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Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning author, professor, and historian offers an expert guide to understanding the appeal of the strongman as a leader and an explanation for why authoritarianism is back with a menacing twenty-first century twist.

Across the world today, from the Americas to Europe and beyond, liberal democracy is under siege while populism and nationalism are on the rise. In Twilight of Democracy, prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum offers an unexpected explanation: that there is a deep and inherent appeal to authoritarianism, to strongmen, and, especially, to one-party rule--that is, to political systems that benefit true believers, or loyal soldiers, or simply the friends and distant cousins of the Leader, to the exclusion of everyone else.

People, she argues, are not just ideological; they are also practical, pragmatic, opportunistic. They worry about their families, their houses, their careers. Some political systems offer them possibilities, and others don't. In particular, the modern authoritarian parties that have arisen within democracies today offer the possibility of success to people who do not thrive in the meritocratic, democratic, or free-market competition that determines access to wealth and power.

Drawing on reporting in Spain, Switzerland, Poland, Hungary, and Brazil; using historical examples including Stalinist central Europe and Nazi Germany; and investigating related phenomena: the modern conspiracy theory, nostalgia for a golden past, political polarization, and meritocracy and its discontents, Anne Applebaum brilliantly illuminates the seduction of totalitarian thinking and the eternal appeal of the one-party state.

224 pages, Hardcover

First published July 21, 2020

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About the author

Anne Applebaum

30 books1,931 followers
Anne Elizabeth Applebaum is a Polish-American journalist and historian. She has written extensively about Marxism–Leninism and the development of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe. She has worked at The Economist and The Spectator, and was a member of the editorial board of The Washington Post.

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Profile Image for Kimba Tichenor.
Author 1 book115 followers
June 9, 2020
Journalist and sometime historian, Ann Applebaum offers in this monograph her assessment of contemporary polarized politics in Europe and the United States. Like many from both sides of the political spectrum, she sees in the current state of affairs a dangerous drift towards authoritarianism. What makes this narrative different from many out there is that the author was once friends with many of those in Europe and the United States that now espouse an anti-democratic, stringently nationalist, and xenophobic politics. In this sense, one could describe this as an insider’s account, and certainly the author’s orientation and approach to the issue is markedly conservative, even as she disavows the hate mongering, nihilistic positions of the so-called alt right.

Rightly, the author notes that history has shown that authoritarianism is neither “intrinsically ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing.’” It attracts people from both sides of the political spectrum “who cannot tolerate complexity…It is anti-pluralist. It is suspicious of people with different ideas. It is allergic to fierce debates.” The author also associates the current right-wing drift toward authoritarianism with a restorative nostalgia, that is, a desire to recreate a caricature of the past, one that has only a minimal relationship to the real past with all its nuances and contradictions. Consequently, the proponents of this mythical past often advance conspiracy theories to explain its demise and what she terms “medium-sized lies” to advocate its return. They take advantage of new technologies and social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to target their message for a specific demographic. For example, to garner support for Brexit from British animal lovers, Brexit enthusiasts used Facebook’s targeted advertising opportunities to show them photographs of Spanish bullfighters.

The above insights are hardly new, but as noted earlier there is an intimate quality to her revelations that is absent in most monographs. Her discussions of the shifting views of Boris Johnson, Laura Ingraham, Mária Schmidt, and others includes accounts of former hobnobbing at parties with these individuals and painful personal breaks as former friends adopted extreme right views that brooked no disagreement. Readers may find such intimacy alluring, but they should be wary as it comes with its own cartoon-like nostalgia and ideological baggage.

Repeatedly the author waxes on about the Reagan/Thatcher era as emblematic of democratic government and fails to acknowledge the serious errors of these administrations. For example, one hears no mention of the Iran-Contra Scandal that took place during Reagan’s second term, not does the author mention the deleterious effects that his policy of deinstitutionalization had on mentally ill patients, their families, and communities. As for Thatcher, there is no mention of her endorsement of the violent suppression of striking miners. In short, the author seemingly commits the same sin of which she accuses authoritarian supporters: failing to acknowledge the nuances and complexities of all governments, including those she supported.

Perhaps these oversights could be overlooked if not for the ideological baggage with which they are accompanied. For example, the author claims when we speak of the “poor” or the “deprived” in the West, “it is sometimes because they lack things human beings couldn’t dream of a century ago, like air conditioning or wifi.” Apparently the author is unaware that 21 percent of children in the United States live in households with incomes below the federal poverty level or that 16 million children in this country struggle at some time during any given year with hunger. As for lack of access to the wi-fi/internet, although this may sound insignificant, in an increasingly connected world, lack of access places one at a distinct disadvantage economically, limiting the jobs one is qualified to fill.

Sadly, the ideological baggage that underpins this study does not end here. For example, the author writes: “In the past century and a half, the most despairing, the most apocalyptic visions of American civilization usually came from the left.” As proof, she discusses at length the nineteenth-century anarchist Emma Goldman who advocated violent resistance to capitalism and the 1970s Weather Underground. Undeniably both of these groups believed in using violence as a means to an end. Still, neither of these groups as had the long-term, nefarious impact that the racist, right-wing Ku Klux Klan (in its multiple incarnations) has had on American society. Yet, she provides no detailed discussion of the lynching campaigns or terror that members of this group perpetrated against African Americans. Instead, she claims, “There is no need to rehearse here the history of the Ku Klux Klan…or to describe the myriad of individuals and militia movements who have plotted mass murder and continue to plot mass murder, in the name of rescuing the fallen nation.” The result is a lopsided history of extremism in this country that leaves the reader wondering: What does democracy mean to the author, if she considers attacks on businesses and business leaders more “apocalyptic” than attacks on minorities, the marginalized, and the underrepresented? At best, it suggests that she is out of touch with the experiences of most Americans, who have neither direct access to leaders of the left or right, and who increasingly live in despair, worried that their children will not even have the few opportunities that they had. For this reason, despite some thought-provoking discussions, I cannot recommend this book.

I would like to thank NetGalley, the publisher, and the author for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,310 reviews120k followers
November 9, 2022
“The post-1989 liberal movement—this was the exception,” Strathis Kalyvas said. Unity is an anomaly. Polarization is normal. Skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal
Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.
Anne Applebaum, erstwhile Thatcherite, long-time conservative, spouse to the former foreign minister of Poland, journalist, historian, onetime member of The Washington Post editorial board, Pulitzer Prize winner, staff writer for The Atlantic, and senior fellow at The Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University of Advanced International Studies, offers an inside look at the extant wave of authoritarianism that is washing across the planet. It has picked up steam since the time when she was writing for right-wing propaganda newspapers and palling around with the likes of Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham. She looks at then versus now, and how it came to be that what she believed to be actual conservatism, as in wanting to conserve established norms, institutions, and values, transformed into a push toward dictatorship across the planet.

Anne Applebaum - image from The Guardian - Photograph: Piotr Malecki
…these movements are new. There was no authoritarian-nationalist antidemocratic wave after 1989 in central Europe, outside of ex-Yugoslavia. It has arisen more recently, in the past decade. And it arose not because of mythical “ghosts from the past” but as a result of specific actions of people who disliked their existing democracies. They disliked them because they were too weak or too imitative too indecisive or too individualistic—or because they personally were not advancing fast enough within them.
She cites research indicating that in any country there is about one third of the population that has what can be called an “authoritarian predisposition,” having nothing to do with political policies. One could be of this type and be a Republican or a Democrat. Such folks favor homogeneity and order, and have a low tolerance for diversity. We can see this in the blatant racism of the right with no trouble at all, but it can also be present in some progressives who insist that older people, for example, should step aside, so they can fill their shoes, that older people cannot possibly understand their needs or perspectives, or that moderate Democrats are quislings who should be driven from the party. It ain’t just the other guys, folks. We have such people across the political spectrum. But they are certainly more manifest, and have achieved considerably more notoriety under the Republican red flag than under any other, by a long shot. So, there are people who are ok with simple answers to complex problems and we will always have that third to contend with. But one third of the population is not sufficient to gain power. And we presume that there is a corresponding third that tilts the other way, that welcomes diversity and difference, and can handle complexity. So, what is left is that middle ground. How does a wanna-be authoritarian or authoritarian-curious party reach them?
In ancient Rome, Caesar had sculptors make multiple versions of his image. No contemporary authoritarian can succeed without the modern equivalent: the writers, intellectuals, pamphleteers, bloggers, spin doctors, producers of television programs, and creators of memes who can sell his image to the public. Authoritarians need the people who will promote the riot or launch the coup. But they also need the people who can use sophisticated legal language, people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do. They need people who will give voice to grievances, manipulate discontent, channel anger and fear, and imagine a different future. They need members of the intellectual and educated elite, in other words, who will help them launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite, even if that includes their university classmates, their colleagues, and their friends.
Applebaum reports on French essayist Julien Benda, who wrote about the people who supported authoritarianism in the 1920s. He saw intellectuals supporting class or national passion (communist or nationalist) as a motivating force, and betraying the true intellectual’s work, the search for truth. He called them clercs, idealogues of the left and right. While there are seams of authoritarianism in both left and right in today’s world, it is the seam of the right that has become dominant, only the right-wing clercs, who have attained any power.

She looks at the experience of several nations, Poland, Spain, the UK, Hungary and others, including the USA, finding commonalities in how once reasonable people demagnetized their moral compasses (presuming they ever really had any) and found that they were perfectly fine with the most brazen public expressions of bigotry, racism, and allegiance to party lies, as long as it brought them greater personal wealth and/or influence.

Applebaum uses as point of reference a party she and her husband had held in Poland to welcome in the new millennium. There were politicos of diverse (albeit heavily-rightward-tilted) sort at this gathering. She uses some of the attendees as examples of how people with whom she was once friends, or at the very least collegial, had turned to the dark side. She tells of one woman, who had gone so far that she was publicly proclaiming anti-semitic fabrications, including accusing Applebaum, who is Jewish, of being at the center of an anti-government cabal. There are more of these. I particularly enjoyed reading about Boris Johnson, who knew that Brexit was a stupid idea, but who promoted it anyway, because doing so appealed to the people he had been trying to build support from. He totally expected to fail. There is more on Boris, none of which was really at all surprising in such a Trump-level narcissist.

She also points out that authoritarian governments value one thing over all else, loyalty. Remind you of any erstwhile presidents? Qualifications will always be considered secondary, and thus such governments will enter a spiral of incompetence and failure. How’s Rudy workin’ out for ya as legal counsel? How did that handling Covid thing work out?

Such rightward movements have more moving parts and Applebaum looks into the roots of some of these. She considers, for example, the sort of nostalgic yearning for a golden ideal state that is just fine with glossing over the actual reality of the favored era, and points out that such imaginary realms run into a problem when confronted with what has happened since then, since, if it was such a great time, why then did it not persist? Which warms us up for conspiracy theories. The past really was great, but there were people determined to ruin it. Thus, we have QAnon, Newsmax, Fox, OANN, Breitbart, et al, which have all done quite well building up their brand by tearing down reason. While a few with remnants of consciences have headed for the doors of such places, there has been no shortage of demagogues banging down those same doors for a chance to rouse the rabble with lies and misdirection, fine representatives of the clercs of Julian Benda’s 1920s analysis, in it for personal greed and power.

Why is it that so many of the implementers and mouthpieces of the right are such nasty, awful people? I expect that this public vitriol is a somatization of the internal moral battle they are engaged in. Some element of decency must remain, so that when they publicly lie, relentlessly, they need to assuage whatever smidgen of guilt they still might feel, by going so much overboard as to drown out that tiny remnant voice. (Maybe it is Don Junior’s conscience that dopes him up before public orations?) They know they are doing something wrong and need to silence any internal moral objections. And then there are people who manage to promote evil without the bombast. Think Steven Miller. In people such as these, it is clear, the internal drowning has been completed. There is no longer a need to stifle the cries of a murdered ethos.

Religion is also a popular motivating factor. There is nothing less equitable, less democratic, than a group that thinks it has the creator on speed-dial. Authoritarianism fits quite nicely with a world view that insists that all laws come from on high.

As is often the case when reading a book by a conservative, my hackles were raised on multiple occasions. In one she writes:
They are…a specific kind of right, one that has little in common with most of the political movements that have been so described since the Second World War. British Tories, American Republicans, East European anti-Communists, German Christian Democrats, and French Gaullists all come from different traditions, but as a group they were, at least until recently, dedicated not just to representative democracy, but to religious tolerance, independent judiciaries, free press and free speech, economic integration, international institutions, the transatlantic alliance, and a political idea of “the West.”
While there are some differences for sure, I am not so certain the ultimate difference, in many respects, is really all that deep. Even though she mentioned it a little before this in the book I guess she quickly forgot that the American electoral college system is an enemy of representative democracy, one that Republicans will never allow to be changed. I guess she missed the Willie Horton campaign of GHW Bush. I guess she missed the part of American history in which Republican nominees to the Supreme Court had to align with a religion-based anti-abortion policy to even be considered. This is not a new right she is describing. It is the old right without the veneer of caring what anyone thinks. Sure, there were some who would occasionally stand for decency, McCain on the attempt to revoke Obamacare and Romney on impeachment, but look at the other policies they promote, and it is the same old Republican assaults on civil liberties, environmental safety, and worker rights, no longer afraid to goose-step in public, and having recruited a lot more people who are more than happy, and now prepared, to wear their brown shirts outside their basements and private clubs. It does feel at times like an argument about which of the farmers will be cutting off the chickens’ heads. Not something we chickens are likely to be particularly concerned about. Another:
Two decades ago, different understandings of “Poland” must already have been present, just waiting to be exacerbated by chance, circumstance, and personal ambition. Before Trump’s election, different definitions of what it means to be “American” were on offer as well. Even though we fought a civil war that struck powerfully against the nativist, ethnic definition of what it means to be an American, it lived on long enough to be reincarnated in 2016. The Brexit vote and the chaotic debates that followed are proof that some older ideas about England and Englishness, long submerged into a broader definition of “Britain,” also retain a powerful appeal. The sudden support for Vox is a sign that Spanish nationalism did not disappear with Franco’s death. It merely went into hibernation.
All of these debates, whether in 1890s France or 1990s Poland, have at their core the questions that lie at the center of this book: How is a nation defined? Who gets to define it? Who are we? For a long time, we have imagined that such questions were settled—but why should they ever be?
Really? She ignores the fact that in the USA, far from retreating to underground dens for protracted periods of rest, the forces of darkness have never stopped promoting their views. From the Civil War to the KKK to Reconstruction to the racism of the Palmer raids, to the Bund to McCarthyism, to the Kochs, to the Tea Party, to Qanon. There has never been a time when the right has been quiet in the states. There has never been a time when they were shy about lying. The current level of 24/7/365 mendacity and provocation is merely a continuation of the same approach, but on a steroidal level facilitated by the internet, encouraged by corporations like Facebook and Twitter that profit from the growing madness, and merrily abetted by their new best friend, Vladimir Putin.

Ok, so I have my gripes, and no doubt will never see eye to eye with Applebaum on many subjects. But overall, this is a riveting read, from a serious thinker on such subjects. It is a useful insight to identify, and place in historical perspective, those who are doing their best to sell themselves to liars, racists, and demagogues for personal gain, the public good be damned. I have great respect for her analytical acuity and observational power. Twilight of Democracy will give you insights into some of the troubles of our time, raise your blood pressure, and, hopefully, make you rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Above all, the old newspapers and broadcasters created the possibility of a single national conversation. In many advanced democracies there is now no common debate, let alone a common narrative. People have always had different opinions. Now they have different facts…False, partisan, and often misleading narratives now spread in digital wildfires, cascades of falsehood that move too fast for fact checkers to keep up. And even if they could, it no longer matters: a part of the public will never read or see fact-checking websites, and if they do they won’t believe them.

Review posted – 12/4/20

Publication dates
----------July 21, 2020 - hardcover
----------June 22, 2021 - trade paperback

==========In the summer of 2019 GR reduced the allowable review size by 25%, from 20,000 to 15,000 characters. In order to accommodate the text beyond that I have moved it to the comments section directly below.

Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
811 reviews1,268 followers
August 31, 2020
Big on names, short on analysis, and written by someone with an immense ego who uses the book as a platform to brag about who she knows. However, knowing famous people doesn't necessarily mean you have any real insight.

I read Twilight of Democracy thinking it would give me more understanding about what is happening in the world, why people are turning more and more towards authoritarianism. My knowledge of international politics is woefully lacking so I did learn a little about the current political situation in Poland, but little else.

The author uses the book to drop names and make herself seem important by pointing out all the people she either used to be friends with or who have been at the same parties and maybe she bumped elbows with.

I don't care who you know. It doesn't make you a better or more interesting person to have had drinks with Boris Johnson. And it doesn't automatically qualify you to provide insight into the political climate of the UK.

Unfortunately, the book is more 'he-said-and-she-said to me!!' and 'I-know-all-these-people!' than anything else.

I was especially put off when she offered her non-expert opinion on the United States, a country she hasn't lived in for 30 years. You know she doesn't have a clue about what's going on here when she avers that due to the pandemic, in "the United States, and many other places, there was a consensus that people needed to stay home, that quarantines needed to be enforced, that police needed to play an exceptional role."

Um... no, there's no such thing as a consensus that people need to stay home, quarantines need to be enforced, or police should play an exceptional role in protecting people. Maybe in European countries, but not in the US. There's no consensus in our government and there's no consensus amongst our citizens.

Yet because she was born in America, Ms. Applebaum seems to think she automatically has insight into what's going on in the country, a country she hasn't lived in since the early '90s. 

She derides people like author Howard Zinn who focus on oppression, racism, and sexism and come to "radical conclusions" about the myth of American exceptionalism.  This from a privileged rich white woman who doesn't live in the US and has probably never sat down and had a drink with poor people, let alone poor Black people. But she knows it all about racism and states that pointing out its evils is "radical".

She then says derisively, "the exaggerated claims of those who practice identity politics are a political and cultural problem that will require real bravery to fight."

People voting for politicians who at least pay lip service to the needs of people of color, those in the LGBQTIA community, and other minorities are "a political and cultural problem"? Not the people and system oppressing them, according to the author, but they themselves are the problem if they speak up for their own rights.

As Stacey Abrams says in her book Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America, identity is politics and "identity is the strongest defense against invisibility". Ms. Abrams rightfully claims that "Identity politics pushes leaders to understand that because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation/gender identity, and national origin, people confront obstacles that stem from these identities."

But according to Ms. Applebaum, this is radical. The shred of respect I'd had for her up to this point disintegrated. She needs to find herself a corner in her big ol' mansion and go sit in it.

I'm rating this 2 stars instead of 1 only because I did learn a couple of things.  However, they were things I could have learned in a newspaper article and I wish I hadn't wasted time on this book.

I recommend it only if you want to hear some rich egotistical person bragging about everyone she knows. 
Profile Image for Libby.
594 reviews156 followers
September 3, 2022
Applebaum begins her book by talking about the party she and her husband, Radek Sikorski, host to show in the new millennium on December 31, 1999. Most of their friends were conservatives, her husband at the time serving as a deputy foreign minister in a center-right government in Poland. Two decades later, Applebaum says the politics have become so polarized that some of those guests would now refuse to attend a party at her house and she would cross the street to avoid speaking to some of them. In this book, Applebaum delves into the politics of that polarization as well as the Brexit hullabaloo, the Vox party in Spain, and the present state of US politics.

There’s a lot of information in this short book and I appreciated Applebaum’s personal tone. Her connection to the Polish government as well as her experience as a journalist and historian make her a credible writer. She wrote Gulag: A History, which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2004 and Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine, 1921-1933 which examines Stalin’s role in the famine that caused the deaths of nearly four million Ukrainians. I read a critique of this book by David Klion at ‘The Nation,’ for which I will include a link below, not because I agree or disagree with the critique but because it offers information that I would otherwise never have considered. For example, Klion posits that Applebaum does not recognize the sins of her own party even as she casts a stinky eye on former friends. According to this article, the government under which Applebaum’s husband served saw a huge rise in economic inequality. Klion believes that Applebaum draws parallels in extreme right and extreme left while absolving the center of responsibility for the present state of politics. My thought was simply that there are parallels; extreme positions on both sides should be avoided.

Of value to me are Applebaum’s explanations of reflective and restorative nostalgia. Reflective nostalgics miss the past and sometimes study the past, but would never do anything to bring it back. Restorative nostalgics long to rebuild the past. “Many of them do not recognize their own fictions about the past for what they are. They believe their project is about truth… They want the cartoon version of history, and more importantly, they want to live in it, right now… It is not by accident that restorative nostalgia often goes hand in hand with conspiracy theories...” She writes that this is also related to “cultural despair,” a lament about the changes that have lessened the nature or character of a better, more productive people.

Applebaum details how lies and conspiracy theories are "propagated first by a political party as the central plank of its election campaign, and then by a ruling party, with the full force of a modern, centralized state apparatus behind it." Hungary’s lie was how George Soros plotted to replace European Christians with brown-skinned Muslims. She writes that there is a grain of truth in this as Soros once suggested that Europe might admit more Syrians as a humanitarian gesture. Facing the 2018 election, Orban fanned Hungary’s nationalism by sending voters distortions and lies regarding Soros’s statements. In Poland, it is conspiracy theories about the plane that crashed near Smolensk, Russia, killing all 96 passengers, including then-President, Lech Kaczyński, and other political dignitaries that inflames the people. Some theories conclude that instead of an accident it was an assassination plot. Applebaum writes, "the emotional appeal of a conspiracy theory is in its simplicity. It explains away complex phenomena, accounts for chance and accidents, offers the believer the satisfying sense of having special, privileged access to the truth. For those who become the one-party state’s gatekeepers, the repetition of these conspiracy theories also brings another reward: power."

Applebaum addresses the lure of authoritarianism much more lucidly and effectively than what I have conveyed here. Her insights and perspectives are valuable ones. She writes, “Authoritarianism appeals, simply, to people who cannot tolerate complexity: there is nothing intrinsically “left-wing” or “right-wing” about this instinct at all. It is anti-pluralist. It is suspicious of people with different ideas. It is allergic to fierce debates. Whether those who have it ultimately derive their politics from Marxism or nationalism is irrelevant. It is a frame of mind, not a set of ideas.” I thought I was ready to put away political books, but books like this one make me realize how little I understand of global politics, which of course, causes me to realize that I have to read more, not less.

***Link to David Klion's article at 'The Nation'
Profile Image for John.
51 reviews28 followers
July 29, 2020
This was ridiculous.

After spending exhaustive detail on name dropping and burnishing her conservative bona fides, the author can't, for the life of her, figure out why folks blame right wing folks for being fascists.

She blames the Weather Underground (whose agenda did NOT become the DNC platform), Emma Goldman, college kids who don't want their parents paying for bigoted and sexist professors as the exact equals of conservatives who have taken over Hungary, Poland, the UK, and the US.

Five pages or so were spent on lamenting losing the friendship of Laura Ingraham.

Keenly, she gets the details right. So correctly that it is a damn shame she misses that this move to authoritarism is not an outlier of conservative thought, it is baked into the system and should probably be addressed in some way.

You would expect better from someone who spent years cataloging the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union to know that extremes lead to brutalism, no matter that you went to cocktail parties with some of them.
477 reviews151 followers
October 8, 2021
[Note from 16 months after: This book seems more prescient than ever. Watching Republicans in Congress suddenly say that January 6 was a big nothing, that questions about the legitimacy of Biden's election are legitimate, and participating in propagating conspiracy thinking -- all this is evidence of exactly what Applebaum describes here. It is nothing short of terrifying.]

4.5 This is a disturbing book. It's meant to be disturbing. Many books have been written over the past few years (let's pick 2016 as a randomly chosen starting point) examining the dark shifts taking place in the world's democratic countries."How Democracies Die," for one, and "The Retreat of Western Liberalism," for another. Applebaum's book covers similar ground but she brings something new and important to the subject.

Applebaum is a highly regarded author and reporter. I'm most familiar with her from her writings for The Washington Post and The Atlantic. She is serious, smart, and perceptive. She is also, unlike the authors of so many other previous books on the topic, a conservative: a "McCain Republican," as she puts it, and she is profoundly dismayed by what that party, and others like it around the world, has become.

The book opens with a New Year's Eve gathering at her house in 1999 in Poland, where she and her husband live. The party is attended by numerous thinkers, writers, educators, diplomats, journalists, and such. Mostly conservative in their thinking and deeply committed to (and optimistic about) democracy, they entered the new millennium with shared confidence and hope.

Within the span of a few years, however, things change. Applebaum finds she does not -- cannot -- talk to many of these same people who were her friends. She will even cross the street to avoid encounters, as they will to avoid her. Individuals who considered themselves as center-left or center-right were now spokesmen for or participants in authoritarian governments.

In trying to discern what factors led to this, the book covers a lot of ground, drawing examples from countries Applebaum has lived in and people she's known. She talks about toxic forms of nostalgia, and the urge to power, of cynical actors and manufactured apocalyptic visions, of bots and social media, corrupted courts and compliant political institutions, of "soft" dictatorship and "Medium-Size Lies," of fictitious conspiracies and the undermining of faith in institutions, of aggrieved senses of entitlement and arguments about how nations define themselves and who gets to contribute to the process of definition. And most importantly, perhaps, the psychological processes that lead people to buy into systems they would never seen themselves as being able to support. In short, all the tools that can be brought to bear to crack open the fissures inherent in and necessary to democracy.

At the heart of "Twilight" are three key points: that democracies are neither guaranteed to survive nor self-sustaining; that democracies are by their nature messy, stress-filled cacophonies of competing voices, viewpoints, and needs; and -- perhaps most critically in today's world -- that there are large numbers of people for whom "the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal" because "they are bothered by complexity. They dislike divisiveness. They prefer unity. A sudden onslaught of diversity -- diversity of opinions, diversity of experiences -- makes them angry."

Authoritarian impulses always find fertile ground in times of uncertainty. That said, societies that do slide from democracy into authoritarianism do not devolve on their own but are consciously shaped and molded. Authoritarians... need the people who can use sophisticated legal language, people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do. They need people who will give voice to grievances, manipulate discontent, channel anger and fear, and imagine a different future. They need members of the intellectual and educated elite, in other words, who will help them launch a war on the rest of the educated elite, even if that includes their university classmates, their colleagues, and their friends.

It had been an article of faith after the end of the Cold War, she observes, that democracy would spread, and along with it, economic prosperity -- that democratic societies would never collapse. But those beliefs have been challenged by facts on the ground. It is a grim and, in our time, all too familiar picture. What seemed a shining future might become a dark avenue we fear to walk. What, then, has caused this transformation? Were some of our friends always closet authoritarians? Or have people with whom we clinked glasses in the first minutes of the new millennium somehow changed over the subsequent two decades? There is no single explanation, and I will not offer either a grand theory or a universal solution. But there is a theme: Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will. A frightening prospect, this.

The book has so much power because Applebaum speaks as much from her heart as she does her head. The writing throughout is clear and engaging, as one would expect from a gifted journalist. It is filled with names that are familiar (who knew that Laura Ingraham once dated Donald Trump?) and unfamiliar. But mostly it is grounded in a warning that democracy is not guaranteed to last, that it must be protected.

I can't recommend this important book enough.

One quibble, offered here in the hope that someone at the publisher stumbles across this review: The digital ARC I read (thank you Netgalley!) has a LOT of typos. Really, a lot! I hope they're caught before the book goes to press.
Profile Image for Matt.
3,821 reviews12.8k followers
October 5, 2020
I have decided to embark on a mission to read a number of books on subjects that will be of great importance to the upcoming 2020 US Presidential Election. Many of these will focus on actors intricately involved in the process, in hopes that I can understand them better and, perhaps, educate others with the power to cast a ballot. I am, as always, open to serious recommendations from anyone who has a book I might like to include in the process.

This is Book #17 in my 2020 US Election Preparation Challenge.

As a student of politics, I often look back on the 2016 US Presidential Election and wonder what happened. While I could (and should) inject discussion about Russian bots or outsider influence, there had to be a base of people who chose Trump, allowing outsiders to build on an already present momentum. While thinking about how America got to the point of even considering Trump (and, taking a step back, the Republican base to choose him as their candidate), there must have been a spark that ignited the desire to look outside the norms of the democratic ideals on which America has held firm for centuries.

Enter Anne Applebaum and this brief book that explores that desire and push towards a more authoritarian state. While not an examination of America on its own, Applebaum looks at the shift towards a more controlling state in America and some parts of Europe, drawing on her experience as a journalist in these regions. Applebaum does not offer airtight answers, but has great commentary based on her career. She explores the move away from methodical democracy and towards something that is more state-centric and easily digested by the general population seeking a resurgence of ‘the way it was’. While I cannot say that I liked all I heard, it does make a degree of sense. If not something I would recommended wholeheartedly, this book certainly provides me with an academic analysis of how and why Trump seemed to appeal to so many in 2016 and still holds sway today.

The spark of conspiracy can ignite a population like no other. Being able to fabricate a story and have it take on a life of its own is a fabulous way to get a message across while injecting fear in the possibilities. Applebaum explores how this has worked, without concrete substantiation, across the various states explored in this tome. There appears to be a strong push to use immigration as that topic that could tear the state apart, should it be allowed to continue. While European fears lay with the Syrian refugees fleeing a civil war, it has also been used with the constructed ‘caravan’ from Central America worked its way through American conspiracy channels. There is no proof of the bold statements and yet people lap it up, sure that the country they have come to know will disappear with the dilution of national values, while jobs will be handed over to others. There is little attempt to think logically and so the governing party uses this to tighten rules and keep ‘others’ out, thereby strengthening the core and keeping change from making its way onto the agenda.

A sense of nostalgia is also a driving force to push towards authoritarian rule, looking back to a time when things were better and life was more in tune with how things ought to be. Many will know the rhetoric about creating a great America once again, which looks to regain what was one formidable but has gone to the wayside. Looking to days of old that are lost can only be brought back by toughening stances and limiting some of the looseness that democracy permits. Interestingly enough, I have never heard when America was ‘great’ in the eyes of the current president and what era he wishes be replicated, though one can imagine slavery and white supremacy would be a sure Utopia. I also remain baffled when there was a previous Polish or Hungarian greatness that has since been drowned. Even a UK of the past that soared above it all remains confusing to me, for the push towards the authoritarian state was to commence BREXIT, something that buoyed the country up, while forcing it to share itself among its continental cousins. Then again, here I am in Canada, trying to comprehend something outside my area of interest.

The move towards authoritarian rule must include the erosion of democratic foundations, as Applebaum explores throughout the piece. While this appears to be somewhat contradictory, for it is these same democratic institutions and beliefs that brought those leading the state to power. Yet, there seems almost to be a rage against the system that is needed, one that pokes holes in all that the state has been following that slowly morphs things into an authoritarian regime and forges a leader in place who cannot be removed with ease. Discounting the importance of legislatures as being too focused on their own interests, dismissing rules as being outdated and attempting to stifle growth, as well as erasing checks on power through elections as being fraudulent if the results sought do not come to pass. Applebaum cites speeches made by many leaders who have taken bits from far right and left thinkers, glueing them together, and leaving the general public to feel as though this is the new normal. The move to deconstruct seems to be the only way the state can run effectively, forcing a suspension of the rules, many of which are mocked along the way. How leaders get away with this defies the imagination, but there are tools mentioned above that help bring about this blind trust. Once gone, it is close to impossible to get it back without turning the state on its head and appearing just as dictatorial to the general public.

While I knowingly came into this read with a preconceived notion about authoritarianism, I did want to see if I could be enlightened about what could have led the world to search out something that was so vile during the 1930s-70s. Anne Applebaum does well to analyse and provide her own ideas, all of which are rooted in what she’s seen and reported. Her experience and analytical nature helps push the book forward, where she seeks to better understand how the conservatism she espouses has become less than what is needed, turning her views almost centre or centre-left. The use of multiple states helps to show that this is not an ideological Petri dish when it comes to exploring the shift, though it is hard to get to the root of the issue in a shorter book. Applebaum is keen to provide concrete examples and show how they fit into the larger narrative to offer the reader something on which to grasp while trying to decipher the truth. The chapters are laid out in a clear and concise manner, permitting the reader to see how things moved from A to B, without inundating them with information or leave them to feel lost in a sea of statistics. There is no doubt that this is an academic discussion, told through the eyes of a well-versed political reporter. That said, the discussion is quite intriguing for those who have a mind for the subject matter and can sift through some of the high-brow analysis of European politics. It may not offer hope of a quick fix, but it does show that this is not only an American phenomena, meaning that others can understand the craziness that appears to occur on a daily basis in the United States. Let’s hope that something can be done to take a little air out of the tires of the authoritarian movement. I’ve tired of it already and am prepared for some return to greater days!

Kudos, Madam Applebaum, for opening my eyes to better understand some of the issues that have made democracy less desirable to many, while filling the power vacuum with something more daunting. I will have to look into more of your work, allowing me to become better educated on a number of subjects.

Love/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/...
Profile Image for Linda.
Author 2 books177 followers
November 14, 2020
I finished this book the Monday before the US election, but I felt too anxious to write a review. Once the results came in, I was riding high on Biden's victory and didn't want to leave that state of euphoria to deal with the frightening issues that face the world. That said, Anne Applebaum's book "Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism hits these issues head-on. It focuses on the rise of the authoritarian impulse in Europe and the US and provides frightening in-depth case studies of Poland, Hungary, Britain, Spain, and America.

Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and moderate conservative, focuses mainly upon the psychological appeal of authoritarianism and cultural factors that allow it to flourish. She argues that individuals who "favor homogeneity and order, cannot tolerate complexity and are suspicious of people with different ideas are highly susceptible to "strong man" demagogues. Many harbor nostalgia for a simplistic version of a non-existent past and racist and anti-immigrant sentiments.

While Applebaum attributes part of the success of the current authoritarian rulers to the information bubbles caused by the technological revolution and social media, she is fascinated by intellectuals' role, who spin the message and serve as enablers. She analyzes the motivations and impact of key spin doctors such as Pat Buchanan, Steve Bannon, and Laura Ingraham.

The Twilight of Democracy offers a comprehensive survey of the rising authoritarian tendencies in the west. While her analysis of psychological and cultural factors is strong, she gives short shrift to the economic conditions that contribute to this phenomenon, which the economic conditions that contribute to this phenomenon, which is the book's primary weakness.
While the picture she paints is bleak, Trump's defeat is a hopeful sign. However, it is crucial to recognize how much hard work lies ahead.
Profile Image for J-P Williams.
2 reviews
September 27, 2022
Written by a neo-con and the way facts are cherrypicked. Her preening reminiscences about the Thatcher/Raegan era are a big red flag. She views and presents that period as being a paragon of democracy - which is simply incongruous to reality.
It's well written but repeatedly ignores key events and whitewashes a lot of history to push forward a twisted neo-conservative alternative. This makes for some depressing reading, but a perfect example of why we are where we are right now with people just like Anne Applebaum running things under the major failures of the political 'New-left' (Blair, Obama, Clinton etc.).
She discusses 'violent' left-wing ideology but conveniently ignores American mass ethnic cleansing and race-violence of the KKK and never acknowledges the Prison Industrial Complex, police-state or the 'war on drugs' and the targetting of the poor through modern 'austerity' politics. Bailing out of the banks is not even a thought. Instead, she presents the typical one-sided view. Yet another look at a blind and privileged mind and its rationalisations. All the more repulsive as it comes from a professor of History, but of course that just indicates the obvious of how and what we're teaching to students at London School of Economics doesn't it?
Profile Image for Brad Lyerla.
209 reviews173 followers
November 11, 2021
Applebaum's thesis in TWILIGHT OF DEMOCRACY is that authoritarianism is on the rise across the globe. Authoritarian tyrants in the 21st century have all followed the same pattern. Most of her monograph is a description of the authoritarian playbook as it has played out in Europe and the UK in recent decades. Applebaum demonstrates that, in the U.S., Trump has moved well down that same path following the same playbook.

She wonders if liberal democracies have the means and will power to oppose and defeat this trend. Defeating Trump in November would strike an important blow toward saving liberalism.

Here is a nice quote that sums up much of Applebaum's argument: ". . . this is what Trump has proven: beneath the surface of the American consensus, the belief in our founding fathers and the faith in our ideals, there lies another America -- [Pat] Buchanan's America, Trump's America -- one that sees no important distinction between democracy and dictatorship. This America feels no attachments to other democracies; this America is not "exceptional." This America has no special democratic spirit of the kind Jefferson described. The unity of this America is created by white skin, a certain idea of Christianity, and an attachment to land that will be surrounded and defended by a wall. This America's ethnic nationalism resembles the old-fashioned ethnic nationalism of older European nations. This America's cultural despair resembles their cultural despair." p. 157-58.

I am convinced that Applebaum has this right. I have been trying to persuade friends not to vote for Trump in November. Here is what I wrote recently to a few of them:

Trump is different.

The philosophy that underlies the way that the United States of America does government is called ‘liberal democracy’. In the 20th century, liberal democracy opposed fascism on the right and Bolshevism on the left. In the 21st century, liberal democracy opposes authoritarianism like Putin’s Russia, Kim Joung-un’s North Korea or Duterte’s Philippines.

Don’t be confused by the label. Liberal democracy, sometimes called simply ‘liberalism' (with a small l) does not refer to the Democrats. Rather, liberalism is the political philosophy that both Republicans and Democrats have always agreed upon. At any given time in the past, more than 90% of all Republicans and 90% of all Democrats have agreed upon liberal democracy. (Maybe even a higher percentage than 90%, but let’s use 90% for present purposes.) From the founding of our country, liberal democracy has been the undisputed American ideology, though forms of liberalism are alive and well in other parts of the world as well.

The American version of liberalism emphasizes two competing virtues. One is the virtue of liberty and the other is the virtue of justice.

Let’s take liberty first. The notion underlying America’s idea of liberty is that individuals are born with sovereignty and God-given rights. The Declaration of Independence is the best statement of our understanding of liberty. Individuals are blessed with the right to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, individuals are thought to concede their sovereignty to the government for the greater good from which the individuals will enjoy benefits that they could not obtain on their own. This is the essence of the concept of rule by consent. We consent and our government governs.

The problem with the virtue of liberty standing alone is apparent. If individuals are able to withdraw their consent at will, then citizenship is easily fractured. And it can become very difficult to coordinate collective activity for the greater good.

The American solution to that shortcoming has been to counterbalance the virtue of liberty in more or less equipoise with the virtue of justice. Our approach to justice has taken the form of our healthy and respectful reverence for the rule of law. The American Constitution is the best statement of our approach to justice, a system of laws and legal processes embodying checks and balances as a bulwark against tyranny or faction within our government.

This is a generalization, but I think a fair one. Republicans have emphasized liberty and Democrats have emphasized justice in their party platforms in the past. But everyone who mattered accepted the general framework of liberal democracy. Given that, the often fractious politics of America have mostly been about continually re-striking the balance as needed between liberty and justice.

Here is where Donald Trump is genuinely different. He is the first President, or even major party candidate for President, who does not believe in liberal democracy. He does not believe in the virtue of liberty. Nor does he believe in the virtue of justice.

What do I mean? Let’s start with liberty. Donald Trump does not believe that individuals are sovereign or have inalienable rights. He believes that in the best form of government, there is only one sovereign, and that is the leader, who enjoys nearly complete authority to decide what’s best. Citizens have little right to resist or push back against what the sovereign decides. In current day Russia, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Philippines, China and North Korea, among others, this is how government works and, on numerous occasions, Trump has openly admired the leaders of those countries and envied the powers that they enjoy (to the embarrassment of patriotic Americans serving in the military and State Department).

Nor does Trump believe in the American virtue of justice. Our idea of justice relies heavily on the notion of a government that operates in a system of checks and balances that prevents any one person or faction from gaining too much control. Trump makes no bones that he is willing to remove all checks and balances on the authority of the President to act unilaterally. Other presidents from both parties have chafed at times at the legal processes and requirement of persuasion that a President is subjected to, but no American President has done more than Trump to undermine the institutions responsible for telling the Executive Branch when it has overstepped its authority. That will only snowball if Trump gets a second term.

This is a unique moment in our history. We have never had a candidate for President from a major party who does not believe in the principles of liberal democracy.

But we have the tools to fight back. The founders of our country worried about men like Trump. They knew from history that democracies are fragile and that demagoguery can be powerful. The founders taught us that the antidote to demagoguery is the rule of law. Lovers of the rule of law, like me, will be voting against Trumpism.

There is one more thing. Please re-read Matthew 25: 31-45. I want my President to aspire to be on the right hand when the day comes. Donald is the poster boy for the left hand.

Ps. I can’t resist also saying that the point of the Mueller report, the Senate Intelligence Committee reports and the so-called Clapper Report* was that there is convincing evidence that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election and that Putin was in control. Collusion has become a red herring. Collusion would have been a hanging offense, but it was not proven. That's why Fox News keeps whining about no collusion. It is to distract us from what the Russians have done. The indignity remains that Putin interfered (attacked our election in 2016) and the current administration has done nothing about it.

*To jog your memory:
In January 2017, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a
report compiling the conclusions of the CIA, FBI and NSA. It said, “Russian efforts to influence the
2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire
to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant
escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations. We
assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US
presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process,
denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess
Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have
high confidence in these judgments.”
Profile Image for Karyn.
218 reviews
October 2, 2020
Democracies are complex and citizens are loud and often chaotic. Independent thinking and the optimism of working towards the ideals of a complex and rich culture are not for everyone, obviously. “Unity is an anomaly. Polarization is normal. The lure of authoritarianism is eternal” a Greek friend told the author.

Anne Appelbaum explores, through her own experiences and that of her many friends, how this lure to authoritarianism has brought us here at this point in time, but where to next? Only time will tell.

Don’t pack in your optimism for better times, however. The wheel of history turns in a circle, after all.

Profile Image for B. Rule.
831 reviews26 followers
July 30, 2020
Applebaum's concise appraisal of the current political situation of the West is equal parts interesting practical application of others' theories of authoritarianism (i.e., Timothy Snyder, Karen Stenner, Hannah Arendt, etc.), and self-aggrandizing preening and score-settling with ex-friends. It's that personal connection that gives the book its greatest punch. Applebaum was friends with many of the current figures on the international right who have embraced authoritarian ideas, and she is able to describe their shared past and contrast it with their present positions, all while skewering them mercilessly as only a friend can. I found her descriptions of the current political crises in Poland, the U.K., Hungary, and the U.S. to be perceptive, succinct, and terrifying. She is excellent at highlighting just how anti-democratic and cynical a lot of current nationalist thinking is.

Applebaum would probably describe herself as a classical liberal or a right-leaning centrist; in her telling, that was what conservatism meant up through the late '90's. Ronald Reagan is her cultural hero, and she measures the current Right by their adherence to that viewpoint. It's an admirable and inspiring view of conservatism. It's also largely fictional. The authoritarian streak in conservatism long precedes the Reagan Revolution, and their respect for democracy and the rule of law has often been far more mercenary and flexible than the rhetoric would admit. That's great that Applebaum believed in the city on the hill. I believe her belief is genuine, and those of many conservatives are too. But I'm highly skeptical of this viewpoint as descriptive rather than aspirational. Applebaum is quite dismissive here of leftist critiques of racism, sexism, police brutality, etc., waving them away as people who "dislike America." In my opinion, those are the people who love the U.S. best. They are seeking to expand the promises of the founding documents and the rule of law to all, not just white men. Curious that Applebaum correctly understands that America's strength is commitment to certain abstract principles rather than skin color, nationality, or accidents of geography (as she paints the Old World order), yet fails to recognize that hope for change is precisely what makes a great American. She is blind to visions of the good that fall outside the narrow band of centrist liberalism, whether right- or left-leaning.

It's clear, though, why Applebaum cannot see the value of these popular movements. She is, at heart, an elitist. Not in a conspiratorial sense, but in her view of what politics is and how the world works. This whole book is obsessed with her connections to power and all its trappings. The book opens with a fancy party at her Polish estate, and it closes with another! She sees politicians through a psychological lens of resentment and envy. Over and over, her friends turn to authoritarianism because they feel they were not given their due under democratic meritocracy. In her view, politics is a Great Game of status-seeking for an international, centrist elite. The great pity of the global turn to authoritarianism is that it elevates small-minded people over her (current) friends, who are of course brilliant and really deserve to run things!

Her vision of the good polity is a dinner party, not an open affair or a block party. Her vision is put to hilarious and cutting effect here, where she can offer withering takes on her former guests, but it might feel quite parochial if you don't run in her circles. While I appreciated her insider critiques, it's also quite chilling to realize that the global elite who exercise the most power in this world are largely playing out a juvenile high-school drama with life-and-death stakes for the rest of us. Read this if you want the hot goss on a lot of fascists; if you want a more structural take on how we landed here, this is a perceptive but incomplete analysis.
Profile Image for Tauno.
158 reviews92 followers
Want to read
June 6, 2020
Anne Applebaum
History Will Judge the Complicit

For tormented intellectuals, collaboration also offered a kind of relief, almost a sense of peace: It meant that they were no longer constantly at war with the state, no longer in turmoil. Once the intellectual has accepted that there is no other way, Miłosz wrote, “he eats with relish, his movements take on vigor, his color returns. He sits down and writes a ‘positive’ article, marveling at the ease with which he writes it.” Miłosz is one of the few writers to acknowledge the pleasure of conformity, the lightness of heart that it grants, the way that it solves so many personal and professional dilemmas.

Collaboration wasn’t interesting, Birthler told me. Almost everyone was a collaborator; 99 percent of East Germans collaborated. If they weren’t working with the Stasi, then they were working with the party, or with the system more generally.

The point is not to compare Trump to Hitler or Stalin; the point is to compare the experiences of high-ranking members of the American Republican Party, especially those who work most closely with the White House, to the experiences of Frenchmen in 1940, or of East Germans in 1945, or of Czesław Miłosz in 1947. These are experiences of people who are forced to accept an alien ideology or a set of values that are in sharp conflict with their own.

These kinds of lies also have a way of building on one another. It takes time to persuade people to abandon their existing value systems. The process usually begins slowly, with small changes. Social scientists who have studied the erosion of values and the growth of corruption inside companies have found, for example, that “people are more likely to accept the unethical behavior of others if the behavior develops gradually (along a slippery slope) rather than occurring abruptly,” according to a 2009 article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This happens, in part, because most people have a built-in vision of themselves as moral and honest, and that self-image is resistant to change. Once certain behaviors become “normal,” then people stop seeing them as wrong.

But all of them are familiar justifications of collaboration, recognizable from the past. Here are the most popular.

We can use this moment to achieve great things.

We can protect the country from the president.

I, personally, will benefit.

I must remain close to power.

LOL nothing matters.

Cynicism, nihilism, relativism, amorality, irony, sarcasm, boredom, amusement—these are all reasons to collaborate, and always have been. Marko Martin, a novelist and travel writer who grew up in East Germany, told me that in the 1980s some of the East German bohemia, influenced by then-fashionable French intellectuals, argued that there was no such thing as morality or immorality, no such thing as good or evil, no such thing as right or wrong—“so you might as well collaborate.”

If there is no such thing as moral and immoral, then everyone is implicitly released from the need to obey any rules. If the president doesn’t respect the Constitution, then why should I? If the president can cheat in elections, then why can’t I?

Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and literary critic, recognized the lure of the forbidden a century ago, writing about the deep appeal of the carnival, a space where everything banned is suddenly allowed, where eccentricity is permitted, where profanity defeats piety.

My side might be flawed, but the political opposition is much worse.

I am afraid to speak out.

Fear, of course, is the most important reason any inhabitant of an authoritarian or totalitarian society does not protest or resign, even when the leader commits crimes, violates his official ideology, or forces people to do things that they know to be wrong. In extreme dictatorships like Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia, people fear for their lives. In softer dictatorships, like East Germany after 1950 and Putin’s Russia today, people fear losing their jobs or their apartments.

The choice to become a dissident can easily be the result of “a number of small decisions that you take”—to absent yourself from the May Day parade, for example, or not to sing the words of the party hymn. And then, one day, you find yourself irrevocably on the other side. Often, this process involves role models. You see people whom you admire, and you want to be like them. It can even be “selfish.” “You want to do something for yourself,” Birthler said, “to respect yourself.”

In the meantime, I leave anyone who has the bad luck to be in public life at this moment with a final thought from Władysław Bartoszewski, who was a member of the wartime Polish underground, a prisoner of both the Nazis and the Stalinists, and then, finally, the foreign minister in two Polish democratic governments. Late in his life—he lived to be 93—he summed up the philosophy that had guided him through all of these tumultuous political changes. It was not idealism that drove him, or big ideas, he said. It was this: Warto być przyzwoitym—“Just try to be decent.” Whether you were decent—that’s what will be remembered.

The Atlantic
Profile Image for Jason Furman.
1,210 reviews821 followers
December 31, 2020
Although ostensibly about the Twilight of Democracy, the strength of Anne Applebaum's book is that it focuses on one slice of this question and develops it in a compelling and personal way: why do "clercs" (intellectuals or others who should know better) drift over to the becoming propagandists for authoritarian/populist/ultranationalist parties? The book begins with a party Anne hosted in Poland for the turn of the millennium and how twenty years later half of the guests are not speaking to the other half of the guests. The estrangement is over those who became propagandists for the Law and Justice party, becoming homophobic, anti-Semitic and getting lost in dishonest and vile conspiracy theories in the service of subverting democracy itself. This same parting of the ways happens over and over again to Applebaum--her scene in conservative British publishing where some go over to Brexit and some support the Orban in Hungary, her scene in conservative US publishing where some (e.g., Laura Ingrahm) go from mainstream-ish supporters of Reagan's vision to angry ranters.

Some of the conventional explanations for the rise of populism don't work in Eastern Europe, the heart of Applebaum's book, which was doing well economically and had very little immigration. She also argues against the idea that it is a revolt of the common people against the elites because all of the people she chronicles and is concerned with are and were elites. Instead she argues there is a "seductive lure" to authoritarianism (as in her subtitle) that appeals to people because it gives them simple, clear answers, good guys and bad guys, and gets rid of nuance and complexity. This combines with a nostalgia, which Applebaum argues can take the form of "restorative nostalgia," a pernicious notion of trying to recreate an imagined past. All of this is unleashed by social media, just like radio before it unleashed fascism.

The book moves between different countries. I learned a lot about Poland and Hungary, both because I only pay intermittent attention and because Applebaum knows so much. The Trump section (a lot of which focused on Laura Ingraham) mostly covered familiar territory. And the Brexit chapter was somewhere in between, and suffered a bit because however bad Brexit is it does not really mean the end of Democracy in anything resembling what is happening in Poland and Hungary.

The book does leaves me with a few questions:

1. Applebaum's story is asymmetric. David Frum and Laura Ingraham were at the same party and ended up in different universes, as did many others in the Polish right, the British right, etc. I can think of nothing comparable on the left (to be clear, I'm sure there are isolated examples, but not a party of leftists in 2000 where half of them are so extreme that they are not speaking to the other half). Does this mean that the polarization we are seeing is asymmetric? Is there something more about the right that leads to this mindset and authoritarianism? Needless to say, much horror in the twentieth century was perpetuated by people that came from the left (and chronicled in Applebaum's previous books), is it now the right that is slipping and if so why?

2. Relatedly, to what extent does the conservativism that Applebaum supports, that of Reagan and Thatcher, bear responsibility for what many of its successors morphed into? Was this an evolution or a repudiation?

3. Is Applebaum herself falling for the nostalgia and overly paranoid overstatements that she is so concerned about in others? I think probably not but one needs to worry when depicting a vision of past politics in which everything was (comparatively) wonderful.

4. Applebaum in some ways is a strange messenger because she lives in the US, UK and Poland and is a highly international elite. I mostly agree with her argument that populism is not a rebellion against elites (e.g., Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are not exactly men of the people), but I have a nagging worry that it does thrive on some concern about elites and their behaviors. Relatedly, Applebaum waxes nostalgic for what were essentially media controls forcing relatively conformity of the media, a narrow difference between political parties and the like, but doesn't this also have a downside?

5. What are they thinking? Applebaum tries to reach many of her former friends to understand why they are advancing crazy, patently false, conspiracy theories, that go against much of what they themselves used to believe. Almost none of them get back to her. One who does records it and publishes an edited version to show her defiance of Applebaum. Never do we learn what anyone was thinking beyond speculation by Applebaum or others close to those people (e.g., a pair of Polish brothers that go in different directions). I am not faulting Applebaum but this leaves me wanting more.

Overall, really well written, thought provoking, a learned a lot of specifics from her reporting, and also very thought provoking. My list of questions are not in the spirit of rebuttal, on many of them I think there is a good chance that Applebaum is right, but I am not certain and still want to learn more. Because after all, as she says, the world is a complex place and does not lend itself to overly simple explanations.
Profile Image for Lewis Weinstein.
Author 10 books512 followers
December 26, 2021
Anne Applebaum offers a clear and plausible explanation for why many people want authoritarian leadership. Democracy, she writes, is complex, and participation in it requires thought and decisions, all of which are often challenged by others. People who are insecure in their knowledge and beliefs recoil from the challenges of democracy.

Here are a few of my notes, paraphrasing what Applebaum wrote:

... authoritarianism appeals to people who cannot tolerate diversity
... democracy can be complex and frightening; given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy
... the role of the party faithful (in an authoritarian environment) is to defend the leaders, however dishonest their statements ... for which they will be rewarded and advanced
... the emotional appeal of a conspiracy theory is its simplicity ... and its sense of offering a privileged access to the truth
Profile Image for Toni.
Author 1 book48 followers
January 9, 2021
Once upon a time, Anne Applebaum threw wonderful cocktail parties in her home in Poland filled with elite political figures, journalists, diplomats, etc who all generally subscribed to ideals of liberal democracy. Flash forward 20 years later and many of those friends, barely on speaking terms, are now espousing talking points from the handbook of far right populism - fear of immigrants, muslims, lgbtq persons, etc.

Applebaum attempts to uncover some history and meaning in the vast political polarisation witnessed in countries around the globe. She focuses primarily on the increasing stranglehold of authoritarian rule and blind party loyalty taking hold in Poland, Hungary, and the United States.

She is and old-school conservative (a Reagan conservative she calls herself) and her analysis is certainly cast through the myopic lens of these ideals and her obvious wealth and privilege. While I learned a bit of history with regard to the rise in power of the Law and Order party in Poland and Orban's regime in Hungary, even I could see the lacunae in her analysis that focused almost exclusively on the elite power players, portraying the masses as essentially silent and useless - an obvious oversight considering the fact that just a week before reading this, masses took to the streets in Warsaw to quash the inhumanely restrictive abortion laws the Law and Order party were attempting to pass.

Applebaum's European analysis is meant to lay the groundwork for her look into the last four years Trump's rise in the US on the tide of the rightwing populism of an increasingly vocal (and galvanized) minority. Again, there are many holes in her analysis, far too many to address thoroughly. However, to name a couple:

- a complete lack of attention on race and politics in America. Applebaum plays limited lip service to racial politics, preferring to cite general dismay in democracy as a reason for growth in far-right populism. In a post-Obama, Black Lives Matter era it is absolutely ridiculous to not even attempt to call our conservative politics as lighting flames of racism to galvanise populist support. This omission also allows her to put forth a false equivalence between far-left politics and far-right politics.

- the reliance on the false idol Ronald Reagan as some harbinger of the good old days of American conservatism. This typical hagiography from a certain "good" kind of conservative just grinds me. There is no recognition that it was Reagan's policies - namely deregulation of business to the point that class division and wealth became so vast there is virtually no way to breach it anymore, and the Republican party jumping into bed with the religious right for the almighty dollar - that paved the way for the current deep wedges and identity politics that threaten to turn our bipartisan system into a war zone. It all started with Reagan, you can fight me on that one.

There is more but I will leave it at that. You might learn a few things from this, but mostly you will learn that Applebaum is wealthy and connected and has no idea how gauge politics from any other viewpoint than her very privileged one.
Profile Image for Martin Dubéci.
158 reviews178 followers
August 3, 2020
Anna Applebaum žije vzrušujúci život. Ide po ulici v Londýne a skončí na pive s Johnsonom. Dlho som nečítal nič tak napísané z pozície absolútne elitnej pozície, na najvyššom vrchole intelektuálneho potravinového rebríčka, bez akéhokoľvek sebaspytovania. Applebaum sa čuduje, že sa rozhádala s kamarátmi, čo teraz fandia Kaczynskému, či Trumpovi - nečuduje sa tomu, že jej muž bol členom Bullingdon Clubu, elitného oxfordského spolku, ktorý absolútne vystihuje smrť sociálnej mobility v UK.

Najväčší paradox je, že Orbána a spol. nazýva ideologickými nostalgikmi, no knihou sa nesie vlastne jeden motív. Nostalgia za svetom, kedy ľudia ako ona a jej priatelia boli nespochybniteľne pri moci. Čakal som, že kniha bude o reflexii toho, čo pokazili. Nedočkal som sa.
Profile Image for Radiantflux.
428 reviews412 followers
August 6, 2020
77th book for 2020.

Not much meat. Lots of name dropping about fascists that Applebaum was apparently friends with at some point, but who don't go to her parties anymore. There is some interesting-ish analysis of the rise of rightwing populist movements, but nothing that hasn't be written about 100x already in the last few years.

Profile Image for kimera.
169 reviews68 followers
June 29, 2023
Zaglądam dziś w internety, a tam mąż autorki Radzio Sikorski wyraża się w czułych słowach o ruchu narodowym (użycie małych liter umyślne). Trochę chichot pod nosem, a trochę obrzydzenie syfem okołopolitycznym... Generalnie szkoda strzępić ryja, bo popsuję sobie ciężko wypracowane zen.

'Zwodniczy powab autorytaryzmu' zamieniłabym na 'zwodniczy powab podtytułu', bo z takim rozmachem rzuca się tu prywatą, nazwiskami i brudami, że ogromna część eseju nie powinna wychodzić poza ploty wśród znajomków czy ramy blogosfery. W niektórych miejscach trudno tego nie uznać za akt odwetu z powodu dość ohydnej nagonki pod swoim adresem, ale... czy faktycznie trzeba latać podobnie nisko jak oponenci?

Mam problem by poznać w tej Applebaum autorkę 'Czerwonego głodu' - w tej Applebaum stosującej taktyczne przemilczenia i zadowalającej się analizą po łebkach.
Profile Image for Ярослава.
787 reviews371 followers
September 10, 2020
Загалом, цю книжку можна підсумувати фразою “Ну добре ж сиділи – шо ж пішло не так?”, тільки розгорнутою на 200 сторінок.
На початку книжки Епплбаум зі своїм чоловіком, Радославом Сікорським, збирають у себе велике товариство друзів на Новий рік, щоб разом зустріти нове тисячоліття. Серед запрошених – молоді перспективні політики, політологи, журналісти, інтелектуали, і їм здається, що світ лежить біля їхніх ніг. Fast forward двадцять років по тому. Господарі дому вже не спілкуються з більшістю своїх тогочасних друзів. Епплбаум намагається зрозуміти, що пішло не так з консервативними інтелектуальними елітами, раз вони за 20 років перетворилися на інтелектуально ялових, популістських, брехливих прислужників чинних і wannabe тиранів.
Здавалося б, читво мало би бути цікаве, бо Епплбаум підходить до критики цього руху не як аутсайдерка – вона пише про людей, які в певний момент були її друзями, колегами й однодумцями. Попри це, її відповіді на питання, що ж пішло не так, очевидні (ви це все чули: від бульбашок на соціальних медія до втоми від меритократії), а плітки-анекдотки про нинішніх fear-mongering, conspiracy theory-peddling популістів (хто на публіку бризкає слиною проти імігрантів, а сам усиновив трьох дітей з-за кордону, і т.д.) не роблять чтиво аж настільки жвавим, щоб виправдати читання.
Profile Image for Mircea Petcu.
101 reviews19 followers
May 1, 2022
Despre predispozitia autoritarista:

"Autoritarismul apeleaza la oameni care nu pot tolera complexitatea: nu e absolut nimic intrinsec de "stanga" sau "de dreapta" in legatura cu acest instinc. Este vorba de antipluralism. Este vorba de oameni suspiciosi fata de cei care au alte idei. Este vorba de oameni alergici la dezbaterile infocate. Este o stare de spirit, nu un set de idei."
Profile Image for Caren.
493 reviews104 followers
June 11, 2020
The interesting thing to me in reading this book was the fact that the author has traveled in well-connected circles and knows intimately the political characters of whom she speaks. She bookends her account with two parties at her home in Poland, one at the New Year's Eve celebration in 1999, the second in the summer of 2019. Half of the people who attended the first party are no longer speaking to those who attended the second. Thus are the divisions of our times, not only in the USA. There are many revealing bits of late 20th-century/early 21st-century European history told as only an insider could divulge. The book gave me new ways to think about the slide toward authoritarianism and examples of how it has occurred fairly recently in , for example, Hungary and Poland. (The author is American but is married to a Polish government official and lives in Poland.) She clearly connects her examples to aspects of the current administration in the USA. Her political background is as a conservative Republican, which makes her dismay the more telling. The book was wonderfully well-written, which is what you'd expect from a Pulitzer-prize-winning author.
Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my unbiased opinion.
Profile Image for Kavita.
783 reviews380 followers
March 20, 2021
Anne Applebaum is a conservative journalist and historian. But her conservativeness does not extend to supporting authoritarian right-wing regimes spreading outright lies around the world. In Twilight of Democracy, she describes how the world has been changing towards a radical right since the 1990s, which has now developed into a crazy situation around the globe.

Applebaum focuses on Poland, Hungary, UK, USA, and Spain to expand on her views. The world has indeed become a frightening place with bigotry, racism, sexism on the rise. There is an immense pushback against egalitarianism in almost all countries. Religion, once again, is being used as a tool of hatred and separatism. The author tries to give reasons for why the world politics has declined. This is not a very academic work, but it's an interesting and useful starting point to ponder about these issues.

The book, and indeed, the author herself, are not without issues. Applebaum appears to have been friends with many ultra-right-wing personalities of the day prior to realising they are utter bonkers. It's no wonder because her husband was a minister in the centre-right government of Poland before the alt-right Law and Justice party took over. However, it is indeed puzzling how Applebaum did not see these people for who they are: opportunists and bigots. She also tends to equate the left and the right wing, but seems a little confused about what constitutes "authoritarianism". She mentions Jeremy Corbyn as a far-left authoritarian, which rather confused me and left me a little wary of taking the book at face value.

Applebaum mostly focuses on Europe and US, which felt incomplete. She mentions Brazil, South Africa, India, and Philippines, which to me, are more interesting to explore. But she did not elaborate on the politics of these countries, a major minus point in the context of the book's theme. I would also be interested to see how alt-right plays out in Islamic countries with a history of authoritarianism, considering that Islamophobia is the main manifestation of bigotry in almost all other countries. But the author does not even mention the issue.

One might feel hopeless after reading this book, and it is definitely not meant for a bed-time read. But Applebaum does leave us with positive thoughts: mainly that it's possible for this madness to be defeated, especially in the wake of COVID-19.
Profile Image for Fay.
16 reviews2 followers
January 3, 2021
At a certain point you can only know and have been friends with so many white supremacists before it becomes an indictment on your character and you don’t get to be bewildered by their views. I am so fucking tired of “traditional conservatives” who promoted policies that furthered inequities acting like Republicans (or conservatives writ-large/globally) suddenly being shocked by the rise of out-and-out white supremacy from their ranks. The alt-right is not a deviation from conservatism, it is the natural end game of a party that has harbored, bred, and enabled insidious white supremacy and is now acting like they’ve had their head in the sand for the past thirty years.

The author goes to great lengths to constantly qualify that authoritarianism can come from the left as well as the right and draws false equivalencies between “so-called ‘cancel culture’ on the Internet, the extremism that sometimes flares up on university campuses, the exaggerated claims of those who practice identity politics” and the alt-right. Besides the fact that it’s fucked up to refer to people “practicing identity” politics and that cancel culture is not a real thing but is actually just people facing consequences for their actions, there is no world where you can in good faith compare white supremacists in positions of power to the occasional leftist Twitter troll. White supremacists are killing people, they are in positions of power, they are a growing national security threat, and instead of really digging into any of that she talks about THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND BLOWING THEMESLVES UP IN THE 70s?!?

A lot of the book centers around how many important people the author knows, and trying to separate herself from those she knows who have grown less and less grounded in reality, and while she many not be completely delusional or wholesale bought into conspiracy theories, she’s also clearly living in a very privileged world. One where she thinks that the “western world” does not see “shortages of bread,” where deprivation means no internet (also worth examining the assumption that internet is a luxury and not a public utility, especially during a pandemic where internet has become the default method of communication). There are people going hungry in the United States right now, the majority of Americans don’t have enough in savings to cover a $400 emergency, we are not doing fine, and her intentional unwillingness to acknowledge or understand that is dangerous and delusional in its own right.

The author refers to those who bear issue with American Exceptionalism as people with a “Dislike of America,” which feels similar to those saying Nikole Hannah-Jones hates America for holding America to account. But her refusal to understand why American Exceptionalism is hypocritical and why people bear issue with it feels super rooted in her experience as a white American who believes in American Exceptionalism, and one who has only been forced to reckon with her country’s actions within the past five years and assumes that America’s questions around “How is a nation defined? Who gets to define it? Who are we?” were only called into question when Trump took office, and not questions we've been grappling with since our founding.

The book starts off super strong in that she dispels the myth that the people backing up authoritarians are the poor/disregarded/working-class (read: white) Middle Americans, they’re wealthy, privileged people, who have no excuse. But instead of digging into this she deflects, calls racist nationalism “racial,” and throws around the term “elite” which feels dog-whistle-y without really examining it. This book sucks and it makes me think so much less of Obama for liking it.
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,735 reviews2,337 followers
January 31, 2023
This small book is a departure for Applebaum, both in size and tone.

Applebaum is known for her historical doorstoppers like the Pulitzer Prize-winning (and outstanding) Gulag, but this one takes a more personal and anecdotal tone, relating her own experiences with loss of friends and colleagues due to political divides, attacks by the media, the rise of nationalism, conspiracy theories. The book also jumps into a survey look at the last 10-15 years of autocratic/authoritarian leanings in the countries she has lived in and worked in: Poland, UK, and the US.

Cursory glances at some other nation-states currently or recently embracing autocratic leaders/PMs and presidents like India, Philippines, Brazil, and Hungary.

Was spurred to pick this up after the early January 2023 protests and storming of the capital in Brazil.

A welcome change-up in tone from Applebaum, it felt more like a series of articles in The Atlantic. Not a bad thing, but quite different if you're expecting the level of detail and research she puts into her histories.
Profile Image for Ewa (humanizmowo).
532 reviews89 followers
July 24, 2022
Nie jest to ani dobra, ani zła książka. Dużo faktografii, ale zarówno dużo subiektywizmu. Mam wrażenie, że momentami autorka starała się usprawiedliwić czyny swoje i męża.
Profile Image for Martin Henson.
110 reviews9 followers
September 1, 2020
There is no doubt that Anne Applebaum can write - this long essay on the rise of contemporary authoritarianism is informed by Applebaum's close involvement with important players in several countries, including Poland, Hungary, the UK, and the US. This turns out to be both a strength and a weakness of the book.

Like Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, Twilight of Democracy is bookended by parties that capture evolving social and political dynamics. In Our Mutual Friend it is changing attitudes towards class and social hierarchy that are explored - and, at the end, it falls to Mr Tremlow to speak up against the prevailing snobberies, and we see him aligning with Mortimer Lightfoot (in the wonderful BBC adaptation, looking out over the Thames with cigars and whisky). By such small shifts do social changes occur. Applebaum's parties track centrifugal changes in what appeared to be "moderate" right wing attitudes that later lurched towards the outright authoritarian (and her circle's realignment with some of the "moderate" left - in those attending the party recorded at the end of the essay).

What follows the millennium party that begins the book is a compelling and fascinating exposition of the rise of authoritarian politics and tactics across a number of countries - differing in degree and extent - by someone with direct personal knowledge of many of the key players. For those of us in the UK, the descriptions of Boris Johnson - from someone who has known him - as a lazy narcissist come as no surprise, but are nonetheless compelling reading. The description of the hideous Bullingdon Club's members as ironists is not explored sufficiently, however. So, some ex-members are now embarrassed (but in what way?) and - evidently - Johnson and Applebaum's own husband view it as "an extended joke" (p. 61). Sometimes irony is the excuse bad behaviour makes for ... bad behaviour - it is not in the least bit funny. Clearly, from all we know about Johnson, his modus operandi is entirely based on a deep lack of seriousness for the serious. But I digress.

Unfortunately, Applebaum's close connections and personal politics weaken the book. This mostly concerns the extent to which she tries to diagnose the seductive lure of authoritarianism. There is a useful and worthwhile regference to Boym's The Future of Nostalgia (p. 73) with its contrast between reflective and restorative nostalgia, the latter being a myth-making of the past, in this case for political ends. It is somewhat related to Snyder's concept of the politics of inevitability (The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America). But this kind of nostalgia is a symptom and technique of authoritarianism rather than explanatory, we are still left asking why it is so successful.

There is also discussion of an authoritarian disposition identified with simple-mindedness - a reaction to complexity and division (p. 106, reflecting on the work of Karen Stenner). But again, it is not entirely clear that complexity is radically different from other times that have not seen an authoritarian turn. She discusses immigration, inequality, and wage decline - acknowledging the issues but without concluding that these are clearly the triggers (pp. 106 - 109). She is rather more persuaded by the changes in communication, leading to divisiveness and hyper-partisanship, as leading to terminal distrust of establishment politics (e.g. p. 114), as significant. Here she is in good company - but it is hardly a novel observation that social media has offered a whole host of opportunities for manipulation, and by a whole range of actors.

However, fundamentally, she is speaking from what she sees - nostalgically one might say - from a more "reasonable" past of Thatcherite free-market liberals (or pro-rule-of-law [who is actually against rule of law?] pro-market centre rightists). In some sense paternalistic but also libertarian to large extent. But those years from the mid-70s, through the Reagan-Thatcher consensus, to the present day was a Hayek-ian revolution of neoliberalizaton (a word that does not appear in this book). This turned out to be not simply an technocratic approach to running an economy but a fully fledged social philosophy (one explored in detail, for example, in the work of Wendy Brown (e.g. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution and In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West). In this book, however, these notions of what Applebaum calls the "centre right" are not described in detail but feel almost cuddly. For others, this period has been an unmitigated disaster, and one which is also being explored diagnostically as an explanation for the rise of authoritarianism.

Similarly, Applebaum uses the term far left, freely with essentially nothing to support it beyond its scary self. The examples of the left she gives are largely references to history rather than to the present, and to its undemocratic history at that. What is entirely missing here is any proper engagement with the current left in relation to the rise of authoritarianism. To be sure, there is and has been an anti-democratic and authoritarian left - but to be "centre right" (in Applebaum's cuddly sense) is not a place of refuge from which it is easy or even really possible to, on the one hand, well-document the rise of the authoritarian right, and on the other make passing references to the "far left" (the only party mentioned by name is Podemos, though there is implicit reference to Syriza. There is also mention of the UK's Labour Party as far-leftist). As a centre-rightist one is hardly obliged to agree with their politics - but it is unreasonable to treat them as some unfulfilled alternative to the ascendent antidemocratic authoritarian far right. No doubt Applebaum would see DiEM25 as far left too - but, seriously, antidemocratic with authoritarian tendencies?

Overall, a compelling description - because she was able to write this from the inside track in several countries. But as an analysis: no.
Profile Image for Anthony Ruta.
147 reviews45 followers
January 15, 2021
A Very Disappointing Read.

I thought this book was going to be about democracy and how it has lost it's grip on the world. I was looking forward to some deep analysis of the trends of the governments in these recent times in a neutral political perspective. Instead she decided to write -more like an article for the magazine - about how her political view was the only view that was anti-authoritarian accompanied with lots of name dropping.
Her analysis is so shallow and she doesn't really say much new that hasn't already been said countless times.
Profile Image for Bob.
1,924 reviews628 followers
August 9, 2020
Summary: An extended essay considering the shift to authoritarian leaders in Europe and the United States, analyzing both why such leaders are attractive, and the strategies they used to gain power.

Anne Applebaum's book might be subtitled, "The Tale of Two Parties." It is bookended with a party in 1999, and one in 2019. Many on the guest list of the first would not be on the second, or even on speaking terms with the author. Applebaum is a center-right neo-conservative, married to Radek Sikorski, a Polish politician. For much of her career she has written award-winning books documenting Soviet-style totalitarianism. The time of 1999 was a heady one, with former eastern bloc countries embracing Western style liberal democratic ideals (at least to some degree).

The book begins with Applebaum describing the fate of three of those on the list, one who had drawn close to Poland's Law and Justice party leader and would no longer speak to her, another who had become an internet troll, amplifying American alt-right proponents, while a third had become engrossed in conspiracy theories. Throughout the book, Applebaum moves between trying to understand what has happened to her friends, and what is happening in a number of European countries, from Poland and Hungary, to England and the United States, where shifts have occurred to authoritarian ideas and leaders.

She explores how contemporary movements differ from fascism and Communism. Instead of the "Big Lie," these leaders use the Medium-Size Lie designed to play on fears and offer simple explanations for complex realities--immigration explains economic woes and crime, for example. Sometimes it is a conspiracy, for example "the deep state," when in fact the real conspiracy lies with the networks of people fomenting these ideas. She describes how this works for example in Viktor Orban's Hungary, where all of Hungary's woes can be attributed to non-existent Syrian refugees (to whom Hungary never opened their borders) and George Soros, whose conspiratorially funded the immigrant hordes. All of this buttresses a corrupt, self-serving government where power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of its leader. Chillingly, Applebaum observes that studies show roughly one-third of the people in most societies to be susceptible to authoritarian leaders, particularly in times of upheaval.

She discusses the appeal of nostalgia, the longing for some idealized past when those appealed to dominated the culture as an alternative to the pluralistic, multi-ethnic cultural landscapes that increasingly characterize both Europe and the United States. She describes how Boris Johnson leveraged this nostalgia in the run-up to Brexit, even though the English had led the initiative forming the European Union. Particularly dangerous, she believes, are the "restorative nostalgics" whose "memory" of the past is often selective, and whose vision for restoration reflects those gaps in an idealized version of the past.

She portrays the manipulation of digital media streams to promote the narrative, including the characterization of established media as "fake" and part of the "conspiracy." She writes:

   This new information world also provides a new set of tools and tactics that another generation of clercs can use to reach people who want simple language, powerful symbols, clear identities. There is no need, nowadays, to form a street movement in order to appeal to those of an authoritarian predisposition. You can construct one in an office building, sitting in front of a computer. You can test messages and gauge the response. You can set up targeted advertising campaigns. You can build groups of fans on WhatsApp or Telegram. You can cherry-pick the themes of the past that suit the present and tailor them to particular audiences. You can invent memes, create videos, conjure up slogans designed to appeal precisely to the fear and anger caused by this massive international wave of cacophony. You can even start the cacophony and create the chaos yourself, knowing full well that some people will be frightened by it. (117-118)

She describes the shift she saw in once-friend Laura Ingraham. I think one of the most important insights she offers here is the increasing concern Ingraham, and others like Pat Buchanan have over the evidence of American moral decline, of various forms of extremism from "cancel culture" to overreach into religious communities breaching First Amendment protections that have led her and others to conclude that these cannot be fought by "politics as usual" but require more extreme measures and justify "undemocratic" means.

I wish Applebaum would have done more with what I thought a perceptive observation. I know people like those Applebaum describes, and one thing that is overlooked is that most of these feel that figures like our current President are the first to take them seriously. Many of these people live in America's heartland. They probably are more religious. Most work hard and pay their taxes. And they feel patronized by many politicians, overlooked, treated as part of "flyover" country. Like Laura Ingraham, they also feel they are witnessing a "twilight of democracy."

While I am deeply sympathetic to Applebaum's concerns about authoritarianism, all her talks about toney parties with fellow refugees from the neo-con movement don't really address the concerns of the time adequately. She concludes by addressing some vague hope in the cycles of history to right things, which seems to me a hope that, after a time, the "right" people will regain power. My observation is that we are in the midst of more and more violent pendulum swings, with winners and losers becoming increasingly energized against one another. What I do agree on with Applebaum is that democracies are not indestructible. Might it be that recognizing our common care about the future of democracy may be a starting point for a different kind of political conversation? Might it be that this common, and urgent concern could bring people together from across the political spectrum who all perceive the abyss toward which we are hurtling? I cannot help but think that this next decade may be decisive in many ways for our country--and for humankind. Will the twilight we are in give way to night--or a new dawn?
Profile Image for Maćkowy .
322 reviews84 followers
December 28, 2021
Zmierzch demokracji to bardziej reportaż lub wspomnienia, niż dogłębna analiza polityczna. Anne Applebaum poprzez przedstawienie sylwetek piewców populistycznych "ideałów", a prywatnie jej niegdysiejszych znajomych i przyjaciół, opisuje drogę od demokracji do domniemanego autorytaryzmu. Dostaje się (jak najbardziej słusznie) Jackowi Kurskiemu, Marii Schmidt (głównemu ideologowi Orbana), Laurze Ingraham (prezenterce telewizji FOX), Borisowi Johnsonowi, czy liderowi hiszpańskiej populistycznej partii VOX. Dziennikarka opisuje drogę wyżej wymienionych od konserwatyzmu do populizmu, opartego na polaryzacji i zastraszaniu społeczeństwa domniemanymi zagrożeniami takimi jak migracja, LGBT, aborcja i tak dalej, każdy w Polsce to zna. Tezy dziennikarki chociaż jak najbardziej słuszne, wydają mi się lekko spóźnione, czytelnik chociaż w stopniu minimalnym zainteresowany otaczającym go światem, nie dowie się ze Zmierzchu niczego nowego, zaś sama Appelbaum jest dla mnie zbyt amerykocentryczna w swoich poglądach, z uwielbieniem dla Regana i neoliberalizmu, przy jednoczesnej krytyce skierowanej w Chomsky'ego i Zinna (tego od ludowej historii Stanów Zjednoczonych), nie ma to wpływu na ogólną ocenę książki - jej praca, jej poglądy, co nie zmienia faktu, że książka lekko przeterminowana i właściwie dla nikogo.

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