July 24, 2020

On December 31, 1999 the journalist and historian Anne Applebaum and her husband Radosław Sikorski — a former defence and foreign minister in Poland — threw a party in the Polish countryside. Guests flew in from London, Moscow and New York; among them were journalists, diplomats and civil servants. Most shared a distinctive worldview. “You could have lumped the majority of us,” Applebaum says, “roughly, in the general category of what Poles call the Right — the conservatives, the anti-Communists… Free-market liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcherites.”

The mood at the party was euphoric. This was the high tide of strident End of History triumphalism. Communism had been swept aside in favour of globalisation, free markets and the unipolar American world.

Something changed, though, in the intervening years. Many of Applebaum’s friends came to abandon the principles which they had once held dear. Bitterness and rancour ensued. “I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party,” Applebaum writes two decades later, in Twilight of Democracy — her new book which is both an elegy to the 1990s and an overview of the authoritarianism that is currently tearing apart the contemporary Right.

Applebaum and her husband — as well as some of the guests at the party — have stayed true to their previous centre-right inclinations. However, others have re-invented themselves as court intellectuals for a resurgent authoritarian Right. As populist movements have made headway across Europe, America and elsewhere, these former friends have enthusiastically climbed aboard.

The book concludes with another party — this time in August 2019 — at which the absence of old friends causes several morbid questions to hang in the air: what happened in the intervening years and why did so many abandon their liberal principles?

By way of answer, Applebaum takes aim at the political situation in various different countries. First, Poland which, in 1999, was “on the cusp of joining the West”. Today the country is ruled by Law and Justice, a nativist party that has built a conspiratorial myth around the 2010 Smolensk plane crash in which the president Lech Kaczyński was killed. Two Polish brothers, Jacek and Jaroslaw Kurski, both of whom marched with Solidarity in the 1980s, encapsulate the new divide. Jaroslaw edits a mainstream opposition newspaper while Jacek pumps out conspiratorial and xenophobic propaganda for state television.

Applebaum also takes us to Hungary, where Viktor Orbán and Fidesz have gutted democratic institutions right under the nose of the European Union. Government propagandists — again, often people Applebaum used to know as solid Right-leaning liberals — now foment conspiracy theories about Muslim immigration and the Jewish philanthropist George Soros. The director of Hungary’s Museum of Terror, Mária Schmidt, is an old liberal acquaintance of Applebaum’s who today rails against foreigners for their lack of “Hungarian-ness”.

Over in the United States, another of Applebaum’s old comrades, Laura Ingraham, is a courtier for Donald Trump. Like so many others who appear in the book, Ingraham’s Reaganite optimism has given way to a brutal cynicism. In her view, Western civilisation is doomed and “immigration, political correctness, transgenderism, the culture, the establishment, the left, the ‘Dems’, are responsible”.

Britain isn’t spared Applebaum’s scorn. Dominic Cummings is portrayed in a particularly menacing light for the unconservative zeal with which he seeks to transform Britain’s political institutions. The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson is described as “more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass or undermine existing institutions, to destroy what exists”.

It’s those who have lined up alongside the populist leaders of the new Right – the courtiers – who interest the author most: “the writers, intellectuals, pamphleteers, bloggers, spin doctors, producers of television programs and creators of memes who can sell his image to the public”. She describes these people as “clercs” — a fusion of ‘clerks’ and ‘clerics’, functionaries and evangelists — who are motivated by fear, resentment and envy towards those who are more successful than they are.

Some are driven by a resentful and nostalgic nationalism. Others, Applebaum believes, are “attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity. They dislike divisiveness. They prefer unity.” As another friend, the former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum (who, rarely among Applebaum’s circle, has become more liberal with age) writes, some of the intellectuals of the new Right are motivated by a “desire to wipe the smirk off the condescending face of some resented critics”.

It’s the chaotic nature of the contemporary world, Applebaum believes, with its discordant rumble of social media forever in the background, that contains the locus of democracy’s demise. Many people today long for certainty, or else throw themselves into mass movements which attempt to negate the tensions that are inherent in plural and democratic life: “The jangling, dissonant sound of modern politics; the anger on cable television and the evening news; the fast pace of social media; the headlines that clash with one another when we scroll through them… all of this has unnerved that part of the population that prefers unity and homogeneity”.

This is bracing stuff. Yet it is rather unsatisfactory in explaining the recent upsurge in authoritarian and populist movements. Intellectuals have always been vain and attracted to silly ideas that may line their pockets or boost their standing. More interesting is why the populist Right – Trump, Orban, Law and Justice, the Leave Campaign – have generated such large followings. It is here that Applebaum’s arguments begin to fall short.

The author excludes from her analysis all those factors which risk painting the pre-populist era — a period of boundless optimism for her and her friends — in a negative light. She dismisses all materialist explanations for disenchantment with liberal democracy on the basis that former acquaintances who have thrown in their lot with Trump and other nationalists were “not affected” by the financial crash of 2008, do not live in communities ravished by opioids, and are not losing their jobs to migrant workers.

Fair enough. But she then applies the same broad-brush analysis to entire electorates, inserting the words “poor” and “deprived” in scare quotes when discussing western societies because, she writes, the downtrodden of today “have food and shelter”. They only lack “things that human beings couldn’t dream of a century ago, like air conditioning and Wi-Fi”, she writes. This will come as news to the nine million people in the United States – the richest country in the world — who have zero cash income. Moreover, real wages have barely improved for most American workers in decades.

Of course, the view you take of current events is invariably influenced by the vantage point from which you’re doing the viewing. While Applebaum and her friends were revelling in the triumph of liberal democracy in the 90s — breathing in the pieties of the new world from the rarefied atmosphere of Manhattan cocktail parties, diplomatic lunches and garden parties at the Spectator — deindustrialised regions in Britain, America and parts of Europe were being devastated by institutional breakdown, poverty and despair. But this is surely pertinent to any discussion of contemporary populism; as Michael Lind has written for UnHerd, “the heartlands of populism are often deindustrialised former manufacturing regions such as the North of England and the American Rust Belt”.

Moreover, while Applebaum may dislike Brexit, she provides little to back up her repeated insinuation that the 2016 referendum was somehow undemocratic. She also blames the result on “English nationalism” while offering no explanation as to why a majority in Wales voted to leave the European Union. Perhaps material explanations do matter after all.

Applebaum is a principled individual: she refused to vote for the Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008 on the basis that his running mate was the obnoxious know-nothing Sarah Palin.

Yet at times her judgement seems to falter. Why has she only recently concluded that Dinesh D’Souza — who was at that 1999 party — is bad news? D’Souza is a convicted criminal (illegal political donations) who makes hagiographic films about Donald Trump. He was sentenced in 2014, but had been spreading nonsense for decades. It was in his 1995 book The End of Racism that he notoriously claimed that “liberal antiracism” was a greater threat to blacks than racism, and that the purpose of segregation in the Southern states was to “protect blacks”. Two of D’Souza’s black colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute resigned in protest at the book.

Boris Johnson — another with whom Applebaum was previously on friendly terms — is a more intelligent and interesting character than Dinesh D’Souza. Yet she seems surprised that the man who was fired from the Times for making up quotes today exhibits an “outsized narcissism” and a “penchant for fabrication”.

This initial misreading of certain friends could perhaps be blamed on an error of focus; she has always viewed the threat to democracy as coming predominantly from the Left. In this, her myopia recalls something Hannah Arendt once wrote about the dangers of cultivating an “obsession” with totalitarianism to the extent that it can “blind” a person “to the numerous small and not so small evils with which the road to hell is paved”. As recently as 2014 Applebaum was arguing that Europe required more, not less, nationalism — a view that surely requires some revision if the arguments in this book are to be taken seriously.

Applebaum interestingly notes the similarities between the language of the European radical Right — of “elites” and “revolution” and “cleansing” — and that once used by the radical Left. But she fails to notice that her own writing drips with condescension for those who exist outside of her political haut monde. “The ancient philosophers always had their doubts about democracy,” she writes (with seeming approval) before launching into a brief discourse about how the American electoral college was originally envisioned as “a group of elite lawmakers and men of property who would select the president, rejecting the people’s choice if necessary, in order to avoid the ‘excesses of democracy’”.

Elsewhere, in seeking to explain the radical Right, Applebaum briefly resurrects the work of Theodor Adorno and his speculations about the “authoritarian personality” being located in “repressed homosexuality”. But the antidote to populism, whatever it is, is unlikely to be found in haughtiness; nor in Freudianism, nor any other cod-psychological speculations.

Applebaum may be correct to reject a myopic Marxian view that attempts to pin everything on the economy when explaining why “everybody got very angry” between 2015 and 2020. But even crude economic reductionism offers a better guide to present events than some of her own explanations, which recall Virginia Woolf’s fatuous post-World War One belief that “on or about December, 1910, human character changed”.

The post-Cold War era that the author pines for was undone, ultimately, by its own ideological hubris. It wasn’t Dominic Cummings or Vote Leave that invented political lying. The financial crisis, the Iraq war, a rapacious model of capitalism that undermined communities and precipitated industrial decline — all have chipped away at faith in democracy over the years. The populist demagogues we hear so much from today have in fact walked through a door left enticingly open for them by the silver-tongued, sharp-suited, Atlanticist politicians that Anne Applebaum reveres.