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The new age of autocrats

From Putin to Trump: why political strongmen keep winning.

BY John Connelly

Anne Applebaum’s reflections on the anti-democratic pandemic sweeping our world offer an extraordinary mix of personal witness and dispassionate historical analysis. A respected conservative author, Applebaum used to enjoy long dinner parties with some of our age’s most gifted right-leaning intellectuals, from Washington to Warsaw; now many of them serve illiberal strongmen and she cringes when she catches sight of them, elated when they cross the street first. But Applebaum also endeavours to figure out what drove these smart people to serve leaders who crush the freedoms that should be a requirement for intellectual labour. For their part, readers will ask whether Applebaum’s former friends help us understand our predicament: that citizens from Poland to California line up to vote men into office who detest the democratic way of life.

Applebaum got interested in dictatorship as an undergraduate at Yale in the early 1980s, inspired by the charismatic political scientist and former communist Wolfgang Leonhard. During college, Applebaum studied Russian in Leningrad and afterwards took up residence in Poland, occasionally smuggling in underground literature, but also filing news reports on what turned out to be communism’s twilight.

November 1989 found her in Berlin and in love with Radek Sikorski, an Oxford-educated conservative writer; the two spent long nights in conversation on the suddenly defunct Wall. Then she acted as an editor at the Economist and the Spectator, while Sikorski climbed the rungs of Polish politics (eventually becoming foreign minister). With two young children in tow, the couple fixed up a manor house in western Poland and invited friends to celebrate the new millennium on 31 December 1999. Almost half the revellers later went on to outdo each other in spreading lies and half-truths for the Jarosław Kaczynski government, for example the idea that Kaczynski’s twin brother died in 2010 as the result of a Russian plot. What happened, she asks. “Were some of our friends always authoritarian-minded?”


It’s unlikely that anyone will ever give us more sensitive or revealing insights on this question than Applebaum. She tells of how Jacek Kurski, a former director of Polish state television, once a courageous anti-communist, became a conformist; and we hear of the author’s teeth-pulling interview with Mária Schmidt, a gifted historian who, according to Applebaum, acts to deaden intellectual inquiry as director of Hungary’s most important historical museum and two institutes. In fascinating, intimate portraits, we encounter careerism, sibling rivalry and cynicism, but also desperate messianic commitment. Personal challenges appear to have led the Fox News host Laura Ingraham to a very conservative Catholicism; like many on the right she seems to believe support of Trump is superior to the dangers of secularism. Applebaum’s husband belonged to the same club at Oxford as Boris Johnson, allowing her to cull insights from the coterie who gave us Brexit: men nostalgic for British power and admiring of Mrs Thatcher because she would “go out in the world and make things happen”.

The New York Times called Applebaum a “glamorous globe-trotting intellectual”, but she’s really a global citizen, possessing literal and figurative passports to numerous places. In this book’s six chapters she also poses her urgent question (“How could they?”) to interlocutors from France, Greece, Spain and Venezuela. This boundary crossing lends her writing not only authority but independence, and that’s in evidence, too, in the works she consults to get a deeper perspective on democracy’s sunset: for example the late historian Fritz Stern’s reflections on German proto-fascists, whom the complexities of modern politics drove to cultural despair, or on the hysteria that divided France during the Dreyfus affair.

For more systematic answers she consults the work of the behavioural economist Karen Stenner, who found that a third of any population have an “authoritarian predisposition”: they hate complexity and are suspicious of people with different ideas. Opportunity brings their latent authoritarian predisposition to the surface. But are these human types: do certain people have an innate antipathy to democratic politics? My own experience with east European supporters of Kaczynski, Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orbán suggests something more prosaic: they come from nationalist households, households that impose a ferocious sense of loyalty. In other words, democracy’s twilight comes to us from the political right.

Applebaum’s use of the word “authoritarian” obscures this fact. There are authoritarians of various shades, she writes, left and right. She makes Lenin a precursor for today’s illiberals and says Trotsky would have been proud of Donald Trump’s idea, voiced in 2014, that urban riots can make a country great. Those leftward glimpses are distractions. Lenin seized power in a society ravaged by war with few democratic traditions, but in our day citizens of “model” democracies select men who use hatred to obliterate checks and balances. Applebaum rules out economic problems as an explanation, citing the growth registered since the 2008 recession. In her view, democracies come and go, and no one can say when and why.

Yet the economic recovery of the past decade has been patchy, and unemployment remains high in areas that support Orbán and Kaczynski. Jobs created in the US tend to be low-paying and without benefits, especially in regions where Trump performed well in the 2016 election. Orbán and Trump have used persistent social inequalities to argue that governing elites have failed “ordinary” Hungarians and Americans. By making the nation “great” they promise to restore dignity to people elites have forgotten.

History sheds light on our predicament, but to see it we need a word only glancingly referred to in Applebaum’s analysis: populism. Ever since liberal democracy took root, right-wing populists have been trying to undo it. The finest account we have of the early challenges is Carl Schorske’s 1979 work Fin de Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. In the early 1880s, Austrian liberalism was confronting two crises: long-term economic depression, and alarm among German speakers over threats to their status posed by immigrants from elsewhere in the multinational monarchy.

Rebels rose in the liberal ranks, claiming the party elite had lost touch with the “people”, and in 1882 they drafted a programme in which we glimpse populism’s mixing of left and right: on the one hand, demands for jobs and social insurance; on the other, protection for native culture. Populism finds adherents among people who feel their lifestyle is threatened. Then it was ethnic German workers in Habsburg Bohemia; now it is struggling workers in provincial Poland, the north of England, or the US Midwest.

Over the decades, populists divided: those emphasising workers’ dignity became socialists; those concerned with ethnicity gravitated toward nationalism. In the middle were Christian Socialists. In 1903 a party later calling itself the German National Socialist Workers’ Party formed in Habsburg Bohemia, promising salvation for ethnic German workers against Jews and Czechs.

In the aftermath of the First World War, the socialist left and Christian centre right cooperated, writing democratic constitutions and stabilising republics in central Europe. Yet after 1930, the democrats quarrelled, opening spaces on the right for a second populist surge: as unemployment skyrocketed, fascists said the democratic system had failed the “people”. Upon ­taking power, Hitler’s party preached ­national ­unity, but also fostered job ­creation, ­pension reform and health insurance. For the first time German workers took yearly holidays for granted.

After the Second World War, Germany’s centre and left drew lessons from that fiasco: they built the social welfare state while arguing that national interests were best realised through cooperation with other nations. In today’s Germany, left and centre still work to keep the far right on the margins, but in Poland and Hungary, historical memories run differently. The right says the interwar nationalists were patriotic, and accuses those calling them fascist of reciting a Soviet script brutally enforced by Moscow.

But the success of populism in these countries is traceable to the shortcomings of democratic elites. Weak social policy has left millions fearing that their children might not live lives of dignity. Orbán and Kaczynski are ethnic nationalists who claim to defend Hungary or Poland against decadent Westerners, but they also support job creation and cash payments to families.


All of which makes the US a riddle. Trump says his predecessors betrayed working-class white people, yet after taking office, he has sought to tear apart an already ragged social safety net, most egregiously in healthcare. His employment policy amounts to salvaging unsalvageable industries, and his legislative “achievement” was the 2017 tax bill making the hyper-rich even richer. No populist has done less to reward constituents, and that may explain why Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric is reaching historic heights: he has nothing else to offer.

Trump’s incompetence and incivility horrify Applebaum, and she appeals for a return to the US’s ideals of civic nationhood, where ethnic or racial origins don’t matter, harkening back to better times when his party was led by men of character such as John McCain and Ronald Reagan.

It is true that Reagan now seems decent and genial. But did he, too, not promise to make America great again? Why should a nation need to be made great “again” in two successive generations by the same party?

The answer is ironic and tragic and involves a much bleaker portrait of Reagan than Applebaum’s. Trump is a populist who exploits his predecessor’s failures. Reagan strengthened the US military, but he failed working-class supporters. Their incomes flattened, towns emptied and a generation later their children rallied to Trump. Yet Trump has continued the Reagan approach to government: to reduce it as much as possible, above all by starving it of tax money.

The two men share a political culture strong on emotions and weak on facts, and both have attracted white voters by stirring racism into pots of anger and fear. But the deeper ideology uniting them goes back to the 1950s, when a coterie of true believers emerged, led by William F Buckley Jr, claiming Dwight Eisenhower had disgraced conservatism by accepting FDR’s New Deal. In their analysis, government became the enemy of human freedom. I once heard Buckley speak on the evils of taxes used for social policy; he asked, “If liberals claim poor people don’t have enough food to survive, then where are all the corpses?”

Reagan became the movement’s standard-bearer. He got white workers to support his promise to annihilate government by portraying state welfare programmes as serving black people. Reagan slashed the percentage of tax paid by top earners from 70 to 28 per cent. Social spending shrank while the military grew, creating huge deficits, yet there could be no tax increases on individual income. From the late 1980s Republican legislators have had to pledge to oppose taxation, a process that rooted out moderates.

American democracy has become an object of derision, even pity. Applebaum’s response is to make appeals to character, evoking the “decency” of lonely dissenters to injustice such as John McCain. She urges us to seek like-minded people who might form coalitions to resist authoritarianism. However, appeals to character are not enough.

Take McCain, who withstood torture while a prisoner of war, and made no secret of his animosity for Trump. Yet in moments of truth, he fell in line, voting for the 2017 tax bill, to applause from big business, and supporting the Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings for Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016, an act that eroded democracy.

Civil courage, even that of a hero, means little if that person becomes captive to ideology, a “specious way of relating to the world”, as Vaclav Havel defined it, permitting people to have an illusion of high morality while serving power.


McCain was a symptom of our predicament. The cause lies in the conditions that permitted the tools of democracy – free elections – to be used against democracy. Applebaum focuses on her former friends because she believes well-educated opinion-makers are indispensable in giving voice to voters’ grievances and manipulating their discontent. In my view she overstates their power. Working people who supported Trump and Orbán were interpreting the world for themselves. They heard an elite invoking high ideals of unity while availing itself of schools and medical care working people cannot dream of.

Should the Democrats come to power in January 2021, they would do well to attend to an issue central to democracy that, as Applebaum rightly comments, the left has failed to address: who is the demos, the nation? People on the left abhor nationalism as a realm of dangerous emotions, but when Democrats boldly implement a New Deal everyone will wonder what kind of community justifies the necessary sacrifices.

In their response, Democrats should take a page out of the populist playbook. In democracy, nationalism and socialism are co-equal because national and social questions are inseparable. Any politician who thinks workers don’t need healthcare or paid sick leave is not just a charlatan but a disaster as an American. If the right leverages social grievances to splinter peoples by ethnicity or race – Christian versus Jew, black versus white – for the left everyone who is a citizen must belong equally to the nation. It is bad nationalism to say otherwise.

Applebaum pivots between historic pessimism and the fervent conviction of the enlightener. She says no solutions are permanent, democracies rise and fall, and authoritarians are always with us, yet she urges us to identify with people who have risked their lives for democracy. Hope glimmers at the end of her account when she returns to her family’s life in Poland. The optimism comes from an odd yet predictable place: a crisis of historic proportions. The coronavirus pandemic reveals that little is certain beyond one global constant: without deep and constant government intervention, not only would a quarter of the workforce be destitute, but many hundreds of thousands more would die.

Perhaps we are back in 1989, when ideas taken for granted suddenly seem absurd. Republican anti-statism is as unworkable and unrealistic as communist statism. The two are opposites along the same intellectual axis. Leninism held that government should control everything, and the anti-ideology holds that government should control nothing. Both are distortions and have no place in liberal society.

If the US elections in November remove Republicans from power, they can begin a serious process of reflection and perhaps rediscover an earlier way: a time, as in Eisenhower’s presidency, when government had legitimate tasks in society.

“Liberal” is the word that Eisenhower’s detractors used to defame him, and it’s a word that Applebaum proudly uses to describe her own unpredictable position. In Europe, after all, the word signals a commitment to freedom. Many on the left wonder where the passage is that will lead us out of our political hell. A glance at history says it’s somewhere in the centre.

John Connelly teaches the history of east and central Europe at the University of California, Berkeley. His latest book is “From Peoples Into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe” (Princeton University Press)

This article was originally published in New Statesman on 15 July, 2020

News Desk
News Desk
The story was filed by the News Desk. The Desk can be reached at info@thecorrespondent.com.pk.


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