In an interview with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder said the threat posed by President Donald Trump means “we have at most a year to defend the Republic” and highlighted the role chief strategist Stephen Bannon is playing in that threat, including the administration’s interaction with the media.
The Trump presidency has created no shortage of concerns about the stability of the republic. Trump has waged an unrelenting war on the press for more than a year, personally attacking dozens of journalists, falsely decrying entire news organizations as “fake news,” and even going so far as to shout down CNN’s Jim Acosta for asking a question at a press conference. It’s not just Trump, either -- Bannon, formerly of Breitbart.com, attacked the mainstream media as “the opposition party,” demanding that media “keep its mouth shut” and listen to Trump. Bannon is also known for formerly running a website that pushes pro-white nationalist viewpoints, dog-whistling to neo-Nazis, and infecting the current administration with anti-immigrant policies.
In the February 7 interview, Snyder commented on Bannon’s interaction with the media specifically, noting that he “says in essence that he misleads the public and the media deliberately” and that Bannon’s goal is “the extinction of the whole political system.” Snyder also says the media is “worse” in America now than it was during Nazi Germany, because it is “very polarized and very concentrated.” In addition, Snyder explains that Bannon’s use of the term “opposition” when describing the media is an indicator of talk about an “authoritarian state” because it suggests some type of regime change:
How similar is the situation between Germany of the 1930s and today’s United States?
Of course, not everything is similar. Some things are better now than they were in the 1930s but some things are worse. The media is worse, I would say. It is very polarized and it is very concentrated. In Germany before the state shut down German newspapers, there was authentic variety that we don’t have now. People in the 1930s generally had longer attention spans than we do. On the other side, the United States is a larger country, with pockets of wealth distributed widely, and it is more connected to the world. The main advantage that we have is that we can learn from the 1930s. Again, it’s very important to stress that history does not repeat. But it does offer us examples and patterns, and thereby enlarges our imaginations and creates more possibilities for anticipation and resistance.
President Trump’s political strategist, Steve Bannon, has said that he wants to „make life as exciting as it was in the 1930s“. The first two weeks have shown how big his influence is, it seems much bigger than Reince Priebus’s or Jared Kushner’s.
I can’t speak to intra-White House conflicts. I can only say that Mr. Trump’s inaugural address was extremely ideological. During the campaign he used the slogan “America First” and then was informed that this was the name of a movement that tried to prevent the United States from fighting Nazi Germany and was associated with nativists and white supremacists. He claimed then not to have known that. But in the inaugural address he made “America First” his central theme, and now he can’t say that he doesn’t know what it means. And of course Bannon knows what it means. America First is precisely the conjuration of this alternative America of the 1930s where Charles Lindbergh is the hero. This inaugural address reeked of the 1930s.
When Bannon calls himself a „Leninist“, do Americans know what is he talking about?
No, they usually have no idea. It is a good question. Americans have this idea that comes from Jefferson and the American Revolution that you have to rebel every so often. And they sometimes don’t make the distinction between a rebellion against injustice and the extinction of the whole political system, which is what Bannon says that he is after. The American Revolution actually preserved ideas from Britain: the rule of law being the most important. The whole justification of the American Revolution was that the British were not living up to their own principles, were not including Americans in their own system. In a broad way that that was also the argument of the civil rights movement: the system fails itself when it does not extend equal rights to all citizens. So there can be resistance and even revolution which is about meeting standards rather than about simple destruction. What Bannon says correctly about the Bolsheviks was that they aimed to completely destroy an old regime. We can slip from one to the other very easily, from rebelliousness to a complete negation of the system. Most Americans had a rule of law state for most of their lives, African Americans are an exception, and so most Americans think this will be there forever. They don’t get that a “disruption” can actually destroy much of what they take for granted. They have no notion what it means to destroy the state and how their lives would look like if the rule of law would no longer exist. I find it frightening that people who talk about the destruction of the American state are now in charge of the American state.
The White House statement for the Holocaust Day on January 27 didn’t mention Jews. At first it looked like a mistake but now it is official that it was intentional.
The Holocaust reference is very important on our side of the Atlantic. If Americans have a reference point in world history, it is precisely the Holocaust, the Holocaust and let’s say Normandy, the Second World War, are the one aperture into a broader history, one where republics fall and extremes triumph. So if Steve Bannon turns the Holocaust into talk about “A lot of people have suffered” what is happening is that he is closing that aperture. The next step is to say that mainly Americans are the victims. History then dies completely and we are trapped in myth.
When Bannon calls the press the main „opposition party“ that should make everyone concerned. This is not only intended to cheer up Trump supporters.
When you say that the press is the opposition, than you are advocating a regime change in the United States. When I am a Republican and say the Democrats are the opposition, we talk about our system. If I say the government is one party and the press is the opposition, then I talk about an authoritarian state. This is regime change.
Last week Trump called those who take part in demonstrations “thugs” and “paid protestors”. This doesn’t show respect for First Amendment right, it sounds more like Putin.
That is exactly what the Russian leadership does. The idea is to marginalize the people who actually represent the core values of the Republic. The point is to bring down the Republic. You can disagree with them. but once you say they have no right to protest or start lying about them, you are in effect saying: „We want a regime where this is not possible anymore.“ When the president says that it means that the executive branch is engaged in regime change towards an authoritarian regime without the rule of law. You are getting people used to this transition, you are inviting them into the process by asking them to have contempt for their fellow citizens who are defending the Republic. You are also seducing people into a world of permanent internet lying and [away] from their own experiences with other people. Getting out to protest, this is something real and I would say something patriotic. Part of the new authoritarianism is to get people to prefer fiction and inaction to reality and action. People sit in their chairs, read the tweet and repeat the clichés: “yes, they are thugs” instead of “it is normal to get out in the streets for what you believe.” He is trying to teach people a new behavior: You just sit right where you are, read what I say and nod your head. That is the psychology of regime change.
Today’s media environment is very different from the 1930s, everything happens so fast.
This is part of what contemporary authoritarians do: They overwhelm you with bad news and try to make you depressed and say with resignation: “Well, what can i do?”. I think it is better to limit yourself. Read the news for half an hour a day, but don’t spend the whole day obsessing about it. Americans have to pick one thing to be confident about, and then act on it. If you care about and know about refugees, the press, global warming – choose one and talk with people around you about it. Nobody can do everything but everyone can do a little bit. And people doing their little bit will meet others doing the same, and the depression lifts.