«I can imagine a lot of places where democracy ceases to exist»

Historian Anne Applebaum talks about the new radicalism of the right, Russian meddling in Western politics and the threat to democracy in Europe.

«We should all be concerned»: Anne Applebaum, photographed in London.

«We should all be concerned»: Anne Applebaum, photographed in London. Bild: Muir Vidler (13 Photo)


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From what you can make out so far, is Donald Trump the pragmatist that some people, including President Obama, are hoping to see in him?
It’s too early to say. It’s true that Trump is a businessman, not a politician; he hasn’t had to produce a consistent political philosophy or ideology. So one naturally assumes that he would be pragmatic. But there are some things he’s been very consistent about for many years. He has, for example, been dismissive about Nato. That goes back to 2000 when he wrote a book dismissing Europe and European wars as something that is of no interest to America. It’s also true that his relationship with Russia goes back to the 1990s. He has done business there, he’s had investments from Russia into his company. So what does the word pragmatic mean? He’s somebody who’s been very consistent about certain beliefs and certain ways of behaviour, and I don’t know if they’re necessarily pragmatic.

Where would you place the roots of his beliefs?
They fit into a tradition of American isolationism. They fit into a mood of nostalgia for a different America. A more white, a less global, a simpler America. When he’s talking about making America great again, he’s harking back to some previous period, and I’m not sure even he knows which period that is. And this is something he has in common with a lot of European populists.

Is that a form of conservatism?
No. Traditional conservatism believes in preserving institutions and making gradual changes. With Trump, however, there’s a nostalgia and a desire that is totally different. It’s actually quite radical in that it wants to yank reality and move it back to some previous, imagined era. You can see that in a lot of things that Trump has been saying for years.

Trump seems to be somebody who admires systems where individuals are more important.

Is there anything authoritarian about Trump?
It’s very early to say. But look at his transition team and his first cabinet appointments: clearly he wants people around him that are loyalists.

That alone doesn’t make him authoritarian though.
There’s also the kind of language he uses; the way he puts himself at the centre of politics instead of ideas. You saw that at his convention speech at the end of last summer where he said: I alone can fix this. That’s an extraordinary thing to say for an American politician. He didn’t say “our communities can do it”, he didn’t say “all of us together can do it” – it’s just him. So he’s implicitly making a personal promise.

Why is that a bad thing?
The thing about democracies is that they rely on institutions rather than individuals. Trump seems to be somebody who both admires systems where individuals are more important, like the Russian system, and he also uses that authoritarian language himself. It’s undermining our constitution, our judicial system – he’s also made repeated attacks on the freedom of the press.

Was the American election the definite moment when feelings became more important than facts?
Feelings in an election are always important, in any election, in any country. What was strange about this one wasn’t so much that facts weren’t important; it was that Trump said things that were clearly lies. That was new. We’re now at a level where open, aggressive dishonesty doesn’t bother people anymore.

Why do you think that is?
That is a deeper question. But there was an element of that in the Brexit discussion in Britain, even though that campaign wasn’t nearly as nasty. But the campaign did use one or two slogans that they knew were false. They were disproved as false multiple times. The slogan about leaving the EU and using that to give £350m a week to the NHS instead – it was never true. And yet when opinion poll surveys were done at the end of the campaign, you could see that a lot of people believed it.

How much of that is down to people not believing the media anymore?
The way people get and process political information has rapidly changed in the past five years. It’s become much easier to share false information, and politicians and foreign countries are getting good at figuring out what kind of fake information appeals to people. And that is true in every country.

Speaking of Brexit, how would you describe the mood here in London?
Brexit is odd, because nothing has really happened. The UK hasn’t left the EU, and the soonest it could leave is two years from March. So nobody has felt any impact of any kind. And I think people are nervous and anxious about it, but daily life has gone on as before. It’s going to be a process that will take years, if not decades.

But while that process continues, Britain is seen as a shining beacon of hope for anti-EU movements everywhere.
Well, again – nothing has happened yet. The only thing that’s really concrete is that the pound has collapsed. Apart from that it’s all uncertainty. Maybe there’s a tiny group of people who feel really excited right now, but I know a lot of serious people who voted for Brexit – because they were unhappy about the centralisation of the EU, because they were worried about British sovereignty and so on – and most of them are quite nervous now.

The new radicalism isn't conservative or right-wing in the traditional sense. It's about wrecking everything.

You’ve written about the «Populist International». Is there really such a thing?
Yes, there really is. There’s a group of political parties in Europe that have some things in common. They have some ideology in common, they have some friends in common, and they have established different kinds of relationships. Some of them have met: there was a meeting in Vienna a few years ago where a lot of them got together. Some of them have Russian funding – Le Pen is funded by the Russians, Jobbik in Hungary is very clearly funded by the Russians.

How big is the threat of Russian meddling in Western politics?
We should all be concerned. The Russians were in favour of Brexit, but their involvement was not very significant. There was Russian involvement in the US election through hacking. The Russians play an important role in France – they keep Le Pen alive. She might win or not win anyway, but without the million of Euros from Russia it would be harder. All these are closely fought battles. If you look at the US, it was a few thousand votes that made the difference.

What is it that unites these movements of the right?
Their ideology is similar to Trump’s in that it’s not conservative or right-wing in a traditional sense; it’s quite radical and revolutionary. It’s a radical turn back. And in Europe, that usually means a turn back to a more ethnically pure, earlier era that people believe was better. I’m not saying these parties are all identical, but they have a radicalism that sets them apart from traditional right-wing movements.

How so?
The reason that this radicalism feels undemocratic to a lot of people is that is about destroying existing institutions and discounting all political parties of the centre-right and centre-left. It’s about wrecking everything and starting again. There’s an element of nihilism. The reason I call it the Populist International and not the Fascist International is that I don’t want to confuse everybody by making the direct comparison to the 1930s. I’m not saying it’s going to be Hitler all over again, that there is going to be another mass murder of Jews or whatever, but there is something similar in the air.

Where do you see that?
You see it in what people wrote back in the 1930s. The Great Depression was a period of great doubt about capitalism and liberal democracy. People didn’t believe in it anymore, they were believing “the system” to be weak. And that is what you’re hearing on the far-right at the moment, and to a certain extent to the far-left as well.

If Marine Le Pen becomes president of France, it will be the end of the EU.

How optimistic are you that things will take a turn for the better?
I’m not very optimistic at all. I don’t predict the repeat of the past, but I can imagine a very different kind of Europe. I can imagine the end of the EU. If Le Pen becomes president of France, it will be the end of the EU.

What makes you say that?
Well, you can have the EU without Britain, you can have the EU without Hungary. But can you have it without France? Then it’s going to be something different. A German Hanseatic League or something. I can imagine a Europe which becomes fantastically intolerant and begins expelling non-natives. I can imagine a lot of places where democracy ceases to exist. I can imagine one-party states as it has happened in Hungary. The techniques for doing that are now known. The Russians did it, the Hungarians did it, the Turks did it, the Polish are trying to do it. So yes: I can imagine the end of the EU and the end of Nato in the next decade. It will be a very different Europe, and it won’t be pretty.

Right now, Angela Merkel is looking more and more like the last woman standing.
Thankfully there’s more than Merkel and Germany. There are other countries: there are the Swedes, the Swiss. There are a lot people across Europe who see what’s dangerous. What I worry about is whether someone is brave enough to answer the radical challenge with a radical change. It may mean that we completely rethink the EU or Nato. We are going to have to tear down some institutions in a way that preserves international cooperation. Europe divided into countries is so weak and so easily manipulated.

What needs to happen?
If Europe wants a voice in the world and stand for something, its countries have to work together. They don’t have to give up their sovereignty and not everybody needs to be an EU citizen. But there needs to be some form of international cooperation, otherwise the walls will go up and protectionism will come back.

Isn’t that inevitable? People who stand up for international cooperation are increasingly having to defend themselves against accusations that they are all part of some globalist, elitist conspiracy against «the people».
Some of these words are misleading at best, dangerous at worst. Take the word globalist. There is some weird anti-semitic tinge to it. I see it used globalist equal Rothschild and Goldman Sachs. The real story is that the old left-right divide, which was an argument about the size of the state, is being replaced by the divide between open and closed. Internationalist and nationalist. Free trade and protectionist. It’s an argument that has to be won. People who believe in openness and free trade and international cooperation have to work together to win it.

But they have to come up with new words.
Yes. Right now the pro-democracy, pro-trade parties aren’t a movement. Some of them are centre-left, some are centre-right. They don’t think of themselves, in the way the far right does, as a single movement. They haven’t yet come to the consciousness that we’re fighting to preserve the whole political system. But I think they will.

Given the history of Europe, how do you explain the rise of the movements of the far right?
People forget. My mother was born 1939; she doesn’t remember the war. My husband’s mother has some glimmerings because she lives in Poland, but there isn’t much. So there are very few people alive who have living memory of the 1930s and what it felt like. People forget, and people don’t believe it will happen again. They’re bored of politics the way they are. For whatever reasons they feel left out or cheated by politics. People are unappreciative of what they have.

There is a weird way in which people take for granted the achievements of the last 70 years.

But then not everyone has benefitted from the changes of the past few decades.
Recently I had an interview with a Dutch journalist in Amsterdam. We’re sitting in a café in Amsterdam, which is such a beautiful city, it was a lovely day and he was saying: How could we have screwed up so badly? How could we create such a disaster? And I just felt: What, your country is a disaster? People have no concept of what we have achieved. They seem to be willing to just put it aside because they don’t remember. There is a weird way in which people take for granted the achievements of the last 70 years – yet they seem happy to give these achievements away without seeing the consequences.

A lot of people do seem to see the consequences – they’re the ones taking to the streets.
To me it’s a kind of déjà-vu of what happened in Poland right after the crackdown on the constitution. The protests served a purpose: they made people feel better, but actually they had very little impact. In democracies you need to be involved in politics. If you want something to change you need to go and work for a local counselor. You need to run for office, you need to contribute money to your local parties, you need to build your own parties! And people don’t like parties, they think politicians are sleazy. But it’s the only solution. People who care about this stuff have to go into politics.

Erstellt: 23.12.2016, 10:19 Uhr

Anne Applebaum

American-born Anne Applebaum (52) is a leading historian of Russian and Eastern European history. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for «Gulag: A History», her 2003 book on the prison system in the Soviet Union. She has worked as an editor and a correspondent for the «Economist», the «Spectator» and the «Washington Post», where she continues to write a biweekly column on foreign affairs.

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