Though we both worked for the (British) Spectator in the 1990s, my friendship with Anne Applebaum dates only from her arrival in Washington, D.C. in the early 2000s. Therefore, I was not invited to the now-famous party she and her husband, Radek Sikorski, gave at their country house in Poland on December 31st, 1999. Now she has written a book — Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends — which begins with that party and the many friends, from Poland, Britain and the U.S., who attended it and whom, as she says, she would now cross the street to avoid. Actually, as she makes clear, there are many friends who did not attend that party whom she would also wish to avoid. The editor of this journal is named as one such. I suspect that I am another. No need, I suppose, to tell you why.
It’s always a curious business when someone goes public with such a private matter as friendship and announces to all the world that somebody or other — or, as in this case, numerous somebodies — has been expelled from the Eden of one’s fellowship into the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Why is the world at large supposed to care? I’m afraid it sounds rather as if Ms Applebaum expects the excluded ones to feel ashamed of themselves for having been shut away from the sunshine of her affections. Aren’t you sorry now, Roger Kimball, John O’Sullivan, Laura Ingraham, etc. etc. (you know who you are!) for having dared to disagree about politics with friends so wonderful as Anne and Radek? Or perhaps you feel, as I do, that maybe she is just a bit full of herself.
I think it safe to say that, like so many others of those who have undertaken in the last four years to write about the unprecedented wickedness of Donald Trump and what they call “the new right,” Anne Applebaum is writing more about herself than she is about Mr Trump. And the more she generalizes from the Trump phenomenon in America to what she regards as his sinister parallels in Britain, Spain, Poland and Hungary, the more obvious this self-revelation becomes. To her the President, along with his ideas, his policies and his supporters, hardly exist as they are in the world outside her head. Certainly he is of no interest to her except as a hate figure and a litmus test for her friends — who will thus, of course, become ex-friends if they don’t hate him as she does.
There must be some demon in such people that they feel they are exorcizing by giving it a local habitation and a name, which is why they seem to struggle, as Anne does, to find some other name than “Trump.” Since it would hardly carry conviction to attribute all the political evil in the world to the current American president (though somehow neither the Democratic party nor The Washington Post nor The New York Times ever seems to worry about this), he is often presented by serious-minded folk like Anne as merely the most loathsome avatar (though in her case the current leaders of Britain, Poland and Hungary and of the Spanish Vox party come close) of a sort of miasma of unrighteousness threatening to engulf the world. Thus it is “democracy” itself which has come to its “twilight” in the Trump era, not just the U.S. and our poor, beleaguered Constitution and other institutions.
The name she gives to this quintessence of awfulness is “authoritarianism” or (especially in the British context) “nostalgia,” but it hardly seems to have any substantive existence apart from being the thing which all those whom she so dislikes are supposed to have in common. The epigraph from Julien Benda’s Trahison des clercs and the frequent references to those treacherous clercs throughout suggest that she is trying to identify her personal rogues’ gallery with those whom Benda animadverted against in the 1920s. But they, as I seem to remember from reading the book 40 years ago, were those who wished to trade-in disinterested scholarship for the status of “intellectual” and, with it, engagement in the politics of the day —which were already turning into what they have since become: namely, the clash of ideologies.
Those who are today most like the treacherous clercs of the 1920s, therefore, are the academic and media types like Anne who pronounce their anathemas against Trump and Trumpism under the pretense that these issue, like Jove’s thunderbolts, from the Olympian heights of scholarly rigor and not just from an increasingly grubby and dishonest elite, jealous of its privileges, whom Mr Trump is supposed to threaten. Nowadays, scholarship itself, even in the sciences, has been largely corrupted by politics and drafted into the intellectual army of the left — and neither Anne Applebaum nor anyone else can claim that to be the work of Donald Trump and his putatively authoritarian supporters.
On the contrary, it’s what the Trump phenomenon was and is reacting against: the encroachment of politics (or “political correctness” as the ever increasing number of its victims tend to refer to it) into many areas of life where it wasn’t before and isn’t wanted now by most people outside the elites — not just scholarship, that is, but education, sports, entertainment, patriotic exercises, respect for the law, relations between the sexes, family life and (as Anne’s book itself makes so unhappily clear) even friendship. Benda’s clercs betrayed their high calling so long ago now that such totally politicized successors as Anne Applebaum appear to have forgotten what that calling was. To remind, then: it was to a concept of the truth as defined absolutely and independently of the clash of political factions falsely claiming Truth as their own proprietorial brand.