I don’t mean to say it is not a well written book. It is even, dare I say, seductive. Nor that its points are not well taken. Ms. Applebaum brings a certain intimate knowledge of Eastern European and English politics.
I used to read her columns in The New York Times before the paywall was instituted (which I do not begrudge; I proudly subscribe to my own, local paper and some magazines, but like the multiplying streaming services, I can’t subscribe to them all), but it’s been a while and my understanding of her positions has faded somewhat.
So while reading all of her interesting anecdotes and well-made points, I keep thinking, who did she remind me of? Htichens? No, someone more… irritating. Then it hit me! Thomas Friedman! A well worn gasbag of a neoliberal, technofetishist, with a penchant for name dropping that would make Gore Vidal feel ashamed. Friedman was neoliberal masqeurading as center left and Applebaum was neoliberal who was rather openly center right (Tory, really, though her husband was once with the quite right leaning American Enterprise Institute), with solid smattering of classical liberalism. She doesn’t have Friedman’s veneer of Bernard Henri-Levy-ism (and neither try to pull of inimitable coiffure and sartorial exposures), but, yeah. A less irritating Friedman, but because his conclusions are always so facile and suspect, I immediately began to suspect her, too.
Which is not to say that she deserves to be splattered by drunken Pollock with Friedman’s bloviating brush. I’m just saying that I’m suspicious.
She also notes that some of what the new Trumpist conservatives (like… wait for it… seriously, she name drops… Laura Ingraham) says is ‘real.’ Why am I implicitly impugning it’s real ness through the use of what amounts to air quotes? Because the first thing she mentions on her list is cancel culture, which is – and I can’t emphasize this enough – not real. Unless you’re talking about our God-given, Constitutional right to have a talk show or be highly paid to write poorly research columns for that publication. Now, I am doing her slightly wrong, because she notes that it’s cancel culture on the internet, but… I’m sorry. No. There are lots of terrible things out there, but no. Just… no. But she does say that Laura Ingraham once went on a date with Trump and found him unbearable. So that gave me a small amount of pleasure that almost made up for one millionth of one percent of the hatred, violence, and chaos that demented t—t consciously stirred up.
The most interesting idea in Twilight, which she readily credits to others, is key the personality trait in those susceptible to a longing for an authoritarian society: not closed mindedness, but simple mindedness (her phrase, not mine; I would have looked for a less charged way to put it). A dislike of complexity leads to seeking guidance from figures who explain that the world is simple (and often a more than a little manichean). Diversity and different ideas and experiences cause anguish in those who thrive under simpler concepts.
The other (sort of) interesting idea is the medium sized lie. Unlike the big lie of old fashioned fascists, the still big but less gargantuan lie of modern authoritarian parties dominates. While she didn’t use this example, something like the incendiary references to hordes of immigrants at the southern border (arriving in caravans?) came to my mind.
The book more or less begins and ends with parties, with another party or two in the middle. The first takes place in 1999 and celebrates the way that Eastern Europe had been opening up. We are intended to be impressed with her connections to important figures in Eastern European politics, but also to be feel sad, because it turns out that many of them went on to aid and abet authoritarian parties and other bad things (by the way, was Brexit authoritarian and is Nigel Farage an authoritarian or just a dangerous ass?). Another party shows her deep ties to the Republican establishment and it does rather neatly show how so many effectively switched their allegiances from Reagan Trump. Another shows how broad-minded she is to hang out with Democrats. Finally, the last party returns to the beginning, her house in Poland (where the first party took place), which shows us that even though she has lost lots of friends because they all became awful, she is still loved by many important people. The end.
Am I being too hard on her? Probably. I think the moment when she finally lost me was when she started musing about how the internet changes things. Did you know that the internet does not promote reasoned discourse and consensus across political parties? Because I kind of think everyone did. There is the basis of very interesting book of investigative journalism in here, as she mines her connections, especially to those who went to the dark side, to understand what the elites behind authoritarian movements are thinking (and it is about the elites, which is not a criticism; her acknowledged touchstone is the book, The Treason of the Intellectuals, written in the 1920s and which argues the public intellectuals moved from attachment to founding philosophical principles of morals and reason and instead let political attachments guide them). But then she goes all… Thomas Friedman-y.