Ex-Friends: Anne Applebaum and the Crisis of Centrist PoliticsHistorians in the News
tags: liberalism, European history, authoritarianism, Political theory
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.
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