This piece was originally published in The American Interest on June 27, 2020.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic set in, liberal democracies were under threat from within. Now that death has taken so many, what is next? Numerous voices have been offering analysis and predictions. The latest to weigh in is Anne Applebaum, the distinguished historian and equally distinguished chronicler of current events. A member of the editorial board here at The American Interest, she has written a slender volume that illuminates some startling aspects of the present moment.
The title of Applebaum’s book, The Twilight of Democracy, is not adorned with a question mark. An American by birth but having dwelled a good portion of her adult life in Poland and England, Applebaum comes to a pessimistic outlook naturally; none of the countries she has called home is faring particularly well. Her book’s subtitle, “the Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” points to the central problem.
Applebaum opens her narrative at a December 31, 1999 party that she and her husband (Radek Sikorski, then a deputy foreign minister in Poland’s center-right government) threw in their country home in northwest Poland. Celebrating the turn of the millennium with them was an assortment of lesser Polish notables: intellectuals, civil servants, and journalists, some arriving from abroad. This group of friends held some ideas in common. “At that moment in history,” Applebaum writes, “you might . . . have called most of us liberals. Free-market liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcherites. Even those who might have been less definite about the economics did believe in democracy, in the rule of law, in checks and balances.”
How things have changed. “Ex-Friends” would be an equally appropriate subtitle for Applebaum’s book: “Nearly two decades later,” she writes, “I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party. They, in turn, would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they had ever been there.”
Interspersed with analysis, Applebaum’s book offers a tour of friendships ruptured by the yawning political divide that has opened across the West. She and her husband have remained on the side of liberal democracy, “pro-European, pro-rule-of-law, pro-market center-right.” Many of the former friends to whom she introduces us in Poland, Hungary, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States have scattered to ugly destinations.
The Poles in this group have ended up either inside or backing Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, the governing mode of which Applebaum describes, aptly, as “not just xenophobic and paranoid but openly authoritarian.” One such ex-friend, Rafal Ziemkiewicz, “has made a name for himself as an outspoken opponent of the international Jewish community. He refers to Jews as ‘scabby’ and ‘greedy,’ calls Jewish organizations ‘blackmailers,’ and regrets his former support for Israel.” Another, the journalist Anita Gargas, has for a decade immersed herself in rightwing conspiracy theories surrounding the death of president Lech Kaczyński in the 2010 Smolensk plane crash, the subject of an entire cottage industry in Poland.
Applebaum also has had friends in Hungary, where the government of Viktor Orbán has exploited the COVID-19 outbreak to push already authoritarian tendencies to a further extreme, empowering him to rule by decree. One of those friends is an Englishman, John O’Sullivan. Formerly the top editor of America’s flagship conservative publication, National Review, and also an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, O’Sullivan has settled in Hungary as the director of something called the Danube Institute, a government-funded think tank, a perch from which he consistently defends Orbán’s avowedly “illiberal democracy” from all comers. In conversation with Applebaum, she recounts, O’Sullivan resorted to a maddening “whataboutism”—the old Soviet rhetorical technique of turning the tables and charging hypocrisy:
To my queries about the Hungarian media— 90% owned and operated by the government or by ruling party–linked companies—he answered that most U.S. media is “more favorable” to the Democratic Party, so the situation is similar. When I asked about the Hungarian government’s friendship with Russia, he asked whether Germany was really committed to the United States and NATO. When I asked whether he felt comfortable working for an institution funded by the Hungarian government, he said that “I am absolutely certain that the government in Hungary use policies that I personally don’t agree with.” But, on the other hand, “there are lots of government policies in different countries that I don’t like.”
As Applebaum makes plain, O’Sullivan has succumbed to the authoritarian lure.
Here in the United States, the now-Fox television celebrity host Laura Ingraham ran in Applebaum’s circle of young conservatives back in the 1990s. At some point after 9/11, writes Applebaum, “her Reaganite optimism disappeared and slowly hardened into the apocalyptic pessimism shared by so many others.” Before long, she was shilling for Donald Trump, allowing him on to her show to promote his racist birtherism, and then, during his presidency, pushing for an end to both illegal and legal immigration, pointing to supposedly deplorable “massive demographic changes” in America, “changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like.” By the time her book went to press, Applebaum notes, Ingraham had become an ardent proponent of hydroxychloroquine, the drug touted by Trump as a cure-all for COVID that was subsequently banned for emergency use by the FDA. She had, in short, become a highly compensated crank.
Yet another figure cropping up here is Roger Kimball, editor of the New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. Applebaum notes that back in 1992, Kimball had written an appreciation of Julian Benda’s 1927 classic, The Treason of the Intellectuals, which appeared as an introduction to a new English language translation of the book. In that essay, Kimball had treasured “the ideal of disinterestedness, the universality of truth,” and had agreed with Benda’s sharp attack on those intellectuals who were casting aside the duty of truth-seeking in the service of political hatreds.
Once again, how things have changed. This same Kimball started out at the beginning of the Trump era an ardent foe of Donald Trump, likening him to Hitler and labeling his followers “brownshirts.” But as Trump made headway, Kimball had a change of mind. It did not take long before he was propounding the idea that the presidency of this supposed Hitler was a “salubrious and morally uplifting enterprise.”
What accounts for the astounding reversals recounted in Applebaum’s book? Or to put the question another way, what is the nature of the authoritarian lure?
There is a vast literature on the subject with landmarks produced by Jean-François Revel, Hannah Arendt, and Theodore Adorno. Applebaum gives emphasis to the work of Karen Stenner, a behavioral economist, who argues that a third of the population in any given country has what Stenner calls an authoritarian predisposition, favoring homogeneity and order over diversity. Those who have this predisposition are “suspicious of people with different ideas” and “allergic to fierce debates” and are inclined to support regimes that promise uniformity and order. But this is an unsatisfactory analytical frame. While Stenner’s work may fit the man in the crowd, it hardly applies to intellectuals, particularly the ones encountered here, many of whom seem to relish both differences and fierce polemics.
Far more fruitful is Applebaum’s turn to history, in particular, the highly pertinent Dreyfus affair that split late 19th century France. In some of the most fascinating passages in her thought-provoking and gracefully written book, Applebaum draws parallels between the arguments and divisions of that era and our own. She cites the case of Maurice Barrès, founder of the viciously anti-Semitic Action Française, who began “as an intellectual skeptic” but whose “material star,” as Benda wrote in his Treason of the Intellectuals, “waxed a hundredfold greater, at least in his own country, when he made himself the apostle of ‘necessary prejudices.’” Like all human beings, Barrès’ motives were a mixture of things: in his case, the ideological, the religious, the pecuniary, and the personal.
It is not a criticism of Applebaum that she does not provide an adequate answer to the mystery of a Rafal Ziemkiewicz or a John O’Sullivan or a Roger Kimball. “There is no single explanation,” she writes, “and I will not offer either a grand theory or a universal solution.” That is a wise choice, for part of the conundrum of the intellectuals, as Applebaum suggests throughout, involves individual attitudes and circumstances:
Some are genuinely motivated by the same fears, the same anger, and the same deep desire for unity that motivates their readers and followers. Some have been radicalized by angry encounters with the cultural left, or repulsed by the weakness of the liberal center. Some are cynical and instrumental, adopting radical or authoritarian language because it will bring them power or fame. Some are apocalyptic, convinced that their societies have failed and need to be reconstructed, whatever the result. Some are deeply religious. Some enjoy chaos, or seek to promote chaos, as a prelude to imposing a new kind of order.
Though each of the fantastical political transmogrifications recorded by Applebaum is unique, in the aggregate they form a discernible pattern in which the personal would seem to predominate. The tools of political and historical analysis do not suffice to solve certain kinds of human riddles. It is extraordinarily difficult to understand the cogitative processes that take someone from condemning Trump as a would-be Hitler in one breath to hailing his “salubrious and morally uplifting” presidency in the next. To get to the bottom of such mysteries would seem to require a resort to an analytical instrument that is not readily available to Applebaum or just about anyone else: the psychoanalyst’s couch.