Timothy Snyder is a well know historian of World War II and Eastern Europe. He is best known for his Bloodlands. More recently, his On Tyranny proved to be widely popular. On Tyranny was written for a wider audience and provided a demand for his analysis of recent democratic backsliding experienced by the US under Trump and Russia under Putin. But if The Road to Unfreedom was written with a general public in mind, it most definitely failed to meet that end. The book is much longer than the compact On Tyranny and it is considerably less accessible.
Snyder’s main theoretical point is that ideas matter, even when it seems that they do not. Russia and America are struggling with two different, albeit related, conception of politics. The politics of inevitability assumes that the world is constantly improving. Democracy is the best political system, and it is only a matter of time before more states begin their democratic transitions.The politics of inevitability is teleological as it leaves little room for human agency – ideas matter more than people. Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” essay represents this fallacy. The politics of inevitability is too optimistic and simplistic. It assumes that America was and will continue to be the “city on a hill,” that markets bring peace and prosperity, that the appeal of democracy is irresistible, and that in the end everything will work out.
The politics of eternity is what drives Russian politics. This version of politics always looks back to the way things were before, because past offers a model for future political action. The goal of contemporary politics is to recover the spirit of the past that was lost, and to restore Russian greatness. If Russia today is not what it is supposed to be, others are to be blamed for it. Thus, Russian leaders do not make mistakes, and political misfortunes are a product of a world-wide conspiracy against the country with the US and the EU being the primary protagonists. Such interpretation allows Putin to justify aggression against Ukraine and promote an aggressive foreign policy in general.
Using these two conceptions of politics, Snyder goes on to explain how Trump was able to win presidential elections in 2016. Since America is moving away from the politics of inevitability to politics of eternity – hence, “make America great again – Russia was in a good position to bend the wheels of history, and make Trump the president. Snyder’s treatment of 2016 elections, however, is highly problematic. He creates a detailed account of how Russians hacked Facebook and convinced a significant part of American electorate not to vote for Hilary Clinton. The account is so idiosyncratic that it barely explains anything. The 2016 election was decided by roughly 80,000 votes in three key swing states. Online hacking might have played a role in the process, but so could a myriad of other factors. Anticipating such critique Snyder creates another narrative that focuses on the opioid epidemic that caused previously committed democrats to either not vote, or to totally lose their sanity and vote for Trump.
The second half of Snyder’s book was difficult to finish. While historians, especially of his magnitude, are well equipped to offer complete accounts of particular events, the author appears to be blinded by his political beliefs. His simple but detailed account of Russians hacking the US election is highly unsatisfying, especially since alternative explanations are never seriously considered. Instead of explaining past outcomes, the book muddies the water even more – unless of course we buy into the idiosyncratic narrative created by the author.
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