Twilight of Democracy

by Anne Applebaum
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Part 5 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on July 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 847

Summary

Applebaum describes the American tendency to see the country’s history as a tale of progress and to be optimistic about the strength of liberal democracy once it is created. This tendency, she argues, emerges from the fundamental optimism of the country’s founders and founding documents. Americans tend to believe in “American exceptionalism,” the idea that America is uniquely excellent and unlike other countries. Applebaum acknowledges one exceptional trait of the United States, which is that its mainstream patriotism was never explicitly tied to a single ethnic identity. Yet there have always been groups that were dissatisfied with the nature of the country.

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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, leftists like Emma Goldman critiqued American capitalism for failing to deal with the problems of modernity, indicting the American dream as a false promise. Similar rhetoric characterized the Weather Underground of the 1960s, a Marxist movement of people who did not believe in American institutions or American exceptionalism and sought a revolution. These ideas came from the left, but at the same time, the Christian right has indicted America for secularism, race mixing, and what its members perceive as a loss of morality. Leaders like Pat Buchanan have guided the Christian right to believe that America’s role in the world is destructive and that Russia is superior to America.

Applebaum argues that, in 2016, the anti-democratic ideas of the American right and left merged to create the campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump, with its restorative nostalgic desire to “Make America Great Again.” From the left, Trump adopted a disgust with the social establishment, while also embracing the right-wing attitude of despair at the country’s moral condition. Along with these threads, Applebaum argues that Trump embodied a cynicism about humanity, born out of his career as a crooked businessman, as well as a careless taste for inciting violence. He does not believe in America and does not care about making it a model of democracy for the world. Instead, Applebaum says, he proclaims the moral equivalence of the United States with dictatorships like Russia, where opponents to the regime are executed.

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This anti-democratic rhetoric provides a justification for any action taken to root out the corruption of the United States, including violence. Trump and his anti-democratic followers see no distinction between democracy and dictatorship. Instead of a shared view of liberal democracy, what unites Trump’s “Great” America is whiteness, conservative Christianity, and an attachment to a land defended by a wall. This change in the identity of the Republican party would not have been possible, Applebaum writes, without authoritarian intellectual elites.

Once again, Applebaum names former friends and colleagues who celebrated the fall of the Soviet Union together, united in their shared belief that America’s future was bright because it was exceptional and democratic. Now, the links among those who were once united against communism have begun to shatter. Despite a temporary period of unity after 9/11, the group ultimately divided into factions with two different understandings of the world. Some, like Applebaum, retained faith in liberal democracy and its potential. Others became increasingly cynical about the United States and arrived at a state of “apocalyptic pessimism” about the world.

To illustrate this, Applebaum analyzes the case of Laura Ingraham. Once a Reaganite who believed in liberal democracy, Ingraham is now a passionate Trump supporter with a show on FOX News. Ingraham feels the doom of American civilization all around her, in foreign policy and immigration particularly. Ingraham now calls on her fans to “liberate” blue states like California just as the US government sought to liberate Iraq—that is, with violence. Her opinions seem contradictory, Applebaum says, as Ingraham constantly invokes moral values but supports a president who holds none of the values—such as “honor,” “selflessness,” and “respect for the vulnerable”—that Ingraham so proudly asserts. She explores several possible reasons for these contradictions before suggesting that perhaps Ingraham’s cultural despair is at the root of her actions.

Analysis

This chapter finally engages with Donald Trump’s political rise on an explicit level. (The book was completed in 2020, and Trump was still president when it came out.) Applebaum analyzes Trump’s political rhetoric in the context of previous strains of anti-democratic belief among American citizens, both on the left and on the right. She identifies the “Make America Great Again” rhetoric as drawing heavily on the Christian right’s restorative nostalgia for a more “moral” America. At the same time, Trump’s frequent attacks on the establishment—despite arguably being a member of that group—invoke left-wing critiques of a corrupt and elite ruling class that does not serve the interests of regular citizens. Cynical about the value of democracy in general and about the United States in particular, Trump followed a model similar to that of other authoritarian leaders and used rhetoric from both sides to infuriate people about the current state of America. Once he had successfully convinced his followers of America’s decline, the stage was set for his promises to restore America to its former glory.

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