Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, by Anne Applebaum

Eight stars

I have decided to embark on a mission to read a number of books on subjects that will be of great importance to the upcoming 2020 US Presidential Election. Many of these will focus on actors intricately involved in the process, in hopes that I can understand them better and, perhaps, educate others with the power to cast a ballot. I am, as always, open to serious recommendations from anyone who has a book I might like to include in the process.

This is Book #17 in my 2020 US Election Preparation Challenge.

As a student of politics, I often look back on the 2016 US Presidential Election and wonder what happened. While I could (and should) inject discussion about Russian bots or outsider influence, there had to be a base of people who chose Trump, allowing outsiders to build on an already present momentum. While thinking about how America got to the point of even considering Trump (and, taking a step back, the Republican base to choose him as their candidate), there must have been a spark that ignited the desire to look outside the norms of the democratic ideals on which America has held firm for centuries.

Enter Anne Applebaum and this brief book that explores that desire and push towards a more authoritarian state. While not an examination of America on its own, Applebaum looks at the shift towards a more controlling state in America and some parts of Europe, drawing on her experience as a journalist in these regions. Applebaum does not offer airtight answers, but has great commentary based on her career. She explores the move away from methodical democracy and towards something that is more state-centric and easily digested by the general population seeking a resurgence of ‘the way it was’. While I cannot say that I liked all I heard, it does make a degree of sense. If not something I would recommended wholeheartedly, this book certainly provides me with an academic analysis of how and why Trump seemed to appeal to so many in 2016 and still holds sway today.

The spark of conspiracy can ignite a population like no other. Being able to fabricate a story and have it take on a life of its own is a fabulous way to get a message across while injecting fear in the possibilities. Applebaum explores how this has worked, without concrete substantiation, across the various states explored in this tome. There appears to be a strong push to use immigration as that topic that could tear the state apart, should it be allowed to continue. While European fears lay with the Syrian refugees fleeing a civil war, it has also been used with the constructed ‘caravan’ from Central America worked its way through American conspiracy channels. There is no proof of the bold statements and yet people lap it up, sure that the country they have come to know will disappear with the dilution of national values, while jobs will be handed over to others. There is little attempt to think logically and so the governing party uses this to tighten rules and keep ‘others’ out, thereby strengthening the core and keeping change from making its way onto the agenda.

A sense of nostalgia is also a driving force to push towards authoritarian rule, looking back to a time when things were better and life was more in tune with how things ought to be. Many will know the rhetoric about creating a great America once again, which looks to regain what was one formidable but has gone to the wayside. Looking to days of old that are lost can only be brought back by toughening stances and limiting some of the looseness that democracy permits. Interestingly enough, I have never heard when America was ‘great’ in the eyes of the current president and what era he wishes be replicated, though one can imagine slavery and white supremacy would be a sure Utopia. I also remain baffled when there was a previous Polish or Hungarian greatness that has since been drowned. Even a UK of the past that soared above it all remains confusing to me, for the push towards the authoritarian state was to commence BREXIT, something that buoyed the country up, while forcing it to share itself among its continental cousins. Then again, here I am in Canada, trying to comprehend something outside my area of interest.

The move towards authoritarian rule must include the erosion of democratic foundations, as Applebaum explores throughout the piece. While this appears to be somewhat contradictory, for it is these same democratic institutions and beliefs that brought those leading the state to power. Yet, there seems almost to be a rage against the system that is needed, one that pokes holes in all that the state has been following that slowly morphs things into an authoritarian regime and forges a leader in place who cannot be removed with ease. Discounting the importance of legislatures as being too focused on their own interests, dismissing rules as being outdated and attempting to stifle growth, as well as erasing checks on power through elections as being fraudulent if the results sought do not come to pass. Applebaum cites speeches made by many leaders who have taken bits from far right and left thinkers, glueing them together, and leaving the general public to feel as though this is the new normal. The move to deconstruct seems to be the only way the state can run effectively, forcing a suspension of the rules, many of which are mocked along the way. How leaders get away with this defies the imagination, but there are tools mentioned above that help bring about this blind trust. Once gone, it is close to impossible to get it back without turning the state on its head and appearing just as dictatorial to the general public.

While I knowingly came into this read with a preconceived notion about authoritarianism, I did want to see if I could be enlightened about what could have led the world to search out something that was so vile during the 1930s-70s. Anne Applebaum does well to analyse and provide her own ideas, all of which are rooted in what she’s seen and reported. Her experience and analytical nature helps push the book forward, where she seeks to better understand how the conservatism she espouses has become less than what is needed, turning her views almost centre or centre-left. The use of multiple states helps to show that this is not an ideological Petri dish when it comes to exploring the shift, though it is hard to get to the root of the issue in a shorter book. Applebaum is keen to provide concrete examples and show how they fit into the larger narrative to offer the reader something on which to grasp while trying to decipher the truth. The chapters are laid out in a clear and concise manner, permitting the reader to see how things moved from A to B, without inundating them with information or leave them to feel lost in a sea of statistics. There is no doubt that this is an academic discussion, told through the eyes of a well-versed political reporter. That said, the discussion is quite intriguing for those who have a mind for the subject matter and can sift through some of the high-brow analysis of European politics. It may not offer hope of a quick fix, but it does show that this is not only an American phenomena, meaning that others can understand the craziness that appears to occur on a daily basis in the United States. Let’s hope that something can be done to take a little air out of the tires of the authoritarian movement. I’ve tired of it already and am prepared for some return to greater days!

Kudos, Madam Applebaum, for opening my eyes to better understand some of the issues that have made democracy less desirable to many, while filling the power vacuum with something more daunting. I will have to look into more of your work, allowing me to become better educated on a number of subjects.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: