Timothy Snyder, Levin Professor of History at Yale University, is a scholar of surpassing brilliance. His 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin chronicles in harrowing detail the de facto collaboration of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union that resulted in the murder of millions of innocents. On any bookshelf reserved for accounts that reveal essential truths of our past, Bloodlands deserves a place of honor. It’s a towering achievement.
I just wish Professor Snyder would stick to history.
According to an old chestnut, the past is a foreign country. Even so, similarities between then and now frequently interest historians more than differences. Few, it seems, can resist the temptation to press their particular piece of the past into service as a vehicle for interpreting the here-and-now, even when doing so means oversimplifying and distorting the present. Historians of twentieth-century Europe, Snyder among them, seem particularly susceptible to this temptation. Synder’s mid-May op-ed in the New York Times offers a case in point. “We Should Say It,” the title advises. “Russia Is Fascist.”
Introducing the F-word into any conversation is intended to connote moral seriousness. Yet all too often, as with its first cousin “genocide,” it serves less to enlighten than to convey a sense of repugnance combined with condemnation. Such is the case here.
Depicting Vladimir Putin as a fascist all but explicitly puts today’s Russia in the same category as the murderous totalitarian regimes that Snyder indicts in Bloodlands. Doing so, in effect, summons the United States and its NATO allies to wage something akin to total war in Europe. After all, this country should no more compromise with the evil of present-day Russia than it did with the evil of Hitler’s Germany during World War II or Stalin’s Soviet Union during the Cold War.
For Snyder, therefore, the job immediately at hand is not just the honorable one of assisting the Ukrainians in defending themselves. The real task — the obligation, even — is to decisively defeat Russia, ensuring nothing less than democracy’s very survival. “As in the 1930s,” he writes, “democracy is in retreat around the world and fascists have moved to make war on their neighbors.”
As a consequence, “if Russia wins in Ukraine,” he insists, the result won’t simply be the brutal destruction of one imperfect democracy, but “a demoralization for democracies everywhere.” A Kremlin victory would affirm “that might makes right, that reason is for the losers, that democracies must fail.” If Russia prevails, in other words, “fascists around the world will be comforted.” And “if Ukraine does not win” — and winning, Snyder implies, will require regime change in Moscow — then “we can expect decades of darkness.”
So once again, as in the 1930s, it’s time to choose sides. To paraphrase a recent American president, you are either with us or you’re with the fascists.
Who are you calling fascist?
Allow me to confess that I was once susceptible to this sort of either/or binary thinking as an organizing principle of global politics. I grew up during the Cold War, when bipolarity — a U.S.-led Free World pitted against a Soviet-controlled communist bloc — offered a conceptual framework that any patriotic adolescent could grasp. Emphasizing clarity at the expense of empirical precision, such an us-against-them approach allowed little room for nuance. And as it happened, Americans paid dearly for the misjudgments that ensued thanks to just such thinking, the disastrous war in Vietnam being an especially vivid example. Ultimately, of course, our country did indeed “win” the Cold War, even if we have yet to tally up the cumulative costs of victory.
With an ample display of moral outrage, Professor Snyder appears intent on resurrecting that framework. By greenlighting this piece for their op-ed pages, the editors of the New York Times implicitly endowed it with establishment-approved respectability. In this way, the remembered politics of Europe in the 1930s finds renewed relevance as a source of instruction for the present moment.
How Americans responded then offers a model for how the United States should respond today, albeit with a sense of urgency rather than the foot-dragging that characterized U.S. policy prior to Pearl Harbor. Put simply, stopping fascism has once again emerged as an imperative surpassing all others in importance. The climate crisis? That can surely wait. Problems on the border with Mexico? Talk to me later. A never-ending pandemic? Just roll up your sleeve and follow Dr. Fauci’s orders. Recurring school massacres? Blame the Second Amendment.
“Russia Is Fascist” offers a definitive rebuttal to the Trump-promoted revival of “America First.” It’s a call to action, with a prospective anti-fascist crusade serving as an antidote to the setbacks, disappointments, and sense of decline that have haunted Washington’s foreign-policy establishment since the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11.
In a broader sense, targeting fascism may fill a vacuum that dates from the very end of the Cold War, one that the subsequent Global War on Terror never adequately addressed. Finally, America again has an Enemy Worthy of the Name. Vladimir Putin’s criminal aggression in Ukraine seemingly validates the idea that “great-power competition” defines the emerging world order, even if including Putin’s Russia in the ranks of legitimate great powers requires a distinctly elastic definition of that term. Nonetheless, given the complications that the United States encountered when taking on Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milošević, Osama bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi, and sundry other villains, a rivalry with Russia appears not only familiar and straightforward, but almost welcome.
On that score, the issue immediately at hand is as much psychological as geopolitical. After all, if the course of the war in Ukraine has made one thing abundantly clear, it’s that Russia’s heavily armed but strikingly inept armed forces pose no more than a negligible conventional threat to the rest of Europe. Military effectiveness requires more than a capacity to reduce cities to rubble. So if Putin represents the latest reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, he’s a Hitler saddled with Benito Mussolini’s maladroit legions.
Yet declaring Russia to be the embodiment of fascism revises the stakes. For Professor Snyder, Russia’s lack of military prowess matters less than Vladimir Putin’s twisted worldview. Centered on a “cult of the dead,” a “myth of a past golden age,” and a belief in the “healing violence” of war, Putin’s outlook expresses the essence of Russian-style fascism. Exposing that outlook as false is a precondition for destroying the Putin mystique. Only then, Snyder writes, will the myths he has perpetrated “come crashing down.”
This, for Professor Snyder and for many Washington insiders, describes the actual stakes in Ukraine. Rather than merely regional, they are nothing short of cosmic. Defeating Putin will enable the United States to refurbish its own tarnished myths, while safely tucking away our own sanctification of violence as an instrument of liberation. It will restore America to the pinnacle of global power.
There are, however, at least two problems with this optimistic scenario. The first relates to our own ostensible susceptibility to a homegrown variant of fascism, the second to tagging Putinism as an existential threat. Both divert attention from more pressing issues that ought to command the attention of the American people.
To the barricades?
Is Donald Trump a fascist? My own inclination is to see him as a narcissistic fraud and swindler. That said, from the very moment he emerged as a major political figure, critics cited the f-word to describe him. Let the testimony of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman stand in for similar commentary offered by so many others. Donald Trump “is indeed a fascist,” Krugman wrote in January 2021, “an authoritarian willing to use violence to achieve his racial nationalist goals.” It was obviously incumbent upon Americans to resist him as “appeasement is what got us to where we are. It has to stop, now.”
While Krugman’s counsel is crystal clear, let us consider the possibility that it may already be too late. That Trump or some Trump clone could win the presidency in 2024 looms as a real, if depressing, prospect. Indeed, his supporters may well gain control of Congress (and several statehouses) in this year’s elections as well.
Should that occur, will Krugman (and Snyder) find that the United States has followed Russia in succumbing to 1930s-style fascism? If so, with what implications for the legitimacy of the existing political order? Will resistance to Trumpism then become a civic obligation for righteous citizens intent on exercising their own right to bear arms? Paul Krugman’s reference to the dangers of further appeasement would suggest that the answer to that question must be yes. After all, in the American political lexicon few sins are more heinous than appeasement.
Yet down that road lies revolution, counterrevolution, and the end of the American republic. Recklessly unleashing charges of fascism could inadvertently pave the way for just such an outcome.
As an epithet, fascism retains considerable emotional appeal. As a term of analysis applied to contemporary American politics, however, it possesses limited utility. Talk may be cheap, but baseless talk can also be dangerously subversive — a concern equally applicable to those who level preposterous charges about communists and socialists overrunning the halls of government in Washington.
The truth is that we don’t live in the 1930s. Our world is not that world. Whether for good or ill, the United States of that era has long since vanished.
Professor Snyder’s assertion that “democracy is in retreat around the world” posits a model of history that has two gears: forward and reverse. In fact, history has multiple gears and moves in various directions, many of them unanticipated and unrelated to the prospects of democracy. So far at least, no algorithm exists to forecast where it will head next.
What threatens the United States today is not fascism but the continuing erosion of a domestic political consensus without which democratic governance becomes difficult, if not impossible. Surprisingly few politicians appear willing to acknowledge the extent of that danger. Instead, passions unleashed by issues like critical race theory or guaranteed access to assault rifles take over center stage, shrinking the space left for mutual understanding and accommodation.
Considered in this light, embarking on an anti-fascist crusade on the eastern fringes of Europe is unlikely to restore a sense of the common good at home. Waging war on behalf of Ukrainian democracy is more likely to serve as a diversion, an excuse to avoid matters of more immediate relevance to the waning health of our democracy. On that score, the tens of billions of dollars that an otherwise gridlocked Congress has appropriated to arm Ukraine speak volumes about the nation’s actual political priorities.
Ukrainians need, want, and deserve U.S. support in ejecting the Russian invader. But the fate of the American experiment will not be determined in Kyiv. It will be decided right here in the United States of America. When Joe Biden first announced his intention to oust Donald Trump from office, he seemed to understand that. He presented himself as someone voters could count on to bring Americans together and reverse our all-too-obvious decline. With this country having arrived at an “inflection point,” he vowed to guide it along “a path of hope and light” enabling it “to heal, to be reborn, and to unite.”
At some level, Biden surely meant those words, which implied that repairing the domestic disarray Trump had fostered should receive priority attention. But the Biden presidency has not yielded healing, rebirth, and unity – far from it. Now facing the prospect of major losses in this year’s congressional elections and long odds in the 2024 presidential contest, Biden appears intent on employing a familiar tactic in a desperate effort to salvage his political fortunes: using problems abroad to distract attention from challenges at home.
Russia poses one such problem, even if one that policymakers and pundits join in exaggerating, as if criminal misconduct automatically connotes existential threat. Hovering in the background is a much larger problem: China. Given a sufficiently loose definition, it, too, can be described as fascist. So the Biden administration’s confrontational attitude regarding Russia finds its counterpart in an equally hard-nosed policy toward China.
Downplaying the realities of Sino-American mutual interdependence and the imperative of cooperation on issues of common concern such as climate change, the administration appears hellbent on conjuring up yet another axis of evil as a rationale for a fresh round of U.S. muscle-flexing. Once again, as when 9/11 provided a spurious rationale for concocting the previous axis (not to speak of invading Afghanistan and then Iraq), the urge to ignore complexity and downplay risk is sadly apparent.
In Washington, the conviction that military might adroitly applied will restore the United States to a position of global primacy has tacitly found renewed favor. The ostensible lessons of an ongoing conflict in which U.S. forces are participating on a proxy basis superseded any lessons of the recently concluded Afghan War where the United States failed outright. Rarely has the selective memory of the national security apparatus been so vividly on display. Much the same can be said about the Congress, where a no-questions-asked enthusiasm for underwriting the Ukraine War has provided a handy excuse for simply writing off the entire 20-year misadventure in Afghanistan.
The truth is that neither Russian “fascism” nor its Chinese variant poses a significant danger to American democracy, which is actually threatened from within. Joe Biden once appeared to grasp this reality, even if he now finds it politically expedient to pretend otherwise.
Our salvation lies not in flinging around the f-word to justify more wars, but in rediscovering a different lexicon. To start with, consider this precept to which Americans were once devoted: Charity begins at home. Charity, as in tolerance, compassion, generosity, and understanding: that’s where the preservation of our democracy ought to begin.
This article has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.