So you say you want a strongman? Skip to content

So you say you want a strongman?

Timothy Snyder points out the results if you succeed in electing a strongman. And they’re not pretty.

4 min read

Historians almost never miss a chance to explain how the past can provide guidance for the present. It’s part of their job description.

But Yale historian Timothy Snyder demurred on TV the other day when MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace asked him how, between now and election time, would he deal with pro-Putin Trump loyalists, their “erasure of history” and their “willful ignorance of our place in the world.”

“In terms of the folks who think they want a strongman, I’m not honestly sure that big concepts or even historical references are the way to start,” said Snyder, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. More on his response in a minute.

Recently, strongman wannabe Trump feted and fawned over Hungary’s autocratic ruler Viktor Orbán at Mar-a-Lago. “There’s nobody that’s better, smarter, or a better leader than Viktor Orbán,” Trump gushed enviously. “He’s fantastic ... he’s a non-controversial figure because he says, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’ and that’s the end of it. Right? He’s the boss. No, he’s a great leader.”

Trump’s bromance with “non-controversial bosses”/ “great leaders” like Orbán, Russia's would-be Czar Vladimir I, and North Korea’s Kim Jung Un is more proof — as if more proof were needed — that our democracy is on the line come November. Even so, the white folks in the red “Make America Great Again” (meaning “Make America White Again”) ballcaps still dote on the Donald, maybe more than ever.

Orbán has has said nice things about Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s rightwing, antisemitic dictator who cozied with Hitler in World War II and sent 500,000 Hungarian Jews to die in Nazi death camps. 

Trump has claimed he’s not familiar with Hitler. He vowed he’s “not a student” of the Nazi dictator who had six million European Jews murdered just because they were Jews. Hitler said they were “poisoning” the blood of Aryan Germans, and likened Jews to rats.

Trump said undocumented immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country” (meaning white America). He has compared his political foes to “vermin.

“Donald Trump’s second White House chief of staff tried to stop him praising Adolf Hitler in part by trying to convince the then president [that] Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator, was ‘a great guy in comparison,’” recently wrote The Guardian’s Martin Pengelly.

“‘He said, ‘Well, but Hitler did some good things,’ the retired marines general John Kelly told Jim Sciutto of CNN in an interview for [Sciutto’s] new book.” 

Pengelly quoted Kelly: “I said, ‘Well, what?’ And he said, ‘Well, [Hitler] rebuilt the economy.’ But what did he do with that rebuilt economy? He turned it against his own people and against the world. And I said, ‘Sir, you can never say anything good about the guy. Nothing. I mean, Mussolini was a great guy in comparison.”

According to Pengelly, Kelly, who was Trump’s homeland security secretary before becoming chief of staff, “told Sciutto it was ‘pretty hard to believe’ Trump ‘missed the Holocaust’ in his assessment of Hitler, ‘and pretty hard to understand how he missed the 400,000 American GIs that were killed in the European theatre’ of the second world war.”

And it’s just as hard to fathom how Trump failed to notice folks on TV sporting the neo-Nazi and antisemitic clothes and flags in the violent MAGA mob he incited to storm the Capitol in the Jan. 6, 2021, coup to keep him in power.

Apparently, Trump loyalists are convinced he’ll be their strongman and will turn the clock back to when only white lives mattered. Make that male, straight, Christian conservative white lives. 

So here’s Snyder’s warning to the Trump faithful: You think this is going to be your strongman. But he's not going to be your strongman. He's going to be his own strongman.

Once in power, the historian added, the strongman or whoever succeeds him is “going to do whatever he wants.” (Trump admires Orbán doing just that.) 

When you figure out that he’s not your guy, your joy will turn to fear “because you know you can make a wrong move,” Snyder said. Strongmen are known for dealing roughly with enemies, real or imagined.

“Once you choose the strongman, there's no way back,” Snyder said. “You burn that bridge behind you. It’s not a menu in a restaurant. You don’t get to make more choices. It’s done. Once you burn this bridge, you get this guy or whoever follows him, forever.”

Throughout history, strongman rulers have been prone to turning on even their close friends.

During the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror,” Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre accused his friend and fellow Jacobin Georges Marat of disloyalty to the revolution and had him beheaded on the guillotine. Later Robespierre suffered the same unhappy fate on the “National Razor.”

After he seized power in the U.S.S.R., Joseph Stalin, ever fearful he’d be ousted in a coup, ordered the execution of millions of his “traitorous” fellow citizens. His victims included Leon Trotsky and many of his old comrades and allies from the Bolshevik Revolution.

After Hitler’s Brownshirt bullies helped put him in power in Germany, he decided their thuggishness made him look bad to a lot of Germans. Hoping it would make him look better, Hitler ordered his SS troopers (clad in black Hugo Boss manufactured uniforms) and other armed men to murder the Brownshirt leadership, including his old friend and longtime Nazi, Ernst Röhm.

Added Snyder: “Since you know you voted not to vote anymore by voting for a strongman, you have to be aware that he has no reason ... to pay attention to you. There's no connection to you anymore. You've got to be aware that his peers, the moment you anoint him ... are not going to be you, but other oligarchs and dictators around the world. He’s not going to care about you. He’s probably not even going to pretend to care about you after this.”

Snyder concluded, “These are the basic logical things that I think people should probably be thinking about.”

So remember:

The moment you anoint him ... his peers are not going to be you, but other oligarchs and dictators around the world.


When you figure out that he’s not your guy, your joy will turn to fear because you know you can make a wrong move.”


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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

Arlington, KY



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