Saturday, August 29, 2020

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. Anne. Applebaum.


The Lure of Authoritarianism


By Ed Meek


--And you may ask yourself, how did I get here?


You may wonder now and then during this reign of Trump how we got here, who these Trump fans are and why they support our dear leader no matter what. Anne Applebaum has some great insights in answer to these questions in her new book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. Applebaum is a Pulitzer prize-winning historian who has written extensively about Russia and the collapse of the Soviet Union for The Economist, The Spectator, the Washington Post and The Atlantic. She has also witnessed first-hand the transformation of Poland and Hungary and writes with authority about England’s embrace of Brexit and our current situation in the United States.


You may have had the crazy notion that someone who was caught having unprotected sex with a porn star and paying her off before the election, who bragged about grabbing women between the legs, who made fun of disabilities and called war heroes cowards, someone who obstructed justice and encouraged white supremacists, who committed fraud and avoided taxes, who claimed he knew more than his generals, the FBI, scientists and doctors might finally have reached the limit of what people will put up with when he failed to assume a leadership role in response to a pandemic that has resulted in somewhere between 150,00 and 200,00 deaths of Americans. But Noooooooo!


Applebaum tells us that we should keep in mind that historically, open societies do not last long. Humans apparently prefer unity. Jonathan Haidt confirms this idea in The Righteous Mind. Haidt found that most people in the world are conservative and have a tendency to respect authority. Applebaum tells us that “Authoritarianism is an attitude, an unwillingness to deal with complexity and pluralism. Ideology doesn’t matter.” This explains why some 42% of Americans stick with Trump no matter what he says or does. He may contradict himself over and over, one day claiming the coronavirus is a hoax, the next claiming he never said that. It’s all good in Trump land.


Applebaum reminds us that we are part of a trend occurring in a number of countries. She talks about the rise of the one-party state, originating with Lenin. She has witnessed it in Poland, in Hungary, in Russia, and we’re heading in that direction in the United States with the Executive Branch, the Supreme Court, the Senate and most of the states under Republican control. Both the far left and the (far) right prefer a one-party state. In such an organization, enthusiasts advance “full of passionate intensity” as Yeats said. And Applebaum adds “Loyalty is demanded.” She points out that “meritocracy and competition do not create community.” And people prefer community.



Liberals like Elizabeth Warren promote creating a level-playing field with equal opportunities for everyone but what has happened in the United States is that the only people who really get ahead in the meritocracy are the elites. The system is rigged, Warren and Bernie say, and if that’s the case, then why support such a system? So say Trump supporters. When Trump plays the populist promising to “fix it,” his audience applauds that idea. At the same time, appealing to pro patria, Trump calls his supporters the real Americans, the true patriots. This notion is reinforced by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and friends. Patriotism is connected by Trump to support for the military (the most trusted public institution in the US), and the police who are maintaining law and order and so, creating the safe environment the right longs for. That role is important because in Trump world, the country is overridden by crime and chaos, looting and violence. This view is confirmed by the nightly news and by popular television shows like CSI. The perpetrators of these crimes in the world according to Trump are nearly always minorities and immigrants.


At the same time, Applebaum tells us, in many countries, including the United States and England, there is a longing for the good old days. She calls the people obsessed with the past nostalgics. Trump supporters want to restore the past and make America great again. In this lost world, people with high school degrees had good union jobs, and there was a strong sense of community. People bowled together. For Trump minions, loyalty pays off. And there is a big payoff for people like Mitch McConnell and his wife, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, etc. They get rich and gain power.


Trump and other authoritarians promise a return to the glorious past. Trump is able to form a coalition of supporters from the religious, who lament the secularization of the country, to the racists and xenophobes, who fear diversity, to all those Americans who have been left behind by free trade, high tech, and the meritocracy. Trump (and all authoritarians) divide the country by emphasizing differences, attacking the press, and undermining facts and science. This approach has had disastrous even deadly consequences during the pandemic.


Where are we headed? Perhaps the pandemic will bring us together, progressive democrats will triumph in the coming elections and Biden will reunite the country. Or, we could fall prey to “the seductive lure of authoritarianism.”