Alarm signals of our authoritarian age

“No powerful political actor had set out to destroy the American political system itself — until, that is, Trump won the Republican nomination. He was probably the first major party nominee who ran not for president but for autocrat. And he won.”

This comes from Masha Gessen’s book, which is on the phenomenon of Donald Trump. But a similar awareness is to be seen in Anne Applebaum’s book. These two brilliant writers shed light on the most disturbing political phenomenon of our era: the rise of rightwing authoritarianism around the world. They both focus on the success of politicians hostile to liberal democracy in Europe and the US — a particularly shocking aspect of this development.

Both of these books are journalistic, in the best way: they tell stories.

In the case of Applebaum, these are stories of her involvement with Poland and Hungary, but also Spain, the UK and the US. She is American, but also Polish. She is a renowned historian and expert on central and eastern Europe, married to Radoslaw Sikorski, a former foreign minister of Poland. She was also a journalist in London in the 1990s, notably for The Economist and The Spectator. Today, she writes for The Atlantic.

Gessen is American, too. They (Gessen is transgender and non-binary and prefers the pronouns “they/them”) were born in Russia, grew up in the US, and then lived in Russia again as a journalist, before returning to the US. This allows for a deep comparison between Trump and Vladimir Putin, on whom they have written a well-known book The Man Without a Face. The parallels are evident: Trump admires Putin. Indeed, he would like to be America’s Putin.

Twilight of Democracy opens with a party on December 31 1999, at Applebaum’s house in Poland. Most of the guests were Polish. “You could have lumped the majority of us, roughly, in the general category of what Poles call the right — the conservatives, the anti-Communists. But at that moment in history, you might also have called most of us liberals.

“That moment has passed,” she adds. “Nearly two decades later, I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party. 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.”

Such distancing is “political, not personal”, she explains. “Poland is now one of the most polarised societies in Europe, and we have found ourselves on opposite sides of a profound divide, one that runs through not only what used to be the Polish right but also the old Hungarian right, the Spanish right, the French right, the Italian right and, with some differences, the British right and the American right, too.”

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the founder of the Law and Justice conservative-nationalist party, listens to a parliamentary debate in Poland © EPA-EFE

Her theme is not just this split. It is about the role of intellectuals in supporting the would-be despots. In this, she follows Julien Benda, author of a classic book, La trahison des clercs (1927). Benda’s target were the ideologues of his time, whom he accused, in Applebaum’s words, “of betraying the central task of the intellectual, the search for truth, in favor of particular political causes”.

Applebaum is not arguing that today’s authoritarians are the same as those of the 1920s and 1930s. Today’s versions have, fortunately, neither the ambition nor the brutality of the homicidal despots of that era. Nevertheless, the new authoritarianism also needs “thinkers, intellectuals, journalists, bloggers, writers, and artists to undermine our current values, and then to imagine the new system to come.” Some of them, she adds, “used to be my friends”.

The book elucidates the regimes of Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Law and Justice (PiS) party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland. Ideologically, they are xenophobic, homophobic, paranoid, authoritarian and contemptuous of liberal democracy. Operationally, they subvert independent institutions — the judiciary, civil service, media and academic institutions. The great prize is to hold uncontestable power. Orban has by now achieved this, as has Putin.

In comparing Trump to other new authoritarians, Anne Applebaum writes how the America of today sees no important distinction between democracy and dictatorship, feels no loyalty to the other democracies, and is not ‘exceptional’

Masha Gessen describes how Trump is trying to create an autocracy: a regime in which the ruler is above the law and the ruler’s word is law. The president does not want orderly government or rational policy. He wants pageantry and adoration

How did people she knew come to support these new authoritarians? One answer, is “resentment, revenge and envy”. Replacing people of talent and principles with mediocrities who will do anything for success has never been difficult. Finding greedy people happy to join a corrupt new business elite is just as simple. She describes perceptively people who have done such things.

Another characteristic of the people she identifies is a blend of “cultural despair” with “nostalgia”. This permeates Spain’s far-right Vox party. But it is more obvious still in what she calls the “restorative nostalgia” of the Brexit campaign and Trump’s “Make America Great Again”. For them, the past is not just a foreign country: it was a better one. We want to go back there.

Trump fully shares the cynicism of the other new rightwing authoritarians. As Applebaum states, the America of its current president sees no important distinction between democracy and dictatorship, feels no loyalty to the other democracies, and is not “exceptional”.

“This America has no special democratic spirit of the kind Jefferson described,” writes Applebaum. “The unity of this America is created by white skin, a certain idea of Christianity, and an attachment to land that will be surrounded and defended by a wall.”

This is the antithesis of the traditional American creed, which was optimistic and grounded in a belief in openness to the world and the future. Yet, in the US, too, people Applebaum knew well shifted from the at least relatively idealistic conservatism of Reagan to the nostalgia and cynicism of Trump.

A White House event in July. Gessen argues that Trump has no aims beyond simply staying in power © Bloomberg

Twilight of Democracy is about the authoritarian right’s helpers in Poland, Hungary, Spain, the UK and the US. Gessen’s book, however, is focused on Trump. Surviving Autocracy raises two basic questions. What is Trump trying to do? Is he likely to succeed?

The answer to the first, Gessen argues, is to create an autocracy: a regime in which the ruler is above the law and the ruler’s word is law. Trump does not want orderly government or rational policy. He wants pageantry and adoration. For him as for Putin, “power is the beginning and the end of government, the presidency, politics — and public politics is only the performance of power”.

Trump has no aims beyond staying in power. Even his tax cuts were the goal of the congressional leadership. He just wanted a “win”. His indifference to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic reveals this lack of interest in what power is for. Trump just wants to be the king of the castle. His attitude to his predecessor’s work is illuminating. Like a conqueror, he wants more to erase it than to replace it with something better.

Is Trump likely to succeed? On this, Gessen refers to an analysis by the Hungarian sociologist Balint Magyar. The latter uses the term “mafia state” for these regimes, describing it in Gessen’s words, as “a specific, clan-like system in which one man distributes money and power to all other members”. Magyar also, Gessen adds, “developed the concept of autocratic transformation, which proceeds in three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation”.

The book suggests that “these terms appear to describe our reality better than any words in the standard American political lexicon”. Trump’s insistence that he is above the law, his demands for personal, not institutional, loyalty, his reliance on incompetent members of his family, his blatant self-dealing and refusal to be transparent about his financial affairs are all too characteristic of the gangster.

Gessen adds that “In Trump’s case, the takeover of state institutions has consisted of two parts: using them for personal gain and handicapping their service to the public. Obliterating divisions among branches of government has taken the shape of subjugating the Republican party. And packing the courts is packing the courts.”

Yet the Supreme Court is still not reliable, from Trump’s point of view. He still faces the possibility of electoral defeat. While the justice department must by now look pretty safe to him and the intelligence agencies largely neutered, the armed forces are not yet reliable servants of the president.

Yet institutions are never enough. They depend on people. People can be replaced by those more pliable, careerist and dishonourable. So far, Trump has not shown himself determined and capable enough to subvert America’s institutions entirely. Yet he has made progress in that direction, as the impeachment farce showed so clearly. His party is now loyal to him. That was not true with Nixon over Watergate.

The damage Trump has done to the US is already enormous. As Gessen notes, “such was the nature of Trumpism that the president’s closest associates could be in prison and he could be unaffected by this — in part because we already knew that his was an administration of swindlers and conmen, and in effect we had come to accept it”.

We cannot be sure that the incompetence shown by a Trump or a Johnson in managing Covid-19 will finish off rightwing nationalism. Orban has been far more competent. Even if Trump should lose in November, he has shown the way for those who come afterwards. And, as is true of Trump, Johnson’s lies have done huge damage to his country: his Brexit will leave the UK poorer and more vulnerable than it needed to be.

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Applebaum ends with the idea that “The checks and balances of Western constitutional democracies never guaranteed stability. 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.” And, as she notes, new media have done much to spread that cacophony and so to undermine democracy.

These books do not cover many aspects of the new reality: how does the authoritarianism they describe fit into the global shift in that direction? What is the role of economic and cultural change in driving support for rightwing authoritarians? How far is nationalism a reaction against globalisation?

The authors have not written works of detached scholarship, but a cry of alarm and a call to arms. They warn of the ease with which ambitious politicians may subvert liberal democracy, with the help of people who should know better. We have been warned.

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, by Anne Applebaum, Allen Lane, RRP£16.99/Doubleday, RRP$25, 224 pages

Surviving Autocracy, by Masha Gessen, Riverhead, RRP$26/Granta, RRP£12, 288 pages

Martin Wolf is the FT’s chief economics commentator

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