Anne Applebaum and the Crisis of Centrist Politics

Anne Applebaum and the Crisis of Centrist Politics


Anne Applebaum and the crisis of centrist politics.


Anne Applebaum’s new book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, opens two decades ago with a rollicking New Year’s Eve party that she and her husband threw at their renovated country estate in Poland to celebrate the triumphant end of the 20th century. Applebaum is a historian of Eastern Europe under communism, the author of Red Famine and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gulag: A History; her husband, Radosław Sikorski, is a center-right politician who at various times has served as Poland’s foreign and defense ministers. Unsurprisingly, the guest list included many center-right intellectuals, journalists, and politicians from the three countries this power couple calls home—the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland. But as we soon learn, in the 20 years since then, many of the guests have migrated from the center-right to the far right. “I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party,” Applebaum writes. “They, in turn, would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they had ever been there. In fact, about half the people who were at that party would no longer speak to the other half.”

Readers unfamiliar with Polish politics may not recognize names like Ania Bielecka, the godmother of one of Applebaum’s children, who has recently become close with Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the far-right Polish governing party Law and Justice; or Anita Gargas, another of Applebaum’s guests, who now spreads conspiracy theories in the right-wing newspaper Gazeta Polska; or Rafal Ziemkiewicz, who now spews anti-Semitic rhetoric on Polish state television. But an Anglo-American audience will likely recognize some of the other people who were once her center-right comrades in arms—from the disgraced conspiracist Dinesh D’Souza and the Fox News prime-time hate-monger Laura Ingraham in the United States to former National Review editor in chief John O’Sullivan and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom. (O’Sullivan now spends most of his time in Hungary, where he runs a think tank, the Danube Institute, backed by the far-right ruling party.)

For Applebaum, the question is how her peers—all of whom, at the turn of the century, supported “the pro-European, pro-rule-of-law, pro-market” consensus that dominated not only center-right but also most center-left politics after the fall of communism—have come to avow reactionary conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia and to show a slavish loyalty to demagogues like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán. Twilight of Democracy is her attempt at an answer; in other words, it is Applebaum’s effort to explain why so many of her once-close friends have turned out to be fascists.

Insofar as the book offers intimate portraits of the sorts of intellectuals who have ended up working to empower the far right, it’s a valuable document. Drawing inspiration from Julien Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals, Applebaum makes explicit that she is not setting out to explain what makes today’s populist strongmen tick nor what makes ordinary voters support them, but specifically why some in her orbit—all highly educated, urbane, cosmopolitan journalists, academics, and political operatives—have joined their cause. Up to a point, her main argument is persuasive: that her former friends are motivated less by ideological conviction or material suffering than by humiliation and resentment. In particular, they are driven by a sense that their natural talents have been inadequately recognized and rewarded under the supposedly meritocratic rules of a liberal elite that has dismissed them as mediocrities. They are the losers of liberalism’s cultural hegemony—or so they claim—and in the illiberal politics of the far right, they have found a way to win.

It’s a plausible theory, but implicit within it is an unexamined assumption that liberal meritocracy has worked and will continue to work on its own terms. Applebaum’s blind faith in the center-right strains of neoliberalism and meritocratic mobility also conveniently absolves her and her remaining friends of any responsibility for the present crisis. Their success, when they had it, was well deserved; to the extent that they are now powerless against the dangers presented by their estranged cohort, it is only because real merit is no longer being rewarded. It never seems to cross Applebaum’s mind that having had so many erstwhile friends who ended up on the far right might say something unflattering about her own judgment—and more generally about the center-right political tradition to which she belongs.

Twilight of Democracy is not a long book. Its six chapters are structured as a series of personal recollections and reporting trips framed by abstract political digressions. From her New Year’s Eve party, Applebaum takes us first to contemporary Poland and Hungary, then to post-Brexit Britain, then to Spain and Trump’s America, and finally back to her Polish country home for another, more recent party—this one attended by a younger, more liberal, and more comfortably post-national crowd, including her sons’ friends from school and university. “No deep cultural differences, no profound civilizational clashes, no unbridgeable identity gaps appeared to divide them,” she writes optimistically, though the possibility that they might not present a socioeconomically representative glimpse of the West’s future doesn’t seem to occur to her.

The most effective moments in these journeys come when Applebaum offers sharply rendered portraits of her far-right subjects. Her contempt for each of them is deeply personal, and she has a knack for understated but cutting observation. Of the director of Polish state television, she writes:

Jacek Kurski is not a radically lonely conformist of the kind described by Hannah Arendt, and he does not incarnate the banality of evil; he is no bureaucrat following orders. He has never said anything thoughtful or interesting on the subject of democracy, a political system that he neither supports nor denounces. He is not an ideologue or a true believer; he is a man who wants the power and fame that he feels he has been unjustly denied. To understand Jacek, you need to look beyond political science textbooks and study, instead, literary antiheroes.

Of the Danube Institute, the think tank run by O’Sullivan:

Hungarian friends describe its presence in Budapest as “marginal.” As a rule, Hungarians don’t read its (admittedly sparse) English-language publications, and its events are unremarkable and mostly go unremarked. But O’Sullivan has an office and a Budapest apartment. He has the means to invite his many friends and contacts, all conservative writers and thinkers, to visit him in one of Europe’s greatest and most beautiful cities. I have no doubt that, when they get there, O’Sullivan is the jovial and witty host that he always was.

Of Laura Ingraham:

Some mutual friends point out that she is a convert to Catholicism, and a breast cancer survivor who is deeply religious: she told one of them that “the only man who never disappointed me was Jesus.” The willpower she required to survive in the cutthroat world of right-wing media—especially at Fox News, where female stars were often pressured to sleep with their bosses—should not be underestimated. These personal experiences give a messianic edge to some of her public remarks.

A number of these people refused to speak to Applebaum for the book; others had only brief, testy exchanges with her by phone. One, the right-wing Hungarian historian Mária Schmidt, met with Applebaum and then published her own heavily edited transcript of the interview online, without Applebaum’s permission, after which it appeared on the official website of the Hungarian government. “It had been a performance,” Applebaum realizes, “designed to prove to other Hungarians that Schmidt is loyal to the regime and willing to defend it.”

Applebaum’s character sketches are compelling, in part because they are fueled by an implicit, if unacknowledged, self-recognition. She is able to get into her subjects’ heads because she used to be so close with them—and, though she may not consciously understand this, because they are not so different from her. For instance, she writes about two subtly different shades of nostalgia. Reflective nostalgics, including herself, love old photographs and letters but don’t actually wish for a return to the past, while restorative nostalgics, like two of her former friends in Britain, the conservative writers Simon Heffer and Roger Scruton, have channeled the romance of the past into the disruptive politics of Brexit and the UK Independence Party. Applebaum still remembers—with nostalgia!—what it felt like to bond with Heffer and Scruton over English literature and country cricket matches, which lends some pathos to her break with them over Britain’s future.

This intimacy can also be found in Applebaum’s profoundly unsettling account of the 2010 Smolensk air disaster—a horrific tragedy in which 96 people, including Poland’s then-president and a large swath of the country’s political elite, died in a plane crash en route to a commemoration with the Russian government for the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. Here Applebaum captures how a nation’s deeply felt trauma can devolve into something more sinister:

A kind of hysteria, something like the madness that took hold in the United States after 9/11, engulfed the nation. Television announcers wore black mourning ties; friends gathered at our Warsaw apartment to talk about history repeating itself in that dark, damp Russian forest. My own recollection of the days that followed are jumbled and chaotic. I remember going to buy a black suit to wear to the memorial services; I remember one of the widows, so frail she seemed barely able to stand, weeping at her husband’s funeral. My own husband, who had refused an invitation to travel with the president on that trip, went out to the airport every evening to stand at attention while the coffins were brought home.

The crash was ruled an accident, one that initially united Poles and Russians in national mourning. But right-wing Polish intellectuals, including Applebaum’s former friend Gargas, soon developed a set of elaborate conspiracy theories to explain it. Applebaum aptly compares the Smolensk theories to birtherism and QAnon in the United States, and she sees in such viral falsehoods a useful tool for autocrats: If adherents can accept one false premise, one “medium-sized lie,” then every establishment narrative becomes suspect and an alternative, fact-free political reality beckons them.

As an eyewitness to how these paranoid alternate realities took root among the elites of multiple countries, Applebaum brings a useful perspective, one rooted in her own subject position and not easily found in a political science textbook. But as she moves from one chilling anecdote to the next, the reader may begin to notice a self-flattering absence haunting Twilight of Democracy: Applebaum is willing to skewer her erstwhile friends, but she is unwilling to interrogate her own culpability and that of the center-right establishment more generally. To whatever extent she may now regret some of these friendships with the benefit of hindsight, she does not acknowledge how her past and present worldview—one supportive of neoliberal economics, military adventurism, and elite meritocracy—might also have created the room for the far right.

Applebaum may be well versed in the soap-operatic intrigues of her set, but her grasp of Western political theory is at times superficial by comparison. Typical of the many interchangeable best sellers of the anti-Trump resistance, Twilight of Democracy is the sort of book that skips briskly from Plato to Cicero to Hamilton in order to note that elites have always been skeptical of democracy, and it dutifully cites Tocqueville, Lincoln, and King in affirming the compatibility of the liberal tradition with American exceptionalism. Meanwhile, she is dismissive and simplistic toward political figures of the past who are still identified with radicalism today. At one point, she goes on a diatribe against Emma Goldman for her anarchist criticisms of American patriotism a century ago, a tradition that Applebaum then traces through to the Weather Underground, Howard Zinn, and parts of the contemporary left.

Applebaum uses these more abstractly political digressions to reaffirm her long-established center-right priors, relying on Cold War–era talking points in an attempt to locate salvageable elements of conservatism amid the current wreckage. Her second chapter, for example, starts off with a bold claim: “the illiberal one-party state, now found all over the world—think of China, Venezuela, Zimbabwe—was first developed by Lenin, in Russia, starting in 1917. In the political science textbooks of the future, the Soviet Union’s founder will surely be remembered not just for his Marxist beliefs, but as the inventor of this enduring form of political organization.”

This is at best a debatable claim, dependent on how one views, for instance, Napoleon Bonaparte, his eventual heir Napoleon III, or any number of Latin American dictators and caudillos of the 19th century. But there’s a reason that Applebaum advances it. As the author of multiple books about the horrors of 20th-century communism and as a defender of the conservative intellectual tradition, she has a stake in holding the left to account while diagnosing the right’s slide into illiberalism: It means she doesn’t have to hold the center, and her center-right flank of it, accountable.

To be fair, Applebaum anticipates this line of criticism. “Although the cultural power of the authoritarian left is growing,” she writes, “the only modern clercs who have attained real political power in Western democracies…are members of movements that we are accustomed to calling the ‘right.’ ” But that acknowledgment notwithstanding, Applebaum is convinced there is a growing “authoritarian left,” which includes many factions that in reality are often fiercely at odds with one another. It’s a left that encompasses Chavismo in Venezuela, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, the “openly radical, far-left” Podemos party in Spain, “a generation of far-left campus agitators who seek to dictate how professors can teach and what students can say,” and “the instigators of Twitter mobs who seek to take down public figures as well as ordinary people for violating unwritten speech codes.” (Disclosure: Applebaum has blocked me on Twitter.)

None of this should be terribly surprising, given that Applebaum is among the signatories of the Harper’s Magazine letter decrying cancel culture and has backed Yascha Mounk’s like-minded Persuasion newsletter. For this increasingly vocal segment of the centrist intelligentsia, the cultural excesses of wokeness are every bit as threatening as far-right politicians wielding actual state power.

But Applebaum’s distaste for the left isn’t just a matter of petty campus and Internet feuds. By drawing parallels between the left and the far right, she is attempting to absolve the center of any blame for its role in the current crisis, even though it has held a virtual monopoly on political power in the post–Cold War period. Applebaum is eager to psychoanalyze anyone she regards as politically extreme in either direction, but she is far less willing to interrogate her own unconscious assumptions or those of her remaining friends in the center—let alone the material results of their preferred policies.

To the common charge that the neoliberal economic order hollowed out the Western working and middle classes via deindustrialization, paving the way for Brexit and Trump, Applebaum writes, “In the Western world, the vast majority of people are not starving. They have food and shelter. They are literate. If we describe them as ‘poor’ or ‘deprived,’ it is sometimes because they lack things that human beings couldn’t dream of a century ago, like air-conditioning or Wi-Fi.”

This line of argument would have been risible even before Covid-19, but Twilight of Democracy went to print recently enough that Applebaum was able to include her account of the frantic international border closings last March—which is to say, recently enough that she could have registered that food and shelter may be out of reach for tens of millions of Americans right now and that austerity and neoliberalism bear as much responsibility for this calamity as Trump. Even to the extent that she is right about minimal material needs being met, it’s frankly astonishing that she doesn’t understand how ordinary people—as opposed to her well-connected friends—could be experiencing a crisis of meaning and dignity in a political order that expects them to be satisfied with cheap consumer goods and privatized essential services.

These are concerns not just in the United States or the United Kingdom but in Eastern European nations as well, including the one that hosts her country estate. Civic Platform, the center-right party that governed Poland from 2007 to 2015 and in which Applebaum’s husband served, presided over a staggering rise in economic inequality. It imposed austerity measures in the wake of the post-2009 eurozone crisis, raising the retirement age and phasing out pensions for farmers, miners, police, firefighters, and priests. At the same time, it embraced free trade to attract foreign businesses like Google, and its leaders were recorded flaunting ostentatious new wealth as the impoverished regions in the east stagnated. These regions would become the stronghold of the far-right Law and Justice government, which came to power by campaigning against Civic Platform’s fiscal cruelty. Civic Platform also weathered a series of corruption scandals, none of which get any acknowledgment in Applebaum’s account of Law and Justice’s rise to power.

Then there’s the matter of foreign policy, something Applebaum cares about a lot more. If she rejects the argument that globalization and inequality led to the far-right revival, she doesn’t even glancingly acknowledge the argument that the post-9/11 wars and crackdowns on civil liberties might also have played a role. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Applebaum supported, is discussed at any length just once, when she mounts a defense of Atlanticism—or at least the version of it championed by her husband at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, which sought to build ties between the United States and Europe by embroiling both in endless wars in the Middle East. “There was a genuine coalition of the willing that wanted to fight Saddam Hussein, including [José María] Aznar in Spain, British prime minister Tony Blair, Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Polish president Alexander Kwasniewski, and a clutch of others,” she writes approvingly, before noting briskly that the war has haunted politicians like Blair ever since.

For Applebaum, the main significance of Iraq seems to be that it drew the US and Polish governments closer together. Whatever impact it had on Iraqis themselves, on traumatized veterans returning home, and on an entire generation’s willingness to trust the very Atlanticist project to which she remains committed escapes her notice. So does the propagandistic disinformation campaign that the Bush and Blair governments deployed to whip up support for the war—essentially a conspiracy theory, and one significantly advanced by Applebaum’s current social circle.

I bring up Iraq in part because if Applebaum is going to write a book about the sins of her former friends, it’s also worth noting the sins of the friends she still has. According to the acknowledgments for Twilight of Democracy, these friends include David Frum, the author of George W. Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” speech; Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic editor in chief who commissioned the essay on which her book is based and who also reported for The New Yorker in 2002 about the since-discredited connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda; and Leon Wieseltier, who championed the Iraq War and who fell from grace in 2017 after multiple women accused him of sexual harassment during his long tenure as literary editor of The New Republic.

Another friend who read drafts of Twilight of Democracy, Applebaum proudly tells us, is Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has been condemned by the Southern Poverty Law Center for her involvement in Gamergate, the far-right online movement widely seen as a forerunner of Trumpism. At least as recently as 2016, Sommers was an associate of Milo Yiannopoulos, the alt-right provocateur whom even Applebaum describes as a “sad figure” who has “ceased to have much influence in the United States.” The bilious mouthpieces of the far right and the center-right are never all that far apart—indeed, Applebaum’s husband has had to deny that he once joked that Barack Obama’s ancestors were cannibals.

All of this is to say that if Applebaum was blindsided by the turn that some of her friends have made to the far right over the past decade, she may not be the best judge of which intellectuals carry latent fascist tendencies today, let alone a trustworthy critic when it comes to understanding the ties between her center-right politics and those of the far right.

In her section on US politics, Applebaum describes her own break with the Republican Party. In 2008, she wrote an article for Slate explaining why she couldn’t bring herself to vote for John McCain for president, a decision she attributes to “the ascent of Sarah Palin, a proto-Trump, and the Bush administration’s use of torture in Iraq.” Although she denounced the GOP’s slide into illiberalism, at the time she had mostly positive words for McCain, a fellow Cold War hawk who had spoken at the Washington launch party for her history of the gulag.

McCain was Applebaum’s kind of Republican: a champion of the liberal international order; an occasionally idiosyncratic, self-styled centrist; a friend to countless journalists; and a wisecracking, backslapping establishment elite. Early in the book, she describes her present cohort of center-right intellectuals as aligning with “the Republican Party of John McCain.” But she never fully reckons with how a figure like McCain facilitated the far right’s mainstreaming—not only by elevating Palin to national stature but also through other efforts over his long career to dog-whistle to bigots, such as his infamous opposition to Martin Luther King Day. Applebaum notes, tellingly, that after she criticized Palin’s selection, McCain never spoke to her again.

Regardless, now that Trump has been defeated by the doggedly centrist Joe Biden—who appointed the senator’s widow, Cindy McCain, to the board of his presidential transition team—Applebaum can rest assured: Not only will centrist Republicans never be held accountable for empowering the far right, they will also be actively rewarded by the ascendant centrist Democrats.

Both in Twilight of Democracy and in her recent interviews and tweets, Applebaum has insisted that the authoritarian temptation exists on both the left and the right, even if right-wing authoritarianism is the more immediate threat. That’s true to an extent, and it’s understandable that someone who has studied Stalin’s reign of terror in such detail would say so. But it’s also a dodge. Today’s rising leftists in the United States and the United Kingdom, by and large, aren’t calling for a return to Stalinism but for a social democratic model that would seek to repair the enormous human damage done by decades of the untrammeled neoliberalism that Applebaum and her friends have consistently championed.

Unlike her and her centrist peers, these leftists are also offering a constructive alternative to both the far right and the failed status quo—and one that might stand a better chance of saving liberal democracy than anything proposed in this book. Perhaps Applebaum should consider throwing them a party.

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