Anne Applebaum misses the point

The Herald, August 2020

In Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum charts the fracturing of the Transatlantic right. The book is part-memoir, part-polemic. Over the past 20 years, the conservative movement has split into two factions, Applebaum contends: traditional neoliberals, who believe in free-markets, democratic institutions, and the rule of law, and populists, who thrive on division, confusion, and nationalist paranoia.

Applebaum, a journalist and academic based, variously, in Poland, Britain, and the US, belongs firmly to the first faction. A veteran contributor to the Spectator, Sunday Times, and Washington Post, she has enjoyed ringside access to rightwing elites for decades. Until recently, she was on good terms with Boris Johnson, a man she now describes as an “all-consuming” narcissist with a “penchant for fabrication.” (“Nobody serious wants to leave the EU,” she quotes the future prime minister as saying in 2014. “Business doesn’t want it. The City doesn’t want it. It won’t happen.”) In 2008, she broke with the Republican Party after John McCain added Sarah Palin–“a proto-Trump”–to his presidential ticket. McCain “never spoke to me again,” she writes. In Poland, Applebaum and her husband, the politician Radek Sikorski, have become targets of anti-Semitic propaganda linked to the country’s ruling Law and Justice Party. “Whether I like it or not, I am part of this story,” she laments.

Applebaum’s premise is that mainstream conservatives–cautious, sceptical, committed, above all, to the cause of individual freedom–have been sidelined by extremists. She is particularly interested in the so-called “clerks” of authoritarianism: the writers, bloggers, and intellectual agitators–think Dominic Cummings and Steve Bannon–who spread disinformation in order to undermine democratic norms.

Applebaum’s narrative sweeps across Europe and North America. In Hungary, she meets Maria Schmidt, an anti-communist scholar turned cheerleader for the far-right Orban regime. In Spain, she profiles Vox, an insurgent nationalist party cultivating a form of Trumpism on the Iberian peninsula (“Hacer España Grande Otra Vez”). In Britain, she interviews John Sullivan, who once wrote speeches for Margaret Thatcher but now thinks the break-up of Britain is a price worth paying for Brexit. And in the US, she explores the “dark pessimism” of Donald Trump’s highest-profile media supporters, including Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who believes American society is being destroyed by mass immigration.

The common theme uniting these disparate political threads, Applebaum says, is a desire for simplicity and the need to impose order on a disordered world. The end of the Thatcher and Reagan eras, coupled with the West’s triumph in the Cold War, left British and American conservatives with a deep sense of cultural despair, culminating in the revanchist campaigns of Brexit and Trump. In continental Europe, rightwing anxiety over the erosion of national borders produced new forms of militant euro-scepticism, laced with Islamophobia.

Class and inequality aren’t major factors in the rise of the alt-right, Applebaum insists: “The vast majority of people [in the West] are not starving. If we describe them as ‘poor’, it’s because they lack things that human beings couldn’t dream of a century ago.” What matters is the growth of “anti-pluralism” and, in the age of social media echo-chambers, an aversion to “fierce debates.”

At heart, Twilight of Democracy is a rallying cry for an embattled neoliberal establishment; a warning, directed at the centre of the political spectrum, about the fragility of modern democratic culture and its system of open, constitutional government. Without constant vigilance, Applebaum concludes, that system may not survive the “precariousness” of our current moment. “Liberal democracies always demanded things from citizens: argument, effort, struggle,” she writes. “They always required some tolerance for cacophony and chaos, as well as some willingness to push back at the people who create cacophony and chaos.”

As you might expect from a celebrated historian of Soviet power, Applebaum is a forceful and intelligent writer. The splintered conservative social milieu she depicts is fascinating, both for its autobiographical insights and as a record of the internecine battles that have taken place on the Anglo-American right in recent years.

Less convincing, however, is her account of the schism’s origins. The problem, she says, isn’t “closed-mindedness.” It is “simple-mindedness.” Voters embrace authoritarian figureheads because they prefer unity over division and familiarity over the unknown. Demographic change is confusing, so it provokes a cultural backlash. Political discourse is contentious, so it’s spurned in favour of more binary narratives. This logic is both reductive and self-serving: centrists can cope with the complexity of the 21st century, Applebaum, a centrist, says, but “simple-minded” populists can’t.

Applebaum also mistakes her own sense of personal displacement for a fundamental shift in conservative ideology. Indeed, she consistently overstates the extent of the rupture in rightwing politics and downplays key elements of continuity between different generations of conservative leaders.

Applebaum assumes, and expects the reader to assume, that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were democrats in a way that Johnson and Trump aren’t. But Thatcher cleaved away entire layers of local government and used the police to suppress strikes in pursuit of her radical economic agenda. Likewise, Trump may have entered the White House on a promise to “drain the swamp”, but he has governed as a relatively conventional Republican, cutting taxes for the ultra-rich, ditching vast swathes of federal environmental regulation, and amplifying the grievances of white voters in a style consistent with past GOP presidents, Reagan among them. Ultimately, Trump is a product of conservative orthodoxy, not a rejection of it, and Thatcher was the archetype for Johnson’s populism, not its antithesis.

This category error runs through the entire book. “The new right is more Bolshevik than Burkean,” Applebaum says. “These are men and women who want to overthrow existing institutions, to destroy what exists.” Really? Brexit was sold as an opportunity to restore British (or English) national independence from the grip of European control and Vox campaigns to defend Spain’s “indissoluble unity” from separatist movements in Catalonia and the Basque Country. These projects aren’t revolutionary. They are reactionary. The alt-right isn’t trying to smash prevailing class structures. It is trying to strengthen them.

Applebaum’s analysis may be more relevant in Eastern Europe, where the post-Soviet consensus is visibly under strain, than it is in Western Europe and North America. But as a blanket account of how rightwing politics moved from the “Reaganite optimism” of the 1980s to the “apocalyptic” alarmism of today, it fails to convince. Twilight of Democracy is a compelling book, just not a very persuasive one. Applebaum wants things to go to back to normal, before “hyper-partisanship” and “polarisation” became the key registers of debate in London, Washington, and Warsaw. She overlooks the fact that normal wasn’t all that democratic in the first place.

This is a review of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum. Read the original piece here.

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