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tirsdag 12. januar 2021

Has the threat of Trump really gone? - Timothy Snyder interviewed by Krishnan Guru-Murthy



Timothy Snyder

Dette intervjuet foreligger også som youtube-video. Du kan se det her

 8th January, 2021

Hello, and welcome to ways to change the world.

I'm Krishnan Guru-Murthy and this is the podcast in which we talk to extraordinary people about the big ideas in their lives and the events that have helped shape them. Now, this week's episode was recorded a couple of weeks ago, before the storming of the capitol building by those pro-Trump protesters. But my guest had foretold what would happen in all sorts of really interesting ways. Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University but he's also a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, which is where we usually speak to him from. And after the events in Washington DC, I actually invited Tim onto the news. And so, I want to begin this podcast by playing his immediate analysis of what happened during what some people have called a protest, others have called domestic terrorism:

The people who stormed the Capitol building were fascists. When we use the word fascist, people immediately are talking about comparisons and analogies and whatnot. You don't need comparisons or analogies. The far-right white supremacists who organize this storm into the Capitol building are themselves fascists without qualification. Point number one. Point number two; this is being organized on behalf of a big lie which is very characteristic of fascism. Point number three: it's being organized in order to do away with democratic elections - also fascist, right. And point number four, and this is a little more subtle but very important: this has everything to do with the race from top to bottom. The lie that Trump won the election is based upon the claim or the equivalence of black voting with fraud. When they say fraud, what they mean is people of colour voting, right. When Ted Cruz invokes – I know this is obscure to the British – but when Ted Cruz invokes the 1877 Compromise as a positive model and as a model for what congress should be doing now: The 1877 Compromise was the creation of apartheid in the American South, that's what 1877 Compromise is. And of course, the people who are doing the actual storming are in large measure white racists.

So that's what Tim Snyder said about what had happened immediately afterwards. Let's go back now to the full podcast interview.

I've spoken to you a couple of times over the last year or two about the threat from Trump. And now Trump has gone. Has the threat gone?

I don't think Trump has really gone. I mean he will leave office, but he's done things to people, to use one of his phrases, and the very last thing that he's done to Americans is persuade tens of millions of them that in fact he won an election which he lost. And this is important, because in actual fact the 2020 election was probably the best that Americans have run in decades. But he's introduced this fiction of how he's a victim. And that fiction of victimhood is really important, because it helps people to believe that even though maybe their life is going all right, even though maybe they're white male Americans, nevertheless somehow everything has turned out against them. And the next move is to think okay, who made things turn out against us, there must be some kind of a conspiracy. So, Trump is still with us and he's still going to be with us. He's going to be a problem for the country and a problem for the Republican Party, I think, for as long as he's not in Russia or in prison.

How much do you think Trump has changed the world?

I mean, to use a technical term, that's a counterfactual question. You have to imagine what it would have been like if Hillary Clinton had been president. And I think if Hillary Clinton had been president, things would have been very different. I think the welfare state in the United States would be doing much, much better, Americans would have much less reason to be angry. America wouldn't have been the best country responding to Covid, but we also wouldn't have been the worst. So, there would have been a lot less anger and suffering and emotions swilling around the American system than there is now, and that has consequences for the world.

But the direct consequences to the world… I mean Hillary Clinton would have been a traditional institutional politician who would have tried to support the European Union. That would have had consequences.  Hillary Clinton would have supported American alliances, Hillary Clinton would have made American aid depend on all kinds of things. Hillary Clinton wouldn't have pulled out of the Iran deal. So, if we follow the counterfactual, I mean very quickly we're in a different world. I mean, one more thing is that I think Trump has accelerated things which were going to happen anyway. From an international point of view probably the main one is the decline of American power. I think he basically took 40 years of American decline and packed it into four.

And to what extent did he influence all the other authoritarians as you see them and empower them?

That's a great question. I mean what Trump did was change normality. In 2016 one could still think of this thing we call populism or nationalism or authoritarianism… one can still see it as on the margin working its way in. But once the president of the United States is someone who talks about his favourite dictators and openly says that he prefers this dictator or that dictator to his own legislature or to his own intelligence services, once you have an American president who makes these practices mainstream, once you have an American president who clearly prefers the company of dictators to the company of elected officials, then what you've done is that you've taken that movement, whatever you want to call it, populism, nationalism, and you've made it normal. That's had a tremendous effect. Because I mean as hypocritical as American policy can be, as hypocritical as Americans can be, there was nevertheless this norm around democracy and the rule of law. And what Mr Trump has done is he said well, we were just kidding the whole time, it was all just a lie, it was all just hypocrisy. There was never anything to it. And that's had major consequences. And I fear also that his way of leaving office, namely saying votes don't count so don't count them, that will probably also have consequences.

Well, I mean let's just talk about those for a second. I mean in the short term those consequences are a huge amount of money being raised by his political supporters. You know those 70 million people who voted for him, perhaps donating to a future movement. Where do you think it goes?

Well, I think that I mean the money is really important. I mean you've hit on something which is essential to American politics. There's just too much money in the system. It takes too much money to become president. So, I mean let's imagine that you're in the very particular situation that your whole shtick is that you pretend to be a billionaire. That’s your shtick, that's it. You know you don't actually have a billion dollars, but you have you're an entertainer and you can convince people you've got a billion dollars. You're very good at converting a certain kind of charisma to money, right. That's what Trump can do. And November and December of 2020 is that. He raised more money losing the election than he did in trying to win it. I mean, the story that this is all the sham, it's all the fraud, I need your help - that gave him his best fundraising month. 

His best fundraising month was after he already lost. And the money that he's raised he can do basically anything he wants with. What he can do now is he can have an event at his golf course and pay himself five million dollars to give a speech. He can just do that over and over again. And the reason why this is so important is that Trump is in debt. He's not really a billionaire. He has half a billion dollars of debt; he has no real way of paying this off. So in the short term what we have is obviously a grift, but in the medium term what we have is a story, and the story is about how I got stabbed in the back, and I got stabbed in the back by the black people, I got stabbed in the back by the democrats, then by the courts, and then by the supreme court - to where it becomes a kind of all-embracing conspiracy theory. And that's going to last longer. Our eyes are going to divert away from the money soon, but that story that this supposedly impermeable, undefeatable heroic leader was brought down by this terrible stab in the back, that's going to stay with us. That's going to poison politics for a while.

Well, I mean, we're talking to you in Vienna, and you're obviously a scholar of Eastern European history and Central European history, so have you now sort of worked out why 70 million people still support Trump in America, and what happens to them now? What kind of movement does it become? Is it a normal democratic movement that just seeks to overthrow, to defeat the Democrats, or is it something different?

I think that 70 million people vote for Trump… first of all, he's the candidate of the Republican Party in a two-party system. And it's a two-party system with, as you know, extreme polarization. Not just around values and policies, but around facts themselves. So, most of the things which Democrats think would be a very strong reason not to vote for Mr Trump are either unknown or disbelieved on the part of the Republican electorate. So, there's a structural problem here which I would go so far as to say is not really Republicans’ fault, which is that we don't actually share a factual basis of communication anymore. And that's a problem which has to do with social media and can only be solved by breaking up Facebook and can only be solved by building up local media again so we have some kind of common ground to actually start larger conversations on.

Because what's happened to our politics is that all the conversations are about things that people don't know anything about. You know, it's all about stuff that happens in Washington or globally, or it's just stuff which isn't true, you know, some kind of conspiracy theory. People are no longer walking on the ground, they're floating in the air. But what happens next… I mean I think the Republicans have a real problem. Because they're basically two views inside the party. One view is that we can game the system, we're doing pretty well. And 2020 actually supports that. I mean, if you put Mr Trump aside, they did much better than they were expected to do. You know they were supposed to lose the senate, they kept it. [nope - though it seemed so for a while] They almost took back the House of Representatives, which nobody was expecting. So actually, their model, which is flood the system with money, suppress the vote wherever we need to, run on emotional issues, that model did really well in 2020. They also got more Latino votes and more Black votes than were expected. 

So that's one school of thought. The other school of thought is tear it all down, right. So, one school of thought says game the system, the other school of thought says destroy the system. And now Trump has put himself at the head of the movement which says destroy the system. I think that's going to be a problem. I think what this is going to show is that if you're going to carry out a coup d’état, you better win. Because if you don't win, you're discrediting coup d’état. So, Trump tried to carry out a coup d’état. I mean in my view there's no question about it. He couldn't get the military to go along, they said no. He doesn't have the kind of violent paramilitary support he would need, but he tried.

When you say the military say no said no, what do you what do you mean by that?

I'm referring to June 1st 2020, when as prompted by the Black Lives Matter protests Trump tried to say that this is a national emergency which requires that the United States army invade its own country. And basically, he was refused. And that's a very important moment, because it is not that the military is on the side of the Democrats, that's not true either. But it became clear they were not going to get themselves involved in that sort of thing, let alone directly in electoral politics. I mean not that there aren't people who want them to, right, like

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Michael Flynn, who was a one-star general and who was for a few days national security adviser, said we should declare martial law, we should bring in the troops, we should have a new election with the military in charge. So that current is out there. But the army itself wasn't going to take part. But my larger point is here: the Republicans now have a coup faction and they have a game the system faction, and those two factions are now openly in conflict. And, so long as Trump is in the picture, they're going to have a problem. Because he's always going to be leading a coup faction, and the coup faction is going to have trouble with elections because their message is elections don't work.

And so, if you have to win a coup, are you saying Trump will at the moment feel that he's lost, that he hasn’t completed his coup, and therefore would want to come back?

I would say he's probably still at the stage where he's not entirely sure he has to leave.

So, he's still fighting it?

Yeah, he's still… I mean he's… I believe he's still fighting, believing he has a chance for victory. But even if he doesn't have a chance for victory, he's never going to admit that. He's going to walk out the White House, saying that he won. And he's going to keep saying that he won. That's his story. And I mean the guy has strengths, right. They're not conventional policy strengths and he didn't really pass any policy. You know all of his policies are about making rich people richer, which is not policy, that's just gravity. 

He is not a politician in that sense, but he does have gifts. And one of his gifts is that he's really stubborn. He knows how to say the same thing over and over and over again, despite what people tell him to say, despite what the way the world actually is. So, I would guess he's going to stick with this story all the way through. What he believes is going to be hard to ascertain. He's going to stick to that story, and sticking to that story is the problem. It means that if he comes back to office it's going to be on a story about how the system is completely broken, right. But along the way, so long as he tells that story, he's telling Americans that one of the few things that actually does work in our country very well, which is elections, that that thing doesn't actually work. But yeah, he's not going to want to leave the White House and he's going to want to come back, there's no question about that. I mean and the reason he has to be… I mean he's got basic old-fashioned reasons for being in power. He owes a lot of money and he's facing criminal investigations. I mean those are really good reasons to want to be president of the United States, and he's got them.

So how does he compare to Putin? Because Putin doesn't owe huge amounts of money, you know, have those same sorts of problems. But there's a lot of similarities there too.

Yeah. I mean Trump is like a precocious tyrant, like he's out ahead of the curve, right. He's much more of an authoritarian than the American system is. That's what Denzer is saying. I mean the American system is flawed; the American system made him possible, obviously. But he's ahead of the curve, right. He's somebody who really sees the possibilities of social media and pushed them to the limit. He's somebody who wants America to be more like an oligarchy than it actually is, which is saying something. Because we're already pushing the boundaries of oligarchy. Trump is not really an oligarch, right. Putin really is an oligarch. I mean we don't know how much money Putin has, but it's in the tens of billions of dollars. I mean Putin has so much money that if you are a random friend of Putin, not even a first-rate friend but like a third-grade school friend, he might just give you two billion dollars. That's you know, that's actual money. Trump does not have that kind of money. Trump can't even dream about that kind of money. So, I mean the first thing to say is that Trump's relationship to Putin is one of a client to a patron, right. You don't see Putin falling over Trump, but you do see Trump falling over Putin. And we've been watching that now for more than four years.

But the second difference is of course structural. The Russian system is what Trump was aiming for, semi-consciously. The Russian system is a kind of normal 21st century authoritarianism where you legitimate yourself by elections, even though everybody knows you didn't really win, right. Because in the 21st century nobody really has ideology anymore. You don't have some grand reason to legitimate yourself, you just have elections. So, you have elections, you just fake them, or you lie about the results. And so, the interesting thing about Trump in November - December of 2020 is that that's what he's doing. He's trying to legitimate himself with an election. He's just claiming that he won it, but he doesn't have the power to fake it. If he did have the power to fake it, obviously he would. He's trying very hard. So, it's just that slight inability to do the thing that Putin can actually do which is what separates the United States from Russia politically at this point.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy

So do you think in the West we have really misunderstood who the real example is, where the real power is, that we've kind of assumed that Trump being in the White House has being the catalyst all around the world for the rise of authoritarians and the rise of populism, whereas that the real power lies in Moscow?

I would say… I mean I'm going to partially agree with that. I would say that there are underlying trends. The first of them is rising inequality of wealth and income, which makes it harder for people to see a future, which makes it harder for people to believe in normal democratic politics, which requires that you think two years ahead, four years ahead, whatever it is. Another underlying trend is global warming, which also closes down the future. It makes it harder for people to see how things are going to be better. And another underlying trend is social media. Russia was ahead of the curve on using social media, but social media makes polarization much easier, it makes appeals to emotions over facts much easier. So, that said, I think Russia mattered so much because it was ahead of the curve on these things. Russia gets to extreme economic inequality faster than other people, and so Russian politicians have to decide how you govern with that. And then they can export some of what they learned. 

Russia learns how to use social media to divide not just its own population, but above all other people, and it uses that in 2016. So, Russia matters, and it probably contingently matters, because without the Russian intervention in US politics in 2016, Trump probably would not have won. And that's a pretty big…. I mean they're nudging something which was going to be a close race anyway, but that's a pretty big effect, right. Russia also intervened. I mean it is still surprising me how little in Britain this is reported on. But Russia also intervened in Brexit digitally in a very, very significant way. And so, you know if you count those as Russian victories, then of course Russia looks like this mega power. But what I would say is that Russia is exploiting some trends that we've been slow to see, and the best way to deal with Russia is to try to deal with those trends.

I mean part of the problem is that we are told as citizens very little about precisely what Russia did, because the governments in the US and in Britain are very vague about precisely what influence Russia tried to wield. Either in the 2016 election or in the Brexit referendum or in the Scottish referendum. There are hints, but there's nothing very conclusive that's ever announced. And so, it becomes a bit of a conspiracy theory. How much evidence is there around these things in truth?

Well the simplest example in the US in 2016 would be the email dumps. So just to recall; the Russians were able to get into important email accounts of important Democratic party institutions and operatives, and then at crucial moments during the election they would then dump things along with a narrative that they'd worked out. So, for example there was a moment late in the campaign where it seemed that Donald Trump was bound to lose because it had just emerged that he had been caught on tape saying that it was fine to sexually assault women. Which would seem like a big deal, and even he thought it was a big deal. Mike Pence thought it was a big deal. However, about half an hour after that there was a big email dump from the Russians with a cover story which involved Democratic paedophilia and selling children as pros… prostituting children, which of course seemed ridiculous to all the people who cared about Trump and sexual assault. But he was out there within half an hour, and what happened very quickly was that it quickly became on the one hand on the other hand. Well maybe Trump said this, but on the other hand did you realize that Hillary Clinton is selling sex with children in the basement of a pizza parlour? - which again… that might seem absurd but if you just follow the numbers, 30 plus percent of the American population believed that story at a certain point. So, if you don't have these email dumps coming in and changing the dynamics, Trump has a hard time. 

And then the other thing they did in the US was the social media, which is harder to measure the effect of that, but you know, it was pretty massive. In the UK there are some things which can be quantified, having to do with Brexit. I haven't investigated this, but other people have. If you look at a great deal of the social media debate, especially over Twitter in 2016, a lot of it was coming from abroad. So, you have a lot of British people responding to a lot of Twitter material which they think is coming from a person, but which is actually coming from a Russian bot. And this happens over and over and over again. And when more than half of your Twitter conversation on a given subject is being driven from abroad - you know I can't prove that that affects people's minds, but if you were asked would you like to have your Twitter conversation driven by Russian robots, your answer would probably be no.

But how do you know that so much of Twitter was being driven from abroad?

Because there are scholars who work on that and who have the algorithm that they're able to test it. And they publish their results in 2016, 2017. I mean there's a whole… I can't now cite this chapter and verse, but I do in my book ‘The Road to Unfreedom’. There were British scholars and other scholars who were following this, and you have the computer programs which allow them to measure this. And this is all on the record. That part's not mysterious.

So, I mean if to pick up that sort of theme of The Road to Unfreedom… I mean has the defeat of Donald Trump put us back on the road, as you would have seen it, to democracy? Or is this a sort of a blip, you think?

I think it's somewhere in between. I mean I'm going to take the easy out here. Things would have been much worse if Trump had won. However, Biden and Harris winning basically just buys you time to do other things. Because the reasons why Trump won are all still there. America still has a terrible welfare state which makes people much more angry and much more frightened than they should be. 2020 and coronavirus was one more bit of evidence for that. We still have growing inequalities. People still have trouble seeing the future, all those underlying problems are still there. So, what you have are now four years of a chance to try to get at some of those underlying problems, or else you know you bounce back. I think not Trump in 2424, but a slicked down younger, and in better physical shape, version of Trump in 2024 can still come. So, I think it matters. But basically, what matters more is what you do with the time that you've got.

Because… I mean, what you're saying suggests that democracy is just doomed. Because if you have in developed societies growing inequality or a vast number of poor people, even if you calculate inequality in a way that suggests it's not growing, you've got enough people who are feeling disenfranchised, not part of growth, and all the powers of social media and foreign interference - how can democracy possibly weather that?

I love that you've outflanked me on the pessimism front. That's good… good job. Now you've got me, I've got to be optimistic. So okay, first thing I'm going to say is that 80 million people came out to vote for Biden and that was an act of…. you know that was a human act. A lot of people worked very hard to get to that outcome. And so, all this terrible stuff that we're talking about; Trump's claims of fraud, social media and so on, we have to remember that 80 million people still took the trouble to vote. In the United States it IS taking the trouble. For too many people it's not easy. The second thing is that some of the stuff is reparable.

So, you know, 48 states are now appealing to use antitrust legislation against Facebook, which is a big deal. Facebook is not a feature of nature. We don't have to have it the same way that we have to have hurricanes. It can be changed. You know, 100 years ago America was using anti-trust legislation to break things up. There's no reason why we can't do it now. I think some of this stuff is reparable, and I definitely don't think democracy is doomed.

Can we sort of pause and talk a little bit about you, and how you got to this point? You've become this voice of warning around contemporary politics, when… you know, you're a historian? So, I'm guessing, did you ever imagine that this is where you would get to, where your work, your academic work would mean you writing books trying to sort of say to people wake up and look at what's going on around you? Was that the sort of the road you were sort of heading down when you were starting out as an undergraduate?

Well, any good historian will tell you that it's very hard to explain the actions of an individual person. Look, I'll give you a couple answers. One answer is we have made a mistake in doing down history and the humanities these last 30 years or so. You know since the end of communism in 1989 too many people in Britain, in the US, and the West generally have said; well look, capitalism is going to bring about democracy, it's all inevitable. So, all we have are technical problems. And if all we have are technical problems, then all we need is engineering and science and economists and so on. We've defunded history, we've defunded the humanities. And when you defund history and the humanities, it actually becomes much harder to talk about the kinds of problems we're talking about now.

Because these are not really technical problems, they're moral problems, they're aesthetic problems, they're questions of judgment.  And to have the concepts and the tools and the references for all these things you need the humanities. And I'm laying that out because it's part of an answer to your question; I think history always has something to say about the present. It's not that history repeats or even that it rhymes. But it's that history gives you that flow from the past into the present which maybe helps you to see possible futures. History gives you a sense of what structures there are that are limiting us, but also gives you a sense of how you might be able to get around those structures and find ways into new structures. Also, history… I mean unlike other ways of looking at the world emphasizes that there's a certain amount of irreducible human agency, of human choice and things.

And so therefore no matter what's going on, there probably is something you can do that might make a difference, even if you feel overwhelmed at that particular point. So, no I didn't see myself being in this kind of a role, but I just want to say that I think it's normal that history can teach us about life, and that… I mean I don't think I'm that important, but I think that if there's a general lesson to be learned here, it would be something like we need more of the humanities and we need more of history if we're going to not be surprised all the time by things. Because what happens is like anytime anything slightly new happens, like you know 911 is a good example, we all say well how could we have known, right, nothing like this has ever happened before. Whereas any historian will say well, nothing exactly like this has happened before, but it's a little bit like a b c and d. And if we look at a b c and d we might get some patterns and start to be able to think about it instead of just being surprised. Because when you're surprised you then get deceived by whoever has the best spectacle and who comes up with the lie the quickest. History helps with all of that.

Have we also just been blinded by the scale of killing in the middle of the 20th century to the extent that we don't think that anything in our modern world can compare?

That's a wonderful question. I mean one move that people make very often is to say… as soon as you talk about the past at all, they say well you're making a comparison. And that's bad news. Or you're making an analogy, and that's bad news. It's not exactly like that, so therefore, we don't do think about it. So, six million Jews that haven’t been murdered [this time], so there's no reason to think about what's going on right now. It's wrong to say. But before those six million Jews were murdered – I'm just taking the example that's familiar to me – you had these changes in rhetoric, and then you had these changes in institutions, and then you had this new kind of institution. You know, if the comparisons the analogies that are made are put out of balance by the scale of the middle of the 20th century, then the sort of ironic consequence is that you can't use history at all. You know you can't draw attention to those horrors and say; well look, those horrors they weren't a matter of super villains having superpowers. Those horrors arose step by step by step, and we know what some of those steps are. And so, we should pay attention when we see things that look a little bit like those steps. 

But then there's another thing to say about this really important question: In the 1930s and 1940s, the way that states controlled people was actually much more direct than it has to be now. And so, you can get at tyranny now in a way which is visually much less shocking, let's put it that way, than in the 1930s and 1940s.  Things did end in the 1930s and 1940s with millions of deaths. But one can imagine a country like China for example, that is a very effective modern tyranny, which doesn't have to kill millions of people. I mean it sure would, but it doesn't have to, because the methods of control are much more subtle. And so, we need the comparisons, not because things are exactly the same, but we need the comparisons because without the comparisons we're just going to be surprised by everything and not have any points of reference.

I mean that also makes it quite difficult to explain to people what it is they have to fear. If you don't have to fear a holocaust or millions of people being purged, you have to explain what it is people have to fear, which is much more sophisticated.

I think that's an excellent point. I think if we are at the point where people are only afraid of millions of people dying, then we probably lost the argument. Because the case for democracy and for the rule of law has to be something better than this is the way you prevent millions of people from dying. The case for democracy and for the rule of law has to be more positive. It has to be something like: these are the forms of life which allow you to live freely, these are the forms of life which means you're not at your neighbour's throat the entire time. These are the forms of life which means that you're not fighting pointless wars. These are the forms of life where you don't have to humiliate yourself in front of other people. These are the forms of life where you're not born into a caste or a class which is going to keep you down the entire time. There has to be some kind of a positive case. If we're only making the negative case, then I think we're probably going to lose.

I mean, that takes us to your latest book, which is about healthcare and your own experience of having been ill and negotiating healthcare systems.  You see… you know that's a classic case of something particularly in Britain where the National Health Service is totemic, where you ask people what are the most important things about Britain, what makes Britain special – and they'll say healthcare. But healthcare has never been the issue of an election or the thing that will make people vote a particular way.

Democracy, you know like I said before, it's not a state of nature. It's also not just a set of procedures. It's also a kind of institutional and social backdrop which makes it possible for those procedures to make sense. So, my experience, to which you kindly refer, reminded me of how elemental politics can be. That if you're really afraid, if you're really terrified, if you're facing certain kinds of risks all the time, unnecessarily maybe, you're not a great candidate for being a democratic voter. Let's just put it that way. So, the relationship between a health service and a democracy might seem obscure, you might say well people could vote for, people who vote against it. I would say it's more like this: if you want people to be able to contemplate a future involving their interests, the interests of their children, the next generation, you have to as part of the social contract get them into a place where they're not immediately terrified. Because we're not… you know we're rational beings at the best of times. And so, part of the job of government is to create those best of times. Or to put it conversely: you can torpedo a democracy by creating unnecessary fear and pain and impatience and suffering. That's Mr Trump's model. You can try to do it that way.

So, if you want democracy to keep going you need to have the institutions. And I think healthcare is probably the single most important, which means that people aren't immediately facing existential fears. If you are less concerned about pensions, if you're less concerned about education for your children, if you're less concerned about illness, then you're pulling back the level of existential fear. And you're making it more likely that people are going to be able to vote on water quality or on issues that they can actually talk to one another about. So, I think that there's a very close relationship actually between these institutions that we need to get people into that better place where the procedures can then carry us into the future.

Can I finally ask you about Boris Johnson, which we haven't really talked about, and how you see him. Because, obviously, I think in the current context he'd like to see himself as a sort of a Churchillian figure taking on the modern-day war of the pandemic. Where do you think he fits in?

Yeah, I mean I haven't lived in Britain these last these last few years, so I've been observing this from afar. I think the main problem of democracy after empire, going back to that really high level, is how you find a way to build an us which is ever bigger rather than ever smaller. And the US and Britain face the same issue; can the US become a country where yes, the immigrants are real Americans, and yes, the Blacks are real Americans, and can you keep that story going where spiritually and also electorally you're including more and more people. Can you do that after empire, or do you pull back and say we the people who had the privilege, we're going to keep the vote to ourselves and the money to ourselves and so on. 

I mean Britain faces a similar challenge, right, what do you do after empire. And there was once an answer. If you look at the debates of the 1960s, the British were well aware that Europe was what you do after empire. That's what the whole debate was about. It was we were aware of losing our empire – look, here's a substitute. It may not be perfect, but if we get in there we can probably throw our weight around a little bit and make deals that are good for us. And that turned out to be absolutely correct. I mean de Gaulle kept the British out for a while, but once the British were in, they had a disproportionate role in the European Union, they punched far above their weight for a couple of decades there. But, more importantly, it was being more rather than less. It's a bigger Britain rather than a smaller England. And I think that's the whole trick: where after empire do you find a way to be bigger rather than smaller, to have a future rather than just a past.

So, when I look at the whole sweep of Boris Johnson’s career, the thing that I see is 
that as a journalist and then as a politician – for whatever reason, I don't know what he actually believes in – but for whatever reason he's turned the argument towards something smaller. Not Europe but Britain. I think in the end not Britain but England is where it's going to all end up.

So, we are on a trajectory of shrinkage. Less influence and less power?

It's interesting, because you can't stay put. That’s the kind of the magic… part of the magic of a Trump or the magic of Boris Johnson is that you first conjure up this moment when you were great, and then you imagine that stasis is somehow powerful – impossible! But stasis is never possible, right, you're always either rising or falling. And if you're going to rise, you have to rise in the conditions you're in and not in the conditions of the 1930s or whatever your moment of greatness is in your own mind. If you decide against going big, you are deciding in favour of going small, and that's what Trumpism looks like. 

So, the US lost a huge amount of influence around the world in every respect very rapidly, and the democratic project within the US also suffered. You either go bigger or you go smaller. And with Britain it's not just that.  Britain had so much influence inside the European Union, it had so much influence, and that's now all gone. And as a member of the European Union it had disproportionate influence around the world in trade negotiations. That is also now all going to be gone. And then the next question is what does Britain look like. Because remember; Britain has always been in modern history either an empire or it's been part of the European project. There's never been a moment in British history where Britain has been this thing called the nation state. And I think once it is this thing called the nation state, it's probably not going to last for very long. I think something else is probably going to emerge out of it like in England for example.

Well, I mean it's been fascinating Tim. We spent this conversation talking about how other people have been changing the world and other movements. What if you could change the world, what would you do?

That's a funny question. My son had a question in school; decide that you have a superpower, what is it. And his superpower was I can do anything. But then of course he applied his superpower to get himself less homework. So, you're asking me what I can do if I could do anything. Let me just try to narrow that down a little bit. For me, you know, there is no us and them among people. The politics of us and them is what's bringing us down. That's you know… it is Britain against Europe, or in America the real Americans against everybody else. 

That us and them, it freezes us in time, and it makes us angry, and it makes it very hard to do policy. There isn't really an us and them, and you can't be morally coherent and think that there's really us and them among people. I do think there's a real us and them in the world, though. And the us and them is people and machines. So, if I could change anything it would be to create larger awareness of that. That the humanities, the study of humans, like thinking normatively, aesthetically, politically about humans, is really important. Because something is closing in on us, and that is the world of the machines. And I don't mean this in a kind of dark, obvious, like they're shooting lasers at us and it's Terminator sort of way. What I mean is that more and more of how we spend our time, more and more of how we think, what we read, how we communicate, is being driven by logics that are not human. So, if I could change one thing, it would be that. I would just create an awareness of that, so that we would have some purchase on how we spend our days. We would read a little bit more, have more conversations live, not think of other people as being the other. Because ultimately that's just not only destructive, but I think intellectually and morally untenable. But realize that there is an other out there, and that other is the way that the world is being digitalized. And think of that as something that maybe we could all together think collectively about and change.

Timothy Snyder thank you very much indeed.


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