Anne Applebaum: how my old friends paved the way for Trump and Brexit

Nick Cohen in Conversation with Anne Applebaum, Via The Observer, 12 July 2020

In a powerful new book, the journalist and historian reveals how her former

friends and colleagues became agents of populism

‘Given the right conditions any society can turn against democracy’:

Anne Applebaum at her home in Poland. Photograph: Piotr Malecki, Via The Guardian

‘Readers should be glad she bided her time. Applebaum can bring a candle into the darkness of the populist right precisely because she stayed on the right for so long. She does not know whether it can be beaten. She’s a journalist not a soothsayer. But I know that if you want to fight it, her writing is an arsenal that stores the sharpest weapons to hand.’-Nick Cohen

Anne Applebaum can look at the wreck of democratic politics and understand it with a completeness few contemporary writers can match. When she asks who sent Britain into the unending Brexit crisis, or inflicted the Trump administration on America, or turned Poland and Hungary into one-party states, she does not need to search press cuttings. Her friends did it, she replies. Or, rather, her former friends. For if they are now embarrassed to have once known her, the feeling is reciprocated.

Applebaum’s latest book, Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends, opens with a scene a novelist could steal. On 31 December 1999, Applebaum and her husband, Radosław Sikorski, a minister in Poland’s then centre-right government, threw a party. It was a Millennium Eve housewarming for a manor house in the western Poland they had helped rebuild from ruins. The company of Poles, Brits, Americans and Russians could say that they had rebuilt a ruined world. Unlike the bulk of the left of the age, they had stood up against the Soviet empire and played a part in the fall of a cruel and suffocating tyranny. They had supported free markets, free elections, the rule of law and democracies sticking together in the EU and Nato, because these causes – surely – were the best ways for nations to help their people lead better lives as they faced Russian and Chinese power, Islamism and climate change…

...Her husband knew Boris Johnson. They were both members of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford. She assumed that he was as much a liberal internationalist as Sikorski was. When the couple met Johnson for dinner in 2014, she noted his laziness and “all-consuming narcissism”, as well as the undoubted charisma that was to seduce and then ruin his country. In those days, Johnson appeared friendly. He was alarmed by the global challenge to democracy, he told them, and wanted to defend “the culture of freedom and openness and tolerance”. They asked about Europe. “No one serious wants to leave the EU,” he replied, which was true enough as Johnson was to prove when he came out for Brexit…’ Continue to read

Photo: Amazon

Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends is published on 21 July by Allen Lane (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

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