Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, Anne Applebaum. New York: Doubleday, 2020.
Summary: An extended essay considering the shift to authoritarian leaders in Europe and the United States, analyzing both why such leaders are attractive, and the strategies they used to gain power.
Anne Applebaum’s book might be subtitled, “The Tale of Two Parties.” It is bookended with a party in 1999, and one in 2019. Many on the guest list of the first would not be on the second, or even on speaking terms with the author. Applebaum is a center-right neo-conservative, married to Radek Sikorski, a Polish politician. For much of her career she has written award-winning books documenting Soviet-style totalitarianism. The time of 1999 was a heady one, with former eastern bloc countries embracing Western style liberal democratic ideals (at least to some degree).
The book begins with Applebaum describing the fate of three of those on the list, one who had drawn close to Poland’s Law and Justice party leader and would no longer speak to her, another who had become an internet troll, amplifying American alt-right proponents, while a third had become engrossed in conspiracy theories. Throughout the book, Applebaum moves between trying to understand what has happened to her friends, and what is happening in a number of European countries, from Poland and Hungary, to England and the United States, where shifts have occurred to authoritarian ideas and leaders.
She explores how contemporary movements differ from fascism and Communism. Instead of the “Big Lie,” these leaders use the Medium-Size Lie designed to play on fears and offer simple explanations for complex realities–immigration explains economic woes and crime, for example. Sometimes it is a conspiracy, for example “the deep state,” when in fact the real conspiracy lies with the networks of people fomenting these ideas. She describes how this works for example in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, where all of Hungary’s woes can be attributed to non-existent Syrian refugees (to whom Hungary never opened their borders) and George Soros, whose conspiratorially funded the immigrant hordes. All of this buttresses a corrupt, self-serving government where power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of its leader. Chillingly, Applebaum observes that studies show roughly one-third of the people in most societies to be susceptible to authoritarian leaders, particularly in times of upheaval.
She discusses the appeal of nostalgia, the longing for some idealized past when those appealed to dominated the culture as an alternative to the pluralistic, multi-ethnic cultural landscapes that increasingly characterize both Europe and the United States. She describes how Boris Johnson leveraged this nostalgia in the run-up to Brexit, even though the English had led the initiative forming the European Union. Particularly dangerous, she believes, are the “restorative nostalgics” whose “memory” of the past is often selective, and whose vision for restoration reflects those gaps in an idealized version of the past.
She portrays the manipulation of digital media streams to promote the narrative, including the characterization of established media as “fake” and part of the “conspiracy.” She writes:
This new information world also provides a new set of tools and tactics that another generation of clercs can use to reach people who want simple language, powerful symbols, clear identities. There is no need, nowadays, to form a street movement in order to appeal to those of an authoritarian predisposition. You can construct one in an office building, sitting in front of a computer. You can test messages and gauge the response. You can set up targeted advertising campaigns. You can build groups of fans on WhatsApp or Telegram. You can cherry-pick the themes of the past that suit the present and tailor them to particular audiences. You can invent memes, create videos, conjure up slogans designed to appeal precisely to the fear and anger caused by this massive international wave of cacophony. You can even start the cacophony and create the chaos yourself, knowing full well that some people will be frightened by it. (117-118)
She describes the shift she saw in once-friend Laura Ingraham. I think one of the most important insights Applebaum offers here is the increasing concern Ingraham, and others like Pat Buchanan have over the evidence of American moral decline. Ingraham decries various forms of extremism from “cancel culture” to overreach into religious communities, breaching First Amendment protections. These signs of decline have led her and others to conclude that they cannot be fought by “politics as usual” but require more extreme measures and justify “undemocratic” means.
I wish Applebaum would have done more with what I thought a perceptive observation. I know people like those Applebaum describes, and one thing that is overlooked is that most of these feel that figures like our current President are the first to take them seriously. Many of these people live in America’s heartland. They probably are more religious. Most work hard and pay their taxes. And they feel patronized by many politicians, overlooked, treated as part of “flyover” country. Like Laura Ingraham, they also feel they are witnessing a “twilight of democracy.”
While I am deeply sympathetic to Applebaum’s concerns about authoritarianism, all her talks about toney parties with fellow refugees from the neo-con movement don’t really address the concerns of the time adequately. She concludes by addressing some vague hope in the cycles of history to right things, which seems to me a hope that, after a time, the “right” people will regain power. My observation is that we are in the midst of more and more violent pendulum swings, with winners and losers becoming increasingly energized against one another. What I do agree on with Applebaum is that democracies are not indestructible. Might our common care about the future of democracy be a starting point for a different kind of political conversation? Might this common, and urgent concern bring people together from across the political spectrum who all perceive the abyss toward which we are hurtling? I cannot help but think that this next decade may be decisive in many ways for our country–and for humankind. Will the twilight we are in give way to night–or a new dawn?