Anne Applebaum’s new book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Allure of Authoritarianism, opened two decades ago with a boisterous New Year’s Eve party that she and her husband held on their renovated country estate in Poland to celebrate the triumphant end of the 20th century. Applebaum is an Eastern European historian on communism, the author of Red famine and the Pulitzer Prize Gulag: A story;; Her husband Radosław Sikorski is a center-right politician who has served as Poland’s foreign and defense minister at various times. Unsurprisingly, the guest list featured center-right intellectuals, journalists, and politicians from the three countries this power couple calls home – the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland. But as we soon learn, in the 20 years since then, many of the guests have wandered from right to right. “I would cross the street now to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party,” writes Applebaum. “Not only would they refuse to go into my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they’d ever been there. In fact, about half of the people who were at that party wouldn’t speak to the other half anymore. ”
Readers unfamiliar with Polish politics may not recognize names like Ania Bielecka, the godmother of one of Applebaum’s children, who recently got close to Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the far-right Polish ruling party Law and Justice. or Anita Gargas, another of Applebaum’s guests, who is now spreading conspiracy theories in the right-wing paper Gazeta Polska;; or Rafal Ziemkiewicz, who is now spreading anti-Semitic rhetoric on Polish state television. But Anglo-American audiences are likely to recognize some of the other people who were once their center-right comrades – formerly embarrassed conspirator Dinesh D’Souza and prime-time Fox News’ hater Laura Ingraham National review Editor-in-Chief John O’Sullivan and current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (O’Sullivan now spends most of his time in Hungary, where he runs a think tank, the Danube Institute, which is supported by the far-right ruling party.)
For Applebaum, the question arises as to how her colleagues – all of whom at the turn of the century supported the “pro-European, constitutional, market-friendly” consensus that dominated not only the center-right, but also most of the left-liberal politicians after the fall of communism have reactionaries To confess conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism and xenophobia and to show a slavish loyalty to demagogues like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán. Dawn of Democracy is their attempt at an answer; In other words, it is Applebaum’s endeavor to explain why so many of her once close friends turned out to be fascists.
In so far as the book offers intimate portraits of intellectuals who ultimately campaigned for the empowerment of the far right, it is a valuable document. Get inspiration from Julien Benda The betrayal of the intellectualsApplebaum makes it clear that she does not want to explain what makes today’s populist strongholds or what makes ordinary voters support them, but specifically why some in her orbit – all highly educated, urbane, cosmopolitan journalists, academics, and political activists – do this have done joined their cause. Her main argument is convincing up to a point: her ex-friends are motivated less by ideological conviction or material suffering than by humiliation and resentment. In particular, they are driven by the feeling that their natural talents have been inadequately recognized and rewarded according to the supposedly meritocratic rules of a liberal elite, which has dismissed them as mediocrity. They are the losers of the cultural hegemony of liberalism – they claim – and have found a way to win in the illiberal politics of the far right.
It’s a plausible theory, but implicitly there is an untested assumption that the liberal meritocracy has worked and will continue to operate on its own terms. Applebaum’s blind faith in the center-right forms of neoliberalism and meritocratic mobility also conveniently releases them and their remaining friends from any responsibility for the current crisis. Their success when they had it was deserved; To the extent that they are now powerless against the dangers of their estranged cohort, it is only because genuine merit is no longer rewarded. It never seems to cross into Applebaum’s mind that so many ex-friends who ended up on the far right could say something unflattering about their own judgment – and, more generally, about the center-right political tradition of which it belongs.
T.Wilight of Democracy is not a long book. The six chapters are structured as a series of personal recollections and reporting journeys, framed by abstract political digressions. From her New Year’s Eve party, Applebaum takes us first to today’s Poland and Hungary, then to Great Britain after Brexit, then to Spain and Trump’s America and finally back to her Polish country house to celebrate another, newer party – this one she attended younger, more liberal, and more comfortable post-national crowd, including their sons’ friends from school and university. “No deep cultural differences, no profound civilizational clashes, no irreconcilable identity gaps seemed to divide them,” she writes optimistically, although the possibility that they do not offer a socio-economically representative insight into the future of the West does not seem to occur to her.
The most effective moments on these trips come when Applebaum offers sharply rendered portraits of her right-wing extremist subjects. Her disdain for each of them is deeply personal, and she has a knack for making understated but cutting observations. She writes about the director of the Polish state television:
Jacek Kurski is not a radically lonely conformist of the kind described by Hannah Arendt, and he does not embody the banality of evil. He’s not a bureaucrat who obeys orders. He has never said anything thoughtful or interesting about democracy, a political system that he neither supports nor denounces. He is not an ideologist or a true believer; He is a man who wants the power and fame that was wrongly denied him. To understand Jacek, you need to look beyond political science textbooks and study literary antiheroes instead.
From the Danube Institute, the think tank operated by O’Sullivan:
Hungarian friends describe his presence in Budapest as “marginal”. As a rule, Hungarians do not read their (admittedly sparse) English-language publications, and their events are inconspicuous and mostly go unnoticed. But O’Sullivan has an office and an apartment in Budapest. He has the opportunity to invite his many friends and contacts, all of them conservative writers and thinkers, to visit him in one of the largest and most beautiful cities in Europe. I have no doubt that when you get there, O’Sullivan will be the cozy and fun host he always was.
From Laura Ingraham:
Some mutual friends point out that she converted to Catholicism and is a breast cancer survivor who is deeply religious: she told one of them that “the only man who never let me down was Jesus.” The willpower it took to survive in the right-wing media world – particularly at Fox News, where female celebrities were often pressured to sleep with their bosses – shouldn’t be underestimated. These personal experiences add a messianic edge to some of their public statements.
Some of these people refused to speak to Applebaum about the book. others had only brief, irritable conversations with her over the phone. Right-wing Hungarian historian Mária Schmidt met with Applebaum and then published her own heavily edited transcript of the interview online without Applebaum’s permission. After that, it appeared on the official website of the Hungarian government. “It was a performance,” notes Applebaum, “designed to prove to other Hungarians that Schmidt is loyal to the regime and is ready to defend it.”
Applebaum’s character sketches are convincing, partly because they are driven by an implicit, if not recognized, self-recognition. She is able to get into the minds of her subjects because she used to be so close to them – and although she may not consciously understand this because they are not that different from her. For example, she writes about two subtly different shades of nostalgia. Reflective nostalgics, including themselves, love old photographs and letters but don’t want a return to the past, while restorative nostalgics like two of their former friends in the UK, conservative writers Simon Heffer and Roger Scruton, have channeled romance into the past disruptive politics of Brexit and the UK Independence Party. Applebaum still remembers – with nostalgia! – How it felt to connect with Heffer and Scruton about English literature and country cricket matches, which gives her a little pathos for breaking with them about the future of Britain.
This intimacy can also be found in Applebaum’s deeply disturbing account of the 2010 Smolensk air disaster – a terrible tragedy in which 96 people, including the then Polish president and much of the country’s political elite, fell in a plane crash on their way to an airplane Commemorations of the Russian government on the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre were killed. This is where Applebaum captures how a nation’s deeply felt trauma can turn into something more sinister:
A kind of hysteria, something like the madness that crept into the United States after September 11th, engulfed the nation. TV announcers wore black mourning ties; Friends gathered in our Warsaw apartment to share the story repeated in this dark, damp Russian forest. My own memory of the following days is muddled and chaotic. I remember buying a black suit to wear to the memorial services. I remember one of the widows who was so frail she could barely stand and cried over her husband’s funeral. My own husband, who declined an invitation to travel with the President on this trip, went to the airport every evening to pay attention while the coffins were brought home.
The crash was rated as an accident that initially united Poles and Russians in national mourning. Right-wing Polish intellectuals, including Applebaum’s former friend Gargas, soon developed a number of elaborate conspiracy theories to explain this. Applebaum aptly compares the Smolensk theories to obstetrics and QAnon in the United States, and she sees such viral lies as a useful tool for autocrats: if followers can accept a false premise, a “medium-sized lie,” then any establishment narrative becomes suspect and an alternative, fact-free political reality beckons to them.
As an eyewitness to how these paranoid alternate realities took root among the elites of several countries, Applebaum brings with him a useful perspective that is rooted in her own specialist position and not easily found in a political science textbook. But when she switches from one terrifying anecdote to the next, the reader may notice a self-flattering absence Dawn of Democracy: Applebaum is ready to impale her former friends, but she is unwilling to question her own guilt and that of the center-right establishment in general. To what extent she may now regret some of these friendships in retrospect, she does not acknowledge how her past and present worldview – one that supports neoliberal economy, military adventurism, and elite meritocracy – may have created the space for distant right .
APplebaum may be well versed in her set’s soap operatic intrigues, but her understanding of Western political theory is sometimes superficial by comparison. Typical of the many interchangeable bestsellers of the anti-Trump resistance, Dawn of Democracy is a kind of book that leaps quickly from Plato to Cicero to Hamilton to find that the elites have always been skeptical of democracy, and it dutifully quotes Tocqueville, Lincoln, and King to affirm the compatibility of liberal tradition with the American state of emergency. Meanwhile, it is dismissive and simplistic towards past political figures who still identify with radicalism today. At some point she takes action against Emma Goldman a century ago for her anarchist criticism of American patriotism, a tradition that Applebaum then traces back to the Weather Underground, Howard Zinn and parts of the contemporary left.
Applebaum uses these more abstract political digressions to reaffirm its long-established center-right priorities, drawing on Cold War-era talking points to locate salvageable elements of conservatism amid the current rubble. Your second chapter begins, for example, with a bold assertion: “The illiberal one-party state that can be found all over the world today – think China, Venezuela, Zimbabwe – was first developed in 1917 by Lenin in Russia. In the political science textbooks of the future, the founder of the Soviet Union will certainly be remembered not only for his Marxist convictions, but also as the inventor of this permanent form of political organization. ”
This is a controversial claim at best, depending on how, for example, Napoleon Bonaparte, his future heir, Napoleon III, is to be found. Or consider any number of 19th century Latin American dictators and caudillos. But there’s a reason Applebaum is pushing this. As the author of several books on the horrors of 20th century communism and an advocate of the conservative intellectual tradition, she has an interest in holding the left accountable while diagnosing that the right is slipping into illiberalism: that is, it must Don’t hold the center and its center-right flank accountable for it.
To be fair, Applebaum anticipates this criticism. “Although the cultural power of the authoritarian left is growing,” she writes, “the only modernity Employees Those who have gained real political power in Western democracies … are members of movements we are used to calling the “right”. Despite this recognition, Applebaum is convinced that there is a growing “authoritarian left,” which includes many factions that actually live, often violently at odds with one another. It is a left, the Chavismo in Venezuela, Jeremy Corbyn in Great Britain, the “openly radical, radical left-wing” Podemos party in Spain, “a generation of radical left campus agitators who want to dictate how professors can teach and what students can say , “And the instigators of Twitter mobs who try to kill public figures and ordinary people for violating unwritten language codes.” (Disclosure: Applebaum blocked me on Twitter.)
N.One of them should come as a terrible surprise, given that Applebaum is one of the EU’s signatories Harper’s Magazine Letter decryption cancel culture and has supported Yascha Mounk’s like-minded people conviction Newsletter. For this increasingly vocal segment of the centrist intelligentsia, the cultural excesses of alertness are just as threatening as right-wing extremist politicians who exercise actual state power.
But Applebaum’s aversion to the left isn’t just a matter of the small campus and internet feuds. By drawing parallels between the left and the far right, it seeks to rid the center of all guilt for its role in the current crisis, despite having a virtual monopoly on political power in the post-Cold War era. Applebaum endeavors to psychoanalytically analyze anyone she regards as politically extreme in either direction, but she is far less willing to question her own unconscious assumptions or those of her remaining friends at the center – let alone the material outcomes of her preferred politics.
Applebaum writes about the general accusation that the neoliberal economic order has undermined the western working class and the middle class through deindustrialization and thus paved the way for Brexit and Trump: “In the western world the vast majority of people do not go hungry. You have food and shelter. You are educated. When we describe them as “poor” or “disadvantaged,” it is sometimes because they lack things that people couldn’t dream of a century ago, like air conditioning or WiFi. ”
This reasoning would have been risky even before Covid-19, but Dawn of Democracy went under pressure recently enough that Applebaum was able to include her report on the frantic international border closings last March – that is, recently enough that she could have registered that food and shelter might be inaccessible to tens of millions of Americans now and then these austerity measures and neoliberalism bear as much responsibility for this calamity as Trump. Even to the extent that she is right that minimal material needs are being met, it is frankly amazing that she does not understand how ordinary people – unlike their well-connected friends – experience a crisis of importance and dignity in a political one Order might experience the expectation that they are satisfied with cheap consumer goods and privatized essential services.
These are concerns not just in the United States or the United Kingdom, but also in Eastern European countries, including the one where their estate is located. Civic Platform, the center-right party that ruled Poland from 2007 to 2015 and in which Applebaum’s husband served, presided over a staggering surge in economic inequality. In the aftermath of the post-2009 eurozone crisis, austerity measures were introduced, the retirement age increased and pensions for farmers, miners, police officers, firefighters and priests stopped. At the same time, it advocated free trade to attract foreign companies like Google, and its leaders were registered as boasters of ostentatious new wealth as the impoverished regions of the east stagnated. These regions would become the strongholds of the far-right government for law and justice, which came to power through campaigns against the fiscal cruelty of the Civic Platform. Civic Platform has also weathered a number of corruption scandals, none of which are recognized in Applebaum’s report on the rise of law and justice to power.
Then there is the question of foreign policy, something that Applebaum is much more interested in. If she rejects the argument that globalization and inequality led to a revival of the right, she does not at first sight recognize the argument that the 9/11 wars and crackdown on civil liberties may have played a role too at. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Applebaum endorsed, is discussed at length only once when she advocates a defense of Atlanticism – or at least the version her husband advocated at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute to help build ties between the United States and Europe by both embroiled in endless wars in the Middle East. “There was a real coalition of the willing who wanted to fight Saddam Hussein, including [José María] Aznar in Spain, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski and a number of others, ”she writes approvingly, before quickly realizing that the war has plagued politicians like Blair since then.
For Applebaum, the main significance of Iraq seems to be that it has brought the US government and the Polish government closer together. The effects of this on the Iraqis themselves, on traumatized veterans returning home, and on the willingness of an entire generation to trust the Atlantic project to which they remain committed, escapes their attention. This is also true of the propaganda disinformation campaign used by the Bush and Blair administrations to increase support for the war – essentially a conspiracy theory that has been greatly advanced by Applebaum’s current social environment.
I Address Iraq in part, because if Applebaum is to write a book about the sins of her former friends, it is also worth mentioning the sins of the friends she still has. After the recognitions for Dawn of DemocracyThese friends include David Frum, the author of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002; Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic Editor-in-chief who commissioned and reported on the essay her book is based on The New Yorker in 2002 about the link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, which has since been discredited; and Leon Wieseltier, who campaigned for the Iraq war and fell out of favor in 2017 after several women accused him of sexual harassment during his long tenure as literary editor The new republic.
Another friend who read designs from Dawn of DemocracyApplebaum is proud that Christina Hoff Sommers, an American Enterprise Institute-based scholar, was convicted by the Southern Poverty Law Center for her involvement in Gamergate, the online right-wing movement widely regarded as the forerunner of Trumpism. At least in 2016, Sommers was an employee of Milo Yiannopoulos, the old-right provocateur, whom even Applebaum describes as a “sad figure” who “no longer has much influence in the USA”. The bile pieces of the far right and center right are never that far apart – in fact, Applebaum’s husband had to deny he once joked that Barack Obama’s ancestors were cannibals.
All of this means that if Applebaum has been blind to the turnaround some of her friends have made far-right over the past decade, she may not be the best judge that intellectuals today hold latent fascist tendencies, much less a trustworthy one Critics when it comes to understanding the links between their center-right politics and those of the far-right.
IIn her section on US politics, Applebaum describes her own break with the Republican Party. In 2008 she wrote an article for slate Explain why she could not bring herself to elect John McCain as president, a decision she attributes to “the rise of Sarah Palin, a proto-Trump, and the use of torture by the Bush administration in Iraq.” Despite denouncing the GOP’s slip into illiberalism, at the time she had mostly positive words for McCain, a Cold War colleague who spoke for her story of the Gulag at the Washington launch party.
McCain was Applebaum’s Republican: an advocate of the liberal international order; an occasionally headstrong, self-proclaimed centrist; a friend of countless journalists; and a shrewd, backward establishment elite. At the beginning of the book, she describes her current cohort of center-right intellectuals as allied with the “Republican Party of John McCain”. But she never fully anticipates how a figure like McCain facilitated mainstreaming of the far right – not only by elevating Palin to national stature, but through other efforts during his long career to whistle bigots, such as his infamous opposition against Martin Luther King Day. Tellingly, Applebaum notes that after criticizing Palin’s pick, McCain never spoke to her again.
Regardless, now that Trump has been defeated by die-hard centrist Joe Biden, who has appointed Senator’s widow Cindy McCain to the board of his president’s transition team, Applebaum can be sure that not only centrist Republicans will never go for Republican empowerment Called to Account On the far right, they are also being actively rewarded by the rising centrist democrats.
Both in Dawn of Democracy and in their recent interviews and tweets, Applebaum has insisted that authoritarian temptation exists on both left and right, even when right-wing authoritarianism is the more immediate threat. That is true to a certain extent, and it is understandable that someone who has studied Stalin’s reign of terror in such detail would say so. But it’s also an evasion. The rising left in the United States and the United Kingdom today, by and large, are not calling for a return to Stalinism, but rather a social democratic model to repair the enormous human damage caused by decades of unrestrained neoliberalism, the Applebaum and your friends have consistently stood up for them.
Unlike her and her centrist counterparts, these leftists also offer a constructive alternative to both the far-right and the failed status quo – and one that may have a better chance of saving liberal democracy than anything suggested in this book. Maybe Applebaum should consider throwing them a party.