Anne Applebaum can look at the wreck of democratic politics and understand it with a completeness few contemporary writers can match. When she asks who sent Britain into the unending Brexit crisis, or inflicted the Trump administration on America, or turned Poland and Hungary into one-party states, she does not need to search press cuttings. Her friends did it, she replies. Or, rather, her former friends. For if they are now embarrassed to have once known her, the feeling is reciprocated.
Applebaum’s latest book, Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends, opens with a scene a novelist could steal. On 31 December 1999, Applebaum and her husband, Radosław Sikorski, a minister in Poland’s then centre-right government, threw a party. It was a Millennium Eve housewarming for a manor house in the western Poland they had helped rebuild from ruins. The company of Poles, Brits, Americans and Russians could say that they had rebuilt a ruined world. Unlike the bulk of the left of the age, they had stood up against the Soviet empire and played a part in the fall of a cruel and suffocating tyranny. They had supported free markets, free elections, the rule of law and democracies sticking together in the EU and Nato, because these causes – surely – were the best ways for nations to help their people lead better lives as they faced Russian and Chinese power, Islamism and climate change.
They were young and happy. History’s winners. “At about three in the morning,” Applebaum recalls, “one of the wackier Polish guests pulled a pistol from her handbag and shot blanks into the air out of sheer exuberance.”
Applebaum was at the centre of the overlapping circles of guests. For the Americans, she was a child of the Republican establishment. Her father was a lawyer in Washington DC and she was educated at Yale and Oxford universities. Now her Republican friends are divided between a principled minority, who know that defeating Trump is the only way to save the American constitution, and the rest, who have, to use a word she repeats often, “collaborated” as surely as the east Europeans she studied as a historian collaborated with the invading Soviet forces after 1945.
Even when she was young, you could see the signs of the inquiring spirit that has made her a great historian. She went to work as a freelance journalist in eastern Europe while it was still under Soviet occupation and too drab and secretive a posting for most young reporters. She then made a standard career move and joined the Economist. But it was too dull for her liking and she moved to the Spectator in the early 1990s. The dilettante style of English conservatism charmed her. “These people don’t take themselves seriously and could never do serious harm,” she thought, as she watched Simon Heffer and his colleagues compete to see who could deliver the best Enoch Powell impersonation. She came to know the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton and Margaret Thatcher’s speechwriter John O’Sullivan, figures taken with unwarranted seriousness at the time. They had helped east European dissidents struggling against Soviet power in the 1980s and appeared to believe in democracy. Why would she doubt it? How could she foresee that Scruton and O’Sullivan would one day accept honours from Viktor Orbán, as he established a dictatorship in Hungary, whose rigged elections and state-controlled judiciary and media are now not so far away from the communists’ one-party state.
What was life in the English right like then, I asked in a call to her Polish lockdown in that restored manor house in the countryside between Warsaw and the German border. “It was fun,” she said.
It isn’t now.
Her husband knew Boris Johnson. They were both members of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford. She assumed that he was as much a liberal internationalist as Sikorski was. When the couple met Johnson for dinner in 2014, she noted his laziness and “all-consuming narcissism”, as well as the undoubted charisma that was to seduce and then ruin his country. In those days, Johnson appeared friendly. He was alarmed by the global challenge to democracy, he told them, and wanted to defend “the culture of freedom and openness and tolerance”. They asked about Europe. “No one serious wants to leave the EU,” he replied, which was true enough as Johnson was to prove when he came out for Brexit.
As for the Poles at the party, they knew Applebaum as a friend who had co-authored a Polish cookbook, and published histories of communism, which never forgot its victims.
Today she is a heretical figure across the right in Europe and America. Many of her guests would damage their careers if they admitted to their new masters they had once broken bread at her table.
Heretics make the best writers. They understand a movement better than outsiders, and can relate its faults because they have seen them close up. Religions can tolerate pagans. They are mere unbelievers who have never known the way, the truth and the light. The heretic has the advantages of the inside trader. She can use her knowledge to expose and betray the faithful. One question always hangs in the air, however: who is betraying whom? Although Applebaum has left the right, and stopped voting Conservative in Britain in 2015 and Republican in the US in 2008, she can make a convincing case that the right betrayed her.
In person, Applebaum combines intense concentration with an exuberant delight in human folly. You can be in the middle of a deadly serious conversation and suddenly she will break into a grin as the memory of a politician’s hypocrisy or an incomprehensible stupidity hits her. As the western crisis has deepened, the intensity has come to dominate her writing as she provides urgently needed insights.
You can read thousands of discussions of the “root causes” of what we insipidly call “populism”. The academic studies aren’t all wrong, although too many are suspiciously partial. The left says austerity and inequality caused Brexit and Trump, proving they had always been right to oppose austerity and inequality. The right blames woke politics and excessive immigration, and again you can hear the self-satisfaction in the explanation.
Applebaum offers an overdue corrective. She knows the personal behind the political. She understands that the nationalist counter-revolution did not just happen. Politicians hungry for office, plutocrats wanting the world to obey their commands, second-rate journalists sniffing a chance of recognition after years of obscurity, and Twitter mob-raisers and fake news fraudsters, who find a sadist’s pleasure in humiliating their opponents, propelled causes that would satisfy them.
Applebaum let out a snort that must have been heard for miles around her Polish home when I mentioned the journalist and author David Goodhart’s pro-Brexit formulation that we are living through an uprising by the “people from somewhere” against the “people from nowhere” – a modern variant on the old communist condemnations of “rootless cosmopolitans”, incidentally. It’s a war of one part of the elite against another part of the elite, she says. Brexit was an elite project. “The game was to get everyone to go along with it”. Were all the southern Tories who voted for it a part of the oppressed masses? “And who do you think funded the campaign?”
She is as wary of the commonplace view that supporters of Trump, say, are conformists, who have been brainwashed online or by Fox News. They may be now in some part, but brainwashing does not explain how populist movements begin. Their leaders weren’t from small towns full of abandoned shops and drug-ridden streets. They were metropolitans, with degrees from Oxford in the case of Johnson and Dominic Cummings. The men and women Applebaum knew were not loyal drones but filled with a dark restlessness. They may pose as the tribunes of the common people now but they were members of the intellectual and educated elite willing to launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite.
Populist activists are outsiders only in that they feel insufficiently rewarded. And their opponents should never underestimate what their self-pitying vanity can make them do.
One of Applebaum’s closest Polish friends, the godmother of one of her children, and a guest at the 1999 party, provided her with the most striking example. She moved from being a comfortable but obscure figure to become a celebrated Warsaw hostess and a confidante to Poland’s new rulers. She signalled her break and opened her prospects for advancement with a call to Applebaum within days of the Smolensk air crash of April 2010. She let her know she was adopting a conspiracy theory that would make future friendship impossible.
Outsiders need to take a deep breath before trying to understand it. Among the dead was Lech Kaczyński, the president of Poland, who controlled the rightwing populist party Law and Justice with his twin brother, Jarosław Kaczyński. The party has grown to dominate Polish politics, and the supposedly independent courts, media and civil service. The flight recorder showed that the pilot had come in too low in thick fog, and that was an end to it. Jarosław Kaczyński and his underlings insist that the Russians were behind the crash, or that political rivals in Warsaw, including Applebaum’s husband, allowed the president to fly in a faulty plane, or that it was an assassination. Repeating the lie was the price of admission to Law and Justice’s ruling circles and the public sector jobs they controlled. As Applebaum noted in the Atlantic magazine: “Sometimes the point isn’t to make people believe a lie – it’s to make people fear the liar.” Acknowledge the liar’s power, and your career takes off without the need to pass exams or to display an elementary level of competence.
Other friends from the party showed their fealty to the new order by promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories. The darker their fantasies became, the more airtime Polish state broadcasters gave them. “They had not suffered or been ‘left behind’ in any way,” Applebaum says. Yet they happily worked for propaganda sites that targeted her family. Because she is married to a political opponent of Law and Justice, and because she writes critical pieces in the international press, Applebaum, who had faced no racism in Poland until Law and Justice came to power, was turned by the regime’s creatures into the clandestine Jewish coordinator of “anti-Polish activity”.
I once believed you should never let politics destroy a friendship. But that maxim depends on politics not turning into a danger to you and those you love. Applebaum could not stay friends with women who would not protest as the state they supported went for her and husband.
The Anglo-Saxon world is not so different from Poland and Hungary. Britain has handled Covid-19 so disastrously because only servile nobodies, willing to pretend that a no-deal Brexit would not harm the country, could gain admittance to Boris Johnson’s cabinet. As Johnson politicises the public sector, showing “fear of the liar” looks like becoming the best way to secure a job in the higher ranks of the civil service as well. American Republicans have had to go along with every lie Trump has told since his birther slur on Barack Obama. As for breaking friendships, British Jews broke theirs when they watched friends in Labour cheer on Jeremy Corbyn and thought: “If they ever came for me and my family, you would stand by, wouldn’t you?”
Careerism is too glib an explanation for selling out, and Applebaum is too good a historian to offer it. Likewise, bigotry and racial prejudice were never enough on their own to move her friends away from liberal democracy. Among Applebaum’s acquaintances is one of Orbán’s greatest cheerleaders. She has a gay son, but that has not stopped her espousing the cause of a homophobic regime. Laura Ingraham, a Fox News presenter, became one of the earliest supporters of Trump, despite the fact that she has adopted three immigrant children.
Rather than grab at standard explanations, Applebaum understands that a society based on merit may sound fine if you want to live in a country run by talented people. But what if you are not yourself talented? Since the 1950s, criticisms of meritocracy have become so commonplace they have passed into cliche. Not one I have read or indeed written stops to consider how one-party states represent the anti-meritocratic society in its purest form. Among her friends who became the servants of authoritarian movements, Applebaum sees the consequences of the lust for status among resentful men and women, who believe the old world never gave them their due.
They were privileged by normal standards but nowhere near as privileged as they expected to be. Talking to Applebaum, I imagined a British government abolishing press freedom and the independence of the judiciary and the civil service. I didn’t doubt for a moment that there would be thousands of mediocre journalists, broadcasters, lawyers and administrators who would happily work for the new regime if it pandered to their vanity by giving them the jobs they could never have taken on merit. Hannah Arendt wrote of the communists and fascists that they replaced “first-rate talents” with “crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity” was the best guarantee of their loyalty. She might have been talking about contemporary Poland, Britain and America.
“Given the right conditions any society can turn against democracy,” Applebaum says, and explains why better than any modern writer I know. To the political consequences of offended vanity – Why am I not more important? Why does the BBC never call? – a sense of despair is vital. If you believe, like the American right, that godless enemies want to destroy your Christian country, and prove their malice by not giving you the rewards you deserve, or think, like Scruton and the Telegraph crowd of the 1990s, that English culture and history is being thrown in the bin, and you are being chucked away with it, or agree with the supporters of the new tyrants of eastern Europe that a liberal elite is plotting to extinguish your culture by importing Muslim immigrants, and proving its contempt for all that is decent by laughing at you, then any swine will do as long as the swine can stop it. You will pay any price and abandon any principle in the struggle against a demonic enemy.
Shouldn’t she have seen it coming, I ask her. Shouldn’t she have realised that the world she inhabited included authoritarians, who would turn on her and everything she believed in. Typically, instead of huffing, puffing, and trying to pretend she has never been in the wrong, she laughs and admits that she probably should have asked harder questions sooner of her former friends.
Readers should be glad she bided her time. Applebaum can bring a candle into the darkness of the populist right precisely because she stayed on the right for so long. She does not know whether it can be beaten. She’s a journalist not a soothsayer. But I know that if you want to fight it, her writing is an arsenal that stores the sharpest weapons to hand.
Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends is published on 21 July by Allen Lane (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
The post Anne Applebaum: how my old friends paved the way for Trump and Brexit appeared first on The Guardian.