The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends, Anne Applebaum, Allen Lane 206 pp

In the 2007 film “No Country for Old Men”, Javier Bardem plays a nihilistic psychopath named Anton Chigurh. In a key scene, Chigurh points a shotgun at a character named Carson Wells, played by Woody Harrelson. Wells was hired to kill Chigurh, but Chigurh is now preparing to shoot Wells instead.

“If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” Chigurh asks.

In other words, the situation is no accident and results from a previous set of flawed decisions. Every rule Wells has thus far lived-by are the very thing putting him in his current predicament. They will soon lead to his death, and in these final moments, Wells is forced to consider how he got here. Perhaps he chose the wrong line of work, maybe it was a mistake to accept this particular assignment. At a minimum, it would seem that Wells made tactical errors that put his life in jeopardy. In a serious moment, a serious person reflects on the road travelled — because if not then, then when?

Western liberal democracy faces a similar reckoning as it stares down the barrel of a proverbial gun. The public has lost trust in — public and private — institutions. Economic spoils tilt towards the few. Information bubbles and social media birth distinct realities and make collective action on global problems feel impossible. Pretty much everyone is frustrated at the disruption and death wrought by COVID-19. It is a good time to think about how we ended up in this mess.

With years of prominent roles in media, academia and think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic, and a resume that includes a Pulitzer Prize, writer Anne Applebaum would seem to be a reasonable guide for this sort of examination. In addition, as a prominent right-leaning public intellectual she might offer some colorful insight into how 1980s conservatives have morphed into today’s right-wing loons. In short, the premise of her newest book “Twilight of Democracy” has promise.

Until you actually start reading, that is.

Natural Evolution, Not a Mutation

Applebaum opens with an anecdote about a party on millennial New Year’s Eve. She is hosting friends at her rural Polish home and uses the celebration to demonstrate how many of her former friends have since aligned themselves with Poland’s thuggish, post-truth Law and Justice party. Many of the people from her once sensible Thatcherite milieu have simply gone insane over the past 20 years, and she just can’t understand why. So she is going to write a book to figure it out.

Along the way, she attends a few more cocktail parties and offers cursory examinations of Trump, Brexit, social media, Poland and Hungary. Applebaum also looks into the rise of Spain’s retrograde far-right Vox party. She does a reasonable job summarizing the unseemliness of assorted far-right populist movements, but one can’t help but notice Applebaum’s stubborn unwillingness to even consider the possibility that the illiberal right of the present is a natural outgrowth from the mainstream political right of the 1980s and 1990s.

Donald Trump campaigned with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” but he got the idea from Ronald Reagan who used “Let’s Make America Great Again” way back in 1980. It’s intellectually irresponsible to not at least question how much the former succeeded because of the latter.

Applebaum deploys an impressive array of innuendo, vague language, selective editing and amnesia. As ever, a good many people she disagrees with are lazily impugned as having “odd Russian connections” or “Russian links”.

At first, this failure to deal with the only idea that feels worth exploring feels like it might just be a blind spot — albeit a major one. But reading on, it starts to look as if Applebaum is intent on distracting us from even considering this possibility. In spinning her story of former associates gone mad, Applebaum deploys an impressive array of innuendo, vague language, selective editing and amnesia. As ever, a good many people she disagrees with are lazily impugned as having “odd Russian connections” or “Russian links”. And on the rare occasions that she gives her adversaries a chance to respond, Applebaum chops their comments up into three or four-word bursts, so she might frame them however she wants.

A Mixed-up Notion of Nostalgia

Chapter three, focused on the Brexit vote and the rise of Boris Johnson, feels archetypical of Applebaum’s style. Internationalist that she is, Applebaum opposed Brexit and remains mystified as to why so many of her former university pals supported it. While sane people long agreed the buffoonish Johnson is ill-suited for No. 10 Downing Street, Applebaum can’t help but feign shock at his coarse rhetoric. She writes: “Boris also called parliamentary objections to a ‘no deal’ Brexit a form of ‘surrender’ to the enemy, a comment he tried to pass off as a joke.”

Applebaum’s goal is to insinuate that Johnson’s martial language, hinting at treason, deviates from the way politics were practiced in years past. She is right that Johnson’s methods are nothing to laugh about, but the real joke is the way Applebaum pretends a sentence, where she writes 88% of the words, are somehow emblematic of Johnson. More humorous still is her implication that British conservatives have not spoken like this for decades.

For if Johnson’s hostility was not original, and instead fit a pattern that could be traced back to Tory’s halcyon Thatcherite years, Applebaum would have to explain how the crude Thatcherism she fêted in her youth was not a natural precursor to Brexit-style politics. If, for example, Thatcher ever said: “There are still people in my party who believe in consensus politics. I regard them as Quislings, as traitors” (which she did in 1978), Applebaum’s appal with Johnson would come off as dishonest.

In the meantime, Applebaum rightly considers Brexit hysteria as driven by misplaced nostalgia, but also curiously portrays it as distinct from the entire thrust of the past 30 years of conservative politics. Is she claiming that nostalgia was not the driving force of late-twentieth-century right-of-center politics? What then does the ‘again’ symbolize in Reagan’s “Let’s make America great again” slogan? And what about the absurd 1982 war Thatcher fought with Argentina to perpetuate the myth that Britain remained a global power?

“My policies are based not on some economics theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police,” Thatcher once explained. In shunning those dreaded expert economists and acting instead based on a 1950s caricature of the world, is it really a far leap to Brexiteer Michael Gove’s latter-day denunciation of expertise?

A Self-fulfilling Prophecy

It is fair to characterize Applebaum as taking a neo-conservative view of global affairs. While she may tilt more socially liberal than her friends on the right, she also self identifies as a Thatcherite. At a minimum, she has spent a career cohabitating with (if not cheerleading) a movement founded on the (false) assumption that free, deregulated markets (not institutions) were the method for securing political freedom. Thatcherites and Reaganites cut taxes, crippled public institutions by limiting funding and then used the resulting failures to claim those same institutions had been broken and illegitimate all along. A classic self-fulfilling prophecy, this unsurprisingly further degraded public trust in institutions.

Thatcherites and Reaganites cut taxes, crippled public institutions by limiting funding and then used the resulting failures to claim those same institutions had been broken and illegitimate all along.

After three decades of championing such policies, and liberal democracy on its knees as a result, Applebaum wants us all to pretend that she has favored strong institutions all along. Let’s just forget that she was a card-carrying member of a movement that sought to re-engineer societies, dismantle the state and convince people that whatever worked best for the rich would magically trickle down to everybody else.

Authors are free to write what they wish, but Applebaum’s lack of self-awareness makes for boring reading. A chapter or two into the book, you start to wonder whether such shortcomings result from poor technique, delusion or old-fashioned ill intent. Perhaps Applebaum is still giddy, celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. But as you stumble into cliché after cliché — “We are now living through a rapid shift in the way people transmit and receive political information,” Applebaum opines — you realize these questions don’t much matter.

Testifying to the Times

If this text is any evidence, the only thing Applebaum has learned over 30 plus years is that she has been right all along. While she bears no direct responsibility for the democratic decline in the three countries where she has the largest public presence — Poland, the United States and the United Kingdom — the fact that her brand of pseudo-intellectualism carries currency in those places is symptom enough of poor political health.

Reagan used positive tones and Trump is dark, but no matter the rhetorical tenor today’s conservatives work with the far-right and are brothers born by the same Thatcherite mother.

The Trumps, Jarosław Kaczyńskis and Boris Johnsons of the world are not mutations of the 1980s and 1990s conservatism, but natural successors to a project flawed from its inception. That is why even supposedly principled conservatives spent four years as Trump collaborators. In Europe, it’s the reason the European People’s Party still refuses to fully expel Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz from its European Parliament group. Reagan used positive tones and Trump is dark, but no matter the rhetorical tenor today’s conservatives work with the far-right and are brothers born by the same Thatcherite mother.

It’s great that Applebaum opposes today’s illiberal right, but instead of surveying the wreckage that is a natural result of Thatcherite-Reaganism, Applebaum chose to write a book pretending she had nothing to do with it. She is jumping off a runaway train, after spending three decades shovelling coal into the steam engine, and she is angry at former friends for demonstrating what everybody else already knew: liberalized markets do not connote political freedom, tax cuts for the rich do not help the poor and voluntary land wars in Asia do not foment world peace.

A book lacking original thoughts is one thing, but it takes a special kind of arrogance to write a memoir devoid of reflection. This special brand of willful ignorance makes “Twilight of Democracy” a perfect document for these times.

A book lacking original thoughts is one thing, but it takes a special kind of arrogance to write a memoir devoid of reflection. This special brand of willful ignorance makes “Twilight of Democracy” a perfect document for these times. With supposed adversaries who produce work this shallow, we cannot be surprised that the Trumps and Orbáns of the world succeed.

Much like the film “No Country for Old Men” this story ends with a cruel twist. It turns out the political project Applebaum dedicated her intellectual life to was as naively utopian as the Communism she once abhorred. Trumpism is a natural successor, not a deviant offshoot. As Anton Chigurh might put it, the rules Applebaum and her generational cohorts followed have led us to this, and the advice Chigurh gives to Carson Wells is something she might consider.

“You should admit your situation,” he says. “There would be more dignity in it.”

Benjamin Cunningham

writes for The Economist, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Le Monde Diplomatique and The American Interest. He is an opinion columnist for the Slovak daily Sme and a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona.

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