Creeping Illiberalism

A bleak account of the West's slide toward tyranny

Stephen Melkisethian (Flickr/stephenmelkisethian)
Stephen Melkisethian (Flickr/stephenmelkisethian)

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum;  Doubleday, 207 pp., $25.00

The collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago was, for Anne Applebaum and many others of her generation, a stirring moment of “post-Cold War optimism,” she writes, “a belief that ‘we had won,’ that the democratic revolution would now continue, that more good things would follow.” Applebaum, a leading historian of the Communist era, now seeks to understand why the contrary happened—why authoritarianism is in the ascendant again, and how we in the West find ourselves facing a crepuscular time captured by the title of her new book.

Iron Curtain (2012) and Gulag (2003) are her best-known and most impressive works of history—long and trenchant, deeply researched, revelatory. Twilight of Democracy is more of a pamphlet, drawing not just on her knowledge of bygone totalitarianisms, but on her personal navigation of this century’s repackaged ones. While hardly a memoir, the book records the author’s own transit through the ideological shape-shifting of her adult years in largely conservative circles and recalls friendships broken over stark political and moral choices.

An American born in Washington, D.C. in 1964, Applebaum spent her young professional life as a journalist in London. Then she married a Pole and adopted Polish citizenship as her husband, Radek Sikorski, rose to become his country’s foreign minister in the liberal government that preceded today’s ruling hard-right regime. She writes as both an American and a European, a member of an Atlanticist elite sidelined by the triumph and entrenchment of neo-authoritarians such as the Law and Justice party in Poland and Viktor Orban’s Eidesz Party in Hungary.

These “soft dictatorships” are, for Applebaum, caged canaries foretelling what could happen (or is happening) elsewhere in Europe, and elsewhere in general. What sustains their hold on power is a vast cadre of clercs (“fallen intellectuals”), after French historian Julien Benda’s formulation, whose role is “to defend the leaders, however dishonest their statements, however great their corruption, however disastrous their impact on ordinary people and institutions. In exchange they know they will be rewarded and advanced.”

Today’s apologists, in contrast to purveyors of the Big Lie of the Stalin era, are not forced “to proclaim that black is white, that war is peace, and that state farms have achieved 1,000 percent of their planned production.” Instead, the illiberal forces propagate the “Medium-Sized Lie”—a phrase she heard from historian Timothy Snyder—which traffics in conspiracy theories, half-truth and insinuation, and an appeal to inchoate resentments and reassuring myths.

If this description is hard to absorb without thinking of Trumpism, read on.

Applebaum calls these medium-sized liars “restorative nostalgics.” The founders of the new illiberal political movements often “don’t recognize their own fictions about the past for what they are … They are not interested in a nuanced past, in a world in which great leaders were flawed men, in which famous military victories had lethal side effects. They don’t acknowledge that the past might have had its drawbacks. They want the cartoon version of history, and more importantly, they want to live in it, right now.”

A conspiracy theory offers a “full-fledged alternative reality,” Applebaum writes, in which the “nation is no longer great because someone has attacked us, undermined us, sapped our strength.” It ”explains away complex phenomena, accounts for chance and accidents, offers the believer the satisfying sense of having special, privileged access to the truth.” In Hungary, for instance, it is a belief in the “superhuman powers” of George Soros, the Hungarian-American Jewish billionaire “who is supposedly plotting to destroy Hungary through the deliberate importation of migrants.”

Applebaum moves through her bleak catalog of creeping illiberalism from Eastern and Central Europe westward through France and Spain to England’s (not the United Kingdom’s, she stresses) mind-boggling rejection of the European Union. Membership in the European single market “made Britain one of the most powerful players in the world’s most powerful economic bloc,” she writes, but none of its considerable advantages “outweighed, in the end, the embarrassment and annoyance of having to negotiate regulations with other Europeans.”

Contributing to the illiberal syndrome is the “contentious, cantankerous nature of modern discourse itself,” the erosion and near-extinction of the “agreed parameters” of national debate between the center-right and center-left in postwar Western democracies. “That world has vanished,” Applebaum writes, and now, instead of a “single national conversation,” there is no common debate, no common narrative. “People have always had different opinions. Now they have different facts.”

The hyperpartisanship of today’s impressionable societies has engendered a distrust of expertise and compromise, as the pandemic is showing us. Polarization leads to the conviction that opponents have been silenced or emasculated by shadowy forces, deep states. Applebaum says it is “no accident” that Trumpists and Brexiteers, like their counterparts in Poland and Hungary, attack civil servants, professional diplomats, judges, and courts—even elections themselves.

At times Applebaum engages in some restorative nostalgia herself, longing for better days of yore when supposedly right-minded folk set aside their differences for the sake of comity and stable governance. There’s a kind of exasperated tut-tutting in her defense of democracy’s tiresome imperfections. (“You can press a button on your phone and buy a pair of shoes, but it can take months to form a government coalition in Sweden.”)

In her penultimate chapter, Applebaum returns to the phenomenon as it is playing out in the country of her birth. She grants that the American left has its own record of wild intolerance and groupthink. But for her, this does not compare to the “moral equivalence” implicit in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his Republican lackeys, who see “no important distinction between democracy and dictatorship … The unity of this America is created by white skin, a certain idea of Christianity, and an attachment to land that will be surrounded and defended by a wall.” Applebaum professes surprise that this moral equivalence “emerged in the political party that has most ostentatiously used flags, banners, patriotic symbols, and parades to signify its identity.”

As a younger journalist who traveled in Washington circles, Applebaum was once friendly with many of the young conservatives inspired by Ronald Reagan and optimistic about a renaissance of democracy. The rise of Donald Trump has divided them, just as it divided their intellectual forebears in Poland.

One of Applebaum’s former friends and comrades is Laura Ingraham, today’s Fox News personality, who spoke as recently as 2007 of the virtues she associated with America: “honor, courage, selflessness, sacrifice, hard work, personal responsibility, respect for elders, respect for the vulnerable.” How Ingraham squares these beliefs—“without virtue we will be ruled by tyrants,” she said—with her fulsome embrace of Trumpism leaves even someone as shrewd as Applebaum utterly stumped.


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Charles Trueheart is a Scholar contributing editor and former director of the American Library in Paris. His book about Vietnam in the Kennedy years, Diplomats at War, is forthcoming.


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