As a historian and journalist who specializes in the history of authoritarian regimes, Applebaum is highly qualified to address the questions she explores in this book. It is clear, however, that she also writes out of personal anguish and disgust, wondering with horror why people she once deeply respected have turned their backs on liberal democracy and become the servants of dictators. She brings all her intellectual powers to bear on this question, weaving together history, political philosophy, and journalism in her quest to explain authoritarianism’s twenty-first-century rise and the role people like her former friends have played in it.
The central questions of Applebaum’s book are as follows: why has authoritarianism resurged in Europe and the United States during the first two decades of the twenty-first century? Why do a country’s inhabitants succumb to authoritarian rule? What role do intellectual elites play in the rise and maintenance of authoritarian regimes? How do large-scale deceptions like conspiracy theories serve authoritarian regimes? At the broadest level, however, the book’s underlying question seems to be a plaintive personal one: “why are so many of my old friends evil now?”
In answering these questions, Applebaum compares the parallel ascents of authoritarianism in several countries within a short span of time. She argues that authoritarianism is tempting to people who believe that political and cultural developments in their country have left them behind. Among ordinary citizens, those most attracted to authoritarian rule are those who desire unity and are upset by the increasingly diverse society they live in. They want to belong to a special movement with a single unifying narrative. Among intellectual elites, like Applebaum’s old friends, authoritarianism appeals to those who have failed to thrive in the competitive environment of liberal democracy. When these elites cannot achieve the success they want in a meritocracy, they reject the political system altogether, turning instead to seek recognition and power by offering their loyalty to a one-party state. These intellectual elites then often serve authoritarian states by creating conspiracy theories, propaganda, and other forms of deception. Such lies help authoritarian regimes consolidate power, giving citizens who desire unity the feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.
Applebaum personalizes her account of authoritarianism’s recent rise because it is deeply personal to her, but she also uses this tactic to advance her central argument. By centering each chapter on an intellectual or group of intellectuals she once respected or was close with, Applebaum repeatedly shows the destruction authoritarianism has wrought—not only on her own friendships, but on the intellectual communities in these countries. In each case, she gives a sense of what the former friend or acquaintance used to be and believe in, demonstrating their value to society and not merely to Applebaum as a person. She then details how these people have lost themselves in lies and are no longer the people she once respected for their integrity and service to their countries. Her personal loss and feelings of betrayal are also intentionally evoked here to lend a direct sense of pathos to the story she is telling. Her feelings both lead to the questions she is asking and help her draw the reader into them.
There is a key question that Applebaum asks but cannot really answer: what is going to happen? Will authoritarianism continue to spread as it did in the twentieth century and take root in more and more countries? Is there hope for democratic rule and personal freedom in the Europe and United States of the future? And, finally, can the reader do anything about any of this?
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not sure about the first two questions. She feels reason for optimism as she observes the values of the youth of today, particularly the way they connect across national boundaries. Yet the coronavirus pandemic (which was in its early stages during the writing of this book) leaves her worried that authoritarianism might be on the precipice of gaining more power, since the public tends to support strong government action during times of crisis. To the third and final question, Applebaum gives a resounding “yes.” You, the reader, can fight for liberal democracy and help defeat authoritarianism. However, she implies, you need to get started right away.