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How to lose friends who alienate people – how populism has taken over right-wing politics

Right-wing insiders like Laura Ingraham have been criticised by former friend Anne Applebaum. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Writer Anne Applebaum’s new book describes how her former friends and colleagues became agents of populism. FRANCIS BECKETT finds it a useful insight into what has happened to the right.

Among the many deeply unpleasant people who populate Anne Applebaum’s fierce, angry new book about the new right is Laura Ingraham, Fox News journalist and friend and ally of Donald Trump, to whom Ingraham fawns. During her interview with the president on the D-Day anniversary she said: ‘By the way, congratulations on your polling numbers.’

Applebaum made me curious enough to google Ingraham’s book The Obama Diaries. I felt grubby after reading a few pages. The spoof diaries themselves are hate-filled and unfunny, and in the first four pages of her introduction she returns twice, like a moth to a flame, to her sneering, sniggering allegation that 80-year-old Nancy Pelosi has had Botox treatment.

Ingraham and Applebaum used to be friends when they were both Reaganite conservatives, celebrating together the fall of communism. Now they do not speak.

As Applebaum sees it, her old cuddly conservative comrades have morphed into mendacious monsters who put their talents to the service of authoritarian leaders like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Orban in Hungary, Kaczynski in Poland, Erdogan in Turkey, Netanyahu in Israel and the fast-growing emergent far right parties in Spain and other countries.

These governments and parties are not created or run by the poor and the dispossessed for whom they claim to speak. The poor and dispossessed are just the poor bloody infantry.

Applebaum’s former friends are clever, educated, mostly rich. They attack what they call the elite, but they are the elite. It amuses them to poke their fingers into the goldfish bowl in which the rest of us live, and swirl our feeding grounds around, and watch with idle curiosity to see what happens.

That’s what Brexit was about. It would be interesting, they seem to have thought, to see what a sudden drop in economic activity would do to the British working class, who are, wrote a group of pro-Brexit MPs, ‘among the worst idlers in the world’.

It appears to amuse them to lie and cheat, and test just how outrageous an oft-repeated lie has to be before it is disbelieved. ‘The ignorant peasants will buy it’ key Kaczynski strategist Jacek Kurski reportedly said over allegations he had torpedoed Donald Tusk’s presidential campaign, partly with a false story that Tusk’s grandfather voluntarily joined the Wehrmacht.

Johnson amused himself for a while as the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, where, Applebaum writes, ‘his speciality was amusing half-true stories built around a grain (or sometimes less than a grain) of fact that poked fun at the EU and portrayed it as a font of regulatory madness. His articles had titles like ‘Threat to British pink sausages.”

What a lark! He wasn’t serious, of course. As Applebaum claims her one-time friend told her, in 2014: ‘Nobody seriously wants to leave the EU. Business doesn’t want it. The city doesn’t want it. It won’t happen’.

In Spain, the far right Vox’s slogan is ‘Make Spain great again’. But that wasn’t originally meant seriously either. ‘It was a kind of provocation’ its inventor Rafael Bardaji told Applebaum. ‘It was just intended to make the left a little bit more angry.’

Vox produced a video with heroic images over a soundtrack which said: ‘If you feel gratitude and pride for those in uniform who protect the wall… if you love your fatherland like you love your parents…’ That was Bardaji’s idea too, and he said: ‘It was kind of a joke at the time.’ But no one laughed, and now no one can afford to laugh at Vox.

Authoritarians, writes Applebaum, ‘need the people who will promote the riot or launch the coup. But they also need the people who can use sophisticated legal language, people who can argue that breaking the constitution or twisting the law is the right thing to do.’

For that’s what the new authoritarians do. They concentrate power in their own hands, attacking the separation of powers, bending the courts, parliament, the media and the civil service to their will in a way that we have not seen since the dictatorships of the 1930s.

The Law and Justice Party in Poland took over the state broadcaster and fired all its top staff, including its head. Their replacements were recruited from the party and from the far right of the online media, and they broadcast government propaganda as news.

The party packed the supreme court, wrote a law designed to punish judges whose decisions contravened government policy, fired thousands of civil servants and replaced them with party hacks, fired army generals and diplomats.

The new authoritarian parties in many countries have started to work together, having found the issues that unite them: opposition to immigration, opposition to the European Union, a socially conservative and religious worldview.

International online networks pump out messages, many of them straight lies. In 2019, thousands of social media posts claimed to have seen Muslims celebrating the fire that gutted Notre Dame in Paris, and suggesting that it was arson. That same day, Vox leader Santiago Abascal tweeted his disgust at these ‘hundreds of Muslims’.

In Britain, tame newspapers branded the judges who defied Johnson as ‘enemies of the people’ and he went into the 2019 election with this chilling threat: ‘After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between government, parliament and the courts…’ Britain’s top civil servant has been forced out and the civil service looks set to be remade in Dominic Cummings’ image. The BBC is in the government’s sights too.

President Trump has so little respect for democratic norms that he has refused even to confirm that, if defeated in November, he will accept the verdict of the people.

Anne Applebaum’s book is short, readable, eloquent and passionate, and it has seriously got up the noses of her ex-friends on the right, judging by the review by Douglas Murray in her old paper, the Spectator.

Sometimes the book feels as though it was dashed off too quickly, especially as it has no index, which suggests no one thought of it as a book anyone would want to consult again after reading.

Its arguments could occasionally be better thought out. The assertion that advertising forced newspapers to serve the public interest will come as a surprise to anyone who remembers that the Manchester Guardian (as it then was) was almost forced out of business in 1956 by an advertising strike because of its opposition to the government’s Suez adventure.

But these are minor blemishes. She is undoubtedly right about what has happened to conservatism since 1989. Where I part company with her is that I think the new conservatism is a logical development from the old conservatism. Reagan and Thatcher were all for pulling down the state and handing its powers to private industry.

In Britain, well before Johnson’s time, all sorts of things that used to be decided by people you and I elected were decided by unaccountable companies. The damage done to public service and the public sector by Reagan and Thatcher paved the way for the undermining of the democratic state.

Still, Anne Applebaum knows what the enemy looks like from the inside, and how it thinks. This book may only be a start. We should cherish her. I think she has a lot more she can tell us.

Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends by Anne Applebaum is published by Allen Lane

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