She introduces the Polish brothers Jacek and Jaroslaw Kurski, who marched with the dissident labor union Solidarity in the 1980s. After the Soviet empire dissolved, Jaroslaw kept the liberal faith and now edits a major opposition newspaper, but Jacek hooked up with Law and Justice and became the director of Polish state television and “chief ideologist of the would-be one-party state.” In Jacek, Applebaum diagnoses a toxic sense of entitlement, a conviction that he had not been aptly rewarded for standing up to Communism.
“Resentment, envy and above all the belief that the ‘system’ is unfair — not just to the country, but to you — these are important sentiments among the nativist ideologues of the Polish right, so much so that it is not easy to pick apart their personal and political motives.”
A recurring problem in this book is that most of the clercs refuse to talk to Applebaum, leaving her dependent on the public record and the wisdom of mutual acquaintances. But she makes the best of what she’s got. She is most sure-footed when appraising intellectuals who have lived in, and escaped, the Soviet orbit. From Poland, she moves on to Hungary, then to Britain and finally to Trump’s United States, with detours to Spain and Greece, in pursuit of the fallen intellectuals.
She identifies layers of disenchantment: nostalgia for the moral purpose of the Cold War, disappointment with meritocracy, the appeal of conspiracy theories (often involving George Soros, the Hungarian-American and, not incidentally, Jewish billionaire). She adds that part of the answer lies in the “cantankerous nature of modern discourse itself,” the mixed blessing of the internet, which has deprived us of a shared narrative and diminished the responsible media elite that used to filter out conspiracy theories and temper partisan passions. This is hardly an original complaint, but no less true for that.
“As polarization increases, the employees of the state are invariably portrayed as having been ‘captured’ by their opponents. It is not an accident that the Law and Justice Party in Poland, the Brexiteers in Britain and the Trump administration in the United States have launched verbal assaults on civil servants and professional diplomats.”
Virulent populist movements have always existed in America, on the right (the Klan, say) and the left (the Weather Underground, say). Applebaum finds it surprising that its current incarnation emerged in the Republican Party. “For the party of Reagan to become the party of Trump — for Republicans to abandon American idealism and to adopt, instead, the rhetoric of despair — a sea change had to take place, not just among the party’s voters, but among the party’s clercs.” This is probably the place to note that Applebaum deserted the Republican Party in 2008, over the nomination of the “proto-Trump” Sarah Palin.
Her sampling of the American clercs consists mainly of Pat Buchanan, Franklin Graham, Steve Bannon and Laura Ingraham, none of whom talked to her, but all of whom are copiously on the record. She is struck by the way their Reaganite optimism gave way to a dark sense of a decadent and doomed America “where universities teach people to hate their country, where victims are more celebrated than heroes, where older values have been discarded. Any price should be paid, any crime should be forgiven, any outrage should be ignored if that’s what it takes to get the real America, the old America, back.”