foreign dictators like Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Vladimir Putin. It is not patriotic to make political appointments of people with dubious interests in Russia or to cite Russian propaganda at rallies. 

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The point here is not that America and Russia must be enemies but that it is patriotic for a president to act in the interest of actual American people and to serve one’s own country. The president is a nationalist, someone who may project grandiose ideas such as national honor, victory, and an inflated sense of past glory, but he does little to improve the day-to-day lives of citizens. A nationalist encourages a country’s worst xenophobic values, while a patriot evokes a nation’s best ideals of universal welfare and justice. A patriot also learns from the lessons of history and knows that democratic institutions need to be actively guarded. A nationalist believes the false promise that extremism cannot take root in their country.

Chapter 20

In his succinct final rule, Snyder reminds people to be as courageous as they can: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, all of us will die under tyranny.”

Epilogue

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the eponymous hero, shocked by the rise of an evil ruler, declares that “the time is out of joint.” Hamlet at least knew that something was rotten in the state of Denmark, but according to Snyder, contemporary Americans do not realize that America and the world is slipping into a dangerous time. Snyder firstly attributes this complacency and myopia to the “politics of inevitability”—the sense that after the end of communism in 1991, history can move only in the direction of liberal democracy. Since bad times are believed to be firmly in the past, people cannot even imagine that history may unfold differently. Though “inevitability politicians” acknowledge a historic past, present, and future, they posit the future as a utopia of expanding capitalistic opportunities and globalization. But in their optimistic vision of the future, they forget that communist regimes, too, promised their people an “inevitable socialist utopia.”

According to Snyder, accepting the inevitability of history stifles political debate and places citizens in an “intellectual coma.” Since the promised future is projected as bright, those who question such an outcome are seen as unduly pessimistic. Further, the doctrine of inevitability encourages the notion that even if people desire change, change is not possible. If change occurs, it must be “disruptive,” to borrow a term from technological analysis. However, disruptive change is a one-time event that does not change the course of history, notes Snyder. True political change is a process.

The second ahistorical way of viewing the past that makes people resist change is the “politics of eternity.” Nationalist leaders are especially fond of this viewpoint, which paints the nation’s past as a perfect, golden age. Creating a narrative of national victimhood, nationalist leaders lament that this golden past has been sullied by external enemies and internal foes. Snyder notes that these views have nothing to do with the actual facts of history. Those who advocated for Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union, imagined an ideal British nation-state, though such a state never existed in history. The right-wing National Front in France similarly imagines a French nation free of Europe, though France, like Britain, has always existed as an empire with a complex web of connections or as a part of the European Union.

Donald Trump indulges in a similar politics of eternity, with his promise to “Make America great again” imagining an ahistorical past. The “again” Trump promises has no predecessor. Snyder further notes that Trump’s slogan of “America First” is borrowed from the name of an American committee that opposed the United States’ fighting the Nazis in the 1930s. Trump’s supporters often admiringly refer to the 1930s as a time when disastrous regime changes shook up the status quo and returned nations to their glorious history. Currently, America seems to be transitioning from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity. When the notion of a supposedly glorious future crumbles, people often scramble to look at the supposedly glorious past for guidance. Tyrants like Trump exploit this vulnerability.

Since both the politics of inevitability and eternity are anti-historical, people must take a more balanced approach grounded in the study of history. Understanding historical processes enables people to see patterns linking past and present and take action to prevent the mistakes of the past taking root in the present. A historical approach also helps demolish the notion of a perfect, mythical past and teaches people to act now. Since young Americans have been fed the concept of the American dream, the idea that the future is perennially bright and progressive, they have not truly engaged with history. As the American dream crumbles, they may lapse into the dangerous politics of eternity. Or, like Hamlet, they may decide to say, “Nay, come, let’s go together,” and choose to make a difference.

Analysis

On Tyranny analyzes the important distinction between nationalism and patriotism. The two discrete concepts are often confused, and the notion of nationalism is weaponized to legitimize power without accountability. Unlike nationalism, patriotism is accountable. A patriotic government answers questions and puts people first, whereas a nationalist government, such as that of Trump or Putin, is above question and prioritizes the mythical nation state above its people. Snyder makes the important point here that a nation is not its imagined past. It is not even its empty symbols. A nation is its people: the poor, the taxpayers, the soldiers, and the students. Patriots serve these people, whereas nationalists erase their rights in the name of meaningless concepts.

Snyder’s attention to contemporary global politics continues in the final three chapters of the text, lending a sense of urgency to the narrative. By discussing the developments in contemporary Europe and the United States, Snyder shows how the dangers of history are not abstract but close at hand. He deconstructs how contemporary governments use the threats of terrorism and extremism to divide their people and enable greater state control of their lives. Further, he examines the current trend of the politics of eternity, where national narratives fixate on an imaginary, pure past. Brexit is a good example of such a movement, because it is based on a vision of a stand-alone British nation-state, which historically has never existed. Snyder’s use of the examples of Britain and Russia also helps readers connect the dots and see that the processes of history are often similar in different countries.

Grounding these historical processes are economic realities. For example, Trump’s notion of making America great again gained traction because the future began to lose its appeal. As real and perceived inequalities grew at the turn of the twenty-first century, more and more vulnerable Americans were left in a position that leaders like Trump could exploit. 

However, Snyder makes it clear that this does not mean people should shed individual responsibility in order to resist extremism. The proper counter to the politics of eternity—this movement towards a mythical past—is to stay grounded in historical reality. By educating oneself and aligning oneself with the facts, people can resist the urge for instant solutions and promised transformations. Finally, people must stop viewing themselves as history’s victims and instead become history’s actors. By taking action that promotes sound and fair social and political values, people can strengthen their societies.

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Chapters 16–18 Summary and Analysis