The most alarming aspect of the past week is not Donald Trump’s anti-democratic efforts. He is doing exactly what he has always done, exactly what he said he would do. It’s the speed at which Republican elites have consolidated support around him. Without the Republican Party’s support, Trump is just the loser of an election, ranting ineffectually about theft as a way to rationalize defeat. With the Republican Party’s support, he’s a danger to the country.
Some Republicans, like Lindsey Graham, have wholeheartedly endorsed Trump’s claims. On Monday, the South Carolina senator said that Trump should not concede the election and that “Republicans win because of our ideas and we lose elections because [Democrats] cheat.” Others — including Vice President Mike Pence and Sens. Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley — have signaled solidarity with the president, while not quite endorsing his conspiracy theories. The message is clear: When faced with the choice of loyalty to Trump and the legitimacy of the democratic process, Republicans are more than willing to throw democracy under the bus.
Anne Applebaum is a staff writer for the Atlantic, a senior fellow of international affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and most recently the author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. In it, Applebaum, once comfortable in center-right elite circles, grapples with why so many of her contemporaries across the globe — including right here in America — have abandoned liberal democracy in favor of strongman cults and autocratic regimes.
We discuss why most politicians under increasingly autocratic regimes choose to collaborate with the regime, how Graham went from outspoken Trump critic to one of Trump’s most vocal supporters in the US Senate, why the Republican Party ultimately took the path of Sarah Palin, what we can expect to happen if and when a much more capable demagogue emerges, and much more.
A lightly edited excerpt from our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show.
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How do you think we would cover what Trump and the Republican Party are doing and saying right now if it were happening in another country?
If this were happening in another country, we would be talking about a populist authoritarian seeking to create disillusion with democracy in his country in order to have a base of supporters who will help him return to power. But I don’t think we have to talk about it as if it were another country. I’m very happy to use the same language that I would use if this were happening in Brazil or Argentina or anywhere else.
I think that Americans — and I would include myself in this — have had an implicit exceptionalism in the way we understood our country’s immunity to some of the political trends and dangers that afflict other countries. As if authoritarianism can’t happen here, as if our parties can’t turn against democracy here. That just no longer seems true.
Is it time for Americans to be disabused of the idea that there is any special protection to our system, our political culture?
This is a conclusion that I came to several years ago through the agonizing personal experience of living in Poland and watching one of the political parties here become a populist authoritarian party. Watching it try to undermine democracy, undermine the courts, undermine the media once it came to power. And then, glancing over at the United States and realizing that I was seeing many of the same things.
I think you’re absolutely right. I think it’s partly American exceptionalism. It’s also partly our incredible luck over the past six or seven decades. We had a stable democracy, we had an expansion of prosperity, we were the leading country in the world, and others were following us. And we somehow came to assume that it was always going to be like that — just because it had been like that for 60 or 70 years, it would go on indefinitely.
We forget that even in our own history, we had previous moments when democracy was in doubt. We had a civil war. And even if you look at our own Constitution, it was written by people who also had doubts about democracy and also wondered whether it would succeed. One of the reasons we have some of the odd institutions that we do is that the Founding Fathers were people who had doubts about human nature, who wanted checks and balances, who wanted some control over the president, who were reading Greek and Roman history where there were lots of stories of democracy going wrong. All of that was coded into the system from the very beginning.
I think that the last several decades have blinded us to our own history and our own origins.
I want to put my cards on the table for a moment: I don’t find Donald Trump very interesting in this story. I think what he is is known. He’s a very familiar type historically.
What I am interested in is how quickly the Republican Party has fallen to somebody like Trump. The architecture of your book is about watching people you admired and respected — people who fought alongside you against tyrannies and strongmen for liberal democracy — become functionaries in populist-right, authoritarian parties, and often authoritarians themselves.
Why do you think that happens? What separates the people who end up as dissidents in those moments from those who become functionaries in them or accommodate themselves to them?
I’ve tried to stay away from sweeping vast generalizations. But there is one sentiment, I think, that links the people who were once part of the center-right — the anti-communist movement in Poland or Reaganism or Thatcherism — and who began to change in a different direction over the past decade or so: disappointment.
These are very often people who are disappointed, and they are almost always disappointed with their society. Whether it’s the superficiality of modern democracy, the demographic change that they don’t want or like, the decline in morals and values that they see all around them, or, in the case of Britain, England’s loss of its voice in the world. It’s a feeling of loss or disappointment, and sometimes it’s quite an extreme form of disappointment — a kind of despair. “My society has ended.”
I think anybody who has that view of the contemporary world — that it’s over, it’s finished, my civilization is dead and gone, my society is decayed — leads you almost inevitably into a kind of radicalism. If you have that feeling that it’s over, then why wouldn’t you try to smash everything?
As a very quick typology of the Republican Party, I think you could cut people into three groups. There are the people who liked Donald Trump from the beginning, or bought into an apocalyptic understanding of America that Donald Trump seemed to share. A good example is Patrick Buchanan. Then there are people who don’t have unbelievably strong feelings about Donald Trump, but they really hate the left. They’re the anti-anti-Trumpers. And their dislike for the left is enough to make them make peace with him. I would probably put Mitch McConnell in this category.
But the people I’m most interested in are the people who saw exactly what Donald Trump is and loathed it and then also accommodated it. Somebody I want to use here as a case study, because you’ve written about him and I’ve spent some time reporting about him, is Lindsey Graham. He ran against Donald Trump in 2016 and called him “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” And he said, “if we nominate Trump, we’ll get destroyed, and we’ll deserve it.”
Now, he’s out there telling Trump not to concede the election. He’s saying that if Republicans concede, they’ll never win again. He’s telling Sean Hannity that Democrats only win elections when they cheat. What do you think happened to Lindsey Graham?
Lindsey Graham is particularly difficult to explain when you look at his background. If you were to look at him as a type, you would imagine him to be the most loyal American patriot and admirer of the Constitution. He has a very strong affiliation to the military. He got through college on a military scholarship. His parents died when he was young, so he had a hard-knock story and was saved by the American military. And he’s said that many times. If you were to imagine a type of person who would never betray American ideals, it would be Lindsey Graham.
But this is where you have to get into questions of personality and personal weakness. Graham is clearly someone who needs to be around a leader. For many, many years, he was John McCain’s sidekick. And in those years, he was a McCain Republican. I saw him at conferences in Europe where he talked about America’s role in the world, America promoting democracy. And then when McCain died, he seemed to need another role and he attached himself to Trump.
He appears to like the role of a power broker. When he runs into journalists in Washington, he likes recounting how he was just on the phone with the president. So the feeling of being close to power, of being next to someone important, this seems like a role that he is psychologically attached to playing. It’s a recognizable personality type.
If you look at the story of other nations that have been occupied by others or where people are part of political systems that they don’t admire, you will always find people like Lindsey Graham who give up their ideas, who move close to power, and who then seek to play some kind of role in the new system benefiting them.
My understanding of Graham — and I spent a bit of time with him over the years — is that in the middle of the Trump era, as he began to make this transition, his explanation was if he flattered Trump enough, he could direct Trump in important ways on things that are important to him, particularly foreign policy. This ends up failing. The abandonment of the Kurds, for instance, was a huge blow to Graham. But he does try to become this adviser to Trump, and from what I understand, there was a certain level of realpolitik about that.
And then slowly it became something other than that. He began to look at things through new eyes. He was very radicalized by the Kavanaugh [Supreme Court] hearings. He’s out there telling people that the thing about the left is they hate us. All the smart people out there, they hate us.
Something that you emphasize in the book is the way that cooperating with a regime like this often is a product not of one big decision to change sides, but of a series of small decisions, a series of small accommodations. And eventually you wake up and you’re on the other side. Can you talk a little bit about that process?
There’s actually social science studies of this and usually it’s done in the form of examining corruption inside companies. How do people end up going along with corruption if their company is carrying out some kind of scam?
The studies show that it’s always a step-by-step process. You accept one aspect of it: “Well, everybody else is keeping double books, so I can, too. That’s just what people do in this company, and it’s normal.” And then the next step is: “I’ll do this transaction in cash and I’ll keep it in the drawer. And I’m still a good person; I’m still a good worker. I’m doing this to help my company stay out of trouble or keep its head above water.” As each step becomes normalized, as people get used to the situation, then they can take the next step.
This is very similar to what happens in occupied countries. I’m not saying that the United States is Vichy France or occupied East Germany. But these are useful parallels to look at because they show you what human psychology is like when someone is working inside a system whose ideology they previously disagreed with or disliked. You see the same kinds of patterns.
Something like that also happened inside the Republican Party: People who thought of themselves as patriots, as good people — as politicians working in the interest of the United States — made small decisions over time, each time reminding themselves of why what they were doing was for the good of the country.
For Lindsey Graham, it was: I’m here to guide Donald Trump in the right direction. And then, at each stage, the situation becomes normalized. Eventually Lindsey Graham came to see his opponents as anti-American radical leftist socialists who he had to fight against. He still probably thinks he’s playing the same role — that he’s a good person fighting for American values — even though what he’s doing is almost precisely the opposite of what he said he would do or the kind of person that he was four years ago.
I want to talk about one of those decision trees that I think is happening right now, which has to do with the stolen election narrative that is taking hold among the Republican base.
Donald Trump is simply saying outright, in all caps, that he won the election and that the election has been stolen. There are some Republicans, like Graham, who are siding with him explicitly on that. But many of the others are doing something that I would describe as signaling emotional solidarity with Trump’s claims while not quite buying into them but not disputing them either. On Saturday, Marco Rubio tweeted, “The media can project an election winner, but they don’t get to decide if claims of broken election laws & irregularities are true. That is decided by the courts and on the basis of clear evidence and the law.”
The media can project an election winner, but they don’t get to decide if claims of broken election laws & irregularities are true— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) November 8, 2020
That’s decided by the courts, and on the basis of clear evidence and the law
I agree with everything in that tweet. But the point of that tweet is to signal solidarity with a president saying something quite different. I think there is a belief among many elected Republicans right now that their base needs to grieve the election, that Donald Trump needs to grieve the election, and so it’s best to indulge the idea that it might have been stolen. Let them process the law slowly, let the courts shut that down, and then you can move on in a less emotionally traumatic way for your base. I just don’t think they’re going to be able to control it in that way. I think this is going to overtake them just like all the other conspiracies have overtaken them.
But I’m curious, do you have sympathy for that view? Is there something to be said for that strategy?
I’m afraid that I think it’s a little bit more sinister than that. I think that — certainly on Trump’s part, and other Republicans are probably coming to see this the same way as well — this is an attempt to create a new kind of base: an enraged receiving base, which will always think that the election was stolen and which will always assume that something went wrong and will always feel that they were deprived of something. And this base will then have uses in the future.
I don’t believe it will be all of the Republican Party. I can’t tell you right now how many of them it will be. But it will be a significant number of people. And in some congressional districts and some states, it could even be a majority. And this will be a base that is usable. This will be a base that not only dislikes the Democratic Party or disagrees with them, it will think that the Democratic Party is evil and anti-democratic — that they have stolen the election.
Think about what that means. That means that they aren’t even a legitimate political party. It means that there is a base of people who will be not just skeptical of mainstream media — whatever you think mainstream media is, which may even include Fox now. They will be not just skeptical of Fox, CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. They will think all of those institutions are part of a deliberately constructed conspiracy to steal the presidency. And that kind of feeling — that conviction that the other side isn’t just wrong, it’s evil and traitorous — that’s then a useful group of people who can be motivated politically and maybe in other ways in the future.