Twilight of Democracy

by Anne Applebaum

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Part 3 Summary and Analysis

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Applebaum acknowledges that based on her examples so far, the reader may think that the new authoritarianism is a problem exclusive to Eastern Europe. However, the dissatisfied authoritarian elites she is analyzing can be found through all of Europe and on other continents as well. Whenever people who perceive themselves to be special fail in the competitive society of liberal democracy, they begin to seek other ways of feeling superior.

As an example, Applebaum introduces Boris Johnson, a college friend of her husband’s and the current British prime minister. At Oxford, both belonged to the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive society whose members were nostalgic for England’s old class system and enjoyed taking on the role of aristocrats at their gatherings. Johnson was once a journalist at the Daily Telegraph, an English newspaper. While there, he wrote half-truths about the European Union and its relationship to the UK, stirring up rumors about micromanaging authorities who wanted to smother the country in oppressive regulations. Applebaum claims that these stories were one of the key factors behind Brexit, the departure of Britain from the European Union, and that Johnson was aware and proud of this.

Johnson’s fabricated stories appealed to English conservatives who were nostalgic about the heyday of the British Empire, a time when England made the rules. They wanted the world to be that way again, and believed it could be if the country’s government acted boldly. Many of Applebaum’s colleagues at The Spectator magazine in the early nineties held these opinions, but she believed at the time that they still wanted democracy and free trade in Europe, which is what the European Union was meant to accomplish. But these people held it unacceptable for other countries to have any power over what happened in Britain, even though they wanted Britain to have power over other countries. They were happy to work in partnership with the United States to spread democracy, but not the European Union.

Applebaum writes of the charisma that makes Johnson appealing to voters, and how his obvious narcissism and laziness do not detract from this appeal. In conversations with Applebaum and others in the mid-2010s, he claimed that Brexit had no chance of happening, yet he publicly advocated for it. When the UK’s citizens actually voted to leave the EU, Johnson and many others were caught by surprise. The Conservative, or “Tory,” party had no idea how to proceed. They selected as Prime Minister Theresa May, who rejected what Applebaum saw as the sensible solution: leaving the European Union but continuing to share a market with them so that trade with other EU countries would remain tariff-free. She instead opted for a “hard Brexit,” detaching the country from European institutions altogether. An immediate problem emerged, which was that while Northern Ireland is part of the UK, the rest of Ireland is its own country and is still part of the EU. While both Irelands were part of the EU, there was no policed border between them, but with a hard Brexit, there suddenly needed to be. In the midst of the mess, the Tories sought a new leader who could make the English feel good about themselves and their country. That leader turned out to be Boris Johnson.

Analyzing these events in terms of nostalgia, Applebaum brings in a distinction created by the Russian essayist Shetland Boym. Boym names two types of nostalgia: reflective nostalgia, a mourning for the past without wanting it back, and restorative nostalgia, the desire to bring back the way things were. The latter, Applebaum argues, often goes together with conspiracy theories...

(This entire section contains 1279 words.)

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and alternative realities that play upon it. 

The English conservatives Applebaum is discussing felt at sea after the Cold War, when they lost their strong identity as a bulwark against Communism. They disliked leaders who did not make them feel part of a moral crusade or like members of an old guard defending the way things should be, such as 2000s Prime Minister Tony Blair, who sought to modernize the country and had no interest in nostalgia. Over time, they became increasingly furious at what they perceived as the loss of their country. And they viewed the EU, and the immigrants whose arrival it facilitated, as responsible for that loss. Eventually, these conservatives equated the EU with the Germany of World War II. They rejected the idea of a diverse Britain and were even willing to break England off from the other countries in the UK if need be. Whatever the price, they would leave the EU and restore England to its former glory.

According to Applebaum, the Brexit campaign in the mid-2010s was an ugly political moment, when social media users’ stolen personal data was used to manipulate citizens to vote in favor of leaving the EU. In spite of their claim to be defending democracy by separating from Europe, the “Brexiteers” showed disgust for democratic institutions like the courts when those institutions did not do what they wanted. After the Brexit vote, when it became clear that Brexit would cause political and institutional chaos, many embraced this chaos, hoping for a reborn and better Britain. Some of the same people, including those who supported democracy, came to support undemocratic regimes in other countries, like Hungary, that also raised strong objections to immigration. This support ultimately helped camouflage the Hungarian prime minister’s government under the pretense that it is a liberal democracy. John O’Sullivan, a former friend of Applebaum’s, ran an institution designed to do just that: the Danube Institute. When she interviewed O’Sullivan for the book, he turned aside her questions and accused her of being part of an international liberal elite.

At the end of the chapter, Applebaum returns to talking about Boris Johnson. He did not set out to change the nature of Britain, but he embraced the opportunity when he had it, ignoring Parliament and the British constitution. With Parliament frequently getting in the way of what they wanted to do, the Tory Party decided that it was time to change the ruling institutions in Britain. Applebaum now sees a British landscape ripe for re-making, but the form it will take is highly uncertain.


This chapter brings the problem Applebaum’s book diagnoses onto more familiar territory for its English-speaking readers. Hungarian or Polish politics may seem distant to a typical American or a British person, but Brexit is on the doorstep of the English-speaking world, and it happened only four years before the book came out. The whole book was also written in the shadow of Donald Trump’s presidency, though Applebaum chooses not to engage with it directly until later in the book. Examining Johnson, a similar figure in many ways, allows Applebaum to do a two-layered analysis of the relationship of the rise of authoritarianism to Johnson’s “narcissism,” “laziness,” “penchant for fabrication,” “cruelty” and “charisma.” She implies that Trump’s rise depended on a similar “restorative nostalgia” to the one she outlines in this chapter.

Applebaum also explores how conservatives who once took their identity from their strong anti-communist stance devolved into furious “restorative” nostalgics, willing to tear their country apart in order to see it reclaim its former greatness. She continues to thread her broken personal friendships with those who are now members of an authoritarian elite through her broader analysis of world politics. Having once found common cause with these people in the fight against Soviet authoritarianism, she now finds herself opposed to the same people for the exact reason that she joined that fight. They have changed, she says, while she herself has not.


Part 2 Summary and Analysis


Part 4 Summary and Analysis