Michael N. Searles

ON TYRANNY
 

 

Timothy Snyder authored a book entitled, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

In rather short sections, he outlines how democracies have been undermined. Drawing upon the fears and concerns of the Founding Fathers, he cites experiences in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the United States.

An underlying factor in the demise of democracies has been the free turnover of power to authoritarianism. After the 1932 German election, allowing Hitler to form a government, anticipatory obedience allowed enough people to voluntarily extend their services to the new leader. This acquiesce opened the door for Hitler to extend his power and the eventual attempted extermination of the Jews.

This same pattern of compliance occurred in Czechoslovakia after the communists won the elections of 1946. It was German theologian and Lutheran pastor Friedrich Gustav Emil Niemoller who said, “When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist. When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat. When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I did not speak out; I was not a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”

These examples seem rather stark and distant from us today. However, we can look into the recent past and see a glimmer of what happens when enough people voluntarily support an autocratic leader. In the 2016 Presidential race, 17 Republican candidates threw their hats in the ring. Thirteen of the candidates were or had been elected state or federal officials. Nine had served as governors of their state, four were U.S. Senators, one had been a CEO of a major corporation, and one a major medical center’s Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery. The seventeenth candidate served as Chairman and President of his own organization.

On the campaign trail, Senator Ted Cruz said that candidate Trump was a serial philanderer, a pathological liar, and a narcissist. Senator Lindsey Graham said, “You know how you make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell. He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot. He doesn’t represent my party. He doesn’t represent the values that the men and women who wear the uniform are fighting for. … He’s the ISIL-a militant Islamic fundamentalist group also called ISIS, Islamic State-man of the year.”

Senator Marco Rubio said Trump was “a con artist who is wholly unprepared to be president of the United States.” Governor Chris Christie criticized Trump’s temperament, his policy proposals, and his ability to beat Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in a general election. Senator Rand Paul said, “I think the more people that get to know what Donald Trump has really been for through the years, I think they’re going to really worry that he is a fake conservative.”

To a person, once Donald Trump won the Republican nomination each began to sing his praises. The same Lindsey Graham who called Trump a jackass, crazy and unfit for office, after Trump became President Graham lavished praise on him and even called for him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

The length of ethical abuses by President Trump is unprecedented in American history including: never divesting from his businesses, accepting gifts in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, using his office for private gain, providing preferential treatment to the Trump Organization, and his refusal to release his tax returns.

The acceptance of these abuses by respected Republican officeholders who previously denounced Trump as unfit to be President is a clear example of how democracy erodes and tyranny enters without objection. Few in Germany and Czechoslovakia imagined a leader could so easily dismantle longstanding democratic institutions. Democracies are fragile, but as Leszek Kolakowski once said, “In politics, being deceived is no excuse.”

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