As celebrity writers go, Anne Applebaum is of a distinctly global kind—her fame follows her byline from suburban Washington to Warsaw and from Budapest to Fleet Street. In covering all these places, she stands out from her journalistic lot for her local expertise of each, although her beat is a generic and timeless one—she chronicles the “twilight of democracy”, the dismantling of modern republics, from within. By putting into play countries arguably far further down the path to autocracy than the US, her journalism reads like a refined version of the doomsday prophesying that prevails among her never-Trump colleagues—the Frums, the Rubins, the Boots and the Kristols of the world.
She sometimes indulges in sour partisanship too, but nonetheless remains one of her profession’s rare talents with a parallel claim to fame as a historian. Before earning a Pulitzer for her commentary at the Washington Post, Applebaum drew wide plaudits for her expertly researched works on Ukraine’s Holomodor, Stalin’s gulags and the rise of the Iron Curtain in Central Europe. In a number of ways, she seemed predestined to just this kind of writing career. Her great-grandfather fled conscription in the 1880s under the Russian emperor Alexander III. Her father is a star attorney on matters of antitrust and trade. While her mother curated Washington’s Corcoran Gallery, the young Anne read history and literature at Yale, attending Wolfgang Leonhard’s famous course on Soviet history, visiting her forefathers’ Belarus in 1985 and eventually crossing the pond as a post-grad Marshall Scholar at the LSE.
Applebaum’s intellectual vagaries reflect the sensibility of a distinct kind of American descendant of East European émigrés who never felt entirely cut loose from her distant roots and seized the opportunity to revisit them with the fall of the Berlin Wall. While writing for a number of British magazines in the 1980s and 1990s, she went on several reporting trips east of the Iron Curtain that resulted in a travelogue—Between East and West—foreboding some of the region’s present political conundrums. Already in the heady aftermath of 1989, the nationalism that reared its head after decades of Soviet suppression augured a ticklish coexistence with the universalist creed of liberal democracy that the region embraced as a condition of membership in the West.
Applebaum has the historical discernment to critically appraise, in hindsight, the zeitgeist of giddiness among her milieu of Cold Warriors at the time, yet she leaves this important task to those not encumbered with the urgency to sell books. This lack of self-criticism has earned her more or less damning reviews from Douglas Murray, to her right, and to her left from Ivan Kratsev, whose work with Stephen Holmes from March this year—The Light that Failed—could have given Applebaum a hint or two had she chosen to delve deeper into the matter. Few know better than Applebaum the forces of history that have led the post-Soviet East to settle the competing claims of national sovereignty and liberal democracy in a way that has disappointed the West’s expectations. Yet her book portrays the democratic backsliding of late in Poland and Hungary as almost exclusively the single-handed work of opportunistic demagogues. In Twilight of Democracy, Anne the never-Trumper gets the better of Anne the historian.
In 2016 Applebaum’s warnings about the fragility of post-Soviet democracies gained an eerie prescience applicable to Trump’s distrust of republican checks on his power. Waxing alarmist about the demise of the American republic is something of an over-subscribed beat across the mastheads she writes for, but her prized contribution lies in grounding these fears in a larger global story about the inevitable transmutation of right-wing populism into proto-totalitarian tyranny. Other writers focus their alarm on the precedents set in Erdogan’s Turkey or Duterte’s Philippines, but the parallels Applebaum draws to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Law & Justice Party (PiS) sound more clairvoyant for a simple reason. The national-populist governments in these countries echo Trump in their railing against the West’s liberal establishment, and Applebaum is a foe of all three.
Given her transatlantic acclaim, for her book to drop simultaneously in the US and the UK is an exception duly made to the standard rules of publishing—but note how Twilight of Democracy appears differently subtitled in each. The Breaking of Politics and the Parting of Friendships, Penguin’s rubric in the UK, gets at the autobiographical scaffolding Applebaum lays out to buttress her political psychology of the populist Right. The subjects she diagnoses are friends or acquaintances who shared in the moral optimism of the Euro-American Right in the waning days of the Soviet Union but with whom she has soured since. Applebaum chastises them for turning their backs on that spirit as their common Soviet enemy receded into memory, in favour of a politics that she redlines out as incompatible with liberal pluralism, or at least leads to its dissolution if given a chance to govern—for the sake of congruence, one hopes she means the latter. The book is written as an outgrowth to an essay in the Atlantic in October 2018, where she narrates a New Year’s Eve party she and her husband Radek Sikorski—then Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister in a liberal-centrist government—threw in their countryside estate to welcome the new millennium. Suffice to say, she has withdrawn her guests’ welcome.
Her personal tale is highly revealing of the region’s larger dynamics. Applebaum sees in the national-populist turn of Poland’s PiS and Hungary’s Fidesz in the early 2000s a distant prequel to Trump and Brexit—“A Warning from Europe: The Worst is Yet to Come” was the ominous title of her Atlantic essay. PiS and Sikorski’s Civic Platform splintered in 2001 from a big tent born out of the political arm of the Solidarity movement, while Fidesz underwent its own distancing from Europe’s mainstream Christian Democrats. With a lag and for markedly different reasons, the US Republicans and the pro-Brexit share of the UK Tories have indeed realigned around much the same national populism as their Central European peers.
One can only admire Applebaum’s ability to navigate across cultural environments, as much as her sincere wish to see the liberal-democratic ideal travel inversely to her forefathers’ journey—from its Western cradle to its Eastern edge. The pity is the immodest one-sidedness of her account. Applebaum is uniquely qualified to trace the pull factors that have diverted Poland and Hungary away from the liberal promise of the 1990s and into their present crossroads, but Twilight of Democracy doesn’t do that. The book shoehorns their vastly different political predicaments into a meta-narrative—The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, the book’s US subtitle.
To be fair to Applebaum, she does warn in the foreword against expecting the kind of sweepingly researched, multi-perspective impartiality that she has accustomed her readers to. The electoral appeal of populists, she humbly concedes, eludes a single explanation, and the individuals she describes as exemplars of it are of a single demographic, reflecting her own rather narrow experience of the phenomenon. And yet her experience of intellectuals-turned-populists is conferred general import for the simple reason that a journey of that nature is, in Applebaum’s mind, simply oxymoronic. For her, knowing the fragile nature of liberal democracy necessarily immunises one against the populist temptation to distrust the elites guarding the system. Yet amongst this demographic, the antibodies have given in, and Applebaum indicts her former friends for breaking something of an unwritten covenant with liberalism. A similar theme was developed in the 1920s by Julien Benda in La Trahison des Clercs, which has inspired her book. Applebaum’s commitment to pluralism and the open exchange of ideas is real, but when it comes to liberal shibboleths such as multiculturalism, EU integration or immigration, the temptation to demonise and second-guess her dissenters proves overpowering. For Applebaum, intellectuals who turn to populism were never intellectuals in the first place but budding authoritarians, frustrated under-achievers, mental degenerates or some combination thereof.
Applebaum describes PiS—which enjoys an expanded majority since President Duda’s re-election in July—as somehow in pathological thrall to a conspiracy that incriminates the Kremlin for crashing a plane carrying Poland’s entire government on its way to commemorating the Katyn massacre in April 2010. Yet she fails to give any evidence that this so-called “Smolensk lie” has any sort of broad sway over the Polish public—because it doesn’t, other than the few voices Applebaum does cherry-pick. She describes the party’s socially conservative agenda as driven by homophobic bigotry, the same ready-made, dumbed-down narrative that spares her and the NGOs that peddle it the journalistic brunt work of explaining the less sensationalist issues that actually divide the bulk of Polish society—adoption by same-sex couples and the degree of sexualised content in primary and secondary school curricula, for instance.
More of the same in Hungary, where Applebaum credits Orbán with the superhuman ability to whip up racism and anti-Semitism to divert attention from his entourage’s crony dealings. For Applebaum, the fact that Hungary has relatively few migrants at present somehow makes opposing any new ones necessarily xenophobic. Similarly, she thinks only anti-Semitism can inspire resentment at George Soros’s influence on Hungarian politics. A sober explainer of Polish and Hungarian politics Twilight of Democracy is not.
As for the UK, Applebaum bad-mouths her pro-Brexit colleagues for whipping up nativism and nostalgia for British grandeur in pursuit of an imagined sovereignty that Brexit cannot deliver. In Applebaum’s world, a vote for Brexit cannot possibly be the result of reasoned argument over the downsides of membership in the EU. Reason points one way only for her; ending up elsewhere exposes you as a nutjob.
There’s a long scholarly precedent behind Applebaum’s reflex to psychiatrise her political detractors. In 1950, a team of sociologists and psychologists at Berkeley sought to explain the rise of fascism in pre-war Europe by correlating its appeal to a set of personality traits resulting from adverse childhood experiences. Despite some grotesque statistical flaws, The Authoritarian Personality enjoyed a decade of acclaim until the study’s methodological absurdity became too large to ignore. Theodor Adorno and his colleagues, as it turned out, weren’t so much interested in the link between authoritarian politics and human psychology, but in discrediting as a proto-fascist anyone who would venture into conservative territory. There’s a reek of this in every page of Applebaum’s book, which makes its argument not only dubious, but thoroughly unoriginal.
Jorge González-Gallarza Hernández (@JorgeGGallarza) is a senior researcher at Fundación Civismo in Madrid.
Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends
by Anne Applebaum
Allen Lane, 2020, 224 pages, $35