A few days ago, I tweeted this in response to a New York Times article.
I do not have a large Twitter audience (feel free to follow me!), but this tweet got much less interaction than my usual low amount. I think that the observation made in the tweet itself explains this underwhelming response. When people talk about preserving nonpartisan, above-the-fray political institutions, traditions or mores, the ones that they seem most worried about are inevitably coded as partisan. “Women’s control over their bodies” sounds like something from an 8th grade civics lesson, but of course it refers to the fairly controversial practice of abortion. “Respecting the national anthem” at football games describes, in the end, a desire to ignore the racial violence that the police all-too-frequently perpetrate against minorities. And, of course, there was nothing about the recent Kavanaugh confirmation hearings that was not political, because now even the extent to which we should take seriously accusations of sexual violence has become a partisan issue.
People generally like to believe that their concerns about the nation itself are different from, and better than, their own desire for political victory. But in most cases they are not. I am not advocating “bothsiderism.” I do believe that the Trump presidency and nearly everything in its wake represents a unique threat to American values and practices in a way that a Mitt Romney or Bernie Sanders administration would not. But that particular concern is different from two others: that many Trumpain policies are misguided and appear to be rooted in cruelty and ignorance, and that Trump himself is intellectually, emotionally and even morally unfit for the position he holds. I personally adhere to the latter two positions, and have been surprised at the craven toadying of GOP politicians with regard to the president. But I recognize these as inherently political positions, and am aware that the political back-and-forth that characterizes such things as trade, immigration, energy and even criminal justice policy is nothing new. In fact, I would argue that occasionally terrible policies are the price that we pay for a free exchange of ideas in a democratic polity. But I also believe that the president’s racialized rhetoric, demonization of the press, continual propagation of obvious untruths and embrace of thuggish regimes suggest something much different from political positions with which I happen to disagree. They prompt what I believe is a legitimate fear of the slide toward an American autocracy.
But the current politicized environment is such that any attempt at what might be called a non-partisan “metacriticism” regarding the health of our political institutions immediately becomes nothing more than another data point in the universe of partisan argumentation. The president’s supporters can immediately dismiss any concerns about his autocratic tendencies as just another example of his opponents criticizing everything he does. And this reaction is not entirely without justification. When confronted with President Trump, progressives who were outraged by Mitch McConnell’s claim that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president” immediately defined themselves as “the resistance.” Anyone who self-identifies in that way might face a credibility problem in claiming that some particular criticism is not motivated by a programmatic opposition to the president.
This state of affairs explains what I find so valuable about Anne Applebaum’s article in the current issue of The Atlantic. Titled “A Warning from Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come,” the piece is primarily concerned with Poland and Eastern Europe. Applebaum, who was born in the US but has long lived in Poland, tracks a group of her friends who gathered together for a New Year’s Eve party at the turn of the Millennium. "Nearly two decades later,” she writes ”I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people…They, in turn, would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they had ever been there. In fact, about half the people who were at that party would no longer speak to the other half."
The source of this division is politics. But Applebaum is not merely lamenting how strong positions can ruin friendships. She is tracing the process by which the people at her party came to live in different realities, and arguing that the construction of an alternate universe of facts is a primary vehicle for the advancement of autocracy. The process is far more advanced in Poland or Hungary, Applebaum’s two primary examples, than it is in the United States. But for Americans, her warning is clear and unmistakable: the rise of “alternative facts” should be taken seriously as a threat to democracy itself.
The reason why the article is so effective for Americans, in my view, is precisely that it is not about the United States. The Polish historical and political developments that Applebaum reports look very similar to those taking place here: the elevation of loyalty over ability as a criterion for the distribution of jobs, the growth of an anti-immigrant xenophobia, and a narrowing definition of citizenship and patriotism. But the fact that most Americans are uninterested in and uninformed about, say, the 2010 plane crash that killed Polish president Lech Kaczyński means that her treatment does not immediately trigger some kind of “for or against” reaction. Americans can assess these trends in a more objective way, considering both whether they actually characterize the United States and whether they should be a source of concern.
Applebaum reaches some of her conclusions by contrasting these modern autocratic movements with 20th century fascism and communism, which she has studied extensively. The latter movements were based on a “Big Lie.” Since they needed to "force people to believe that black is white, war is peace, and state farms have achieved 1,000 percent of their planned production,” these movements required a great deal of social and political infrastructure, and an equal amount of violence, to maintain their control over the citizenry. Their modern counterparts, on the other hand, require less of their adherents. They truck in what Applebaum, quoting Timothy Snyder, calls “a Medium-Size[d] Lie,” such as the idea that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Propagating these ideas does not require the apparatus of state-sponsored violence; they can often be disseminated quite effectively through the tools of modern media. Though the lies are not necessarily big, there are typically more than one of them. In the United States, one might consider the claims that Trump only lost the 2016 popular vote because of the millions of undocumented immigrants who cast illegitimate ballots, the assertion that Russia did not influence that election, the touting of wages and economic growth during the Trump presidency as “the best ever,” or any other of the five thousand lies that the Washington Post has attributed to President Trump.
Applebaum walks through a lot of material to make her point: the Dreyfus Affair, Leninism, the decline of meritocracy, anti-Semitism and the alleged influence of George Soros. The wide range makes the piece a rich and fascinating read, but its final purpose is perhaps less to enlighten than to warn. “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually will.”