Warm welcome on behalf of De Balie and the John Adams Institute, who joined forces on this occasion to welcome Professor Timothy Snyder and to discuss his book The Road To Unfreedom. An important book which cannot and should not be ignored by anyone who gives a damn about democracy, and the rule of law. The renowned historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of Homo Deus, calls the book “a brilliant and disturbing analysis, which should be read by anyone wishing to understand the political crisis currently engulfing the world”.
While I briefly introduce professor Snyder, I’d like to begin with this picture of the celebrations this past weekend of the end of the Great War in France. This photo appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the world. Pictures can be distorting, but this obviously fits a narrative. We see the back of president Putins head and the only person not looking at him with distrust or worries is president Donald Trump. If there is an axis of illiberalism, these two world leaders may be two of its most obvious poles – even though the pillars of American democracy, although shaken, are still standing.
We will most likely spend more time tonight talking about Vladimir Putin than about Donald Trump but let me briefly just point at the past week where Donald Trump, in the days after the midterms, attacked some of those pillars of democracy like never before. He fired his attorney general because he wanted to have a tighter grip on an investigation into his own dealings, and he replaced him with a loyalist. President Trump banned a CNN correspondent from the White House and threatened other journalists to do the same – and then he pushed election officials in two states to stop counting the votes, while accusing others of having rigged the vote.
The last time I spoke to professor Snyder was in April of last year during an interview in his Yale office, in which he said: “In Trumps mind, there is no rule of law, there is no constitutional system. The architecture of his mind is clear: when he says journalist are enemies, attacks judges etc, he imagines an America without a constitutional system.” What also stayed with me was Professor Snyders warning that if we think “this won’t happen here”, “it doesn’t fit the general course of history”, we are very wrong – since there is no general course of history.
We’ve seen the rise of nationalist parties, we’ve seen the longing for a strong leader, Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro being the latest example – and we need someone like Timothy Snyder to not only interpret this, but perhaps also show us the way out.