A moment ago I awoke from a nightmare about 9/11.
I was visiting the Empire State Building in New York when an airplane crashed into it from the side. The whole building buckled for a moment, then nothing else seemed to happen. I was by myself, without any friends or family, and I just ran down to the exit, staircase after staircase. Getting out was the thing to do. But no one else was doing it.
I think this sense of inertia during an emergency was something that stayed with me from the real 9/11, when the World Trade Center was attacked. When the first building was hit, it was somehow not clear that the second building should also be evacuated.
In my dream about the Empire State Building, there was no siren. When I got to the lobby, people were just milling around, and all of the doors were closed and locked. There seemed to be no way out. One handicapped entrance was opened for a moment, to allow a woman in a wheelchair to come in. In the dream, I felt a little guilty as I squeezed by her and went the wrong way through the door. The doors closed again. No one else left the building. My example did not make a difference. They were all going to die.
I somehow ended up in a nearby building, some kind of tourist center where people waited before entering the Empire State Building. Inside was a group of senior citizens, waiting for a tour of the building. I tried to explain to them what was happening. If people would not leave the Empire State Building, at least more should not go in.
But I was just a guy, I wasn't wearing a uniform, I didn't have a microphone, and they didn't pay attention. They gave me that look people give you when you are the entertainment and the entertainment is not good. They hadn't seen the plane hit the building, and they thought that I was some sort of nut. A lady to my left, wearing a red-white-and-blue dress and with some kind of red-white-and-blue ornament in her hair, starting laughing at me. They were going to have their tour.
In the dream, I knew that the building was going to come down. And there seemed to be nothing I could do. The problem was as clear as day, but no one wanted to see it. People preferred to risk everything rather than believe that there was a risk. With the senior citizens were two security guards. They had seen the plane hit, but they could somehow not draw the conclusions. They wanted to talk to me about how it could have happened. Wasn't it just some kind of accident? Wasn't someone in charge? And wouldn't everything somehow be okay in the end?
Are your dreams as easy to analyze as mine? I sometimes have, in real life, that Cassandra feeling that I had in the dream: when I predicted that Russia would invade Ukraine in 2014; when I broke the story of Trump and Russia in 2016; when I asked people to work against American regime change in 2017; when I predicted in 2020 that Trump would try some sort of coup to stay in power, or tried to explain that his big lie would be his legacy.
The obvious trigger of this dream was the Senate vote preventing an investigation of the domestic insurgency of 1/6. The proposal was modelled after the 9/11 commission, which is why 9/11 was on my mind. 9/11 is unforgettable; nearly three thousand Americans lost their lives. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 raised questions about foreign policy and airport security. The terrorist attack of 1/6 raised deeper questions about how our country is governed, and who we have become as a people.
In 2001, speaking in the House of Representatives, President Bush said that Al Qaeda hated "what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government." That is what we wanted to hear, because it meant that we were attacked because we were the good guys. That probably wasn't really what Al Qaeda had in mind on 9/11, but it was what Americans had in mind on 1/6. They stormed the very chamber in which President Bush spoke, and they were there to halt the procedures of a democracy. They were attacking, precisely, "democratically elected government."
I have the Cassandra feeling this spring because it is so obvious where all of this is heading. President Trump tells a big lie that elections are rigged. This authorizes him and others to seek power in extra-democratic ways. The lie is institutionalized by state legislation that suppresses voting, and that gives state legislatures themselves the right to decide how to allocate the electoral vote in presidential elections.
The scenario then goes like this. The Republicans win back the House and Senate in 2022, in part thanks to voter suppression. The Republican candidate in 2024 loses the popular vote by several million and the electoral vote by the margin of a few states. State legislatures, claiming fraud, alter the electoral count vote. The House and Senate accept that altered count. The losing candidate becomes the president. We no longer have "democratically elected government." And people are angry.
No one is seeking to hide that this is the plan. It is right there out in the open. The prospective Republican candidates for 2024, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley, are all running on a big lie platform. If your platform is that elections do not work, you are saying that you intend to come to power some other way. The big lie is designed not to win an election, but to discredit one. Any candidate who tells it is alienating most Americans, and preparing a minority for a scenario where fraud is claimed. This is just what Trump tried in 2020, and it led to a coup attempt in January 2021. It will be worse in January 2025.
9/11 led us to the invasion of Iraq, the foreign policy disaster that marked our century. 1/6 leads us to a catastrophe on that scale, but inside our own country. It is not at all clear that the plan to take power undemocratically will work, but it is clear that it will generate a lot of resistance. African Americans are right now being told the absurd lie that the problem in America is that it is too easy for them to vote. As the scenario plays out, all Americans will face an open denial of everything they have been told about their country.
In such a scenario, it is not clear what the armed forces or civil servants would do. Most likely they would fracture. An oath to defend the Constitution is hard to honor when it is unclear what it means. Both those who were stealing an election and those who were defending votes would claim that the Constitution was on their side.
The Supreme Court would rule, but would anyone pay attention? Those who have decided to overthrow democracy believe that the Court is on their side, which is why they are proceeding as they are. If they were proven wrong in January 2025, it would be too late; they would not change course. Those who are defending voting rights expect the Court to rule against voting, since that is what it generally does. If the Court rules against voting in the setting of antidemocratic regime change, this will seem screamingly illegitimate to a very large number of Americans. No Court, no Constitution. No Constitution, no rule of law. No rule of law, widespread violence. The collapse of the United States follows.
When Trump told his big lie, the airplane hit the building. What unfolds from there has a certain logic. It can be stopped, but only if it is understood. Everything happens fast. It is so easy to look away, to imagine it was all an accident, to think that institutions will save us. They will only save us if we save them first.
The anti-voter laws proposed and passed by Republican state legislatures around the country move the scenario to its next step. Halting them might well be the only way to halt the scenario as a whole. Businesses that want to avoid chaos between now and 2022 and prevent system breakdown in 2024 would be well advised not to donate to politicians who repeat the big lie and suppress the vote.
We have to act now. This is what no one wants to hear. We want to believe in American democracy. We want to take pride in new laws, a growing economy, the end of covid. I get all of that. I want to feel that way too. I have not yet figured out how to tell this story. In waking life I feel as I did in the dream, facing those senior citizens. I couldn't convince a single one of of them. And so I just stood in the doorway and kept talking. And woke up in the middle of the night and wrote this.
Dr. Snyder, your voice has kept me sane since before the election of 2016, and I do not say that lightly. I am a member of the clergy, and have been studying civil society and totalitarian systems for many years. I was in Romania in 2001, working among some local church partners in the ethnic Hungarian minority, at a time of heightened nationalism and ethnic tension in the country, most especially in the city of Cluj. My two older children, then 8 and 10, were with me there, and we had many conversations about these issues. On 9/11, we were deep in the Transylvanian countryside, nestled among friends who cared for us as we learned the shocking news. I remember someone saying to me, "Watch now, your President will use this to gain power."
My children and I returned to the United States just after Sept. 11, as soon as we could travel again. As we drove home from the San Francisco airport and saw giant American flags flying everywhere, my son said, "This looks just like Cluj!" I remember my concern over the rapid use of nationalistic images to bolster the security state here in the months that followed. My Hungarian friend's prediction started unfolding. I tried to talk about what I was observing, but I felt like an outlier in so many places, the overwrought Cassandra who kept talking about cabals and the rising autocratic trends.
And now, my Hungarian friends have largely fallen under Orban's sway, especially those in Romania, and some of those friendships have been ruptured, including the very family with whom we were living in 2001. Those friends told me how much they admired President Trump, and that I should too. Autocracy's ugliness seems to be everywhere, emboldened by our own failures in the U.S. And here at home, the people who thought I was exaggerating in 2004 and laughed when I said Trump would win the 2016 election-the same people thanked me during Trump's presidency for lifting up your writings, and on January 6 said, "Oh my god you were right!" Well, those folks are now telling me once again that our institutions will prevail, that we just need to give President Biden time, that the Democrats will prosecute, that the center will hold.
It's so heartbreaking to watch this willful denial. I'm so grateful for historians like yourself, and for the brave journalists all over the world. But it's your voice that has been a rope to the barn for me during this long blizzard. Your writing and lectures remind me that someone far more knowledgeable than me is sounding the alarm ever more loudly. I am so afraid that we won't listen, and that our democracy will indeed fail. Thank you for your clarity and tenacity-we need you more than ever.
Well, in actual fact, a week ago I dreamed about Viktor Orban. I used to know him well, we were both members of the underground political movement, the samizdat culture and the opposition that has split into many factions since then just like Anne Applebaum tells us in Twilight. Anyway, I was shouting at him and telling him how he had betrayed each and every idea that we held dear more than thirty years ago. I was beside myself with fury and when I finished he crouched in a corner and started to cry. Now, we suspect that he is not terribly stable and he clearly went to pieces in my dream, so I crouched down to him and started consoling him as you would a young child or someone who has deep psychological problems. I left Hungary as a political refugee, was back in Budapest as a BBC correspondent, but I have never had a dream like this. It's uncanny that several of us should have politically motivated dreams these days, probably shows how deeply troubled we are about what is happening in our respective countries, even at a subliminal, Freudian level...