“Twilight of Democracy” – Anne Applebaum


Dear Partners in Thought,

After a long lull in Book Notes, and to create a possibly unsuitable (though related) break from the tragic invasion of Ukraine, it seemed a good idea to go back to this genre and mention “Twilight of Democracy.” Its author, Anne Applebaum, now writing for The Atlantic, is well-known for her liberal outlook and excellent books on the Communist era in Central & Eastern Europe, notably the highly recommended “Iron Curtain – The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956” (one of my favorites on the topic), and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gulag: A History.”

Twilight of Democracy (2021) addresses the rise of populist parties in the West, which is a very timely topic as Viktor Orban was reconducted as Hungarian leader in April while Marine Le Pen failed but came closer to be the next French President and upend the future of France, NATO, possibly the EU and the Euro – and clearly the world as we know it, even if clearly already being altered by Putin’s Russia. In many ways, this book is why this blog exists as it was started by the rise of both populist-flavored Brexit and then Trump, rightfully two of the six chapters of Twilight of Democracy – also a good fit given Applebaum’s roots in both Britain and the US, not to mention Poland, one of the two current populist hotspots of Europe. Twilight of Democracy projects very strong views on populism, some of which covering Brexit or Central Europe, may possibly be seen as extreme or one sided by some readers.

A very personal history of broken friendships. The subtitle of her book is “The failure of politics and the parting of friends”, the latter is very fitting as she recalls the New Year’s Eve party in their Chobielin home in Northern Poland that she and her husband, former minister Radek Sikorski, had held to celebrate the passage to the new millennium. It was a time of joy, a decade or so after Poland had made the transition to both democracy and market economy. They had a lot of friends joining them, many no longer speaking to them twenty years later as they gradually espoused the nationalist and undemocratic views that prevail among the Law & Justice party members that has been fully in power in Warsaw since 2015. She has great stories to tell about two well-known Polish brothers with different career success, which describe how the challenged one used his old association to deceased Polish President Lech Kaczynski to get the top job at the leading Polish TV operator and totally changed it as if it were an official conduit for the ruling Law and Justice Party. In this telling example of how populists operate when in power, Applebaum also stresses how the under-achievers in our modern democracies can use politics and indeed populism to get to prominence, all the more when what matters to elected autocratically-flavored rulers in a European context is obedience and not skills, as also seen in Russia today. She then recalls the tragic crash of the Polish presidential plane in 2010 on its way to a commemoration of the Soviet Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish officers that was then gradually used as a conspiracy theory to put the blame on political opponents without any rationale (the President had forced the plane to land totally unsafely in atrocious weather conditions). Applebaum, borrowing from Yale historian Timothy Snyder, introduces us not to the Big Lie of the Soviet days but to the Medium-sized Lies used by current European autocrats to weaken democracy and liberalism when elected to public office, like today in Poland or Hungary and for a while Italy during the Salvini days. She goes into another old friendship that had turned sour with Maria Schmidt, the curator of Terror Haza, the Budapest museum focused on the dreadful aspects of the Communist area. Her lost friend being a typical example of an anti-communist individual espousing autocratic features, tainted of anti-Americanism and (unlike in Poland for obvious historical reasons) benign admiration for Putin’s Russia. Such individuals, who battled communism, formed part over the last decade of the corps of self-serving (also financially) “clercs” (she uses the French word for clerks) who made possible for leaders like Viktor Orban, another liberal 25 years ago, to succeed in governing while suppressing many individual and constitutional rights gained in the post-Communist era. These examples are very interesting for readers not living in Poland or Hungary, two countries which benefitted from huge EU subsidies (especially Poland, the perennial top financial assistance receiver from Brussels), who can also see their leaderships struggling with the EU in terms of fights over judicial appointments if not court structures. As Applebaum stresses, these should not be dismissed as “regional stories” involving “hard to pronounce names.”

Going back to the roots of populism. Applebaum notes there was no anti-democratic wave after the Communist transition in Central Europe, while populist leaders and ideas strongly emerged only in the last decade also as a link to the refugee crisis of 2015-16. She stresses rightly that the “Eastern European problems” we see now, also through the disputes with the EU, are not unique to former Communist countries experiencing a long hangover from 1989. She notes from her discussions with a Greek sociologist that polarization is normal in our Western societies and that history in our times is circular with its liberal and more autocratic phases. Angry, resentful and vengeful are the characteristics of the populist leaders and movements that are “against elites,” have dreams of “cleansing violence” and support an apocalyptic cultural clash, altogether with attacks on the rule of law, free press and academia. There is a commonality of image between the Marxist-Leninist states of old and the new nationalist regimes or parties, from the Polish Law & Justice party or the Hungarian Fidesz to the Venezuelan Chavistas or the French Lepenistes and even some hardline Brexiters. In many ways the Western world of today increasingly represents, via its growing extremist parties in their modus operandi, the Eastern Europe of the past. This is perhaps the key lesson of her book, which may not have been clear to many of us.

Brexit as the great populist success. Applebaum spends a chapter on Britain – or more exactly England – and the nostalgia of when it made the rules, which she says drove Brexit. England wanted to make things happen in a Thatcherite way when she played with her bag in Brussels and got the famed EC rebate, or when she sent a task force to the now totally forgotten and irrelevant Falklands 40 years ago. This approach was epitomized by a younger Boris Johnson (an Oxford Bullingdon Club fellow member of her husband Radek) who, when at the Daily Telegraph, would publish numerous half-lies or tall tales that his ardent Tory readership enjoyed, such as those about the EC or EU that would cancel London “double decker buses” or prawn cocktail-flavored crisps, giving the younger editor a “weird sense of power.” The Single Market, that Britain had helped build, was a great Thatcherite achievement for the country and its entrepreneurial class, but also a major source of annoyance and embarrassment in having to lower itself to negotiate with a lesser Brussels – even if the later was always very commercial and flexible in its approach. Britain, on the other hand, was always keener on its “Special Relationship” with the US as the latter was, according to Prime Minister Harold McMillan in his half-disguised exceptionalism “the Romans to us Greeks.” Not totally wrongly, Britain would not forget that they were the only European country to have from the start won WW2, which put it in a category of its own among nations, all the more so in Europe. Sadly, restorative nostalgia usually goes hand in hand with mild conspiracy theories and medium-sized lies, which the Tories started to spread gradually about Europe for electoral and existential purposes stressing that the EU had perverted the course of history. The phenomenon was aggravated with the fall of the Berlin wall, which vindicated the often-left wing criticized Tory cold warriors, but created a vacuum after the great fight had been won – this enhanced by post-Thatcher leaders who fitted a calmer new normal. John Major was snubbed by many Tories as a leader without a fight, also due to his lack of charisma and moreover university degree (something top PE firm Carlyle later never minded) together with his pragmatic focus on reuniting Europe, while Tony Blair brought a non-exceptional Britain or an England that would see devolution all in a way that recalled the radical 1960s in Tory eyes. To the Tories, many of whom were slowly shifting toward the more extreme regarding the EU, as it provided a program to sell voters, Brussels had become the embodiment of everything that had gone wrong in British life – leadership, culture, capitalism and national vigor with on top all the Polish plumbers and Spanish data analysts threatening the national identity. In an almost funny list of medium-sized lies perpetrated by the Leave camp were Johnson claiming that Brexit would bring in GBP 350m a week to the National Health Service, that if Britain stayed it would be forced to accept Turkey as a member all with Nigel Farage’s UKIP posters showing him with trails of Syrian refugees reaching the English shores. Dominic Cummings, the sadly bright Brexit architect later compared their messages to Soviet propaganda, some of his videos having been seen by at times in excess of 500,000 viewers. The Vote Leave camp also cheated and broke electoral laws to advertise more on Facebook or used data famously stolen by the company Cambridge Analytica, all while benefitting from Russian trolling operations that served the ultimate goal of the Kremlin to weaken both the EU and Britain (to his credit Boris Johnson has led a “good war” against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine). Joe Cox, a Labour MP and Remainer, was murdered during the referendum campaign by an unsettled fake news-radicalized man who thought Brexit meant “liberation” for Britain. Many Leave leaders and opinion makers thought that only a radical change such as Brexit could save Britain, that they perceived as once a leading nation now terminally lost. The Brexiteers became immune to facts and means as long as the victory was reachable, and when it was in sight, the harder the Brexit the better so a healthy shock would wake Britain up, whatever the costs including economic – this leading to what was to be known as a hard Brexit. Chaos was seen as good, including perversely by many in the Labour Party’s Corbyn leadership who believed that it would eventually bring voters to the radical left while others on the free market front thought it would bring an end to burdensome regulations. The majority of the country had not voted for this type of disruption but the extremists, going beyond any mandate, had produced it. Applebaum generously stressed that Boris Johnson had not ideologically loved autocracy but was simply about winning, which drove him to use and pursue whatever means and avenues were available – with clear success. There were talks among hard Brexiteers after the December 2019 elections of altering the funding of the BBC, curtailing or limiting the courts or purging civil servants with obedient individuals, as if London had changed to Budapest-on-Thames (with all due respect to Budapest whose mayor is actually a liberal like in Warsaw). It is clear that all is not yet well with Britain today, and that Brexit has not yet been digested – notably with job shortages from the trucking industry to the famed NHS. However, as in Fawlty Towers the official populist line in a rather unnatural mode is “don’t mention Brexit” or more aptly, destroy agreements that were in place, like dealing with trade and Northern Ireland.

Hard-line Tories liked undemocratic polities in other countries, especially Poland and Hungary, while they were becoming more authoritarian and attacked their judicial systems, prompting a stark condemnation from the EU. At that time, according to Applebaum, the British government, consumed with how Brexit would unfold, had dropped any pretense of standing for democracy around the world, which admittedly can be viewed rightly by many as too strong a statement. Tory MEPs and Law & Justice MEPs were part of the same caucus in the European Parliament, leading the Tories to defend Law & Justice when under EU attack. Formerly well-known anti-Communist MPs became friends of Law & Justice officials, which the anti-Russia stance may have helped. Tory and UKIP MEPs voted to protect Orban from being censured by the EU, in a way to assert the right of a democratic nation, however in name only and de facto authoritarian, to defy Brussels’s “interference”. To some of her British friends and former colleagues at The Spectator, Applebaum was now part of a “liberal, judicial, bureaucratic, international elite” opposed to “democratically elected parliaments”. One of them now a resident scholar at The Danube Institute founded and funded by Orban supporters, who made the remark about her “elite belonging” would have only dreamed to be part of it in London but simply could not, underlining Appelbaum’s point about underachievers usually joining the ranks of less-traditional achievement-demanding populists at home or abroad to access better jobs and roles, whatever the cost to their image and probity.

How the populists operate and why they get an audience. Applebaum makes the point that authoritarian predisposition is not the same thing as closed-mindedness but is closer to simple-mindedness. People are attracted to authoritarian ideas as they are simple and, unlike the democratic debate, not cacophonic. This blog always stressed the damage done by easy and indeed simple solutions to complex issues that populists love, as allowing to sell extremist ideas to voters who feel more at home with a lack of diversity of opinions and experiences and react aggressively against the complexity of drastic changes like the refugee crisis of 2015-2016. Applebaum goes into the role of social media in shaping the minds of voters, and more generally users, as many people in our age like to click on the news they want to hear, even if they may be false stories based on incorrect facts and disseminated by able spin doctors also using algorithms that radicalize their audiences, leading to hyper-partisanship. This hyper-partisan mode results in a rejection of normal politics, establishment politicians, the so-called elite, derided “experts” and mainstream institutions. No neutrality is acceptable in a polarized world as non-partisan or apolitical institutions are not desired. Reddit, Twitter and Facebook have unwittingly become the perfect media for irony, parody and cynical memes, creating a generation of young people who either vote for extreme parties or show a disdain for democracy that does not work for them. While being clear about the role of tech-enabled social media, Applebaum is also acknowledging their good aspects and not advising a return to an analog past when all was indeed not perfect. She just stresses that the new information world provides a new set of tools and tactics that populist leaders can use to reach people who want a simple language, powerful symbols and clear identities as if searching for an elusive unity.

Going into less well-known cases of European populism. Applebaum goes into a less well-known story about European politics that starts with the post-Francoist transition that led to the new Spanish political landscape post-1975. The new Spain eventually showed the center right Popular Party with names like Aznar (time indeed flies) and the center left Socialist Party, in a mirror image of many of its neighboring countries like France with its Socialist and Gaullist parties, the latter under many different names over the years (the two, as a sign of the times, having garnered less than 7% of the votes against 58% for all radical or extremist candidates and their parties in the first round of the presidential election in April 2022). As the 2010s started, the traditional parties got weaker as everywhere in Europe and new movements like populist-nationalist party Vox led by Santiago Abascal took more of a center stage as radical left Podemos and liberal Ciudadanos also appeared. Applebaum tells us about the trail of an ex-Aznar center right politician, Rafael Bardaji, who had disappeared for a decade, was forgotten and engineered a re-emergence away from its center-right roots with a “Make Spain Great Again” that had some Transatlantic Trumpian feel to it. Vox, which represented Francoism’s de-hibernation, became stronger in its opposition to the Catalonian referendum of 2017, that unlike the British one failed, and increasingly attracted more younger voters than their more liberal elders. Vox wanted to bring back the feeling of unity of the old “Arriba Espana” with leaders now using YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Telegram and WhatsApp to channel their easy solutions to complex issues. Vox, not unlike other populist extreme right parties, took ownership of a mixed bag of resentment-filled issues for a large group of Spanish voters: opposition to Catalan and Basque separatism, same sex marriage, feminism, immigration of a Muslim kind (even if very low in Spain unlike historically France), and corruption, while supporting hunting and handgun ownership and showing boredom with mainstream politics that destroyed Spanish unity, all with a talent for mockery and a huge dose of restorative Franco nostalgia. NATO was deemed only useful for Eastern European countries bordering Russia (indeed) though Trump’s radical Islam fight was seen as a good one and more generally his governing style a fit for Vox. This foray into Spain was useful as not a country where populism comes immediately to mind, showing the extent of the problem across Europe.

And of course, focusing on Trump, the most successful populist of our times. Appelbaum had to spend some pages on the advent of the Trump presidency that was a high point of the rise of populism globally, and shattered for many the previously immovable image of the American liberal democracy. As Lincoln spoke of America as “the last best hope on earth” and Reagan’s 1989 speech of “the shining city on a hill”, both wanting to stress American exceptionalism and greatness, many extremists disagreed or wanted to go back to its perceived roots ranging from the radical left in the early 20th century to the Christian right more recently – as well as the great history of the KKK or even the noble rise of domestic terrorists like Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, who had plotted mass murder in order to rescue a nation. Trump’s inaugural address marked a turning point for modern America, as it contained left and right strands of anti-Americanism combining a rejection of the self-serving “Establishment” and the evangelical despair about the moral decay of the country delivered time and time again by someone who was the son of a multi-millionaire, himself a powerful elite businessman and a draft dodger. Trump, who had little or no knowledge of and thus no faith in the American story, added the deep cynicism of a man who ran unsavory business schemes globally (some now under scrutiny even in the US) while appealing to the millenarianism of the far right and the revolutionary nihilism of the hard left. He had no interest in America being a model among nations, indeed crudely rejecting its exceptionalism, and thus its role in the world, leading to a contempt for American international engagement and thus NATO, a well-known admiration for Putin he saw as a true leader and an isolationism characterized by “America First” as the only way to make it great again. American ideals would be false and its institutions fraudulent – the latter as when he described the FBI and its “corrupt and disgraceful leadership” two years into his mandate. As Trump would state it clearly in 2020, two years before the invasion of Ukraine, America would have no vital interest in choosing between warring factions whose animosities go back centuries in eastern Europe. There should be no important distinction between democracy and dictatorship. For the party of Reagan to become that of Trump and abandon American idealism and adopt the rhetoric of despair was a sea change. In a return to 1995 Applebaum recalls a gathering of Republican thinkers and writers which, like in a prelude of her own Polish New Year 2000 party, would see attendants not speaking to each other years later with David Brooks, David Frum or Irving Kristol (and indeed others like Max Boot even if not invited then) going away from the party happy to be taken over by the populist Trump on the altar of winning elections.

In looking back at history, Appelbaum tells in her last chapter about the famous Dreyfus affair in 1894 France, which targeted an innocent Jewish French officer accused of treason, in what was a fight between the ancestors of today’s national-populists and the democratic liberals of the day and with hindsight a prelude to the 1930s in Europe. The societal shock of the Dreyfus affair – that almost destroyed the tissue of France – was very reminiscent of Appelbaum’s vivid experience of those lost friendships of the new millennium. In a fascinating and rarely-expressed comparison, Appelbaum notes that those who maintained Dreyfus’s guilt against all evidence were the American alt-right, or the Polish Law and Justice Party, or the French National Rally of the day, knowingly pushing a conspiracy theory, the means justifying the ends. This fascinating story resonates at a time when Marine Le Pen, supposedly being the voice of the traditional France and the left-outs, in a classical, modern day contest against elitism, was losing for the second time in the final round of the presidential race to technocratic, democratic, liberal and pro-EU Emmanuel Macron. As Trump was born with a golden spoon in his mouth, and went on to be a populist politician and President, we too often forget that Marine Le Pen is also the rich daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen – making her indeed an aristocrat of sorts both financially and politically – who has nothing in common with the voters she is targeting with her appealing vote-buying messages. As her more clearly extremist and Vichy-flavored father scored 17.8% in 2002 against Jacques Chirac and she scored 33.9% against Macron in 2017, her score of 41.4% in 2022, even if much lower than anticipated (whilst some would also see her potentially win based on first round vote make-up), shows a trend where democracy and liberalism are gradually losing voting ground against populism and its easy answers to complex issues. Will a populist finally take over the Elysée Palace in 2027 and start dismantling the democracy of a G7 country and key historical player? And what about Donald 2.0 in 2024, all the more so,following a likely control of Congress in November by the Republicans who will be focused on revenge, even for some if losing their souls?

As Applebaum says at the end of her book, her title “Twilight of Democracy” was not a prediction but a warning. Anti-democratic forces using and abusing the democratic electoral process have won many followers in the past, especially in the last decade, building on distrust on the back of apparently noble (for some) but fallacious themes, and they actually will in the future too. It was interesting to note in the recent French election that polls showed that well besides and beyond electoral programs, 71% of Macron voters considered themselves “happy” in life while 80% of Le Pen’s felt unhappy, thus more prone to resentment and following extreme, if unrealistic and dangerous, political solutions for France. Winning elections will be the key driver for populist leaders for whom messages will be secondary and remain tools of the end game. And if they succeed, democracies will be gradually altered, as already seen in parts of Europe, and elections might eventually vanish as an unnecessary process.

Warmest regards,