Review and Reflection on “Twilight of Democracy” by Anne Applebaum

This book was published in 2020. Applebaum is a Pulitzer Prize author and it shows throughout this well written book that examines exactly what the subtitle of the book declares – “The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.” The subject is not new, but looking at how the world is facing this threat now is much needed and Applebaum does a good job of telling stories, looking at history, examining current examples of states who are heading down the path of authoritarianism, and the psychology of authoritarianism.

She begins her book with a step back in time – to New Years Eve 1999 where she and her husband gathered with then friends to celebrate the triumph of anti-communism. The wall had fallen as did the Soviet Union. Free-market liberalism and classical liberalism was dominate, NATO was strong. As she writes, “In the 1990’s, that was what being ‘on the right’ meant.” (Pg. 2). But all that has changed.

Applebaum goes on to examine why there is this lurch towards authoritarianism. It doesn’t seem to make sense. The people who are moving in that direction aren’t suffering, pre se, according to Applebaum. And she concludes this section by writing, “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to by, all of our societies eventually will.” (Pg. 14). Scary for sure, but also accurate. So how can we delay the inevitable as long as possible?

As one might expect, Applebaum references Hannah Arendt, one of the first people to examine authoritarianism. She does this to get us thinking about why certain people are drawn to authoritarianism. She writes that Arendt “identified an ‘authoritarian personality,’ a radically lonely individual who ‘without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement, his membership in the party.'” (Pg. 15).

She goes on to describe the situation with these people writing: “Karen Stenner, a behavioral economist who began researching personality traits two decades ago, has argued that about a third of the population in any country has what she calls an authoritarian predisposition, a word that is more useful than personality, because it is less rigid. An authoritarian predisposition, one that favors homogeneity and order, can be present without necessarily manifesting itself.” (Pg. 16). She goes on to clarify this predisposition as different from what conservative is – an important distinction. Rather, “Authoritarianism appeals, simply, to people who cannot tolerate complexity: there is nothing intrinsically ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ about this instinct at all. It is anti-pluralist. It is suspicious of people with different ideas. It is allergic to fierce debates…It is a frame of mind, not a set of ideas.” (Pg. 16). This is really important to understand so we don’t start making assumptions about people based on their ideology. Ideology is secondary to the predisposition. There are likely just as many people on the left as the right who are predisposed to authoritarianism.

Applebaum then moves to some history. She claims that “the illiberal one-party state, now found all over the world…was first developed by Lenin, in Russia, starting in 1917…It is the model that many of the world’s autocrats use today…It is a mechanism for holding power…” (Pg. 22). Again, it’s not a matter of left or right. It’s about power, loyalty, control, order, compliance. This all relates to the earlier comment on being against complexity. And loyalty to the party is the key. Applebaum again cites Ardent saying she “observed the attraction of authoritarianism to people who feel resentful or unsuccessful back in the 1940s, when she wrote that the worst kind of one party state ‘invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.'”(Pg. 24). Sound familiar?

Applebaum then shows us a pattern that runs through history of how authoritarian systems operate. “From Orwell to Koestler, the European writers of the twentieth century were obsessed with the idea of the Big Lie, the vast ideological constructs that were Communism and fascism. The posters demanding fealty to the Part or the Leader, the Brownshirts and Blackshirts marching in formation, the torch-lit parades, the terror police – these forced demonstrations of support for Big Lies were so absurd and inhuman that they required prolonged violence to impose and the threat of violence to maintain. They required forced education, total control of all culture, the politicization of journalism, sports, literature, and the arts.” (Pg. 37). Authoritarian systems exist by creating an alternative reality.

Applebaum then turns her attention to something that is an essential part of authoritarian systems and leadership – conspiracy theories. “The emotional appeal of a conspiracy theory is in its simplicity. It explains away complex phenomenon, accounts for chance and accidents, offers the believer the satisfying sense of having special, privileged access to the truth. For those who become the one-party state’s gatekeepers, the repetition of these conspiracy theories also brings another reward: power.” (Pg. 45). If you haven’t picked up the theme yet, the common thread running through all of this is about control and order, loyalty and simplicity. It is a rejection of the complexity and uniqueness of the world and humanity. It is about changing the situation of humanity being a part of the universe to the universe being malleable for a specific person. What Applebaum doesn’t say, but I will, is that authoritarianism is idolatry – the placing of a person at the center of the universe by which everything and everyone else will revolve around. In essence, authoritarians make themselves deity and force others to recognize their deity.

Applebaum goes on to use specific adjectives and descriptions for authoritarian leaders in various parts of the world. She uses such words as “angry, vengeful, resentful.” (Pg. 58). And then takes her time to describe what so many authoritarians seek – to be special, to be superior. This is her link to what she talks about next – narcissism and nostalgia.

Applebaum goes into great length to talk about what nostalgia is and how it relates to authoritarianism. She uses “The Future of Nostalgia” by Svetlana Boym as her main source for this section of the book. You can read my own review and reflection of this book that I recently read. This understanding is essential to a better understanding of how authoritarians and their systems work. She goes in to great detail to give examples of this nostalgia and its ties to authoritarian figures around the world.

One of the key features of authoritarians and authoritarianism is falsehoods – the twisting of reality and truth for the purpose of propping up the authoritarian. She writes, “One of the many intriguing aspects of Karen Stenner’s research on authoritarian predispositions is that it hints at how and why political revolutions might take place in this new and different twenty-first-century world. Over a crackly video link between Australia and Poland, she reminded me that the ‘authoritarian predisposition’ she identified is not exactly the same thing as closed-mindedness. It is better described as simple-mindedness: people are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity. They dislike divisiveness. They prefer unity. A sudden onslaught of diversity – diversity of opinions, diversity of experiences – therefore makes them angry. They seek solutions in the new political landscape that makes them feel safer and more secure.” (Pg. 106). And that right there is a key understanding that links all of these things together – falsehoods, conspiracy theories, feeling special, the tendency towards cruelty, scapegoats and enemies, identity formation through a party/leader. Or as Applebaum writes, “…it now seems as if a country does not even need to have real immigrants, creating real problems, in order to feel passionately angry about immigration…When people say they are angry about ‘immigration,’ in other words, they are not always talking about something they have lived and experienced. They are talking about something imaginary, something they fear.” (Pg. 108).

Applebaum goes on to talk more in depth about the concept of unity in relation to those inclined toward authoritarianism. It’s about uniformity, because if there is diversity, then it is not simple. Or as Applebaum writes – “The noise of argument, the constant hum of disagreement – these can irritate people who prefer to live in a society tied together by a single narrative. the strong preference for unity, at least among a portion of the population, helps explain why numerous liberal or democratic revolutions, from 1789 onward, ended in dictatorships that enjoyed wide support.” (Pg. 109)

Applebaum then describes how social media contributes to all of this. “People click on the news they want to hear.” (Pg. 113). “…the algorithms also favor emotions, especially anger and fear…Anger becomes a habit. Divisiveness becomes normal.” (Pg. 114). And “if, in the past, most political conversations took place in a legislative chamber, the columns of a newspaper, a television studio, or a bar, now they often take place online, in a virtual reality where readers and writers feel distant from one another and from the issues they describe, where everyone can be anonymous and no one needs to take responsibility for what they say.” (Pg. 115). This is what I have described as keeping issues in the abstract. When issues remain abstract, people throw around facts and figures that support their arguments. The issues remain distant. They are larger than life. There is only time to throw cheap simple lines of argument at someone in opposition. When we do this, we lose sight of the humanity at hand – that issues involve actual people and the issues and the policies that we implement about these issues have real impact on real people. This causes those who can’t handle complexity to “forcibly silence the rest” (pg. 117) who disagree with the people who desire a unified, uniform narrative. We end up with us and them.

Applenbaum takes what she has been writing about and applies it to modern America and it goes in directions that one would expect – the mixture of fundamentalist and conservative Christianity with it’s focus on Rapture theology which means there is no point in improving the world, White Christian Nationalism with its nostalgia for how things used to be for those in privilege, right-wing politics, simplicity of arguments, the belief in redemptive violence to bring about salvation for the nation, the core creed of the ends justifying the means, the reshaping of institutions for the purpose of supporting the “correct” way of thinking and believing or else destruction of those institutions if they will not comply, American exceptionalism – all this and more wrapped up under the banner of a political candidate with authoritarian tendencies.

Applebaum specifically talks about the vocal and loud support of Trump and his methods writing, “For some people, loud advocacy of Trump helps to cover up the deep doubt and even shame they feel about their support for Trump…You have to shout if you want to convince yourself as well as others. You have to exaggerate your feelings if you are to make them believable.” (Pg. 171). This lines up with all the rest that Applebaum has written because authoritarianism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It requires followers and adherents – loyal adherents who force themselves to accept a false reality.

Applebaum concludes her examination of authoritarianism with two final statements that I think sum everything up nicely when it comes to how we deal with these systems and the people who force them on societies.

“Because all authoritarianisms divide, polarize, and separate people into warring camps, the fight against them requires new coalitions.” (Pg. 188)

“Liberal democracies always demanded things from citizens: participation, argument, effort, struggle. They always required some tolerance for cacophony and chaos, as well as some willingness to push back at the people who create cacophony and chaos.” (Pg. 189).

Overall, this is hope-filled book, even as Applebaum dives deep into the depths of authoritarianism and how destructive it is. She uses real world examples from across the world. There is no shortage of these examples that we face even today. But there is hope. We don’t have to go down the road of authoritarianism and the destructive and deadly nature that accompanies it. Hope is the medication that can stop authoritarianism. It can be the rallying call for those who will oppose it. Hope offers a future.


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