Twilight of Democracy
The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism
This book is beautifully written. It is also very sad. It could be given to apprentice barristers because its author understands that for an advocate, candour is a weapon. And that it is a weapon is not realised by those people that Anne Applebaum describes. She looks at the recent political shifts in Poland, Hungary, Spain and England – or, I should say, Great Britain – and asks who are the kinds of people that are attracted by the lure of authoritarian rule? Her answer is ‘people who cannot tolerate complexity.’ You may want to be careful how you put that. You could get into serious trouble if you referred to those people as ‘simpletons’ or even ‘simple minded.’ (You get sent straight to the stocks if you say that they are ‘deplorable.’)
….the ‘authoritarian predisposition’….is not exactly the same thing as closed-mindedness. It is better described as simple-mindedness: people are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity. They dislike divisiveness. They prefer unity. A sudden onslaught of diversity – diversity of opinions, diversity of experiences – therefore makes them angry. They seek solutions in new political language that makes them feel safer and more secure.
This is the kind of failing that Keats had in mind when he spoke of the ‘negative capability’ of Shakespeare – ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ A professional person must pursue this course; its absence is fatal in a judge; and it should be a paramount objective of what might be called a liberal education. Educated people – and you also need to be careful about where you use that term – are brought up to distrust anyone claiming to have the answer. But that is what those who surrender to the seduction crave. It puts an end to anxiety and gives them peace. Life is easier when you march to the beat of a drum.
And, of course, if you have the answer, then those against you are worse than perverse. They are diagnosably wrong. What you get is something like all-out war. What we then miss is what Sir Lewis Namier referred to as ‘restraint coupled with the tolerance that it implies.’ The term is ‘polarised’ – what one participant told the author was ‘winner takes all.’ In Australia at the moment, a mild disagreement about handling a virus leads to shrieking about the death of democracy.
And you will see immediately how Twitter and the like feed those cancers and deliver up the credulous to their puppeteers. What you get is a ‘frame of mind, not a set of ideas.’ And in the company of those of like mind, you get identity, the marks of which you bear with pride.
And the answers are plain. ‘The emotional appeal of a conspiracy theory is in its simplicity.’ For the followers of Hitler, the Jews were the enemy; for the followers of Obán, it is Mr George Soros. It doesn’t matter much whom you choose for scapegoats – say Jews, Muslims, migrants or gay people – as long as they are indentifiable and vulnerable. What you have is ‘resentment, revenge, and envy.’ What you are released from is responsibility for your own history. And you distrust experts. You don’t want to concede their power or let them take your time. You may even burble some nonsense about sovereignty.
As I said elsewhere:
Lord Clark said … that ‘as rational argument declines, vivid assertion takes its place.’…. You see a similar problem with people who ignore evidence that is contrary to the view they have formed provisionally. It looks good enough to get a problem off their desk to someone else’s – why give yourself more trouble by re‑examining the point? The problem is, in large part, one of laziness, the quest for the easy life, and for an end to uncertainty and anxiety. …..The real problem is that most of us are not ready to acknowledge the prior opinion, nor the extent of its hold on us. As Aldous Huxley observed, ‘Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored’; or, as Warren Buffett said: ‘What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.’ ….There is a related problem about our reluctance to be left in doubt or uncertainty. It is sometimes hard to resist the suggestion that doing something is better than doing nothing. That position is commonly dead wrong. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal memorably said that, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
At least three things sadden me about what this book tells us. The first is that people like Farage, Trump and Boris Johnson are not people you would like to invite into your home.
Quite a lot of people have since remarked on Johnson’s outsized narcissism, which is indeed all consuming, as well as his equally remarkable laziness. His penchant for fabrication is a matter of record.
They are the attributes of Farage and Trump. They are like spoiled children. They are not used to being denied, or even checked. If they do meet obstruction, they sulk about the structures in their way. They even claim to be persecuted. The contempt of Farage for displaced Muslim persons in 2016 was manifest. Just about every day, people like Trump or Johnson do something that would get them fired from the position of CEO of a public company. But it appears that the bargaining power of those who put them in power does not allow them to call their leader to account.
The second point of sadness is that the followers of these liars rejoice in their lies. This is part of the myth that the establishment is being stormed. ‘Dominic Cummings’ Vote Leave campaign proved it was possible to lie, repeatedly, and to get away with it.’ It is quite remarkable how much time is spent by members of the elite complaining about the conduct of the elite; some even claim to be persecuted by the elite.
That brings us to God in America. It has been a problem since the Puritans arrived and found themselves in the majority – they were fast running out of favour in England. The pact between Trump and the evangelical Christians is something like: ‘You give us judges that will ban abortion and we will forget the Sermon on the Mount for federal politics.’ (Could you believe it? The meek shall inherit the earth?) That is sickening enough – but Rome did deals with Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco. And according to the author, some in America believe that ‘Russia is a godly Christian nation seeking to protect its ethnic identity.’ Others have odd views about Jerusalem.
If you see Laura Ingraham of Fox News on TV, you may feel the chill of her Aryan froideur even if you are not Jewish. She is a Catholic who once went on a date with Trump and who gives lectures on Christian values and virtues – ‘honor, courage, selflessness, sacrifice, hard work, personal responsibility, respect for elders, respect for the vulnerable.’ Trump is none of those things. When Ms Ingraham interviewed Trump on the anniversary of D-day, she said ‘By the way, congratulations on your polling numbers.’ How can any faith survive that kind of betrayal? And the worst of it is that some of these people call themselves ‘conservatives’. Do any of them have any sense of shame left at all?
Then there is Falstaff – ‘Jack to my friends and Sir John to all Europe’. (I refer to the Falstaff of the history plays, and not the sit-com of The Merry Wives of Windsor so gorgeously realised by Verdi in his carnival opera version). Falstaff is, not necessarily in order, a coward, a drunk, a thief, a liar, a cheat, a crawler, a snob and a womaniser. He is also the most popular character that Shakespeare ever created – so popular, some say, that the Queen commanded and got a whole play by way of encore. For all his faults – his vices – we relate to Falstaff. But looked at objectively, he is what Sir Anthony Quayle – and he should know – described as ‘frankly vicious.’
Is there something in our psyche – perhaps the complete reverse of the superego – that leads us to enjoy someone who openly mocks our whole establishment and its tiresome virtues? You often hear people say that they like Trump because he can say things that they would never get away with – about, say, the first black president. That is probably also the main source of appeal of those frightful parasites called shock jocks. This is what Tony Tanner (in his Prefaces to Shakespeare) said:
In carnival, social hierarchy was inverted, authority mocked, conventional values profaned, official ceremonies and rituals grotesquely parodied, the normal power structures dissolved – in a word, Misrule, Riot, the world upside down.
That is a fair summary of some of the more unattractive aspects of Falstaff and of those living in the world of the current White House. And when you look at it, there is about Falstaff, as there is about Trump and Johnson, the aura of a spoiled child who never grew up.
Anne Applebaum says that ancient philosophers had their doubts about democracy – as did the movers of the revolutions of 1688, 1776, 1789, and 1917. Plato feared the ‘false and braggart words’ of the demagogue, and wondered if democracy was anything more than a staging point on the way to tyranny. This fine book shows a clear light on our current descent.