By the time I finished her long essay in my locked-down home in pandemic-battered Houston, I was more than a bit envious. But while it is easy to feel resentful — an emotion to which we will return — it is easier to feel grateful for her partying. After all, Applebaum is not just a reveler, but an astute historian and journalist. In Twilight of Democracy, she joins her professional skills to her personal experiences, producing an often sobering, sometimes shocking, but never despairing account of the rise of authoritarianism in the West.
Ever since the birth of democracy, writers have forecast its demise. Today is no exception: next stop, once again, is the Twilight Zone. Whether for the American century or the American financial empire, the liberal world order or the liberal elites, publishers warn that night is nigh. It seems that the rising forces of illiberalism and authoritarianism, nativism and nationalism are ushering in a new Dark Age.
Or are they? The answer, Applebaum replies, is complicated. One of the many welcome aspects to her book is its acknowledgment that democracy, like any other form of government, is not forever. It cannot be a machine that would go of itself; it is a machine that, instead, goes only as long as its users care for it. And whether the machine’s steering column is on the right or left, Applebaum argues, we have reached a moment where too many of its users aredriving it straight toward a brick wall.
Applebaum provides a tour of the gallery of rogues who have commandeered the machine. Her portraits are always sharp and often lethal. About Boris Johnson — a former friend of her husband Radek Sikorski’s from their days at the Oxford — she writes: “His aura of carefully studied helplessness also hides a streak of cruelty.” On Laura Ingraham — with whom she was once on friendly terms — Applebaum notes that at “some point her Reaganite optimism disappeared and slowly hardened into the apocalyptic pessimism she shares with so many others.” As for Donald Trump — whom she never befriended — Applebaum observes that our president, riding the waves of millenarianism and nihilism, adds “the deep cynicism of someone who has spent years running unsavory business schemes around the world.”
There are lesser known but perhaps more telling figures in this gallery, those relatively obscure intellectuals who, having shed their earlier political and moral convictions, now serve the illiberal regimes in Poland and Hungary. Applebaum rightly refuses a one-size-fits-all theory to explain why individuals like Polish journalist Jacek Kurski and Hungarian historian María Schmidt not only drank the Kool-Aid of authoritarianism, but now gladly serve it up to others. Out of deep conviction? Perhaps. Out of national pride? Maybe. Out of simple resentment? Could be. Out of the crooked timber of humanity, Kant famously observed, no straight thing was ever made. That includes the piles of lumber stacked in corridors of power on both sides of the Atlantic.
Inevitably, Applebaum sometimes too quickly jogs past individuals, tossing them a glance that neglects more than it nets. Take the cases of Julien Benda (1867–1956) and Maurice Barrès (1862–1923). In 1927, Benda published a long essay titled La Trahison des Clercs, usually translated as The Treason of the Intellectuals. In his book, Benda, a man of the left, denounces the betrayal by French intellectuals of ostensibly objective values, like justice and equality, that were founded in the Enlightenment and forged in the Dreyfus Affair. In the wake of World War I, Benda presciently warned that these values were threatened by a rash of -isms ranging from nationalism and Marxism to racism and antisemitism.
Benda’s warning, Applebaum believes, applies to our own time. Perhaps. But it is important to note a few things. Applebaum quotes Benda’s description of Barrès as a thinker who began as a skeptic but whose “material star waxed a hundredfold greater […] when he made himself the apostle of ‘necessary prejudices.’” By this, Applebaum explains, Benda meant Barrès’s “extremist, far-right politics,” which, she adds, made him “rich and famous in the process.”
Yet, it is worth remarking that Barrès was not merely, as Applebaum notes, a “French writer,” but one of fin-de-siècle France’s most dominant writers, his work influencing a generation of French youths regardless of their political predilections. He was not just a prolific novelist and an even more prolific journalist — his writings fill more than 100 volumes — but also a prominent politician who long served as a parliamentary deputy. Moreover, Barrès’s “extreme and far-right politics” — namely, his fierce nationalism and antisemitism — were, as Applebaum reminds us in her discussion of the Dreyfus Affair, closer to the mainstream than the extreme. Barrès was an outlier only in how much he wrote, and not in what he wrote.
Second, Barrès’s embrace of unreason — to use a phrase coined by Frederick Brown — was certainly repellent but not necessarily rapacious. For better and worse, he was a man of convictions. In fact, Barrès was, at times, capable of changing these convictions: during World War I, he repudiated his antisemitism. This offers an odd contrast to Benda’s own intellectual trajectory, one that Applebaum does not present. While he began as the advocate of reason and truth, Benda ended his life as a fellow traveler of communism and defender of the Soviet Union. Given his stout support of the death sentence passed against the Hungarian leader László Rajk during the 1949 Stalinist show trial — he compared his defense of Stalin to Zola’s defense of Dreyfus — perhaps Benda, more than Barrès, resembles María Schmidt.
Of course, there is nothing singularly French about Benda’s intellectual U-turn and, as Applebaum rightly notes, there is nothing specifically “Eastern” or “post-communist” about the ideological about-faces of Kurski, Schmidt, and countless other “clerks.” What they display has been displayed by so many others — and I do not exempt myself — across time and space. It is the all-too-human, all-too-common desire for recognition and power, no matter how great or petty. (In this regard, Applebaum oddly names Julien Sorel, the hero of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, as an example of someone who “murdered his mistress when she stood in the way of his personal advancement.” But Mme de Rênal was not murdered; she survived Julien’s dazed attempt on her life. Besides, when it comes to the complexity of motives, one might as well claim that Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov murders the old pawnbroker because she stood in the way of his personal enrichment.)
While our better angels propose, in short, our darker angels mostly dispose. This is especially true when it comes to resentment, which Applebaum cites as a prime ingredient to the “lure of authoritarianism.” More than notions of radical isolation or social anomie, Applebaum acutely observes, it is the brute emotions of “[r]esentment, revenge and envy” that explain why people do the vile things they do. But are all resentments equal? Certain distinctions, especially in light of the racial justice movement, seem called for. As philosophers like Alice MacLachlan have recently suggested, certain kinds of resentment are legitimate and pertinent responses to instances of institutional or individual wrongdoing.
Ultimately, Applebaum insists on not just the cautious optimism of our Founding Fathers, but the enduring strength of the institutions they created to buttress their optimism. In a beautifully wrought passage, she writes that these men, who had no illusions about human nature,
sought to create a system, stuffed with checks and balances, that would encourage people to behave better. Neither then nor later did their lofty words always reflect reality. Neither then nor later did their institutions always function as intended. But over time, the words proved powerful enough and the institutions flexible enough to encompass ever larger circles of fully vested citizens, eventually including not just men but women, people without property or wealth, former slaves and immigrants from every culture.
And when, she concludes, the institutions inevitably faltered, “the words were recited and repeated in order to persuade people to try again.”
Of course, these words were written by men who, when it came to the vital matters of race and gender, failed to act upon them. Yet, as Applebaum insists, those words remain alive. As Martin Luther King Jr., declared, they were a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” Is it possible that, as resistance widens and deepens to Trump’s vaudevillian jabs at authoritarianism, the promissory note will now be gladly paid in full? It may well be what we now see as twilight is, in fact, dawn.
Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His new book, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas, will be published next February.