Twilight of Democracy

by Anne Applebaum

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Twilight of Democracy Themes

The main themes in Twilight of Democracy are authoritarianism, social division, and deception.

  • Authoritarianism: Applebaum contends that authoritarian regimes have been able to consolidate power with the help of intellectual elites who feel left behind by liberal democratic systems.
  • Social Division: Weaving personal anecdote together with historical analysis, Applebaum shows how authoritarianism exploits and deepens existing rifts in society to foster discord.
  • Deception: Authoritarian regimes maintain power through the use of conspiracy theories, propaganda, and lies. Intellectual elites who are loyal to such regimes play an instrumental role in creating and spreading this misinformation.


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The central focus of this book is authoritarianism and authoritarian regimes. Authoritarianism is defined as rule by one group with no real or powerful opposition, or the desire for this type of rule. In her book, Applebaum analyzes why countries succumb to authoritarian regimes and how intellectual elites contribute to the rise of authoritarianism. Her discussion primarily revolves around the twenty-first century rise of authoritarian regimes in Europe and the US. In particular, she argues that the recent rise of authoritarianism has been spurred on by conspiracy-theory-based misinformation campaigns that allow authoritarian governments to gain and consolidate power. These regimes then depend on loyal intellectual elites to create and maintain the spread of misinformation.

Applebaum argues that authoritarianism is attractive to people who find cultural diversity disturbing and those who desire the simplicity of being told what to believe. Even though they are false (sometimes to the point of absurdity), conspiracy theories can be a source of comfort to believers. Such theories often promote the idea that corrupt institutions or individuals are to blame for believers’ problems, offering them a simple explanation for their hardships that also makes them feel like they have special or insider knowledge. The intellectual elite who create and promote conspiracy theories may not necessarily believe in them, but their participation in manipulating the public allows them to gain influence and curry favor with the regime in power. Applebaum argues that this type of favor appeals to intellectuals who feel left behind by the rise of liberal democracy. They have not thrived in the competitive meritocracy created by liberal democracy, so they choose to support a regime that will reward them for their loyalty. In doing so, they abandon their belief in the democratic system and the principles of free democracy. 

Social Division

Applebaum shows the impact of authoritarianism on personal relationships through repeated analyses of public figures and former friends who have since become agents of authoritarian regimes. Through the framing device of the New Year’s Eve party in the opening section, she introduces a unified group of “center-right” figures who were once close to each other. Despite their political differences, they were drawn together by a shared belief in democracy. 

Applebaum describes how many of her personal and professional relationships deteriorated as a number of her friends evolved into far-right nationalists who used their intellectual powers to support authoritarian regimes. In each chapter, she addresses one or more figures that she used to be friends with or respect and talks about how that person has since become a servant to an authoritarian regime. In many cases, these individuals will no longer communicate with her honestly or, in some cases, at all. 

These personal relationships help underscore Applebaum’s broader point about the social discord that results from authoritarianism. Inevitably, Applebaum argues, strong and vital divides will emerge between those who are willing to support an authoritarian regime and those who are not. Though Applebaum conveys a sense of grief over the loss of these friendships, it’s clear that she doesn’t regret her own political stance. The book concludes with a description of another, more recent, social gathering hosted by Applebaum. The guests in attendance—many of whom are left-leaning individuals Applebaum would have once been politically opposed to—offer a stark illustration of how social and political allegiances have been transformed through the cultural and political shifts of the last twenty years.


A common thread among all the authoritarian regimes and political parties that Applebaum discusses is their use of deception to seize and consolidate power. Deception, Applebaum says, is at the heart of how...

(This entire section contains 783 words.)

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authoritarian regimes manage the public, whether such deception comes in the form of blatant conspiracy theories (like the Smolensk conspiracy), opposition to imaginary problems (like the anti-immigrant propaganda in Hungary), or inflammatory half-truths (like those that fueled Brexit).

Elite intellectuals—including politicians, journalists, academics, and pundits—who are loyal to authoritarian regimes are the architects behind these deceptions and promote lies and conspiracy theories that they know will inspire fear and anger among their followers. Using social media and targeted marketing, they feed the rage and terror of their followers through plausible, “medium-size” lies and conspiracies that build on each other to form a shared ideology and identity. These lies help isolated and neglected individuals feel special because they are “in the know” and part of a movement that is larger than themselves. Those who are susceptible to supporting authoritarianism tend to fear diversity and seek a sense of belonging; this desire for unity is then easily exploited through untrue conspiracies that make believers feel as if they belong to an in-group that is “superior” to others.


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