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30 November 2020updated 21 Sep 2021 5:57am

Anne Applebaum on Donald Trump: “History has always hung in the balance. We just imagine that it didn’t”

The historian and author of Twilight of Democracy on the meaning of the US election result and whether the age of progress is over.

By Harry Lambert

In many pockets of the West, from the United States to Poland and Hungary, authoritarian leaders are eroding democracy. In Poland and Hungary, those leaders remain in power. In the US, Trump has been defeated – but his impact cannot be undone. A recent poll suggested that only one in eight of his supporters believe Joe Biden won the 2020 election legitimately, which suggests around 40 per cent of all voters believe the election was flawed or fraudulent.

Anne Applebaum, best known as a historian of 20th century Russia – see Gulag (2003), Iron Curtain (2012), and Red Famine (2017) – has covered the threat to democracy of Trump and other would-be autocrats on two fronts this year: in book form and in a cover story for the Atlantic. The New Statesman reviewed her book, Twilight of Democracy, in July (“an extraordinary mix of personal witness and dispassionate historical analysis”). I caught up with her last week to discuss at greater length what the future may now hold for Trump, the US and democracy.

The question that came to intrigue me, as I listened to Applebaum describe the fracturing of old certainties, is whether progress is assured in the long run. Is there, as Martin Luther King claimed, an arc of the moral universe that bends towards justice? Applebaum is clear: there is no inevitable arc. But that is no ground for pessimism.

“Every day,” she tells me, “there are a huge range of radical options open to us. Every day history could go one direction or another. Our societies could be on a road to steep decline and disaster – or we could recover, and America will lead a new democratic coalition. But neither one of those outcomes is for sure.” It is up to us.

At the end of your piece in July you wrote, in reference to Trump’s enablers in the Republican party, “Whether you were decent – that’s what will be remembered”. But what are the benefits of decency now, or in their lifetimes, for a Mike Pompeo [Trump’s secretary of state] or vice-president Mike Pence? The judgement of history is all very well, but do they benefit from decency in the immediate future?

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It’s a little early to say. I would like to say that if they’re decent, that they, or their party, will have a chance of gaining a wider base of support and have a chance of doing better in the future. A lot depends on how Trump comes to be perceived over the next few weeks and months. It may be that as he leaves office, and power slips away from him, and he continues to say that the election was stolen, which he will –  people may begin to find him ridiculous. [Though] I imagine there will be some cult following.

There is an advantage to all of us in American democracy being reliable, and to people believing the results of elections. It’s very hard for me to say exactly how that benefits Mike Pompeo in the future. But being part of a polity where people trust the system, and aren’t constantly suspicious and aren’t motivated by conspiracy theory, has all kinds of benefits.

I guess the problem is 30 or 40 per cent of American voters believing that these things don’t matter. Or that other things matter, that there are greater dangers. That these ideas that you and I might believe in – they just don’t have any currency with a third of the electorate. Is that something you fear?

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I fear that and, as I said, it may possibly be true. I’m a little hesitant to say for certain that’s going to be the case right now, because I think a lot of the balance of plausibility will change when Trump is no longer the president. But the existence of a third of the population that is no longer interested in following the rules, and no longer believes in the system – it’s toxic. And it has all these implications. It makes future elections hard to resolve, it might make laws difficult to pass, and it may polarise the other side as well. Because every time they vote for a Democrat, the Democrat is blocked and can’t do anything. And that is going to create a disappointment with democracy on the other side of the spectrum, which would also eventually be very dangerous.

[see also: The Biden transition is at last under way, but the delay could prove costly for US democracy]

If the sources of information that are influencing these voters – the Fox’s and the Facebook’s – remain the same, what hope is there to expect that things will change in 2021, ’22, ‘23? Even with Trump out of office?

I don’t think Fox and Facebook are the most dangerous things. There are even more radical television stations, like Newsmax and OAN, which don’t even pretend to do journalism. Fox still has some people who do journalism, that’s in their lineup. But it’s possible that people end up in those spheres and it will become impossible to reach them.

I suppose we have several hopes. One is that the contradiction between what they’re seeing on their news feeds and real life will begin to bother some of them. So if Newsmax is telling them that Trump is the president and he’s not, that will eventually filter through. Or if Newsmax is telling them that they don’t need health care, and they do, that will too. It’s the same thing that happened to Soviet propaganda: it eventually became so jarring, and so far away from reality, that people could see through it. [Although] Soviet propaganda worked for a long time, and was very effective. We now remember it retrospectively as having been a joke, but it didn’t feel that way, if you were living in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. But it ceases to portray reality. That’s what we have to hope for in any case.

There is also the reality of other people. Even people who watch Fox all the time, and watch Newsmax, eventually encounter people who don’t. And they have to cope with the idea that there’s an alternative epistemological system. One of the tasks of politics from now on – not just for the left, but for the centrist Democrats and the Republicans and the centre-right – is to try and find ways of reaching those people. People who live now in the far-right conspiracy bubble. It’s not easy, but there are ways we can try.

In terms of Trump leaving office, the feat he seems to be trying to carry off is to be seen not as a loser but as a martyr. What he then undermines, as you have said, is not just the political system, but the Democratic Party as a legitimate alternative. That seems to be almost the bigger danger because ultimately future Republicans will accept an election result that favours them – in that sense they’ll support the political system again.

I think it’s broader than that. If the system itself is being destabilised, there’s even potential for the Republican Party to be destabilised. Soon Trump will no longer be the president and for the people who insist he is, that is a travesty. They may become disgusted with the Republican Party. And you’ve seen a little bit of this already in the last few days. People shouting down Republicans who say that the election is over. The goal certainly is to delegitimise the Democrats, but one of the side effects might be to delegitimise both parties and make people feel that it’s not worth voting or that the whole system is rigged or that, democracy sucks, and you might as well join a militia.

Yes. And that’s terrifying on the one hand, but on the other hand, is it something we should almost hope for, because a split in the GOP is perhaps the best way of ensuring some of the things that a centrist would want, would come about?

I’m reluctant to encourage anything that means some large group of Americans are radicalised so much that they go outside of politics, and seek extra-political solutions. That’s something that I would worry about on the left or the right. Because that is when you get violence, historically. So no, I don’t want that to happen. What I’d rather happen is for the Republican Party to turn back to something that looks like the central right. But I agree that might be a pipe dream.

[see also: The divided heart of the GOP]

To turn to Republican senators, you talk in the piece about the punishment they face for being a turncoat senator being mild compared to others living under an alien ideology in the past. But perhaps the punishments are severe enough. If the social world you are part of is put in jeopardy because you oppose Brett Kavanaugh, maybe that’s enough?

I hesitate to make generalisations because a lot of them have different motives. For some of them, the motive is yes their social world, the people around them, their supporters. Some of them I think, are afraid of being attacked by the president or being tweeted against or being somehow pilloried out of the party. Some of them have bought the ideology: some of them believe that the Democrats are evil. This is the Vichy way of thinking – my enemies are so awful that I can collaborate with anyone or do anything or break any rules. Because if they [the opposition, whether “socialists” in 1940s France or Democrats in America today] win, the apocalypse begins. There is a religious element in some of them. When I was writing that piece, I spoke to somebody who’d worked very closely with Pompeo, who said he [Pompeo] thinks of himself as a character in a religious moment. They believe themselves to be in the right, and they’re saving the nation from the catastrophe of Marxist Venezuela and socialism represented by Joe Biden. So I would say that there’s a range of positions.

There’s also the Jim Mattis-type Republican you talk about. You seem at times to be suggesting that they should have immediately fallen on their sword as soon as they saw a problem. Was there not a benefit to them staying in office?

I think there were some benefits. There were honourable things you could do in the Trump administration, and I know one or two honourable people who stayed in it who sought to achieve something despite Trump. I also think that, particularly at the time of the election, there was value in some of those people speaking out in a much clearer way than they did. John Kelly, for instance [Trump’s former chief of staff], has walked around Washington for a couple of years now saying bad things about Trump. Why didn’t he ever come out and say any of this in public, in a serious face to face interview – in a way that we could all quote him?

You talk about the calculus of conformism, could Republican hesitancy to speak out be because they are working out whether they need to get behind this line [on the election being unresolved, or rigged] to survive? That’s why we’re seeing a lot of confusion in their messaging, because they’re waiting to see how this plays out with their voters.

Yeah, I think they’re waiting for that. They may also be waiting for Trump’s power to ebb away. Some of them are waiting for the electoral college to meet and choose the president as the moment when they’ll say it’s over. Some of them are looking for a milestone like that. A lot of them are thinking about the Senate elections in Georgia, and they want to keep people on side until then, although, as far as I can see, that could go either way. A lot of serious figures in Georgia Republican politics have been very upset by what Trump has done, because he’s attacked them personally. This is a risky game.

In your book you write of this risk of letting false ideas fly. There is the Polish mayor of Gdansk who was stabbed to death as a consequence of the propaganda being spread about him. And we’ve also seen that here in the UK with Jo Cox. How far are we from real life violence continuing to happen here?

It’s already happened, we’re there. People are now radical. We paid a lot of attention to it when it was jihadis being radicalised online. But online radicalisation by the extreme right works in exactly the same way. The murderer of Jo Cox was radicalised online. The murderer of the mayor of Gdansk was radicalised by Polish state television.

Of course there are unstable people. But hateful propaganda reaches unstable people. The killer in New Zealand […] was another person who was radicalised online, and who saw himself as an actor in an online performance while he ordered people into a mosque

And there’s no reason to suspect this stops. In many senses it is probably likely to get worse.

Unless we find some way of getting control of the internet and changing the way it functions, then yes, there’s no reason why it would stop. It’s getting worse, not better. It’s true that Facebook and Twitter are more inclined to kick people off than they were in the past. And I think actually, with Trump gone, that will accelerate. But then people go to other platforms. (ADD dark corners) [Although] I suppose the advantage of that is that they’re less likely to see it. When it’s on Facebook, when it’s a YouTube video, it’s accessible to everybody.

So perhaps the most important piece of Biden’s agenda, once he gets past the immediate crisis, is controlling the way this propaganda flows through the internet. Getting some control of the internet, as you put it.

I think we need a deep conversation within the United States and between the United States and other democracies about what a democratic internet would look like. One in which constructive speech and conversation is promoted, instead of slogans, emotion and anger. There is already an autocratic internet. We know what it looks like. It’s called the Chinese internet, in which all of these incredibly powerful tools of influence and surveillance are used in order to support the Chinese state. And all those tools operate on our internet too, it’s just that they’re used to sell advertising that will make Mark Zuckerberg rich. We need to ask, as societies, whether that’s what we want these powerful tools to do. And is there not some way of finding alternatives? I don’t have a full programme right now of what that would be, although there are more people thinking about it than you might assume.

[see also: What Trump wants now]

That’s the online side. But then to go back to Fox, do you think George W. Bush gets too much of a pass here for the way that he leveraged that platform and encouraged, I think, some of the tearing of the moral fabric – of truth – by allowing Fox News to run rampant.

There’s a long evolution. You can trace the origins of conspiracy thinking and, frankly, madness in the Republican Party back quite far. There’s a famous essay, “The Paranoid Strain in American Politics”, written in the Sixties. These are very old subjects. You can also find Republicans and conservative journalists who argued against this way of thinking. So I don’t think it was inevitable that we had to end up with Trumpism.

But I guess you don’t place much blame at Bush’s door. You don’t think of him or his administration as culprits here?

I don’t think that George W. Bush was seeking to delegitimise the Democratic Party, no. Or seeking to undermine the public’s faith in the democratic process, no, I don’t think that. You can blame him for other stuff, but not that.

But just to push back, should he have come out against things like Fox News when they told lies, as they did at that time? Fox has always leveraged a certain dishonesty, has it not?

In my view, Fox is quite different from what it was. It has evolved in this paranoid direction. Was Fox the same thing 12 years ago? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think the Republican echo chamber was as crazy. I certainly don’t think the party was as anti-democratic or authoritarian as it is now. So no, I’ll just say, I don’t blame George W. Bush. You could [however] argue that Bush should have done more in the last four years to protest against Trump, although what I have been told, by people who know the family, was they didn’t think they had the clout anymore inside the party or with the public. They worried about having the opposite effect. Lots of people did.

Do you think that argument holds water?

Trump was so good at discrediting the Bush family, that might be true. On the other hand, had George W. Bush, a former Republican president, given a serious statement or a video statement in the two weeks before the election, and said “Vote for my friend Joe Biden” – yes, that might have helped.

What part of the Trump presidency is most easily fixed when Biden takes office?

A lot of the Trump policies are going to be changed and fixed on 21 January. A lot of what he did by executive order, he did very sloppily and can be changed rapidly. The environmental damage that’s been done by the lobbyists who’ve been put in regulatory jobs inside the Trump administration, that will be picked apart.

If we do have a quick revival of an Obama-era set of policies, what should we still be unnerved by? Where’s the greatest damage been done? 

So to be clear, certainly things like regulation and things that can be done by executive order will be done fast, but I think it would be quite dangerous to assume that we could just revert to the Obama era, certainly in foreign policy. I don’t think there’s any going back to where we were four years ago. The US can rejoin some of these institutions and can recommit itself to climate change. But the damage has been done. There are two things that are really different now.

One is that the damage that’s been done to America’s reputation and the idea of America as a leading democracy. I don’t think the United States will ever be viewed quite the same way around the world, or is now linked to the same set of values. A lot of American allies are going to be wary. Biden says he’s back in supporting Nato – well, OK, that’s great until four years from now, when president Don Jr takes over, and then everything’s going to fall apart again.

The impression of America as a reliable ally probably matters less in Europe and more in other parts of the world, where people are, in the near future, going to make big choices between the US and China. And if they think of the US as an unreliable and unpredictable power, then they’ll make a different choice.

The other thing is that the American withdrawal from large parts of the world is now a fact. It’s just happened. We recently had a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in which the ceasefire was created by Russia and Turkey. The border was redrawn without any American or European involvement whatsoever. Once upon a time, the United States had a pretty ambitious set of policies in the Caucasus: political goals and others to do with pipelines and so on. Nobody even talked about it. That’s true in a lot of parts of the world. I don’t think we go back to some position where the United States is automatically listened to everywhere.

To bring it back to why people collaborate with Trump – or with increasingly anti-democratic leaders in Poland or Hungary, as you discuss in your book – how can you prevent people from enabling a would-be autocrat?

You will not get rid of the incentive for people who fail in one system to try and overthrow it. That is one of the elements that has motivated political change for centuries. All you can do is try and safeguard against it, or find ways to evolve, so that the outcomes are good for more people. The point is to be flexible, to work out what the new situation is. To pick new leaders if the old ones don’t work, to make sure that whatever we’re doing is working for people. If you don’t do that, you become the Russian aristocracy in 1916.

You’ve written of dictatorship, and the real possibility that the US Senate could one day become like the Russian Duma. But is that really the concern? Or is it something more subtle, where you still have elections but the voters are being manipulated, rather than the system being completely torn down?

So you have different models of this, of democratic decay or decline. It can take the form we have in Poland now, with a politicised judicial system and a politicised prosecution service, [where] they can target an enemy of the government and invent evidence on him. That’s actually what is happening now in Poland. You can get that form of decay. You can also get the form of decay you have in Hungary where the system is so gerrymandered, it is so rigged, even a majority of voters can’t throw the government out. I don’t think Viktor Orbán can lose. He doesn’t have an authentic majority. And yet in the parliament, he has a supermajority. That allows him to have full control of the constitution at all times.

You have this a little bit in some American states, where it’s just not possible to imagine the Republican party losing an election in certain states. The borders of both state and national districts have been drawn in such a way that they’ll never lose. That’s what people fear about the Supreme Court. That with a locked-in conservative majority, and some very activist and ideological conservative judges, you can imagine them blocking all kinds of measures designed to make the United States more democratic. You can imagine a system where it becomes impossible to make change. It’s not that I’m afraid of a dictator, I’m afraid of permanent gridlock. Because of the federal system, you wouldn’t get a Hungarian outcome, because nobody has that much power. But you get bad outcomes. You could get continually contested elections. You could have the country become slowly ungovernable.

On Poland and Hungary, what role can the EU play?

The EU is already playing a really important role in Poland. It’s given a lot of people the inspiration and courage to keep fighting. Just the fact of various inquiry commissions that have investigated things. And the discussion of the rule of law has been really important. It hasn’t succeeded yet, but it has slowed the government down, and it’s a big factor in Polish domestic politics. I think in a quite positive and useful way, mostly.

As a little aside, since you’re a British publication, one of my really big disappointments over the last few years is how little role the UK has played in Poland. The ruling party [Law and Justice] initially made a big play to be close to the Tory party, because they were in the same grouping inside the European Parliament, and the Tories really punted [on that]. They didn’t offer any advice. They could have had influence, positive influence, and they chose not to. They were so distracted by Brexit, they couldn’t do anything else. There were [also] Tories who justified that because they started to sympathise with the illiberal leadership in Poland.

Let me ask you a broader question. It is dispiriting to think democracy is in retreat across parts of the West. Do you think progress is linear? Do you think history does have a natural arc towards better outcomes?

No. Every day there are a huge range of radical options open to us. Every day history could go one direction or another. Our societies could be on a road to steep decline and disaster – or we could recover, and America will lead a new democratic coalition and we’ll create a better world. But neither one of those outcomes is for sure. And both of them depend on the decisions of many different people.

So history hangs in the balance?

History has always hung in the balance. We just imagined that it didn’t, but it always does. And, by the way, the people who invented American democracy knew that. That’s what they were talking about when they were writing the constitution. What they were all remembering was the fall of Rome. They were reading Cato and Cicero, or popularised, bowdlerised versions of them.

Aristotle said that democracy leads to tyranny, and they had that in their heads. They wrote the constitution in order to seek to avoid that, but they always knew it was possible. There’s the famous quote from Alexander Hamilton, in which he says, one day a demagogue will come along, and people will believe him, and he’ll lead them astray with false promises. They always knew that.

It’s the illusion of the last several decades, because of the incredible success of our democracies since the 1940s, through the 1980s and 1990s. It didn’t always look that way. There were some bad moments in the Sixties and Seventies, but it felt like democracy was constantly triumphing and spreading and there was something inevitable. It was a major and important success, but there is no law of history that meant it had to be a success.

So by 2030 we have no particular reason to be confident things will be better? They may be, or they may not be.

They may or they may not be. But in a way that’s where you can be optimistic right? Because it depends what you do. It’s up to people in their 20s and 30s. What’s the world going to look like in 2050? They’ll decide.

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