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A lesson from history about how freedom can turn into tyranny

In the Boston Globe, Yale historian Timothy Snyder explores the lie that the election was being stolen from Donald Trump — and the challenge facing American democracy when a large group of Americans believe it. 

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
President Donald Trump
Yale historian Timothy Snyder is a brave and brilliant explorer and explainer of issues relating to freedom, and what history tells us about how freedom can turn into tyranny. His most famous book is a very short one, “On Tyranny,” which blew me away when I read it years ago.

His most recent short piece, published by the Boston Globe, looked at how Donald Trump’s lie that the election was being stolen from him and the fact that a large minority of Americans who are members of Trump’s cult believe it, and how it fits into the larger challenge facing American democracy.

If the losing side in an election clings to the belief that the election was stolen, that belief is a breeding ground for a great many negative attitudes that are now proliferating among the perhaps up to 40 percent of the electorate who are sturdy Trumpists.

The headline of the Globe piece, linked below, is “Trump’s big election lie pushes America toward autocracy.” In it, Snyder draws analogies to the interwar period in Germany, when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose in part by arguing that Germany had not lost World War I on the battlefield, but that Jews and other internal enemies had conspired to surrender when the war could have been won. That falsehood was known as “the stab in the back.” 

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Snyder picks up on the dangers from the millions of Trump-loving Americans who believe that the president didn’t lose. Among those conspiracy theorists Snyder mentions is former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who said on Fox News that the theft is being “financed by people like George Soros,” a wealthy Jew whose name is sometimes used to bring anti-Semitism into right-wing rhetoric.

Writes Snyder:

The German myth of a stab in the back did not doom German democracy immediately. But the conspiracy theory did help Nazis make their case that some Germans were not truly members of the nation and that a truly national government could not be democratic…

Democracy can be buried in a big lie. Of course, the end of democracy in America would take an American form. In 2020 Trump acknowledged openly what has been increasingly clear for decades: The Republican Party aims not so much to win elections as to game them.

This strategy has its temptations: The more you care about suppressing votes, the less you care about what voters want. And the less you care about what voters want, the closer you move to authoritarianism. Trump has taken the next logical step: Try to disenfranchise voters not only before but after elections.

The results of the 2020 elections could be read to mean that Republicans can fight and win on the issues. Reading the results as fraudulent instead will take Republicans, and the country, on a very different journey, through a cloud of magical thinking toward violence.

If you have been stabbed in the back, then everything is permitted. Claiming that a fair election was foul is preparation for an election that is foul. If you convince your voters that the other side has cheated, you are promising them that you yourself will cheat next time. Having bent the rules, you then have to break them. History shows the danger in the familiar example of Hitler. When politicians break democracy, as conservatives in Weimar Germany did in the early 1930s, they are wrong to think that they will control what happens next. Someone else will emerge who is better adapted to the chaos and who will wield it in ways that they neither want nor expect. The myth of victimhood comes home and claims its victims.

Snyder’s full Boston Globe piece is here.

It’s worth remembering that in the case of Germany, the alleged “stab in the back” happened in 1918, as did the creation of the myth. Hitler didn’t come to power until 1933.

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It’s possible, but hard to imagine someone in Germany in 1918 saying something like: “I’m glad the government decided to surrender, but I wonder if we should have waited longer, lost more battles and more troops, so it would be clear to the hard-liners that we had no realistic chance of winning the war.”

But in the later ’30s and into the war years after Germany started losing, the opposite lesson seemed to have landed. The Nazis fought on and on, wasting tens or hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides, until the country was almost totally destroyed.

It’s creepy how committed most of the Trumpers are to continuing their MAGA war. But at least, for now, the battle is in the legal and political arenas. Few lives, if any, are being lost, unless you count COVID.