Ms Applebaum, an American journalist who lives mostly in Poland, has earned accolades (including a Pulitzer Prize) for prodigiously researched popular histories of the Cold War, the Gulag and Stalin’s forced famine in Ukraine. Twilight of Democracy is less substantial, a magazine essay expanded into a book that is part rumination, part memoir.
The book, like the magazine piece, begins with a party she and her Polish husband (who was then a deputy foreign minister in a centre-right government) hosted on New Year’s Eve, 1999, at their home in the Polish countryside. The guest list was multinational and politically diverse, united by the afterglow of the Cold War victory over Communism and a shared belief in “democracy, in the rule of law, in checks and balances, and in … a Poland that was an integrated part of modern Europe.”
TWILIGHT OF DEMOCRACY: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism
“Nearly two decades later, I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party,” Ms Applebaum writes. “They, in turn, would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they had ever been there.”
These erstwhile friends, classmates and colleagues have lost faith in democracy and gravitated to right-wing nationalist regimes and movements. She calls them “clercs,” borrowing from the French philosopher Julien Benda, who a century ago seems to have meant a sarcastic fusion of “clerks” and “clerics,” functionaries and evangelists.
Ms Applebaum believes the usual explanations for how authoritarians come to power — economic distress, fear of terrorism, the pressures of immigration — while important, do not fully explain the clercs. After all, when Poland, where she begins her investigation, brought the right-wing nativists of the Law and Justice Party to power in 2015, the country was prosperous, was not a migrant destination, faced no terrorist threat. “Something else is going on right now, something that is affecting very different democracies, with very different economics and very different demographics, all over the world,” she writes.
She introduces the Polish brothers Jacek and Jaroslaw Kurski, who marched with the dissident labour union Solidarity in the 1980s. After the Soviet empire dissolved, Jaroslaw kept the liberal faith and now edits a major opposition newspaper, but Jacek hooked up with Law and Justice and became the director of Polish state television and “chief ideologist of the would-be one-party state.” In Jacek, Ms Applebaum diagnoses a toxic sense of entitlement, a conviction that he had not been aptly rewarded for standing up to Communism.
A recurring problem in this book is that most of the clercs refuse to talk to Ms Applebaum, leaving her dependent on the public record and the wisdom of mutual acquaintances. But she makes the best of what she’s got. She is most sure-footed when appraising intellectuals who have lived in, and escaped, the Soviet orbit. From Poland, she moves on to Hungary, then to Britain and finally to Trump’s United States, with detours to Spain and Greece, in pursuit of the fallen intellectuals.
She identifies layers of disenchantment: nostalgia for the moral purpose of the Cold War, disappointment with meritocracy, the appeal of conspiracy theories (often involving George Soros). She adds that part of the answer lies in the “cantankerous nature of modern discourse itself,” the mixed blessing of the internet, which has deprived us of a shared narrative and diminished the responsible media elite that used to filter out conspiracy theories and temper partisan passions. This is hardly an original complaint, but no less true for that.
Virulent populist movements have always existed in America, on the right (the Klan, say) and the left (the Weather Underground, say). Ms Applebaum finds it surprising that its current incarnation emerged in the Republican Party. “For the party of Reagan to become the party of Trump — for Republicans to abandon American idealism and to adopt, instead, the rhetoric of despair — a sea change had to take place, not just among the party’s voters, but among the party’s clercs.” This is probably the place to note that Ms Applebaum deserted the Republican Party in 2008, over the nomination of the “proto-Trump” Sarah Palin.
Twilight of Democracy apparently was supposed to have finished with a hopeful appraisal of her children’s generation, but that finale was interrupted by the coronavirus, and it leaves her — like the rest of us — at a loss. She notes how populist leaders have seized on the virus to justify emergency powers.
“Maybe fear of disease will create fear of freedom,” she concludes. “Or maybe the coronavirus will inspire a new sense of global solidarity. … Maddeningly, we have to accept that both futures are possible.”
©2020 The New York Times News Service
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