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Combining Indictment With Insight, A Historian Offers Context For The Age Of Trump

<em>Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism</em> by Anne Applebaum
Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum

This week, two more books appeared on the ever-widening shelf of literature lambasting President Trump and his presidency. One sold nearly 1 million copies on its first day, based on the name of the author and weeks of publicity. But the other is the better book to buy for insight into what Trump's rise and rule really mean — here and abroad — for democracy in our time.

The first, of course, was Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man. In its rueful pages, Mary Trump, the president's niece, wields both her training as a psychologist and her insider knowledge of Uncle Donald's dealings with other family members.

The second, by historian and journalist Anne Applebaum, is Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism — and it too depicts Trump as a threat on a global scale.

Unlike the several exposes by Washington Post reporters and other journalists, former FBI directors and former Trump enablers, this compact work runs under 200 pages and spends relatively few of them on Trump himself. Yet it deserves a place of both prominence and permanence in the anti-Trump canon.

To be sure, Applebaum sees the U.S. president as akin to an array of autocrats now in power around the world, from Russia's Vladimir Putin to Hungary's Viktor Orban to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. She does not cast Trump as the cause of the world's current passion for autocracy, although he is arguably its gaudiest product.

Applebaum brings to these judgments the gravitas of a historian, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Gulag: A History, one of three volumes on the tyranny of the Soviet Union.

Her greater subject is the fragile state of classic liberal democracy. She fears that the rule of law, the rights of the individual and the combination of free elections with the regulating institutions of a republic may not survive the onslaught of the 21st century.

Still heir to ancient fears and hatreds, even the most advanced societies are straining under repeated blows: protracted wars, economic disruptions, migrating populations, and now a global pandemic.

These challenges are complicated by the power and pace of technological change, especially the bewildering landscape of social media and other Internet-based communications that can "undermine consensus, divide people further and increase polarization until only violence can determine who rules."

It all lends itself to exploitation by individuals and political parties offering solutions in the form of "strong man" authority, often with an emphasis on returning to traditional social arrangements and cultural presumptions.

Given all this weighty material, it is remarkable that Applebaum can make her treatment of it edifying. Yet it is as smoothly readable and impressively reasoned as her columns from 17 years at The Washington Post and her more recent writing in The Atlantic.

One reason may be the personal focus of this work, the sense that she is lamenting the loss of friends and views she felt sure of when the century began. A 2018 essay from The Atlantic titled "A Warning From Europe" reappears at the beginning of this volume. In it, Applebaum revisits a party she and her husband (a Polish journalist and political figure) threw for friends in Poland on New Year's Eve 1999.

After depicting the guests as survivors of the Iron Curtain era and creators of the new Poland, she recounts how their trajectories have since diverged.

Some, whom she describes as having been among her best friends, are people with whom she no longer speaks. For reasons of ambition or "to make a difference," several have cast their lot with Poland's move to a nationalist, autocratic government. When she tries to contact one, she receives a text that asks: "What would we talk about?"

Applebaum recounts similar estrangements from some of the American conservatives she regarded as allies in an earlier time, before they "split in half" — largely over the rise of politicians such as Sarah Palin, the Tea Party and Trump.

"What has caused this transformation?" Applebaum asks herself and her readers. "Were some of our friends always closet authoritarians? Or have the people with whom we clinked glasses in the first minutes of the new millennium somehow changed over the subsequent two decades?"

There is no simple response, but to the biggest question she replies: "Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will."

Indeed, changing conditions have dimmed what had seemed the dawning of a new international epoch in the late 20th century. In those years, the Soviet Union was collapsing, apartheid was abolished, military juntas were being displaced in South America and even China seemed to be moving toward free markets and perhaps even a kind of democracy.

It was the heady time when political scientist Francis Fukuyama dared to title an essay "The End of History?" — arguing that the centuries of argument over economics and governing had led to broad consensus.

Notably, Applebaum titles her final chapter here "The Unending of History."

Much of Twilight is focused on Poland, where the Washington-born Applebaum is now a citizen. But she sees a similar dynamic in other polities, such as in England (where she studied at the London School of Economics and Oxford and later worked for The Economist and The Spectator) and in Spain, where she went on journalistic assignment.

Both countries have seen periods of political peace and Western European orientation give way to surging sentiments of nationalism and populism (a term she uses sparingly) — often linked to resentment of immigrants.

One old friend from her younger days is Boris Johnson, who pops up at one point riding a bicycle on a London street shortly after being elected mayor. A few years later, of course, Johnson has moved to the national stage and been caught up in the vortex of Brexit as the prime minister.

In Spain, Applebaum focuses on a relatively new party known as Vox, a name that nods to the voice of "the people." A minor player at first, Vox has swiftly swollen in importance. Its appeals have reached older voters nostalgic for the traditional social and political arrangements, even as they reach a new generation longing for the nation to return to prominence.

When she turns back to look at the U.S., Applebaum is fascinated with the similarities between the violent revolutionaries of the Weather Underground in the 1960s and some of the right-wing activists and armed militia of our day. She notes that the former group titled their manifesto "Prairie Fire" at the time, and the metaphor of a fire sweeping across the prairie reappeared in a speech Steve Bannon of gave in 2010, before joining forces with Trump.

"By 2016, some of the arguments of the old Marxist left — their hatred of ordinary, bourgeois politics and their longing for revolutionary change — met and mingled with the Christian right's despair about the future of American democracy," she writes. "Together they produced the restorative nostalgic campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump."

Applebaum also joins a host of other authors in her amazement at Trump's penchant for misrepresenting facts and then insisting on the validity of his misrepresentations. She hearkens back to the controversy that arose in the first hours of his presidency with regard to the crowd for his inauguration speech. All available evidence showed that crowd to be far smaller than the one on President Barack Obama's first Inauguration Day in 2009.

But Trump and his minions insisted on his version of events, giving an early indication of how he would defy the media, Congress and other forms of oversight from then on. The point here is to encourage his followers "to engage, at least part of the time, with an alternative reality." By so doing, she says, one becomes complicit in the conspiracy.

Near the end of Twilight Applebaum tells of a friend in Poland who caught himself shouting ever louder in an argument. The friend reported having the sudden realization that he was doing so not to convince others but to convince himself that he still believed what he was saying. Perhaps, she says, those shouting their approval for autocrats around the world will reach that same conclusion.

In the meantime, Applebaum hopes the pandemic "will inspire a new sense of global solidarity" but fears it might have the opposite effect, that "fear of disease will create fear of freedom" and empower the autocrats.

"Maddeningly," she concludes, "we must accept that both futures are possible. No political victory is ever permanent. ..."

And in that final statement we can find both cause for concern and a reason to hope.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for