By Jonathon Van Maren
Anne Applebaum is one of the world’s most distinguished historians. Gulag: A History is a seminal work, and Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine is an essential addition to our understanding of the Holodomor (I actually emailed back and forth with her a few times trying to secure an interview when it was released back in 2017.) Thus, I was prepared to be challenged by her recently released book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, billed as a personal but extensively researched account of where the Right went wrong over the past decade or so.
The book is framed as a Tale of Two Dinner Parties, starting with Applebaum, her Polish politician husband, and a rowdy group of centre-right liberals ringing in the new millennium at their restored manor in the Polish countryside. The mood was euphoric, she recounts—the Cold War had been won, democracy was on the rise, and it seemed as if the End of History had arrived with she and her friends firmly entrenched on the side of the angels. But that was then, and this is now.
Now, she writes, she no longer speaks with many of those she once called friends. Darkness has been spreading across the West like the many-headed hydra: Law and Justice in Poland, Brexit in Britain, Orbán in Hungary, and Trump in America. Many of her former friends have been seduced by authoritarianism. She names names—Roger Scruton, Laura Ingraham, John O’Sullivan. Many of her former friends were avowed anti-Communists (as, indeed, was Viktor Orbán.) These folks and more, she writes, have abandoned the norms of classical liberalism and are (or in Scruton’s case, were) enabling the rise of dangerous figures in their desire for an uncomplicated, simple society purged of diversity. Or something.
Her book’s first great flaw is that she ignores the fact that the authoritarian instinct is not only—or even primarily—a right-wing instinct. Considering that she purports to be trying to explain what happened to her former friends, this is an inexcusable omission. Early on, she gives a perfunctory nod to these trends on the Left—although she doesn’t explore the metastasizing cancel culture (mentioned only briefly on page 18), the increasingly stringent speech codes, the mobs baying for the heads of university profs, or the riots that have plagued 2020. She mentions that authoritarianism can afflict the Left, but then does that thing liberals do—she leaves the sentiment unfinished: But they’re on my side. In short, she in all likelihood disagrees with many or all of these manifestations of progressive intolerance, but gives them a pass because she agrees with many of their ends. Eggs and omelets and that sort of thing.
The fact is that Applebaum is essentially doing precisely the same thing as those she accuses—almost entirely ignoring bad behavior on one end of the spectrum because she is more sympathetic to their worldview or their aims. (In an interview with David Frum and his wife Danielle Crittenden, for example, she notes her dedication to the LGBT cause.) If politics is, as so many seem to believe these days, a zero-sum game, then she only examines half of the players—the half featuring the team she disagrees with. She never bothers to examine the most obvious possibility: that perhaps populism is a reaction to progressivism run amok.
Instead, she spends much of her book dismissing the concerns utilized so successfully—and sometimes cynically–by populists to gain power. She powers through demographic anxiety, the migrant crisis, immigration, loss of jobs, and the extinction of traditions with breathtaking speed, pausing only to note that yes, yes these are real concerns, but really, people should realize how good they had it when people who believe what she believes were running the show. One particularly ironic example was her scanty analysis of the alleged right-wing attack on universities (primarily featuring Hungary’s Viktor Orbán). It takes some real guts to look at the homogeneity of today’s universities—and the Left’s attack on various academics despite that homogeneity—and say that the populists are higher education’s primary problem.
That is why her thesis about conservatives hating complexity and diversity and craving uniformity is a bit hard to take at times. Has she not taken a good gander at the progressive Left lately? Who, exactly, is advocating for speech codes? Who, exactly, is shouting down diversity of opinion on everything from gender to life issues? Who is demanding that we must now constantly refer to people in racial terms? Who wants the avenue of accepted speech and opinion to be roughly six inches wide? To paraphrase Buckley, I’d like to do her the service of believing she doesn’t really believe what she’s saying.
Reading Applebaum’s book, one gets the impression that power-hungry right-wingers run both West and East. She does not mention the fact that the progressives essentially own the culture (certainly the entertainment industry), and discusses Polish and Hungarian leaders allegedly stacking media outlets with people sympathetic to their views as if this constituted the creation of new, modern-day Pravdas—without noting that she and others do not seem to have a problem with a media that consistently parrots their line of thinking (the airtight Canadian media landscape has such narrow boundaries for acceptable opinion that conservative columns usually trend on Twitter just because they were published.) This isn’t “what-about-ism”—it is simply pointing out that when those who think like her are making appointments to various posts, it is The Way Things Should Be—but when those she ideologically opposes do it, it is fascism. State broadcasters, she seems to believe, should be neutral—and neutral means articulating her views.
She also appears to believe that Trump is an authoritarian strongman, falling into that category of people who believe that the president is both an incompetent idiot and the Devil playing 4-D chess. I think Ross Douthat’s analysis in the New York Times—that Trump doesn’t want responsibility, but rather adulation—is far closer to the truth. His form of leadership appears to be outsourcing much of the work while still taking center stage, and deprived of his roaring rallies, he often seems to be lost. The hysteria about the so-called Trump dictatorship often says quite a bit more about those promulgating it than it does about him. There is loads of valid criticism of Trump, but the narcissistic former reality show host doesn’t really fit into the role of nefarious dictator-in-waiting no matter how hard they try to stuff him into the role.
What struck me most about the book is just how incurious Appebaum really is about the motives of those who, to her mind, have been seduced by authoritarianism. Some of her former friends, she speculates, are bitter, angry people who felt like they never got their due and thus are intent on wrecking democracy to get back at the world like a kid who got bullied in high school and shows up one day with a loaded pistol. The sentiment here seems to be that many of these folks never achieved the success that Applebaum and others did, and thus they are mad and want to burn it all down. I don’t know any of the people she references, so for all I know she may be right. But there seems to be more than little amateur psychology going on, and naturally none of it reflects well on her intended targets.
She also examines the role of nostalgia in populist rhetoric, and despite a few interesting observations, entirely misses the point. People are not simply nostalgic about bygone eras—they are nostalgic for a world when the most basic realities were not under attack. From the BBC to the New York Times, for example, phrases like “her penis” and “his breasts” are now published with great solemnity as the tenets of transgenderism are relentlessly pushed by the elites. If Applebaum herself is uncomfortable with all of this, I’d be interested to hear about it (and I’d particularly love to know what she thinks of Abigail Shrier’s new book). But if not, perhaps she might consider that those figures she sees as attacking fundamental norms—Trump and Orbán, for example—are reasonably seen by others as protecting basic norms that the entirety Western civilization took for granted for over a thousand years. Perhaps Applebaum now thinks female penises are a thing, but plenty of people find this a bit of a stretch. Different people value different norms more highly than others.
I wonder if Applebaum has ever considered that perhaps some of those uncomfortable with our blitzkrieg social revolution may have a point. Maybe some of what we are getting rid of—this being most beautifully articulated by one of her targets, Roger Scruton—is essential? What if one of the primary drivers of populism isn’t an attack on liberal norms, but a defence of the norms under attack? Sure, this nostalgia and rhetoric can be co-opted by grifters and cynics and sycophants and idiots. But that doesn’t explain why it works—only that it does. Applebaum seems genuinely bewildered that so many of these once-intelligent and sane people have become so irrational and apocalyptic, and so she scarcely pauses to wonder if some of their concerns are genuine. Applebaum looks at the sea change in politics without looking at the sea change in culture that is driving it. (Her section on social media, which is very good, is one notable exception.)
So where does the growing pessimism across the West come from? Why are so many who would have once aligned themselves with Applebaum embarking on different paths? Why is there so much cynicism about the liberal international order? Besides a vaguely-defined “authoritarian instinct,” petty jealousy, gullibility, and outright stupidity, Applebaum never really answers the question. She sees what is happening, but does not appear to grasp the real motivations of those who voted for Brexit (dupes who were lied to), Trump (conned by a would-be tyrant), or Orbán (scared into doing so by party-run media.) Because she cannot seem to understand why anybody would really want any of the pro-family policies of Orbán, or the judicial nominees of the Trump Administration–or prize them so highly–she instead flails around looking for other explanations. The ones she finds are dull and predictable—a huge disappointment from a historian and researcher of her calibre.