Last Updated on March 3, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1058
Snyder notes that when American media was underplaying the chances of Trump’s election to power, there was only one group of observers who thought otherwise: “east Europeans and those who study east Europe.” To these individuals, “much about the president’s campaign was familiar, and the final outcome was no surprise.” In the end, they proved far better political pundits than seasoned American pollsters. According to Snyder, east European observers, such as Ukrainian journalists, were more successful in calling the 2016 elections because they have long witnessed the politics of Russian misinformation.
In 2013, Russian propaganda targeted Ukraine, much as they did the United States in 2016, to which Ukrainian journalists reacted sharply and swiftly. However, American media did not do so when Russians targeted Hilary Clinton in 2016 and ultimately ensured that their desired candidate came to power in Washington. Americans did not draw from the experience of other nations. Snyder states that this American insularity to world issues makes them vulnerable to tyranny. Most Americans do not possess passports, which they see as a sign of “surrender” to foreign influences. According to Snyder, having a passport and travelling to other countries is in fact liberating. It gets people out of their respective nation’s bubble and encourages them to view the links between global events and movements. Therefore, getting a passport and becoming interested in other countries is essential to strengthen democracy.
Snyder states that the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt explained the Fascist way to destroy all existing democratic rules. By framing the present moment as exceptional, the Nazis could create a sense of emergency among the public and convince them that exceptional times call for exceptional measures. In modern times, governments use terms such as “extremism” and “terrorism” to evoke a similar atmosphere of urgency. When basic survival is perceived as being under threat, people are encouraged to submit all power to the government’s authority.
While terrorism is a real threat in contemporary times, Snyder asserts that it is also used by politicians to create a sense of fear among people and give up their democratic rights. However, it is a fallacy to suggest that freedom and safety are in conflict. The idea that people must give up freedom to achieve safety is erroneous. In fact, the more freedoms people give up, the less safe they become. By forcing people to give up personal freedoms for safety, the government becomes less responsible for putting in the work to make the nation secure. “Extremism” becomes a scare tactic in such cases, and the worst example of extremism is ironically the government itself.
The Reichstag or Parliament Fire of 1933 marks the “archetype of terror management,” because the Nazis exploited an emotional moment to seize power. In 1933, the parliament building in Berlin mysteriously caught fire, and Hitler immediately declared a state of emergency. People’s basic rights were suspended, and political opponents were detained whenever convenient—all in a supposed attempt to locate the arsonists. Convinced Germany was under internal attack, the parliament gave Hitler absolute power. Hitler used that power to keep Germany in a state of emergency for the next twelve years and slaughter millions of Jews, dissidents, and minorities.
Moments like this are key in cementing the power of tyrants. According to Snyder, when Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia in 1999, he was a relatively unknown figure. The following month, the Russian secret police planted and detonated bombs in buildings around the country. Putin then deceptively placed the blame for the bombings on Muslims in Chechnya, declaring the need for revenge against them. Putin’s approval ratings skyrocketed, and he has subsequently used real and engineered terrorist attacks to destroy important Russian institutions, such as privately owned television stations and the administrations of regional governors.
According to Snyder, since his return to power in 2012, Putin has exploited the threat of terrorism similarly to threaten democracies in other countries. In 2014, Putin sent Russian soldiers in disguise to create terror in Ukraine to justify his own invasion of the country. Snyder states that Russian hackers also attacked a French television station in 2015, impersonating the radical Islamist terror organization ISIS and whipping up hysteria against Europe’s Muslim population. Russia also initiated a bombing campaign against civilians in Syria in 2016, forcing Syrians to flee to asylum-offering Germany and then subsequently creating panic about the influx of Muslim Syrians in Europe.
This “terror-management” strategy perfected by Putin is something that Trump wants to emulate, according to Snyder. Using a Reichstag-like “moment of shock” is a tried and tested strategy used by tyrants across the ages. Therefore, people must be skeptical of such moments and learn to distinguish real threats from manufactured fears.
A common and important theme that runs through chapters 16-18 is the authoritarian methodology of the Putin government in contemporary Russia. Snyder strikingly positions the events in Russia as a parallel to those in contemporary United States, exhorting readers to see the similarities and take caution against the adoption of such extreme strategies in America. Such caution is essential because Donald Trump has often shown signs of modelling himself on Putin, who is seen as a tough, draconian leader acting in extra-democratic ways.
One of the strategies Putin uses is exploiting global fears about terrorism and extremism. Using both real and manufactured terrorist attacks, Putin has increased state control over impartial institutions and reduced the power of federal governments. Like all tyrants, Putin does not like sharing power or information. Donald Trump, too, fans fears about the other, perpetuating the idea that American jobs and values are under threat from outsiders. Further, autocrats like Putin, Trump, and their global counterparts perpetuate the paternalistic myth that to keep a people safe from terror, the government requires their absolute obedience. This trade-off between safety and freedom turns adults into children and robs citizens of their agency.
Another advantage of highlighting the commonalities between Putin and Trump is to encourage Americans to view themselves as global citizens. By travelling to different countries and understanding the viewpoints of different nationalities, people can expand their worldviews and develop better critical-thinking skills. There is also a note of dark humor in Snyder’s advice to get a passport. Snyder implies that in case things get bad, international connections and travel documents can enable Americans to flee a tyrannical regime.
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