Twilight of Democracy

by Anne Applebaum

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Twilight of Democracy Characters

The main characters in Twilight of Democracy include Anne Applebaum, Boris Johnson, and Alfred Dreyfus.

  • Anne Applebaum, the author, seeks to understand why authoritarianism appeals to intellectual elites like her former conservative friends.
  • Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the UK, is cited by Applebaum as an example of an intellectual elite who has turned toward authoritarianism.
  • Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully accused of being a German spy during the war. Though the evidence against him was revealed to be fabricated, many still believed him guilty because he seemed foreign. Applebaum uses this historical event to illustrate the deep social divisions that give rise to authoritarianism.


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Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum, the author, is a historian and journalist whose expertise is the history of communism and authoritarianism. She is married to a Polish civil servant. In the 1990s, when communist regimes were falling across eastern Europe, she identified as a member of the center-right political orientation: financially conservative, supportive of free markets, and a believer in spreading liberal democracy around the world. At this time, she had much in common with other members of the center-right and right wing in politics. However, as authoritarianism began to rise across Europe and America, she found many of her friends moving increasingly far-right, becoming supporters of the authoritarian regimes and using their intellectual powers to advance the interests of those governments. 

Appalled by her former friends’ willingness to sacrifice freedom and democracy, Applebaum began to study these authoritarian regimes in an attempt to analyze why they came to power and what made them attractive to their supporters. Her work in this book focuses heavily on the intellectual elites, people like her former friends, as she seeks to understand why such people would devote their powers and skills to the service of an authoritarian regime. As a historian of communism, Applebaum is particularly invested in figuring out why her former allies against communism would turn toward authoritarianism.

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was a college friend of Applebaum’s husband. He rose to fame as a journalist, frequently writing misleading articles about the European Union, an institution that, he claimed, oppressed England through unnecessary regulation and undermined England’s autonomy. To those who fear immigrants and yearned for the past dominance of the British empire, these half-truths and lies inspired anger about England’s continued membership in the European Union and were ultimately a key cause of “Brexit.” Applebaum says that despite being a key architect behind Brexit, Johnson never actually believed it would succeed. When it did, Johnson took advantage of the ensuing chaos: when Prime Minister Theresa May handled the process of exiting the EU poorly, Johnson charged into the opening and became Prime Minister.

Donald Trump

A businessman turned reality tv host, Donald Trump first entered the political sphere by promoting the false rumor that then-president Barack Obama had not been born in the United States, a conspiracy theory known as “birtherism.” Trump later ran for president of the United States in 2016 as the Republican nominee and was inaugurated as the 45th President in 2017. 

Applebaum argues that the rhetoric that brought Trump to power represented a powerful blend of liberal distrust of the entrenched political establishment with conservative disgust at the moral condition of America. Drawing on his past as a businessman, Trump played into the cynicism of these sentiments. Stoking fears about immigrants and claiming a nostalgia for America’s former glory, Trump’s rhetoric prompted many traditionally conservative journalists and pundits, like Laura Ingraham, to join a new movement that sought to restore an ethnically unified America that had, in reality, never truly existed. Ingraham and others eventually became spreaders of propaganda, supporting Trump’s campaign and presidency by promoting conspiracy theories that prevented his followers from holding him accountable for his dishonesty. Trump was still president when Applebaum completed this book, so the book does not reflect on his presidency as a completed historical period. Rather, writing at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Applebaum ponders the future of her native country and wonders whether authoritarianism will triumph in the end.

Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus, a nineteenth-century French military officer, was at the center of the Dreyfus Affair. Because he was Jewish and...

(This entire section contains 763 words.)

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spoke with a German accent, Dreyfus became the scapegoat in an investigation of how French military information had gotten to the Germans. He was court-martialed, convicted based on fabricated evidence, and subjected to humiliating public punishment. This incident led to a rift in French society. Some believed Dreyfus must be guilty because he was “not really French” (due to his religion and accent); many held this opinion even when the evidence against him was proven to be fabricated. Their opponents, the anti-Dreyfusards, believed that the ideals of liberal democracy, including equal treatment of all citizens, superseded nationalism and a narrow idea of who was “really French.” This rift in French society lasted for decades. Applebaum uses the Dreyfus affair as an example to explore how nationalist ideals of ethnic identity lie beneath the surface of society, ready to emerge under the impact of certain pressures. Such nationalist ideas are ripe for manipulation through propaganda created by authoritarian intellectual elites.