“It’s not a book about Trump voters, it’s really not,” asserts Anne Applebaum when we speak about her latest work, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (Doubleday, July 21). A historian best known for her trio of definitive works about Soviet communism—Gulag (2003), which won the Pulitzer Prize; Iron Curtain (2012); and Red Famine (2017)—Applebaum here tells a more contemporary and personal story: how politics in the U.S. and around the world developed an anti-democratic streak and how some of the thinkers she knew and fraternized with 20 years ago became apologists for would-be authoritarians. Trump looms large, to be sure, but so do examples from the U.K., Spain, Hungary, and Poland, where Applebaum lives part time with her husband, Radek Sikorski, a Polish journalist and politician. We spoke by Zoom; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The book opens with a party you threw on New Year’s Eve, 1999. What was significant about it?
It was very basic: We had bought a ruined house [in Poland] and restored it, but it was still not finished. The catering was me and my mother-in-law, and people slept on the floor. We had Poles there, some Americans, some British friends, and there was a kind of optimism—it was 1999, people were looking forward to everything getting better.
And when I think about who was there...I would no longer speak to about half the people at the party, and the other half of the party would no longer speak to them, either. [They are] people who found themselves part of the nativist right, mostly as journalists and propagandists for the current Polish government….The book reflects a lot of time spent thinking about, Why did this happen?
You write quite a bit in these pages about conspiracy theories. Why are they significant?
A conspiracy theory is a lie, essentially [what historian Timothy Snyder, in a conversation with me, called] a “medium-size lie.” It’s not an ideology that explains all of the world—it’s not Soviet communism. It’s simply a false story or a false myth that some leaders have sought to get their followers to buy into. The one I describe in the book is a famous one in Poland. There was a plane crash 10 years ago that killed the president of Poland, and it was upsetting for a lot of reasons. But after it happened, his twin brother, who was the head of his own political party, began to spin a series of conspiracy theories about why the crash had happened. They were never very well explained, but the idea was that it had been the fault of the Russians, or it was the fault of the then Polish government, which was a different political party. [It] was a way of creating a sense of unity among his party’s followers.
The other example is one that we in the United States know better, which is the myth of birtherism—the idea that Barack Obama was born in a foreign country and therefore he’s an illegitimate president. Once you have believed that this is true, that Obama is illegitimate and should not be president—or, if you’re Polish, you’ve accepted that your government helped kill your president—then all institutions of the state are therefore suspect. So the creation of that kind of lie is a tool that would-be authoritarian leaders use to get their followers to doubt and distrust existing institutions.
You also discuss the notion of the “clerc” and how they are used to legitimize an authoritarian regime.
I use this term [borrowed from French philosopher Julien Benda] to identify intellectuals who lose their objectivity and who instead seek to use their very real talents and powers in the service of political ideas. It’s an idea that doesn’t fit every single person that I write about, but it fits, for example, Fox News presenter Laura Ingraham. She’s not a friend, but she’s somebody who I’ve met a few times. She’s a very intelligent and very well-educated person, graduate of Dartmouth, she was a top lawyer. She was a [U.S.] Supreme Court clerk. She’s somebody who understands American politics but has chosen to become a kind of propagandist. I mean, she is all in for Donald Trump, and she will defend him no matter what he does, even promoting fake cures for the coronavirus [hydroxychloroquine] on his behalf. You can identify other such people—Dominic Cummings, who’s Boris Johnson’s top spin doctor in England. There are a few of them that I know in Poland. One of the themes of the book is my seeking to explain how such people are motivated. What do they think they’re doing? What do they say they’re doing?
Obviously, American readers are looking at our country and trying to figure out what the hell is going on. But you probably devote more ink to Poland, to Hungary, to Spain. Why?
Because I think the phenomenon is the same in all of our countries, for some of the same reasons. And I really feel it helps Americans to read about Poland, just like it helps Poles to read about America. We’ll see how American readers feel about all these unpronounceable East European names [laughs]. But I’m hoping that Americans see parallels and echoes of their own experience in those of other countries. The confusing nature of U.S. politics is not just some weird thing happening in the U.S. You can see patterns across the world.
You’re known for scholarly, historical works. This is a very different kind of book.
It’s really an essay—a first draft of an intellectual history of our time. It is not a definitive work. It’s meant to be provocative and meant to make people think. Although, I don’t know, maybe it’s not that different. The thing that links everything I’ve ever written is this: What is the interaction of political ideas with people’s lives? And how do people manipulate and use ideas to shape reality, for better or for worse? That theme is the same in everything I’ve written.
Tom Beer is the editor-in-chief.