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Anne Applebaum's Latest Book: 'Twilight Of Democracy'


The writer Anne Applebaum has been thinking about the ways the world has changed over the last 20 years. She's also reflecting on how some people have changed.

ANNE APPLEBAUM: In 1999, we had a millennium party, a New Year's Eve party. And many years later, I started to reflect on that party and on the people who'd been there.

INSKEEP: This was in Poland. Applebaum splits her time between the U.S. and there. Poland was a democracy recently freed from Soviet domination. She thought her friends shared democratic values. Today, she says, she would cross the street to avoid some of them because they now support Poland's ruling party, which has attacked the independence of the courts and media, bidding for authoritarian power. She begins her book, "Twilight Of Democracy," by describing who some of the people at that celebration were.

APPLEBAUM: I would say classical liberals, people who would've been on the younger side who had fought to defeat communism and more or less in favor of free markets, but definitely in favor of democracy. And I reflected that many of them don't believe in those things anymore. And there's a part of the group who was there who are now part of the current Polish ruling party, or they work with it.

And what they want to create is a kind of one-party state where they want to eliminate a lot of debate. They want to control press and universities. They want to politicize institutions throughout the country of all kinds. And, you know, the question is, who are those people? And how did they come to believe that those things were preferable? So the book is partly about them.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that a lot of these people are intellectuals and that it's actually important that some people who have the skills of intellectuals change their views this way.

APPLEBAUM: Absolutely. I mean, these are intellectuals. They're also, by the way, people who you would consider to be an elite by any definition. I mean, they're educated. Some of them, they travel abroad. They are not victims of globalization. And so many of the categories people use, I think, rather sloppily and lazily to describe voters for Trump or voters for authoritarian political parties really don't apply to them.

INSKEEP: Well, at what point did you begin to think that this trend you saw in Poland, in Eastern Europe, applied to a lot of countries around the world?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, look; this was something that was happening simultaneously in a lot of places. So while I was watching this happen in Poland, there was a very similar process going on in Hungary. And, of course, you can see something like this taking place inside the Republican Party in the United States, you know? You see a party that has decided that it's no longer going to try to reach all Americans.

It's confined itself to white America, which limits it and, as demographic change continues, may make it difficult to win elections democratically. And so it's going to try and change the rules to win them undemocratically. I mean, look; this is a process going on in Turkey. Look at the Philippines. Look at Brazil. The authoritarian impulse and the desire to overthrow some of the rules that have run liberal democracy up until now is something you can see playing itself out in a lot of places.

INSKEEP: Did a switch flip and some of your friends just suddenly became different human beings, or so it seemed to you?

APPLEBAUM: No. It was a process. People changed over time. In some cases, this was about people who were not as successful as they felt they should have been. This meant that the system was bad. And therefore, the system needed to be altered.

INSKEEP: Can you speak to people who are listening - and there may be plenty, for all I know - who are saying to themselves, wait a minute. I'm Republican. I'm conservative. I'm not authoritarian. I'm in favor of democracy. I don't think that my party is the same as what you see in Hungary or Poland or anywhere else. What would you say to someone who's thinking that way?

APPLEBAUM: I mean, the Republican Party is a complex organism. I mean, I've - you know, I should - maybe listeners don't know. I voted Republican and would have called myself a conservative 15 years ago. And it - certainly, in the 1990s, it felt to me like a wide coalition of exactly as you've just said, people who believe in democracy. I don't think that you can say that President Trump stands for those ideas or for those beliefs.

I don't think he's someone who's interested either in democracy in the world. He's not interested in America's democratic allies or alliances. His closest relationships are with dictators. I don't believe that all Republicans think that that's good. But I do think that Republicans who believe they are Democrats and who care about the future of American political institutions have an obligation to vote against Trump and to renew and restore their party after he's gone.

INSKEEP: What is the connection between authoritarianism and paranoia or conspiracy theorizing?

APPLEBAUM: So in the book, I talk a lot about conspiracy theories because it was the creation of a conspiracy theory that originally brought both the Law and Justice Party in Poland to power as well as Donald Trump. In Trump's case, it was birtherism (ph), which is the theory that Barack Obama was not really American and, therefore, was an illegitimate president. In Poland, it was the theory that a plane crash that killed a previous president of the country had been secretly caused - it's sort of not even clear why - either by the Russians or by the Polish government at the time.

And if you think about it, you know, in both cases, what were these conspiracy theories telling people? - you know, that, look; there is a - everybody is lying to you. Congress, the White House, the justice system, the media - they're all lying to you. The president is illegitimate. And you're being lied to and not told the truth about it. And in the case of Poland, it was, the president was murdered by his own government. And you're not being told the truth about it. And, you know, once you can convince people to believe that, then you can convince them that everything else is fake and false and that all of these institutions need to be destroyed.

INSKEEP: When you look back in history, do you find other societies that are pushed from democracy toward authoritarianism? And how did the story turn out in some of those cases.

APPLEBAUM: Well, let's be clear, almost every democracy in history ended in authoritarianism, starting with ancient Greece and Rome. Some of the most brilliant writings on what ends democracy come from Cicero, you know, from Roman writers. When - in fact, when the American Founding Fathers wrote our founding documents and our Constitution, they had those Roman examples in their heads. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were writing to one another about Cicero all the way up until the ends of their lives.

So everybody who founded and created democratic systems has always been aware of how fragile they can be. They require something almost, you know, that goes against human nature. Namely, they require all of us to allow our political enemies to rule, you know? We are going to let them rule for a while. And then we're going to try and beat them back and take power from them through using these legal methods. And, you know, if you think about it, that's a tough ask. That doesn't mean it has to fail, but it means that it can.

INSKEEP: Anne Applebaum is the author of "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism." Thanks so much.

APPLEBAUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.