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Opinion | Twilight of the Liberal Right

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Anne Applebaum’s new book, “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” begins cinematically, with a party she threw at a Polish manor house to mark the dawn of the new millennium.

Applebaum’s husband was then the deputy foreign minister in Poland’s center-right government; she was a right-leaning journalist who would go on to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Soviet gulag. Many of the guests came from the cosmopolitan anti-Communist intelligentsia. About half of them, she writes, no longer speak to the other half.

In “Twilight of Democracy,” Applebaum tries to understand why so many of her old friends — conservatives who once fancied themselves champions of democracy and classical liberalism — have become paranoid right-wing populists. “Were some of our friends always closet authoritarians?” she asks. “Or have the people with whom we clinked glasses in the first minutes of the new millennium somehow changed over the subsequent two decades?”

To Applebaum, today’s right, in both America and Europe, “has little in common with most of the political movements that have been so described since the Second World War.” Until recently, she writes, the right was “dedicated not just to representative democracy, but to religious tolerance, independent judiciaries, free press and speech, economic integration, international institutions, the trans-Atlantic alliance and a political idea of ‘the West.’” What happened?

Like Applebaum, I’m astonished to see erstwhile Cold Warriors abase themselves before Vladimir Putin. But I think she’s working from a mistaken premise about what once constituted conservatism. Liberal democracy per se was never the animating passion of the trans-Atlantic right — anti-Communism was. When the threat of Communist expansion disappeared, so did most of the right’s commitment to a set of values that, it’s now evident, were purely instrumental.

Reading Applebaum’s book, I kept thinking of an infamous 1981 interview given by the Republican campaign consultant Lee Atwater. In the 1950s, Atwater said, Southern conservatives would just repeat a vile racial slur. By 1968, “that hurts you, backfires,” he said. “So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff.” From there, right-wing politics grew even more abstract, so “now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites,” he said.

There were always some American conservatives who really were in it for laissez-faire economics. But it’s now clear that those conservatives were wrong about their movement’s animating passion. So too with those on the center-right who thought their comrades were opposed to authoritarianism on principle.

Back when the idea of a President Trump still seemed an absurdist impossibility, the political theorist Corey Robin wrote, in his 2011 book “The Reactionary Mind,” about the recurring argument that conservatism had slipped its sober mooring to become populist and radical.

He saw this as a misunderstanding of the right. In his view, reaction has always had a revolutionary edge. Conservatism, he wrote, seeks to “make privilege popular, to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses.” Seen this way, corrupt autocratic populists like Trump and Viktor Orban of Hungary fit quite neatly into the tradition Applebaum was once part of.

In her book, Applebaum explores the purported ideological evolution of the Fox News host and Trump sycophant Laura Ingraham, an anti-immigrant demagogue who has three adopted immigrant children. In the 1990s, Applebaum associated Ingraham with a “kind of post-Cold War optimism,” an American conservatism that was “energetic, reformist and generous.”

But it’s hard to see what was ever reformist, never mind generous, about Ingraham. She first came to public notice as the editor of a conservative college newspaper who sent an undercover reporter to a meeting of a gay student group and published attendees’ intimate revelations.

Many adults, of course, transcend their college selves, but Ingraham never seemed to. It was 2003, not 2016, that Ingraham complained about “police departments, hospitals, courts, schools and government agencies” that “now prefer hiring multilingual employees owing to the number of illegal and non-English-speaking immigrants in the community.” Her conversion to Trumpism doesn’t require much explanation.

I’m genuinely grateful for the moral courage and concrete political work of anti-Trump conservatives. It can’t be easy to break with the politics and the people that have defined one’s life. I’m aware, too, that the left has its own ingrained pathologies; Applebaum’s center-right views were shaped by the lived reality of Soviet Communism.

“Twilight of Democracy” is certainly worth reading. Applebaum has a keen understanding of how conspiracism and corruption intertwine to suffocate democracy. Her description of Poland’s Law and Justice government, which has “put a fantasy at the heart of government policy,” helps illuminate the role Trump’s obsession with the “deep state” has played in our own rolling catastrophe.

But there’s no mystery in the right’s surrender to authoritarianism, because for many of the people Applebaum describes, it wasn’t a surrender at all. It was a liberation.

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