The lure of totalitarianism

"Across the Western world, friends and families have fallen out over their diverging views on the populism that has flourished in the past two decades"

Julia Llewellyn Smith

The American journalist and historian Anne Applebaum starts her brief—yet punch-packing—memoir with an account of the Millennium Eve party that she and her husband, the former Polish Defence Minister Radek Sikorski, threw in their mansion in a remote Polish village.

The mood, recalls Applebaum, was buoyant (although, with characteristic diligence, she abandoned the festivities for an hour to write a newspaper column about Boris Yeltsin’s resignation, before returning to party until dawn). The guests, including several junior members of the Polish government, were mainly from “the Right”, which Applebaum defines as anti-Communist, free-market liberals, believing in “democracy, in the rule of law, in checks and balances”, embodied by such institutions as Nato and the EU. “It felt as if we were all on the same team,” she writes.

Nearly two decades later, Applebaum throws a second party where the guest list has changed completely. She would now “cross the street to avoid” some of her closest friends from the original bash. Half of that party’s attendees would no longer speak to the other half.

Such awkwardness has become only too familiar. Across the Western world, friends and families have fallen out over their diverging views on the populism that has flourished in the past two decades, be it in the form of Brexit, Trump, Poland’s Law and Justice party, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán or Spain’s nationalist Vox party.

For the well-connected Applebaum, this has gone a step further with many of her former friends actively backing alt-right regimes and policies. One now peddles online antisemitic conspiracy theories. Another with a gay son vocally toadies to Orbán’s homophobic regime. Then there’s Boris Johnson, Applebaum’s former colleague and, apparently, friend—despite her description of his “outsized narcissism” and “remarkable laziness”. She says that when an EU Referendum was being mooted, Johnson told her: “Nobody serious wants to leave the EU.”

Why have these formerly tolerant, cosmopolitan types performed such volte-faces? Why did Johnson boot every Tory who refused to mindlessly support every aspect of Brexit from his cabinet? Why have so many Republicans stood silently for years observing Trump’s falsehoods and bluster?

These people aren’t fearful of being economically left behind or anxious about immigrants—two oft-cited reasons for the rise of populism. Applebaum posits that it is their cynical lust for power that has set us on a frightening course to a totalitarian future.

She warns that: “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy.” In their quest to rule, “illiberal politicians” will ruthlessly clamp down on dissenting press, judiciary, civil service, diplomats and public broadcasters and promote sycophants.

Applebaum writes pacily and engrossingly about the ascent of these former mediocrities, who far from representing the “left behind”, come from elite backgrounds but—often—feel that their potential has so far been unrecognised. She doesn’t name them but several British journalists who in recent years have embraced every alt-right cause from climate-change denial to the supposed uselessness of face coverings spring to mind.

At times her pessimism seems over-the-top. She herself points out the US constitution is designed with checks and balances to hobble corrupt leaders, and while Johnson’s regime may share some tactics with Orbán’s, in other respects it is hardly comparable.

She fails to acknowledge the irony of the fact that she deplores the “restorative nostalgia” of the leaders evoking a greatness that never existed, while simultaneously yearning for the days of Thatcher and Reagan. And, possibly because it is already so well documented, she pays only lip service to the most startling change to our society since those halcyon days; the inexorable rise of arguably the world’s true despots—Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. Their algorithmic echo chambers have helped “make everyone very angry”, something the likes of Dominic Cummings—a name you sense Applebaum can hardly bear to type—has been quick to exploit.

The book concludes with coronavirus, which led Orbán to decree journalists who criticised his government’s handling of the pandemic should be jailed. We could see a lot more of this. But perhaps, Applebaum wonders, the common enemy of a virus could bring us to a turning point. Her Generation-Z sons—many of whose idealistic friends made up the guest list at party two—are fighting for a new era of global solidarity.

As befits a wishy-washy centrist, Applebaum can’t tell us which future is more likely and herein lies the problem. Fellow liberals will nod approvingly at her honest ambivalence yet the many who find the “cacophony and complexity” inherent in democracy too difficult to deal with will look elsewhere for reassurances that may be untrue but that one of Applebaums former friends will still be delighted to provide.


Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends
By Anne Applebaum
Allen Lane, 224pp, £16.99


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