The attack on the US Congress on January 6 must have been as ordered for Anne Applebaum's latest book, The swan song of democracy. The agitation that led to the siege of the Capitol is in many ways the proof Applebaum – and as far as many of us others – have feared, but also waited for. The difference is that Anne Applebaum notified us even before Trump was elected President of the United States. Without the attack, it was easy to dismiss her claims that Trump's policies and behavior could lead to the end of the Western regime, its hegemony and guideline as we have known it since World War II.
Now we have the bottom line: The man has gone too far, but his populist electorate is by no means gone. And worse. We see similar developments in other countries, such as Poland, Hungary and the United Kingdom – and some will say in Norway with the Center Party's popularity, even though we are not allowed to say it out loud. Applebaum gives us many explanations of how we ended up here – where we are going, and how we should understand and be able to counteract the forces that want the liberal, democratic, fact-based structure of society to come to life.
Anne Applebaum is not just any author. And I already hear Trygve Slagsvold Vedum's gurgling laughter when he hears who she is, her background and what she stands for. She is a conservative, yes, intellectual, and a respected philosopher with a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the gulag. She has written for the global elite's favorite media such as The Economist and the Washington Post, where she has also been an editor.
But Applebaum is more than a writer. Her career testifies to a form of intellectual entrepreneurship, she has established and run think tanks in London and Washington, something her writings are marked by: Applebaum dares to think. She has strong opinions, supported by historical facts and social anthropological insights. Her clear warnings against Putin's repressive regime and Trump's destruction of Western leadership have given her global recognition for daring to call a spade a spade – well-founded, thorough and steadfast.
Trump's successful doubts about Obama's nationality, the Spanish Vox movement's romanticization of the Franco regime, Viktor Orbán's split-train ruling technique and
the pathetic, but growing, QAnon movement in the United States.
Today, Applebaum is a professor at the renowned American Institute of International Politics at Johns Hopkins University in Washington (DC). She lives in Poland, London and New York: Applebaum is the prime example of "anywere" as opposed to "somewhere", as she herself describes in the book.
She is a well-educated, well-educated globalist, with an impressive network of leading politicians around the world. She has met many people via the network of her husband, Radosław Sikorski, Polish Foreign Minister for many years – and possible successor to Jens Stoltenberg in NATO. In other words: you do not become more elitist. But her personal experiences and observations also testify to how much the world needs the elite – and that it consists not only of privileged "bubble people", but people who are able to see development trends and speak out loud and clear when there is danger ahead.
The communist culture
I The swan song of democracy Applebaum is not a guardian of history, as she has long written to build her name and position in international politics. The fascinating thing about this book is that she lets us into her own life. People she has grown up with, had contact with, met, interviewed and maybe more. The opening scene is as if taken from a Woody Allen film: New Year's Eve 1999 – the transition to the 21st century, a place in Poland at a time when everyone contributed theirs, where optimism was palpable, and everyone was more or less agree on society's way forward. Here the author is at his best. The descriptions of the people, where they came from, what positions they held, and who they hung out with, are both entertaining and insightful. But this happiness should not last. After the jubilation after the liberation from the communist era subsided, friends and colleagues turn for the worse.
Applebaum shows us how the practices of communist culture such as lying, manipulation and littering resurfaced. The "liberal moment" after freedom in 1989 was an exception, Applebaum writes, stating that polarizations were normal. In the depiction of how their close friends developed into enemies of the free liberal society, our readers' eyes are opened to how harmful the scourge of communism's 50 years has been. The descriptions are both anecdotal and philosophical, but sometimes she expresses a certain bitterness and puts herself in a disguised victim role.
Ingenious spin doctors
Most fascinating with the book is how Applebaum links concrete historical events to the development of political populism. Like when the leader of the Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczynski, takes advantage of the tragic plane crash in which his twin brother and president and many members of the government died on the way to commemorate the Katyn massacre in 1940, to blacken their political opponents.
This is an excellent political conspiracy theory cocktail that hits most people right in the open wounds of their own history – where revenge, Nazism and manipulation fuel a widespread perception that the liberal post-Cold War generation is lying and betraying just to retain power. Therefore, it should be time for "law and justice", as Kaczynski's party is called. That is, to entice the Polish people with conservative values such as Catholicism, abortion resistance and xenophobia. A good lie can seduce a large part of the population – or even create a new political foundation. Applebaum shows that history is full of such lies. And even in times when you did not have social media, such as the Dreyfus case in France.
People are seduced because they have failed, are cynical pessimists, bitter or live in the hope of recapturing the past when everything was so good.
Herein lies Applebaum's captivating theory: it is no longer the big ideological clashes that dominate the political debate, but small, repetitive lies that eventually bite among people. People who allow themselves to be deceived because they have failed are cynical pessimists, bitter or live in the hope of recapturing the past when everything was so good, as Brexit supporters believed. "The future of nostalgia," she calls it.
That Applebaum herself has met, interviewed and challenged the populist leaders in Poland, Hungary and not to mention her association with Boris Johnson, makes her occasionally the main character in her own book. This is her fight. We are presented with Trump's successful doubts about Obama's nationality, the Brexit lies, the Spanish Vox movement's romanticization of the Franco regime, Viktor Orbán's divide-and-rule strategy and not least the pathetic, but growing, QAnon movement in the United States. Everyone has a common pattern: media ownership and control, manipulation, conspiracy and strong personalities. This is often in good interaction with ingenious spin doctors and sharp intellectuals – those who are good at putting catchy words on that the solution to today's slippery society is to go back to the past and their "Take back control".
Requirements for participation
New Year's Eve twenty years after 1999 is not the same. It's not the same friends, the place or the surroundings. Today, like the populists, Applebaum also wants answers to what and who defines a nation. She therefore reminds us of the liberal democracy's need to demand participation, discussion, effort and struggle. For only a majority of committed citizens can repel the cacophony and chaos of populism.