America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    Book Reviews

Another Betrayal of the Intellectuals

A historian charts the evolution of her own center-right liberalism.

Jonathan D. Teubner

Members of a far right group march in Poland, 2019; Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News.

For the better part of a century, Berlin has been a misplaced city. Sitting only about fifty miles from the Polish border, it was an island in the middle of the German Democratic Republic during the Cold War. To some extent, it still is. The German Hauptstadt, run by and, to a large extent, for the elites, is in the middle of the state of Brandenburg, which has struggled to keep pace with frenetic Berlin. Berliners are likely to know something about life in Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt, and the cities clustered along the shores of the Rhine; but if you ask them about Brandenburg, they are likely to shrug, knowing next to nothing about life there.

Berlin is a city of young creatives and old careerists—the perfect blend for the global capitalism of the early twenty-first century. It is not surprising, then, that Germany’s greatest city has seen steady growth for most of the years since the reunification of the country’s two halves in 1990. Brandenburg, on the other hand, though it has done better than many other “eastern” regions, has failed to achieve Berlin-type growth, thus setting up what might have been a perfect storm of envy, resentment, and revenge. Our populist narratives, often driven by a kind of economic determinism, would suggest that the haves of Berlin and the have-nots of Brandenburg would clash. Yet there has been very little populist animosity aimed at the citadel of Berlin from the fields of Brandenburg. But why is this? Why do such divisions spark revolt in some regions, while in others, people, well, get on with it? Why do some democracies seem fragile, teetering on the edge of collapse, while others appear robust even in the midst of the unprecedented challenges of widespread disease, joblessness, and general discontent?

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism is an attempt to answer such questions. In a six-chapter journey of privilege and loss, Anne Applebaum takes us into the intensely personal breakup of the anticommunist center-right in Europe, England, and the United States. From the euphoria of early post–Cold War Europe to the recent populist or “authoritarian” uprisings in Poland and Hungary, and the related movements in Brexit-bound Britain and Donald Trump’s United States, Applebaum weaves anecdotes through each chapter as she tells of friends lost to the authoritarian enticements referred to in her book’s subtitle. The result is a social history of the new “conservative” elites that have emerged in Poland, Hungary, Britain, Spain, and, of course, the United States.

A journalist and Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, she has lived in Poland irregularly since 1988, as well as London and Washington, making as many friends as she has lost along the way. It’s the friends she lost who drive the narrative of Twilight of Democracy. She reads her former traveling partners in the anticommunist right as characters in Julien Benda’s La Trahison des clercs, a famous 1927 broadside flaying the intellectual and cultural elites who “betrayed” France in the early twentieth century, notably during the Dreyfus Affair. By tracing their routes into authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary, in particular, Applebaum informs, in a sense, on her former friends: Who are they, how do they operate, how do they feel about their work, how do they communicate with each other and their followers, what relationship do they have with American political actors, and what does she recommend for further action?

Probing her memories, Applebaum gives hints of her own brand of center-right liberalism, one that is marked by the sting of betrayal and, in her occasional encounters with erstwhile friends, intimations that she views them as simpleminded or driven by selfish ambition. Reading between the lines, one comes away with the sense that the betrayal goes both ways: Her friends feel just as betrayed by her liberal conservatism as she does by their revanchism. Applebaum’s is an account of passions coursing through friendships over time, of resentment, revenge, and envy.

The book opens on December 31, 1999, in rural Poland, where Applebaum and her husband, the Polish journalist and politician Radosław Sikorski, are throwing a New Year’s Eve party. Amid the reportage of various tantalizing but vague details, we are introduced to a series of nameless characters, most of whom bonded together in the Polish political “right”: those who identified as both conservative and anticommunist. All are equally well educated, speak multiple foreign languages, and live in big, thriving cities, often traveling to other global hubs. Fast-forward two decades, and many of those revelers are no longer on speaking terms. At one point, Applebaum confesses that she would even cross the street to avoid some of the people who had been at her party. The question that situated Applebaum and her onetime friends on either side of a sharp divide was that of the nation’s cultural boundaries: How are they defined? How should they be defined? Who gets to define them? In short, she and they found themselves at odds over the simple but nevertheless challenging question, “Who are we?”

There are, in fact, multiple “we’s in this book—the “we” of the nation, the “we” of intellectual and political elites, the “we” of the postcommunist generation of conservatives. For Applebaum, the recent struggles over the specific boundaries of the national “we” emerge from the ways in which her circle of anticommunist conservatives accommodated themselves to the new realities of central European democracies. In the heady days following the collapse of communism, most of those in her circle were directly involved with building “western” institutions—freedom of the press, the rule of law, international collaboration—often finding themselves employed as journalists by center-right magazines or as aides to the politicians they and those of like mind lionized: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, of course, but also the Polish dissident-turned-president Lech Walesa. But the tensions between conservatism’s inclination to preserve national culture and anticommunism’s definitional tendency toward economic liberalization were always latent, and over the course of the last two decades, tensions became fissures and then unbridgeable chasms.

The most notorious example of conservativism’s breakup is Poland’s Law and Justice party. Initially a center-right party not unlike Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which has steadily led Germany for most of the last two decades, Law and Justice has migrated toward the far right. The galvanizing event was the plane crash that killed Polish president Lech Kaczyński in April 2010. Kaczyński was en route to Smolensk, Russia, for an event to commemorate the Katyn Massacre (the mass execution in 1940 of more than 21,000 interned Polish soldiers at the direction of Joseph Stalin), and was planning to use the occasion to launch his reelection campaign. The aircraft attempted a landing in thick fog in Smolensk, which did not have a proper airport, just a tree-lined runway. In addition to the president and his wife, dozens of senior military officials and politicians died in the accident.

The Smolensk disaster was Poland’s 9/11. As in the United States, there was an initial outpouring of emotion. In Poland’s case, national mourning quickly gave way to conspiracy theories. While the recovered black box told a story of pilot error that was likely brought on by a politician’s earnest desire for punctuality, Kaczyński’s identical-twin brother, Jarosław, who was also the leader of Law and Justice, searched for other explanations. Jarosław Kaczyński began pushing what became known as the “Smolensk Conspiracy,” at times implying that the Russian government had downed the plane and at others blaming the left-of-center party that had formerly ruled Poland. None of this was true, but it didn’t need to be. Having decided to run for president in his late brother’s stead, Jarosław Kaczyński won the election handily. Within weeks, there was evidence that Law and Justice was undermining the courts and public media.

Like Donald Trump pushing the suggestion that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, the surviving Kaczyński brother knew the truth of the matter. But unlike the European institutions that were wagging their fingers at his party’s human-rights abuses, Kaczyński knew the value of the “Medium-Sized Lie,” a term Applebaum borrows from the historian Timothy Snyder. As opposed to the “Big Lie” that proclaims that “black is white, war is peace, and that state farms have achieved 1000 percent of their planned production,” the Medium-Sized Lie doesn’t require violence or terror police for reinforcement. It stops short of any obvious conflict with everyday reality. But as Applebaum notes, such lies set the moral groundwork for other lies, some of greater consequence. In the cases of Poland and Hungary, Medium-Sized Lies have opened the door to formerly off-limits tropes such as the international Jewish conspiracy, as well as the less sinister though no less powerful supposition that western Europe is betraying its historical Christian cultural identity.

Applebaum argues that running through these conspiracies and anxieties are two types of nostalgia that, intermingling, produce an affective environment that blurs the lines between the elegiac mourning of death and the hopeful expectation of rebirth. “Reflective” and “restorative” nostalgia, as she classifies them, are often practiced by different types of clercs, the reflective variant being a construct of the intellectual, the restorative an instrument of the politician. With this insight, Applebaum turns her attention to “western” European cases, arguing that the lure of authoritarianism is not just some “eastern” quirk left over from the communist days. Just as Poland and Hungary search for stories about their culture that honor the dead and empower the living, more-established democracies such as the United Kingdom seek ways to understand their changing place in the world. Always at odds with its European identity, Britain (particularly England) was ultimately unsatisfied with its postimperial role as powerful insider in a new kind of empire—the consensus-driven consultative institutions of the European Union that reach into each nation-state’s regulatory structure. No less inclined to conspiracy thinking than anyone else, the English mourned their loss of historical identity and sought something to blame, converging on dissatisfaction with the ill-conceived and poorly managed EU institutions and regulations.

Applebaum guides us through the dimly lit corridors of the Berlaymont and Westminster, the seats of power in Brussels and London, respectively. Her muse and, or rather jester, is the current British prime minister, Boris Johnson, who burnished his conservative reputation by mocking the EU and its besetting attraction to new rules, regulations, and policy guidance. Often stretching the truth, and occasionally manufacturing evidence and quotations, Johnson gave voice to a powerful undercurrent in England: Who are the Brussels “Eurocrats” to dictate to the mighty British how big our pillows should be? Not quite a Medium-Sized Lie, Johnson’s mockery of the EU channeled England’s latent nationalism. Riding the thin line between irony and cynicism, Johnson’s jibes made for jocular dinner banter among reflective nostalgics and resentful stump speeches among restorative nostalgics. Together, reflective and restorative nostalgia, expressed respectively by conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s elegies for English culture and ultranationalist Nigel Farage’s barnstorming anti-EU campaigns, created a powerful rhetorical environment in which an audacious policy would become law.

As a campaign, Brexit was a smashing success. American and British conservatives and their observers in the media often combine it with Trump’s equally shocking election as a single populist revolt against cosmopolitan elites. But for Applebaum’s clercs, the new conservative movement is multilingual: It speaks Polish and Hungarian just as well as English. Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary since 2010, is especially inspirational to some for the simple reason that he is successful. Like his populist confreres in Poland, Orbán has increasingly brought judiciary, media, and cultural institutions under direct political control, eliciting cries of panic both inside and outside Hungary. Orbán has made George Soros a scapegoat for many of Hungary’s supposed problems, blaming him in particular for mass immigration that never actually materialized but whose evocation nonetheless frightened many Hungarians. Gone are the days when a nationalist party had no interest in what was going on beyond its borders. Symposiums, secret and public, provide today’s ultranationalists from various countries opportunities for “knowledge shares” and “practitioner exchanges,” as Europeans call them. For the first time, nationalism is a kind of globalism.

About halfway through Applebaum’s book, one senses that she is in effect describing a kind of “Conservative International.” With syndicates in Warsaw, Budapest, London, Madrid, Washington, and other points around the globe, Appelbaum’s Con-Intern seems at times to be stretched a little thin. There are indeed contact points between Orbán and Trump, between Johnson and Kaczyński. But there are also important differences. Neither English nor American populism is yet truly authoritarian. The very fact that English nostalgia is still just as much reflective as it is restorative suggests that Johnson and his populist-inclined Conservative Party are, at the moment, not equivalent to Orbán’s Fidesz and Kaczyński’s Law and Justice. Trump is, of course, a slightly more disconcerting case. While he has been able to fund pet projects without congressional approval and repurpose existing appropriations, Trump’s most unsettling suggestions have not come to fruition. But the potential or motive is certainly there. We will in the coming years likely learn more about his crass self-dealing, but for the moment Trump is not obviously an American Orbán. However, the effect Trump has had on American political culture more generally is far more worrisome: Will future presidents or members of Congress consider it acceptable to use their public office first and foremost for personal gain?

In her penultimate chapter on the fracturing of the American conservative movement, Applebaum tracks the rise of Fox News host Laura Ingraham, arguing that the vision of Trump’s “American carnage” was complemented by the work of a range of like-minded clercs who offered an equally dark vision that would top anything the far left ever envisioned for the United States. Applebaum finds Ingraham’s America to be a “dark, nightmarish place where God speaks to only a tiny number of people; where idealism is dead; where civil war and violence are approaching; where democratically elected politicians are no better than foreign dictators and mass murderers; where the ‘elite’ is wallowing in decadence, disarray, death.” According to this vision, centrist bipartisan policies are nothing less than betrayal.

For the better part of the last four decades, Republicans have been at the vanguard of defending the genius of the American constitutional order. Often mythologizing its origins or making some of its grossly immoral compromises seem simply disagreeable, conservatives have worried about flag burning, condemned anti-American sentiment at home and abroad, and shouted down anything that challenged the wisdom of the market. If there were any party that would brook no equivalence with foreign dictatorships or tolerate deference to a Russian president over its own intelligence community, you would think it would be the Republicans. Applebaum gives voice to the largely unspoken desperation of a fading center-right liberalism: How could the Enlightenment’s greatest political project transform into Trump’s grievance politics, on the one hand, and the Democratic Party’s increasingly purist politics, on the other? Is it all just that fragile?

Democracy’s fragility might just be the point of it all. In the final chapter of her book, Applebaum turns to musings of a higher order. There is, for her, no such thing as a permanent solution to the vexations of democracy, no amount of reform or restructuring that will make unnecessary the bothersome task of continual negotiation, of constantly staying alert to the potential failure of our democratic institutions. Whatever elitism or condescension might shade her response to former traveling partners in the anticommunist European right is quietly ushered off stage in the conclusion: Applebaum’s point is not to settle scores, but to warn us that it can happen anywhere, even in Germany. Indeed, it might already be happening in the United States.

In recent years, it has become commonplace for political commentators to wring their hands over the weakness of democratic institutions. But if Applebaum is right, maybe we are just coming to know something essential about democracy: Like human friendships, it is contingent, as easily lost through carelessness as through betrayal.