On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons for the 2020 Election

At VFRL, we’ve been recommending On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder as required reading for these times. Between now and the election, we’re posting a discussion of each lesson every day or two. You can find the full list here, updated regularly.

1 — Do not obey in advance

When enough people conform — or fail to resist — would-be authoritarians learn what they can get away with. Anticipatory obedience teaches them how far they can go, and it is often further than they believed. Do not adapt. Do not normalize.


Trump and his cronies push the line every day. Fatigue is widespread, and actions that get a shrug today would be unthinkable four short years ago. Thankfully, most Americans are horrified and resistance remains vocal. When Trump deployed unnamed and unbadged paramilitary units to Portland, resistance was strong. Ultimately, they withdrew.

Our greatest tests are yet to come. Trump will be fighting for his life after the election. Remain vigilant. Do not obey in advance.

2 — Defend institutions

It is institutions that preserve democratic norms. But they will not automatically defend themselves. It is a mistake to believe that rulers who come to power through institutions cannot destroy or capture them. Preserve institutions, preserve democracy.


We have witnessed in four short years the hollowing out of our institutions under Donald Trump. Lobbyists run regulatory agencies, men like Chad Wolf with no experience head departments critical to our national security, and active enablers like Bill Barr lead departments tasked with maintaining law and order.

America’s institutions will have difficulty withstanding four more years of assault. A great effort lies ahead in rebuilding our institutions. First, to save our institutions, and preserve our democracy, we must ensure Trump is not reelected.

3 — Beware the one-party state

A willful party can take advantage of a momentary opportunity to change the system from within. It is impossible to know that you’re participating in the last free and fair election that your country will see, perhaps in a lifetime. A robust multi-party system mitigates the risk that these moments will open the door to tyranny.


Snyder opined in a recent Op-Ed that Trump will use all means at his disposal to undermine the results of the election and stay in office. His success rests on keeping the margin of victory as narrow as possible. A vote for Trump and his enablers in this election is a vote for the “plot to end the American republic….for a future in which voting does not matter.”

This election, Republicans must choose the survival of the republic over the short-term victory of many Republican party candidates. This means voting against Trump, McConnell, Graham, Gaetz, Crenshaw, and all those who have embraced and enabled Trump and the slide toward authoritarianism.

4 — Take responsibility for the face of the world

Accepting or becoming desensitized to symbols and declarations of hate or loyalty are compromises that enable future oppression. Do not look away. Do not play the game. Protest their use, and set an example for others. Ensure symbols you do adopt or accept are fully inclusive.


Sadly, Trump’s name and MAGA imagery are ubiquitous. While their full conversion to symbols of hate or authoritarianism are debatable, at a minimum they are divisive and represent, for many Americans, permanent residents, immigrants, and visitors, the desire of a segment of society to subjugate, displace, or expel them. Do not turn away. Do not accept. Adopt signs of inclusion and post them in prominent places — like shop windows and in yards — to counter these symbols.

5 — Remember professional ethics

Authoritarian regimes rely on obedient civil servants and complicit businessmen. If lawyers, businessmen, and others honor their professional commitments to just norms and practices, would-be authoritarians are deprived of enablers.


This is especially important in the coming weeks. Vote counting will be challenged. Election results will be called into question. Lawyers, judges, civil servants, police, media, elected officials and more will play a role in calculating and certifying results and applying the law. Many of these participants have sworn oaths to support and defend the Constitution. All of them are bound by professional ethics which, if followed, will make it impossible for Trump to undermine the will of the voters.

6 — Be wary of paramilitaries

“When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.”

The state must have a monopoly on violence to function. When the government cedes this function, even in part, the political order is first degraded, then transformed.


The threat posed by militias in the U.S. did not originate under Trump, but it has greatly worsened. In recent months, militias have been significantly emboldened by Trump and the administration, and have taken to the streets to openly intimidate citizens exercising their rights and, at times, engage them with violence. There has been extensive reporting of not only a double standard in treatment by law enforcement of these armed vigilantes, but even some coordination and reports of participation by active duty military, law enforcement, and Veterans.

There is likely to be unrest during and following this election. It is essential that these lines to not blur further and that the ranks of militias not grow. As Veterans, we have a unique position and responsibility in this regard. This will require building coalitions with law enforcement and reaching out to and educating our fellow Veterans and citizens.

7 — Be reflective if you must be armed

8 — Stand out

9 — Be kind to our language

10 — Believe in truth

11 — Investigate

12 — Make eye contact and small talk

13 — Practice corporeal politics

14 — Establish a private life

15 — Contribute to good causes

16 — Learn from peers in other countries

17 — Listen for dangerous words

18 — Be calm when the unthinkable arrives

19 — Be a patriot

20 — Be as courageous as you can

Upholding our Constitutional oaths & supporting American democracy and the rule of law. Taking to task those who don’t, regardless of party or position.