Popcorn Populism

Sergio Infante

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny
Tim Duggan Books, 126 pages, $7.99

TYRANNY and corruption are both dramas, but of different quality. Tyranny airs on pay-per-view, through HBO or Cinemax, if not in theaters themselves. It is a silver screen affair, with first-rate special effects and an all-star cast. Corruption, on the other hand, is the film industry’s equivalent of re-runs. It invades your home through the public airwaves and comes chock-full of commercials. At times, it speaks Spanish, Vietnamese, or Arabic and comes with unsynchronized and inaccurate captions. Often, you just watch on, helpless, as the drama roils and reels on screen in painful slow motion. Think of the near-endlessness of Criminal Minds or Law & Order: SVU marathons.

This is not to say that the two are entirely dissimilar. For instance, both have good guys and bad guys. Both contain moments of revelation, transformation and defeat. Tyranny, however, is a treat of sorts: in a tyrannical drama, the protagonist has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove her moral mettle in a duel to the death with evil incarnate. Thus tyranny is an aberration while corruption is an epidemic; tyranny is an exception in a proper, wholesome world while corruption recurs, chronic, in a world where the scales of justice tilt towards the unfair. In corruption dramas, the criminals are dime-a-dozen. Tyrants, by contrast, are well-developed nemeses with quirks, desires and follies. They can be tricked or toppled by the heroine. Once eliminated, their benighted realm is free to enjoy a ‘happily ever after.’

As we reflect on our present political moment, we might be tempted to cast Donald Trump as the villain in either of these kinds of shows. But neither the cheap series nor the blockbuster is, by itself, appropriate representations of this political era. And if asked to choose between them, I might respond: ¿Por qué no los dos? This is America, after all.

Snyder prizes heroism, non-compliance, and individual action. The result is an account of politics that is both admirable and incomplete.

Timothy Snyder’s latest book, On Tyranny, is the most recent addition to the chorus of anti-Trump critique. The lessons nested within this slender tome do not fall perfectly into either of the camps described above, even if the material certainly draws more heavily from the script of the ‘tyrannical drama’ than its corruptive counterpart. Snyder prizes heroism, non-compliance, and individual action. The result is an account of politics that is both admirable and incomplete.

I’ll leave the heftier points to those better versed in American politics, economics, and history. Instead, I’ll take the comparatively easy pickings, by ‘internationalizing’ the discussion beyond the confines of the North Atlantic and its politicians. This is not an attempt to determine whether Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, or Nikolaos Michaloliakos can be compared to Stalin or Hitler. On the contrary, it is a search for new models, ones that might reveal new aspects of our collective situation. In the process, I want to sketch out a Third Worldist perspective on Snyder’s book and perhaps even on the Trump Era.[1]

On Tyranny is divided into twenty lessons, a number of which have alarmist undertones. Consider ‘Do not obey in advance’ or ‘Be reflective if you must be armed,’ not to mention ‘Be as courageous as you can.’ This tone is understandable and perhaps even appropriate given that ‘our [entire] political order seems imperiled.’ With constant allusions to the Founding Fathers, Snyder makes it clear that when he says ‘our’ or ‘us,’ he is talking about the United States. Even so, the recommendations in the text are left vague enough that one may imagine our French, Dutch, or Greek contemporaries reading them in our place.

Given the supposed universality of its topic—tyranny—one of the text’s main shortfalls is its Euro-centricity. It would be unfair to expect Snyder, a scholar of Central and Eastern Europe, to derive his analysis from sources other than the ones he knows best. Still, this remains a book about the ‘European history of the twentieth century,’ to the exclusion of Southeast Asian, Latin American or African perspectives. It is thus an incomplete, if commendable, primer on how to handle the bad hombre in the Oval Office, the man whom my father calls ‘America’s first Third-World president.’

He’s not the only one to make this observation. At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the comedian Hasan Minhaj joked about the perils of Trump’s presidency:

You are like, ‘The Russians hacked our elections! The Russians hacked our elections!’ Meanwhile—[his smile is soft, bemused]—well, meanwhile, everybody in Latin America and the Middle East is like, ‘Oh! A foreign government tampered with your elections? What is that like? Do tell!’ [2]

Are the differences between midcentury populists in, say, Latin America and Western Europe that significant? By most measures, no. But as anyone who has watched more than her share of WWII movies would know, there is a special romanticism that distorts our interpretation of politics from that period. Snyder draws on this dramatic individualism at the outset of his little book. European history, he writes, ‘shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands.’

At stake is the destruction of the individual: her loss of sense and selfhood, her drift into moral anomie, her dissipation into a frenzied collective. To prevent or forestall this outcome, Snyder invites his largely American public to glean lessons from a history that is well known to most of his readers, even if it has been sidelined or forgotten. His lessons thus strike an uncanny tone —unexpected yet familiar. They exist somewhere between the excited surprise of a ‘That’s true!’ and the dismissiveness of a ‘No duh!’

This attitude speaks volumes about the liberal reaction to the election, which was trapped inside another dyad —between a mournful outburst (‘How could this happen?’) and a stoic lament (‘We’ve been here before.’). In other words, it seems as if Americans who talk about the Trump Era as a crisis of nationalism are watching two different movies with two different scripts. The first is surprising; the second is predictable. The first is about tyranny as Snyder describes it; the second is far less thrilling and has more to do with entrenched societal corruption, and the racism, classism, and sexism that it breeds.

I find both the tyrannical and corruptive dramas extremely useful as frameworks for understanding the political transformations in the North Atlantic since 2016. Together, the two explain how partisan response is conditioned in a hyperpolarized environment. The tyrannical drama explains the deluge of activism in the wake of Trump’s inauguration. It speaks to a vision of politics that is hopeful yet dogmatically ideological. Its protagonists will not, under any circumstances, compromise with the evil Other. Why should they, if our leaders are no better than Salazar or Mussolini? By contrast, the social corruption narrative explains a quieter, but no less widespread reaction, one that trades in either indifference or pragmatism. It is morally ‘grey’ insofar as it is open to compromise, but not necessarily because it is accommodationist.

I find both the tyrannical and corruptive dramas extremely useful as frameworks for understanding the political transformations in the North Atlantic since 2016.

Within the social corruption storyline, there is another fork in the taxonomic road, one separating the politics of the sheep from those of the fox. Both are weak animals in hostile environments, but only one of them aims to outwit the farmer. The sheep (i.e. the apathetic citizen) is thus sleepily led to the slaughter, while the fox (i.e. the pragmatist) makes her wily escape with a half-dozen brown hens stowed away in a potato sack.

The Yale architect Keller Easterling describes the politics of the fox in her recent book, Extrastatecraft. In a 2014 lecture derived from the book, she explains that the most familiar ‘forms of political activism argue that strongly held, forthright beliefs galvanize a fight for solidarity and decency and justice.’

Dissent [therefore manifests] as resistance, refusal, often assuming a kind of oppositional binary stance: it must fight for principles, it must protect those who are abused by authority . . .[But there] are many powerful players who survive on fluid, undeclared intentions, and it’s very easy for them to toy with or trick dissent[ers] . . .In these situations, dissent is left shaking its fist at an effigy: the real violence is somehow over their shoulder.

Even though there are surely moments when one must take a binary stance . . .There’s another supporting player for [political] dissent . . .a shrewder, cagier counter to these lubricated, stealthy agents that are global powers. It might be [the] undeclared activity [of this foxlike agent] that’s more consequential than the righteous stance. The discrepant and the fictional and the sly are potentially more productive.[3] 

Easterling sums up this politics with a line from Czech writer Milan Kundera’s 1967 novel, The Joke. The characters break several Snyderian tenets and appear ridiculous, even pitiful to the authorities: the prisoners are supposed to run a footrace against the guards. To win would be suicide, so together they proclaim, ‘Let’s all run very slowly!’ Their actions, Easterling points out, earn them independence from the powers that be and grant them safety in a situation where disobedience would have entailed a near-certain loss. Snyder, however, might reject their decision on the basis that (1) it was compliant rather than resistant and (2) that it set a precedent for their increased degradation.[4]

To recap: the protagonist of the ‘tyrannical drama’ is hopeful, individualistic, heroic, and perched on an axiomatic politics of non-compliance. The sheep-like bystanders of a ‘social corruption narrative’ are hopeless, collectivist, passive, and dependent on compliance for survival.[5] The fox, by contrast, is hopeful, individualistic, and anti-heroic. She acknowledges that the world isn’t pretty and does not turn to idealism to solve her problems. Hers is a politics of quick turns of all kinds: downturns, upturns, returns, U-turns, overturns, and taciturns. Enough, in short, to leave her enemies dizzy and dazed. So while there is compromise, there is also subversion —in equal if not greater measure.

Third Worldist politics contains all of the modalities described above. Nowadays, however, the story of corruption —in both ‘sheep’ and ‘fox’ forms —seems to prevail over what Snyder calls ‘righteous resistance’ against tyranny.[6] Consider Brazil. The largest South American democracy has been embroiled since 2013 in a political contretemps far worse than our own. Part of it revolves around the fact that by now, most Brazilians suspect their current head-of-state, Michel Temer, of having paid another official hush money to keep Lava Jato —the massive anticorruption investigation that has ensnared much of Brazil’s upper echelon —off his tail.

When I arrived in Recife, Brazil for the summer, a friend warned me: Tá cheio de ladrões aqui. (Recife’s lousy with thieves.) He followed this up with a sardonic declaration, one that is easily at home with my non-American relatives and friends: os piores são os políticos, he explained. (The worst ones are the politicians.) When I asked him to substantiate this claim, he responded fatalistically, enigmatically: ‘Corruption is our way of life. Our people —the Latin Americans —are more corrupt than others. Tell me of one country that was colonized by either Spain or Portugal that is prosperous and clean.’

Here, corruption comes coated in legitimacy. Slathered in it, in fact.

While disagreeing with his assessment, I sympathize with the sentiment behind it. Nonetheless, I wonder whether corruption might be even worse stateside. Here, politicians have the resources and cultural capital to pass their shameful activities off as virtue. Impressive surveillance and intelligence systems can cover up CIA-backed coups, predatory IMF loans and, yes, intervention in foreign elections. Here, corruption comes coated in legitimacy. Slathered in it, in fact.

This suggests that America may have much to learn from her southern neighbors’ experience with unstable democracy. Brazilians certainly think the parallels between Trump and Temer are crystal clear.[7] But where does this leave On Tyranny?

First, I would contend that some of its precepts might be disproven by even a cursory glance at the Third World. Take Chapter 6, for instance: ‘Be wary of paramilitaries.’ Snyder’s claim here is as scary as it is direct. He argues that when elected officials and paramilitaries collude, ‘the end [of democracy] is nigh.’ Ominous stuff, but the argument doesn’t quite hold water. Colombia, for instance, has lived with various paramilitary groups for most of its democratic existence. More importantly, there’s evidence from Gujarat, India that suggests the presence of these groups in fact increases voter participation.[8] So, while undesirable, neither the RSS in India nor the FARC in Colombia are lethal to democratic political organizations.

Other tenets are applicable anywhere, whether in the Global South or the Global North. ‘Learn from peers in other countries’ and ‘Be calm when the unthinkable arrives’ stand out for mention. Another evocatively titled lesson is ‘Make eye contact and small talk’ —a simple, even routine act that nevertheless shapes social worlds and our ability to defend those who find themselves at the margins.

Then there’s the matter of the book’s unstated focus: Trump. At least until the French and Dutch elections brought neoliberal centrists to power, Trump seemed part of an inexorable groundswell of anti-globalization sentiment. This movement culminated with the various electoral upsets that marked 2016 and 2017 —Brexit in the UK, the ‘No’ vote in Colombia, and, of course, Trump’s election itself. On Tyranny is a product of this anxious, uncertain moment in American political life. But this wave, which once seemed explosively transnational, has already proven to be far smaller than first expected. The movement has failed to take root outside the North Atlantic and, even in the US, conservative populism remains highly contested.

I do not mean to downplay the hazards of our present political configuration: the perils are real, sinister, and downright nightmarish at times. This holds true regardless of one’s wealth, location, or political bent. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that On Tyranny and books like it focus to a needless extent on the presidency. Trump and his relatives have become a lurid sideshow to conceal the real action, which occurs elsewhere in the American political machine. As Mark Lilla reminds us, ‘anti-Trumpism is not politics...[I]t is crucial that we look beyond Trump.’[9] Nor should we limit our gaze to the United States. Developments beyond our borders —throughout the Global South (in Venezuela, the Philippines, etc.) —may prove as relevant to our domestic situation as the latest news from Charlottesville or Washington D.C.

Even though the shock of the election has worn off, Snyder has yet to abandon his Trump-centric critique of American politics.[10] Perhaps, then, he is prone to the same pitfalls he warns his readers against. Consider On Tyranny’s own cautionary words, edited for relevance:

[T]he seduction by a mythicized past [that of Hitler, Stalin, and co.] prevents us from thinking about possible futures [or, at least, ones that are not apocalyptic] . . .[P]olitics becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems. Since the crisis is permanent, the sense of emergency is always present; planning for the future seems impossible or even disloyal. How can we even think of reform when the enemy [Trump] is always at the gate?


[1] ‘Third Worldist,’ here, does not refer to the Third Worldist movement —a rather nebulous coalitional force cen - tered on Afro-Asia, ascendant in the fifties and sixties —but instead alludes to the sensu latu definition of the Third World, the one that is more common in everyday use. A ‘Third Worldist’ perspective does not, by this definition, need to hinge on foreign policy decisions, but rather points to grass - roots experience and everyday frustrations.
[2] Hasan Minhaj, ‘2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner,’ C-SPAN, Washington D.C., 29 April 2017.
[3] Keller Easterling, ‘Extrastatecraft,’ Public Lecture Series: Experiments in Architecture , MIT, 20 November 2014.
[4] The Joke is not your typical ‘social corruption’ tale. It’s more like Bugs Bunny than Batman Beyond. In both of these animated series, danger is unceasing and tyrants, once toppled, only rise again. (Yes, Elmer Fudd can be a tyrant!) Still, there is one main difference. While the citizens of Gotham see themselves as hopelessly lost, the docile victims of an undying crime wave, the trickster toon Bugs always stays hopeful and creatively manages to find a way out. The fox and the sheep, in a new disguise.
[5] Often, their heroes are the protagonists of other stories, including those of “tyrannical drama,” who are dropped into this new setting like fish out of water. Batman and the Special Victims’ Unit, for instance, are out to trounce tyrants even if the structure of their societies —and their shows —makes it such that the evildoers return episode after episode.
[6] One might be tempted to trace various cycles of hopefulness and despair in Third Worldist politics, starting with the period of euphoria that energized most of AfroAsia in the years after decolonization (ca. 1945–1965) and quickly followed by the disappointment and debt brought on by Cold War brinksmanship and developmentalism (ca. 1965 – 1985). In some countries, hope returned with the end of dictatorship and communist rule (ca. 1985–2005) but market slowdowns have derailed these dreams in recent years. Whenever the times seem bleak, the social corruption narrative seems far more appealing. 
[7] Aaron Timms, ‘Trump and Temer: The Weak Flesh Presidents,’ Predata , 21 May 2017.
[8] See the work of Steven Wilkinson, especially Votes and Violence: Electoral Competition and Ethnic Riots in India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).