Timothy Snyder's book On Tyranny promises to be great. Perhaps that's why it is so disappointing when you realize that it's not. What could have been one of the most important books of our current times turns out to be just a bit of anti-Trump hysteria.
First, what made it seem good? It is short and small (how can such a tiny book be threatening to the non-reading majority of Americans?). It is written in an accessible style (any junior-high graduate should be able to understand the vocabulary and concepts). The chapters are short (readers need not worry about fitting the book into their lives). It's available at Target, and for a relatively-low price.
All of this accessibility is important because the topic--the threat of American tyranny--is important. This topic could easily lend itself to any number of massive tomes, but this is material that needs to reach the common American. This could have been the Common Sense of our day, the volume that every adult American read and could discuss.
Instead, Snyder is content to hyperventilate about Donald Trump. While the twenty chapter headings are all non-partisan tips for resisting tyranny, the application of each heading is a purely partisan screed that gives the lie to Snyder's supposed concern with tyranny. It's not tyranny Snyder wants us to resist, it's Trump.
Which might not be completely contradictory, if Trump is, in fact, tyrannical. And Trump is the president of the day, so any resistance to tyranny in 2017 is going to be resistance to Trump, right? But Snyder gives no indication that America's march to tyranny had any origin other than the election of Trump. What of Barack Obama's growth of the surveillance state? Would the election of Hillary Clinton have set Snyder's mind completely at ease? Of course a criticism of the American government is going to involve criticizing the president, but Snyder doesn't criticize anything else.
Snyder writes, "European history has seen three major democratic movements: after the First World War in 1918, after the Second World War in 1945, and after the end of communism in 1989" (p. 11). This just isn't true. If Snyder was not an historian, he could be excused not knowing about 1848. But he is an historian, at Yale University. If he wrote, "Twentieth-century Europe has seen three major democratic movements," he'd be absolutely correct (and in line with his book's subtitle: "Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century"). I know any criticism of what is missing can be answered with, "Well, I was trying to keep it short and punchy," but my proposed wording does not increase the word count at all (counting hyphenated words as single words), and only increased the character count by eight (and that chapter has room for six more lines of material on its last page).
I see this as symptomatic of Snyder's tendency to simplify history beyond its breaking point. While he starts the book acknowledging the tyrannical nature of both fascism and communism, it is the fascists that come in for more of the criticism. He writes of disillusioned voters being ripe for picking by fascist politicians and "post-truth is pre-fascism" (p. 71), but in the twentieth century, more people were killed by left-wing post-truth tyranny than by right-wing post-truth tyranny.
"But it's the right-wing version we face today!" Is it? Again, Snyder seems to think so, but the way I see it, the threat of tyranny is coming from both sides. Snyder writes an entire chapter on establishing a private life (Chapter 14) with no mention of Edward Snowden, Barack Obama, and the NSA. He writes two chapters on resisting Groupthink phrasing (Chapter 9 and Chapter 17) with no mention of campus speech codes and the persecution of those deemed politically incorrect. Tyranny has many faces, Tim, not just (in the words of John Oliver) the "smug and somewhat gassy" face of Donald Trump. You should ask your former colleague Erika Christakis if the face of tyranny ever resembles a Yale student.
Campus fascists are clearly not in Snyder's concept of tyranny. He writes, "It is those who were considered exceptional, eccentric, or even insane in their own time--those who did not change when the world around them did--whom we remember and admire today" (p. 52). Does Snyder speak so highly of those who resist the imposition of non-binary pronouns on the verbiage choices of others? Or what about when Snyder writes this?
You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual--and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism. [p. 66]Would Snyder condemn the "renunciation of reality" inherit in Kim Q. Hall's paper "'Not Much to Praise in Such Seeking and Finding': Evolutionary Psychology, the Biological Turn in the Humanities, and the Epistemology of Ignorance," wherein Hall complains that biological concepts of gender lead to "hostility and intolerance" towards "feminist insights" into gender? Was pre-transition Caitlyn Jenner being Woman of the Year a contributing force to tyranny? Well, since it wasn't Trump's doing, Snyder doesn't feel any need to look into it.
Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny could have been a seminal book in American history. Instead, it is echo-chamber literature for those terrified of Donald Trump. The chapter titles and the abstract introducing each chapter forms the outline of a great book that needs to be written. Maybe someday someone else will do it. Snyder didn't have time because he was presumably sharing anti-Trump memes on his friends' Facebook timelines.