Foreign interference in the 2016 elections has continued to dominate the news in recent weeks, from Mark Zuckerberg's testimony before Congress to former FBI Director James Comey's allegation that the Russians may have dirt on the president.
How did we get to the point where Russia has become a constant element of our daily political discourse? It's explained in historian Timothy Snyder's latest book, "The Road To Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America." The book chronicles the rise of right-wing authoritarianism in Russia and how it has spread through Ukraine, Europe, and perhaps even the United States.
Snyder joined Boston Public Radio to discuss the new book. Some highlights are below.
On “The Road To Unfreedom”"
Snyder: The book is about Russia, Europe, and America together. I think the key to understanding what's happening in the U.S. is to realize that we're in the middle of a bunch of processes which are taking place in Europe and Russia. The book starts with Russia, because Russia is furthest along, and Russia is beckoning us along this thing I call "the road to unfreedom." The argument — and where the book lands – is that we can't delude ourselves with the idea that everything is always going to turn out right, nor can we delude ourselves with the idea that it's everyone else's fault. The book is about trying to be where we are in history, so we can see where we are clearly and then do what needs to be done.
On finishing the book before the 2016 election – and then having to rework it:
Snyder: [The election] was maybe a little less of a shock for me than it was for other people, because the world I was living in mentally was the Russian and Ukrainian world, and many of the things that took place in the Trump campaign in 2016 were simple copies of techniques which had already been used and worked over there. In 2016, I was actually the first person to publish on the Trump-Putin connection, and I also wrote about Russian interference, direct interference, in the elections in August, 2016. I was surprised, but I was maybe a little less shocked than everyone else. You're right: I wrote the last chapter — the one I'm proudest of, about the United States in 2016 — after Mr. Trump won. I thought I had written a book which had explained why the campaign happened, and it turned out I had to explain how the victory could happen.
On Vladimir Putin’s drive to destabilize democracies:
Snyder: If you are Mr. Putin, you are at the head of an oligarchical clan. You're a very rich man surrounded by a few other rich friends, and the way you govern the country without the rule of law means no one can really expect social advancement. Things are basically static. How do you, then, govern from that position? This is a really interesting general question ... The Russians have found a solution: you govern by spectacle. The spectacle is an innocent "us" governed by a decadent and corrupt "them." What Mr. Putin must tell his people is that this condition in Russia — [with] no rule of law, ever-present corruption — that's normal. Europe is like that, America is like that. The interesting thing about Russian propaganda is that it doesn't say Russia's great, it says that every place is equally corrupt. Therefore, you should love your own corruption. [Putin's] interest in destabilization is to make America and make Europe more like Russia. When they look out at us they see our weaknesses, the things we sometimes try to deny to ourselves, and they try to expand those weaknesses to make them into what is the main truth about us.
… What they want Russians to believe is that this is normal, this is nature, it's always true that the people with the money have all the power and they get to lie to you. That's just the way it's always been. The idea you could have another kind of regime, where law actually worked, where people could say what they wanted, is intolerable. Hence protest in Ukraine can't be accepted, hence the existence of the European Union is a bad thing, hence the United States is a bad thing.
How Putin exploited weaknesses in American democracy in 2016:
Snyder: This is what I think of as the dark globalization. If you're in the politics of inevitability, you're thinking America is a democracy, we're great, we're normal, and what globalization is going to mean is everyone else becoming like us. But in fact, we've become less of a democracy in the last 10 or 20 years thanks to massive wealth inequality and thanks to practices like gerrymandering, and the rest of the world does not look at us and say, 'Oh, we're a perfect model.'
Some people, like for example those in the Kremlin, look at us and say those practices and those tendencies are vulnerabilities which we can exploit. Russia is like a bad doctor who diagnoses you and then tries to make your diseases worse. But [Putin's] diagnosis is correct. Things like our racial problems, our wealth inequality, and gerrymandering, are all things Russia specifically uses in its campaign in 2016. What they're trying to do is spin the ways we're not democratic even further.
On the role of income inequality in destabilizing democracy:
Snyder: I'm a historian, and I deeply, sincerely believe you cannot have democracy without history. When you don't have something in the past or some point of comparison, you forget the things you need to know, and new things then become normal immediately, if you don't have history. If we don't have history, we can forget that the period from the 1940s to about 1980 was actually a period of closing the gap of wealth inequality — that the gap between the top 1 percent and the bottom 90 percent closed in the United States for four decades, thanks to the welfare state, and thanks to unions, [and] thanks to other things too. That wealth would be concentrated in the hands of not the top 1 percent, but really the top .01 percent, that's new. That's just the last 25 years. It's also reversible. That's the first thing, there's a context.
... When you get a shock, when you feel like you're disabled, when you no longer think government can change the future, that's the "politics of eternity." You're not thinking: how could we all do better thanks to sensible policy in America? You're thinking: who's the enemy? Whose fault is this? How can I feel good today? That's what Mr. Trump brings. He brings us nostalgia for the past, plus this everyday news cycle which gets us elated or gets us outraged. If you no longer believe government can do anything for you, then you're in the politics of eternity.