Muslims make up around 4% of Spain’s population. When asked to guess the percentage, Spanish respondents regularly give pollsters an inflated number. A similar discrepancy is found across all western democracies. Demographic alarm, whether based on reality, fantasy or stoked with falsehood provides rich pickings for the nativist movements that have swept the world in recent years.
Santiago Abascal is leader of Spain’s Vox party. As Anne Applebaum points out in her sweeping survey of political nationalisms, “the idea that Christian civilisation needs to redefine itself against the Islamic enemy has a special historic echo in Spain”. The fact that a large proportion of immigrants come from Catholic Latin America is mostly ignored by the far right. Applebaum points out that in one of Abascal’s many campaigning videos, he “mounted a horse and, like the knights who once fought to reconquer Andalucia from the Arabs, rode across a southern Spanish landscape. Like so many internet memes, it was serious but unserious.” It has certainly been effective. Last November, Vox made huge gains in the general election, becoming Spain’s third largest party.
Applebaum begins this engrossing account in her adopted Poland (she is married to a Polish former defence and foreign minister). She recalls a New Year’s Eve party she gave to celebrate the dawn of the millennium. “At that moment, when Poland was on the cusp of joining the west, it felt as if we were all on the same team. We agreed about democracy, about the road to prosperity, about the way things were going.” Now she would cross the street to avoid some of her guests. The feeling is mutual. This is a political book; it is also intensely personal, and the more powerful for it.
She names and shames a number of friends. Several, she says, peddle online antisemitic conspiracy theories. These people have not lost their jobs or missed out on housing as a result of migrants. They do not remotely fall into the category of the “left-behinds”. They are highly educated and well travelled. Why, therefore, do they embrace and disseminate the lies and half-truths trotted out by Poland’s Law and Justice party? History lesson number one: authoritarians need mass support, but, as with 1930s fascists, they also need the collaboration of people in high places. “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy,” the author notes. “Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”
The House of Terror museum, which narrates the history of communist and fascist oppression, is one of the first stops for visitors to Budapest. Applebaum recalls that she first met its director, Mária Schmidt, at the museum’s opening in 2002. In recent years, Schmidt’s trajectory, Applebaum argues, has followed that of many: she blames foreigners for Hungary’s ills. The pair went from friendship to daggers drawn. During an ill-tempered (and one assumes final) meeting, Schmidt vented her fury towards all those seeking to undermine “Hungarian-ness”. Usually the first on any Hungarian nationalist’s enemies-of-the-state list is the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, whose Central European University has been shut down. The western media and western diplomats “talk down from above to those below, like it used to be with colonies”, Schmidt tells Applebaum.
Twilight of Democracy tries to deconstruct the psychology and motivation of such people. For some it is the chance to be noticed; for others, it is revenge for slights. Applebaum moves on to Laura Ingraham, another former acquaintance, who has become host of a certain type of US political chat show. “She has, like so many others in the Fox universe, depicted illegal immigrants as thieves and murderers, despite overwhelming evidence that immigrants commit fewer crimes overall than native-born Americans.”
Career advancement may have guided her. But Applebaum believes it is more than that. The answer, she argues, may lie “in the depth of Ingraham’s despair”. She sees America, according to Applebaum, as “a dark, nightmarish place, where God only speaks to a tiny number of people; where idealism is dead; where civil war and violence are approaching; where the ‘elite’ is wallowing in decadence, disarray, death”. How do these people actually believe this stuff? One senses a note of frustration as she struggles to answer the question.
My empathy with the author takes a dip when she turns her attention to Britain and a dinner she had with Boris Johnson, when he was mayor of London. Not for the first or last time, the wannabe prime minister confessed that leaving the EU would be a disaster. Indeed, Applebaum recalls him saying that “nobody” wanted it. But why was she friends with him in the first place? It was clear from the get-go what Johnson was – a charlatan. Why were people on the centre-right so titillated by him and his set?
It could be that Covid-19 has disabused people of any idea that Johnson and his ilk have a shred of competence in a crisis. Will authoritarians, populists or democrats emerge stronger from the pandemic? It is worth turning to Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes’s book to understand how liberal democracy went so badly wrong after 1989, and how the right dominated the agenda.
The liberal democratic state could not be improved on, eastern Europeans were told: just import it and adopt it
At every step, the west suffered from a toxic mix of hubris, naivety and ineptitude. It undermined its political offer to former communist states from the moment the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, through what Krastev calls its “casual condescension”. The liberal democratic state could not be improved on, eastern Europeans were told: just import it and adopt it. This new identity was implanted from abroad. As a result, it “would never be fully theirs”.
The “no alternative” mantra provided the foundations for the wave of populist xenophobia and reactionary nativism that took a decade or more fully to develop. But even in the 1990s, in the Soviet Union but not only there, politicians had started to fake their allegiance to democratic institutions. “Most of them found faking democracy perfectly natural since they had been faking communism for at least two decades.”
Initially, former dictatorships tried to copy the west. Some succeeded more than others. Disillusionment resulted from not just a sense of being told what to do, but also from the realisation that the masters weren’t actually that good at the job. “Confidence that the political economy of the west was a model for the future of mankind had been linked to the belief that western elites knew what they were doing.” The financial crisis of 2008 shattered any remaining illusions.
The new nationalists turned imitation from a defensive to an offensive tool. Viktor Orbán in Hungary pretended to be a member of the family of nations with the EU, while undermining it at every turn. Vladimir Putin’s ambitions were greater. Russia built Potemkin replicas of western institutions in order to undermine them. “The Kremlin’s new retaliatory form of imitation was meant to discredit the west’s over-praised model and make western societies doubt the superiority of their own norms and institutions.”
Courts and elections were rigged and seen to be rigged. That constituted a win-win – Putin prevailed in all instances, while his people tired of institutions that ostentatiously were not delivering checks and balances on executive power. Sowing disenchantment abroad was the logical next step. The same applied to the notion of truth. He knew that everyone knew he was lying. That was the point. “Paying no price for telling easily exposable untruths is an effective way to display one’s power and impunity.”
The imitator resents the imitated. Equally, the imitated begins to resent the imitator. What happens when they join forces? Which takes us to Donald Trump, who “persistently rejects America’s messianic self-understanding as well as the idea that the United States is a beacon of liberty and justice for all mankind”. In Trump’s worldview, and that of his base, Americanisation of the world hasn’t helped America. China and Chinese jobs have prevailed, while “native” populations have suffered. Imitation has had its day. There is no one to imitate any more.
• John Kampfner’s Why the Germans Do It Better is out in August. To order Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends (Penguin,£16.99) and The Light that Failed: A Reckoning (Penguin, £20) go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.