Anne Applebaum likes to throw parties — big parties that last all night, where complete strangers pass out on her basement floor. This book begins with one party at the dawn of the millennium and ends with another in August 2019. Very few guests went to both parties, something significant to her message. “I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party,” she writes. Those parties are a measure of political change, an indicator of the “twilight of democracy”.

Applebaum is a distinguished journalist and a superb historian — her Gulag: A History, published in 2003, still haunts me. She’s American, but lives in Poland with her husband, Radek Sikorski, formerly the Polish foreign minister. Her political instincts are conservative; she describes herself as “pro-European, pro-rule-of-law, pro-market center right”. She still admires Margaret Thatcher, saw virtue in John Major and was once enthusiastic about John McCain.

“We were all on the same team,” she writes of those friends of 20 years ago. “We agreed about democracy, about the road to prosperity, about the way things were going.” They were optimistic; her Polish friends were rebuilding a country after decades of communist misrule. Yet so many of those friends have now turned toward authoritarianism; they actively undermine institutions once held sacred. What seemed solid is crumbling to dust.

The Cartoon Version of History

“Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy,” Applebaum warns. “Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”

Applebaum examines those nations she knows best — Poland, Hungary, Spain, Britain and the US — finding common factors in the rise of a toxic right. In those nations, conspiracy theories spread like viruses. Politicians openly lie, promising millions for the NHS or exaggerating the size of an inauguration crowd. “People have always had different opinions,” she writes. “Now they have different facts.”

Another commonality is “restorative nostalgia” — the worshipping of what Applebaum calls “the cartoon version of history”. Donald Trump promised to Make America Great Again. In Spain Santiago Abascal, of the far-right Vox party, shouts “Hacer España Grande Otra Vez” — Make Spain Great Again. Authoritarianism irons over the wrinkled complexity of present-day reality, offering sharp and simple distinctions between good and evil, us and them.

“People have always had different opinions. Now they have different facts.”

In most Western countries until relatively recently, consensus prevailed on democracy, capitalism, welfare and the rule of law, with party differences confined to nuance — a bit less of this, a bit more of that. The media reinforced that consensus because journalists were by definition mainstream: there were no significant tributaries of heterodoxy. Information came from a few television networks and a handful of newspapers.

The Internet changed all that, giving voice to every lunatic. Algorithms feed people the news they want to hear, magnifying difference. Social media sites inevitably radicalize — an innocent attempt to research immigration on YouTube will quickly throw up white nationalist sites. Fakery is often difficult to discern. In 2019 a network of supposedly legitimate news sites suddenly appeared at the same time in Michigan. They all had innocuous names such as the Lansing Sun, but were in fact pro-Trump “hypercharged, conspiratorial, partisan echo chambers”. In the same year a British organization tracking online extremism uncovered a cabal of 3,000 bots that bombarded Spanish Twitter users with 4.5 million pro-Vox and anti-Islamic messages.

The febrile ravings of renegades were once just quiet background noise. Now, the Internet gives every sociopath a megaphone. The drumbeat of unreason smothers good sense. “Instead of hearing the harmony of the world,” the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk laments, “we have heard a cacophony of sounds, an unbearable static in which we try, in despair, to pick up on some quieter melody, even the weakest beat”.

Palin to the Head

Applebaum charts how authoritarians have battered fragile democracy; these are, she feels, the end times of the old liberal order.

Her epiphany came in 2008 when McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, selected Sarah Palin as his running mate, and revelations emerged about the use of torture in Iraq. She’s now a political orphan, disgusted with what has happened to the right, but unable to embrace the left. Her disgust is understandable, but her bewilderment seems surprising in a woman so perceptive. The friends she has abandoned — Boris Johnson, the American conservative polemicist Dinesh D’Souza, the TV chat show host Laura Ingraham etc — have always seemed rather disgusting to me. I suppose perceptiveness is difficult at close quarters. Devotion to conservatism rendered Applebaum blind to the reprobates it occasionally attracted.

That restorative nostalgia that she roundly criticizes is ironically evident in her own analysis. She struggles to understand how the party of Reagan became the party of Trump, yet has she forgotten how Reagan regularly eviscerated the rule of law, most notably with the Iran-Contra affair? Reagan was the starting point of the empty populism that Trump perfected. During his 1966 gubernatorial campaign, he told the people of California: “I am not a politician. I am an ordinary citizen with a deep-seated belief that much of what troubles us has been brought about by politicians.” It’s a short step from that to “drain the swamp”.

Applebaum is now a political orphan, disgusted with what has happened to the right, but unable to embrace the left.

Reagan also perfected the politics of fear. Through sophisticated polling, he discovered what issues frightened specific neighborhoods in California. Messages were then crafted to appeal to these micro-constituencies of hate. In other words, while Applebaum and her conservative friends were optimistically looking forward to the new millennium, the rot had already set in.

Twilight of Democracy would have been a great book if only time had cooperated. But it’s always risky to write about contemporary politics during an age of upheaval. The coronavirus has eroded all certainties. It has, in particular, exposed the central weakness of authoritarian populism — the scourge about which Applebaum warns. The populist doesn’t lead his people; he follows them by echoing their fears, hatreds and desires. During times of crisis, however, the people need to be told where to go. They need leadership. Trump has mishandled the crisis because decisive action like shutting bars or wearing masks seems unpleasant to the people he courts. It’s no coincidence that populists such as Trump, Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil have in common a virus out of control.

I suspect that Applebaum started this book with a clear sense of the authoritarian apocalypse that lies ahead. Then, as she was putting the finishing touches on it, the earth opened beneath her. Trump, her central bogeyman, now seems ridiculous, his poll numbers plummeting as he fails miserably to read the room. Johnson’s incompetence has also been rudely exposed. There’s a yeastiness in the air; young people have been roused from apathy and have started thinking about the world they want to build. Instead of a twilight of democracy, this might be a new dawn. Who knows? We might someday thank Covid-19 for killing off the authoritarians.