‘Twilight of Democracy’ author Anne Applebaum on the rise of authoritarianism, the dangerous power of conspiracy theories, and why she signed the ‘Harper’s letter’

Laveta Brigham

People demonstrate at the Main Square in solidarity with Belarus. Krakow, Poland on August 20, 2020. 

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People demonstrate at the Main Square in solidarity with Belarus. Krakow, Poland on August 20, 2020.

Anne Applebaum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and historian, currently a staff writer at The Atlantic and a Senior Fellow of International Affairs and Agora Fellow in Residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Applebaum has written several books about totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, including “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956,” and “Gulag: A History.”

A DC native, she has lived and worked in Poland long enough to witness the fall of communism, an all-too-brief era of liberal democracy, and the subsequent rise of right-wing authoritarianism in the governments of Hungary, as well as in her own adopted country.

Her most recent book, “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” focuses on the assaults on liberal democratic ideals throughout Europe and the US, and how many of her contemporaries in Eastern Europe who were pro-democracy activists during the Cold War have drifted toward supporting ultra-nationalism, conspiracy theories, and one-party governments.

Applebaum spoke via Skype from her home in Poland with Business Insider columnist Anthony Fisher about former Cold Warriors’ disappointment with democracy, the return of anti-Semitism as a political weapon, and why she signed the Harper’s letter defending free expression and open debate.

This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

Fisher: The book starts off with a story about a New Year’s Eve party in Poland on December 31, 1999. The Cold War hadn’t even been over for a decade, and a lot of the partygoers were staunch Eastern European pro-democracy activists during the Communist era.

But a lot of these guests’ politics have since evolved severely — going from pro-democracy to pro-authoritarian. What made these people embrace the strongman?

Applebaum: In every case there’s some form of disappointment. Sometimes it’s personal disappointment with the transition to democracy, which didn’t give the former dissident the career that he wanted. Sometimes it’s dislike of democratic political culture, which seems insufficiently muscular, or simply too secular. People aren’t going to church anymore. There’s a fear of the loss of something traditional and older. Modernization, historically, has always brought with it these kinds of feelings. In my book I look briefly at Germany in the 19th century, where there was also an outburst of what the historian Fritz Stern called “cultural despair”: The feeling that the culture is declining, that there are no heroes anymore, that democracy and capitalism cannot produce deep feelings or great works of art.

Fisher: You introduced the concept of the medium-sized lie in “Twilight of Democracy,” which of course is a play on the “Big Lies” that fascist and communist governments would tell their people as a means of control. Can you talk a little bit about what the medium-sized lie is?

Applebaum: These are conspiracy theories, false stories that don’t necessarily seek to explain everything about the world, but which can be weaponized in order to undermine faith in democratic institutions, the media, and politicians. The first time I saw how effectively they can be used was in 2010, after a plane crash killed the president of Poland. Multiple investigations have since shown that this was a terrible accident, brought about by the misjudgments of pilots who were under pressure from the president’s staff, and maybe from the president himself, to land in a dangerous situation.

But the late president’s political party, Law and Justice — now led by his twin brother — spent years implying that there is a secret, alternative explanation, though they’ve never been explicit about who caused the crash. Maybe it was the Russians. Or maybe it was the then-Polish government. After five years in power, they’ve never been able to prove that anything that happened was any different from what the original investigator said. But they nevertheless convinced millions of people that the president was murdered, and that the whole establishment is covering it up, from the prime minister to the media to the bureaucracy to the police and the army: No wonder so many Poles lost faith in their institutions.

Birtherism was the same kind of lie, and it had the same kind of impact in the US. If you believe that Obama is an illegitimate president, then you must also come to believe that everyone — Congress, the White House, the CIA, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — are all conspiring to hide the fact that we have an illegitimate president. Once you believe that then your faith in all kinds of institutions can be loosened or undermined, and you will be willing to listen to alternative sources of information.

A similar kind of conspiracy theory has been used in Hungary, where the ruling party has accused George Soros of secretly plotting to undermine Hungary and to replace Hungarians with Muslims. Eventually, when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban forced the partial closure of the Central European University, which had been founded with Soros’ money, people didn’t really object because they had accepted the idea that Soros is an enemy of the people. Incidentally, for all the talk on the right about how the left is undermining universities and academia, the right-wing Hungarian government is the only one in Europe that has actually shut down a university and intimidated academics in order to keep them silent.

Fisher: In 2015 the newly-appointed Polish defense minister Antoni Macierewicz shockingly said that the anti-Semitic forgery “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is a plausible document. As someone who’s lived in Poland for a long time, do you think that’s emblematic of a rise of anti-Semitism in Poland or in other Eastern European governments?

Applebaum: The idea that the Jews are undermining us and are responsible for the decline of our nation is one of the oldest conspiracy theories, of course: It’s been used by politicians to create a sense of unity among their followers for centuries. Generally speaking, I don’t think anti-Semitism is that effective anymore, not least because there aren’t that many Jews around, particularly in Poland. But it works as a kind of identity marker: “We’re not people like that.”

It’s important to note that this is all quite recent: If you had asked me in 2015, I would have said that political anti-Semitism was gone, banished to fringe websites. It was not part of public life. At the same time, I would also have said that much of the remaining anti-Polish prejudice among Jews in the United States was also gone. There have been excellent relations between the international Jewish community and successive Polish governments, which culminated in the construction of Polin, the spectacular Jewish museum in Warsaw. At the museum’s opening ceremony, it seemed as if the whole long saga of Polish-Jewish history, had found a happy ending.

But now we have gone backwards again, because the Law and Justice government have once again decided that anti-Semitism is a useful tool. Nowadays they mostly speak about foreign Jews, who are supposedly disrespecting the country, or who are trying to take back formerly Jewish property, stealing it from Poles. And thus is a whole new generation introduced to this very old form of conspiracy thinking.

Fisher: It was two years ago that the Law and Justice party sought to make it illegal to make statements implying the Polish people had any complicity in Nazi crimes during the Holocaust.

Applebaum: Yes, this is part of this paranoia: They say they believe that Poland has been slandered, that Poland has been unfairly accused of planning and running the Holocaust. And it is true, of course, that Poles did not plan or run the Holocaust, even if there were some Polish collaborators.

But that law wasn’t intended to actually function – it was unenforceable. It was passed just so that the ruling party could tell its supporters that it was doing something, pushing back against the “libel” international Jewish community. The irony is that it had exactly the opposite effect from the one intended: It suddenly drew the world’s attention to the resurgence of political anti-Semitism in Poland.

Fisher: I want to pivot to US politics. Something I’ve noticed of late is a fair amount of political YouTubers saying we’re basically in the early days of a civil war.

In “Twilight of Democracy,” you mentioned Joseph DiGenova, a conservative lawyer and former US Attorney. He was a guest on Laura Ingraham show’s and said civil discourse is dead for the foreseeable future, and that he truly believes there’s going to be a “total” civil war. It feels like some on the right are openly rooting Americans to tear each other apart.

Applebaum: It’s not a secret that a part of the right that wants civil war and wants violence. It is perhaps unusual to see it on national television, even on Fox. But if you spend any time online looking at extremist sites, which unfortunately I’ve done, you read about it quite often. There is some evidence that right-wing provocateurs were responsible for some of the violence that took place during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations this summer too.

I hate to say this — and I hope I’m wrong — but I am afraid that if Trump loses in November, the groups who want civil war or race war will take to the streets. People who spend a lot of time on extremist websites have been told that Biden and Harris represent an evil, dangerous left, that they will destroy the country; some of them will want to take to the streets and prevent them from coming to power.

Fisher: In the book you wrote that while you have plenty of disagreements with somebody like Laura Ingraham, you agreed with her on “cancel culture,” extremism on campus, and “exaggerated claims of those who practice identity politics” that you say “will require a real bravery to fight.”

You also signed the controversial Harper’s letter calling for the defense of free inquiry and debate. What’s your feeling about the reaction to the letter, especially among critics who say cancel culture either doesn’t exist or that it’s not a real problem?

Applebaum: To be clear, I do not think, as Ingraham does, that “cancel culture” is the main problem facing American society. Right now, I think it’s a much less important problem than the threat to democracy posed by the authoritarian right. Just to be clear.

But cancel culture certainly exists, and is a genuine problem not so much for me, or for people who are already established in academia or journalism, but for people who aren’t famous or established, and who are at risk of losing their livelihoods because they have violated unwritten speech codes. An Arab immigrant who ran a restaurant in Minnesota lost his business, for example, after his daughter was found to have written some egregious tweets five years earlier. That kind of thing strikes me as profoundly unjust.

I thought it would be useful to sign the Harper’s letter in the name of people like that, who don’t have big names and who aren’t known in the media, and who aren’t able to defend themselves so easily. I hoped to make a broader audience aware that there is this problem.

It is wrong, I think to describe this as just a matter of “free speech,” because it is more complicated than that. There always are limits to speech and there always are limits to what we can tolerate. The question is how to negotiate those limits, how we decide what they are. It seems right now that they’re often decided by a very small group of loud people, rather than by a kind of decent majority. That small group gets to decide what language is and is not “racist.” The effect is that there are now important topics that can’t be discussed in some contexts, and that’s unfortunate.

It is very possible that this “cancel culture” moment will die out by itself, at least at universities: Students tend to dislike what the previous generation of students was doing. It’s possible that a new generation will eventually laugh at the very stringent forms of political correctness that have been applied in recent years.

Fisher: If Trump were to lose in November, does Trump’s right populist movement wither or does it evolve into something else?

Applebaum: It depends on how he loses. If he loses by a lot, and if other Republicans go down with him, then there might be a rethink inside the party. At the end of the day, these are people who want to get elected to office. If they see that Trump’s authoritarianism is a losing prospect, then there’s a possibility for a real change inside the party. If the election is much closer, then the Trumpist wing of the party will remain and some Republicans will continue to use that language and that style of politics to stay in power.

Indeed, one of the things on the ballot in November is the future of the Republican Party. It needs to lose, and lose badly, if it’s going to recover and become the broad, multiracial, center-right party that America needs once again.

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