Twilight of Democracy tries to deconstruct the psychology and motivation of such people. For some it is the chance to be noticed; for others, it is revenge for slights. Applebaum moves on to Laura Ingraham, another former acquaintance, who has become host of a certain type of US political chat show. “She has, like so many others in the Fox universe, depicted illegal immigrants as thieves and murderers, despite overwhelming evidence that immigrants commit fewer crimes overall than native-born Americans.”
A concluding chapter, which includes a more recent party with new friends, leads the author to reflect that “the precariousness of the current moment seems frightening, and yet this uncertainty has always been there….The checks and balances of Western constitutional democracies never guaranteed stability.” This is a source of hope, not just anger. Progress is possible. The personal nature of this book does not always sit easily with the universal nature of its warnings and prophesies. Interested readers should also consider On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder. The risk of twilight of our western democratic model, the uncertainty of what may follow – a brighter dawn or a darker night – require that all warnings be urgently considered. This book demands such consideration.
This is an illuminating political memoir about the break-up of the political tribe that won the Cold War. It can be read with profit even if you disagree, as I do, with the thesis it is wrapped up in. The author, Anne Applebaum, is a distinguished American journalist and a historian of, in particular, the Soviet Union and its horrors. She is married to Radek Sikorski, a former foreign minister of Poland. She has had a front-row seat observing political events in America, the UK and Poland over the last three decades and uses her insider knowledge to good effect.
This is already very over-trodden ground. What makes it new is only what Applebaum is willing to spill about her former friends. Generally these are journalists or former journalists. They include one who was a friend of her husband’s at Oxford and is now our prime minister. Though Boris Johnson only ever appears to have been kind to her, Applebaum claims that over a private dinner in 2014 he said: ‘Nobody serious wants to leave the EU.’ This is the most significant betrayal of confidence in the book, but the whole thing is littered with quotes of what friends said in private years ago. One wonders if a similar betrayal of the Applebaum-Sikorski table-talk would be less or more shocking than anything described here.
It manages to be persuasive without ever being wholly coherent. She takes on the falsehood that the rise of populists is just a revolt by the dispossessed. Those stirring the hardest and gaining the most (like Trump) were not poor or powerless before. She spends time blaming social media and “the medium-sized lie” but has the sense to see that more lies behind what is going on than the breakdown of the old conformity of the BBC and trusted broadsheets. She notes that Trump tapped into ancient animosities in America — just as, though it came too late for the book, the roots of the rage behind Black Lives Matter are not new either.
In Twilight of Democracy she deploys the roles of both historian and hostess to impressive effect. She does not spare her own conservative tribe. The volume is bookended by accounts of two parties at her home in Warsaw. One took place on the eve of the new millennium, the other last summer. Both were liberally sprinkled with famous writers, academics and artists; cabinet ministers chatted with presidents. They sound like fun, if you are inclined to the life of the mind. But over the past two decades the guest list has changed pretty dramatically.
Twilight of Democracy would have been a great book if only time had co-operated. But it’s always risky to write about contemporary politics during an age of upheaval. The coronavirus has eroded all certainties. It has, in particular, exposed the central weakness of authoritarian populism — the scourge about which Applebaum warns. The populist doesn’t lead his people; he follows them by echoing their fears, hatreds and desires. During times of crisis, however, the people need to be told where to go. They need leadership.