Trump can’t tell the difference between dictatorship and democracy: An interview with Anne Applebaum and José Ignacio Torreblanca

ECFR’s José Ignacio Torreblanca in conversation with Applebaum about her latest book, The Twilight of Democracy

Image by El Mundo

The American historian, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Gulag, and expert on authoritarian populism recently published The Twilight of Democracy – a hard-hitting book on the collapse of a way of life based on reason and freedom, and the rise of another, based on hatred, resentment, and contempt for the rule of law.

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JIT: Let’s start with Donald Trump and the way he handled his coronavirus infection. At this stage, does he still have the capacity to surprise you with the things he does or says?

AA: I am not surprised at all. As soon as he got sick, I knew that he would try to manipulate his illness in order to win the election, because he uses every opportunity to benefit himself, not America or Americans. It sounds odd to say so but, in fact, Trump is very easy to understand. One of the most frustrating things about writing about him is the feeling that he says the same thing over and over again – that his motives are entirely predictable and have been so from the very beginning.

JIT: Are you concerned that he might not accept the result of the elections if he loses, or that he could resist or refuse to hand over power?

AA: We don’t know whether he can succeed, but the answer is “yes, he will try”. If he loses, he will do everything possible not to give up power. That much is sure. But, of course, we don’t know yet what the precise circumstances will be and whether his party will allow him to do it.

JIT: Trump never mentions democracy in his speeches, neither in reference to the United States nor in his relations with the rest of the world. Is Trump a democrat?

AA: He is not interested in democracy; he does not understand it; he does not know about its history or the history of the United States; he has never been interested. He is a person who is only interested in himself and satisfying his narcissism and lust for power. I don’t think he even knows or cares what the difference is between a dictatorship and a democracy.

JIT: Your latest book is very personal and somewhat bitter in tone. You talk about friends you have lost, people who no longer talk to you. Do you feel like a political refugee?

AA: That would be a bit of an exaggeration. I have kept many friends, and one of the main arguments of the book is that it is normal to build and rebuild political alliances. But it is true that I am one of the protagonists of the book; I appear in it as a character. It is not a book that seeks to tell an objective history, like my book about the Gulag, but is rather a subjective account. I thought it was better to explain why I have the opinions I do, and even why I might be biased. To do it any other way would have been dishonest.

If Trump wins, the Republicans will not change. Then,the party’s authoritarianism will deepen and American democracy will not survive

JIT: You talk about “medium-sized lies” as opposed to the “Big Lies” that Orwell wrote about in 1984. What do you mean by that?

AA: I wanted to explain why so many of the authoritarianism regimes of our time, unlike those of the past, do not have complex ideologies. Even someone as evil and criminal as [Russian President Vladimir] Putin lacks a fully developed political philosophy comparable to that of Stalin or Hitler. And that is even more true of populists like [Polish leader Jaroslaw] Kaczynski, [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán, and Trump. Instead of ideology, they deploy a repertoire of conspiracy theories designed to make their followers doubt democratic institutions. They propagate the idea, for example, that George Soros is behind everything and that he has a secret plan to replace Europeans with Muslims. Birtherism – the idea that President [Barack] Obama had been born in Kenya and, therefore, was illegitimately occupying the US presidency – was another example. Trump built his political career on that lie, the very aim of which was to sow mistrust in the system. About 25 per cent of Americans believe that Obama was not born in the United States – a huge number, whose importance has been underestimated. Imagine what that means: 25 per cent of Americans think that the Congress, the courts, the FBI, the CIA, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and every other media and government institution were covering up the illegitimacy of the American president.

JIT: You make the point that communism has disappeared. However, populist governments are fiercely anti-communist. Of course, as you point out, they have inherited and make full use of the one-party state – Lenin’s great contribution to the history of political institutions.

AA: It is indeed striking how authoritarian-populists, many of whom would describe themselves as ‘anti-communists’, use the same tactics as Lenin – the one-party state – to replace all elites, be it in the public media, the courts, the administration or in public companies. The Polish populists don’t want the best, but rather the most loyal, and they have created a new criterion for promotion: if you are a member of the party, you get on. That’s something Trump has also sought to do: replace independent officials with people loyal to him. In a second term, he will spread [those] tactics farther. The one-party state is a very efficient instrument to control the elites. It is about replacing meritocracy with party loyalty.

JIT: In your book, you assign a central role to the nostalgia factor to explain the emergence of populisms.

AA: Nostalgia has historically accompanied rapid modernisation, and it is a reflection of a reality: people feel that they have lost something – be it rural life, the traditional family, or traditional institutions. But there are different ways to be nostalgic. You may wish to preserve some things from the past while, at the same time, being aware that there were also bad things in the past. For example, the 1950s were great but there was racial discrimination. Or you can seek to recreate the past – to try to bring it back exactly as it was. Almost all nationalisms are based on some kind of nostalgia that calls for a return of the past – the glory and the leaders we once admired – and substituting them for the current ones. These projects are usually authoritarian in nature because they have to eliminate the present, flatten it out, and suppress the elements that do not fit in with that vision.

JIT: You describe Spain as a case that connects Trump and Brexit-style populism and the illiberal Polish and Hungarian systems. What most attracted your attention in Spain?

AA: Spain was a real revelation for me. In the time I was there, I was able to observe the creation of a populist movement from scratch in a very precise, controlled, intelligent, data-driven way. The Vox party was designed by a small group of people who drew on the experience of other countries and movements. They observed what was happening in the US, France, and Italy, and then they decided to use what had been learned in those countries – quite successfully, by the way. Vox is not a majority party, but it is important and has managed to become part of the conversation in Spain. You can’t talk about politics without bringing up Vox. Vox’s promoters sensed the growth of nostalgia, the regret for lost traditions; they also knew that the state had not reacted adequately to the secessionist challenge and that this had produced great dissatisfaction among people from the Spanish centre-right. They tapped into these emotions very successfully, using social media as well as other online and offline tactics that had been adapted in other places.

JIT: Twitter has begun to qualify Trump’s tweets, inserting a notice about the inaccuracy of some of his posts and inviting users to verify them. But it’s hard not to feel that this is just patching over a much deeper issue. What is your view on this?

AA: It’s a band-aid. The internet platforms try to fix problems with little measures like these. But the real problem doesn’t derive from Trump’s tweets or fake news. The real damage stems from how social media – Facebook, in particular – has used algorithms to divide the population, encouraging hatred, anger, and emotions to take centre stage in politics. Any entry on Facebook will be disseminated more if it shows that people are angry or disappointed, because that makes users spend more time on the platform. What is needed is true regulation, not random censorship. What if society insisted that Facebook’s algorithm promoted rationality? We would live in a totally different world. In addition to that, Facebook simply has too much power; we need antitrust laws to break up these companies. Most of all, though, I would like any conversation about the regulation of social networks to be international, among democracies, so that we can discuss what the purpose of a democratic internet should be. The goal cannot simply be that we use these incredible tools just to make [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg rich.

JIT: Do you see a role for the European Union in that process?

AA: There are several reasons why Europe might be very good at regulating the internet. First, Europe is already an alliance of democracies and the institutions are used to creating consensus. Second, tech companies are American, so European leaders are less susceptible to pressure from them. Third, Brussels is a regulatory superpower, so it makes sense for the EU to get involved. Of course, I would like Brussels to do it with the US and not against the US, but that obviously depends on what administration we have.

JIT: You talk about a time when you could walk into a pub in London with Boris Johnson and have a beer. In fact, he was never pro-Brexit. Did he choose to support Brexit because he saw that it offered a better chance of political success?

AA: His is a really simple case. He calculated that he would do better as an anti-Brexit candidate, because his side would lose but he would remain a hero to Tory Eurosceptics. But he miscalculated and Brexit won, which left him perplexed. He has no ideas about what Brexit should be or how it should be done; his discourse on the subject is pure fiction and unconnected with reality. From the start, everyone knew that the Northern Ireland issue was going to be central – but, still, even after four years, the Conservatives still refuse to accept that, if they do not want to stay in the internal market, there will have to be a border, either in the Irish Sea or the border between the two Irelands. It is so irresponsible because they know they have to decide and, even now, weeks before it will happen, they don’t want to accept the consequences.

JIT: Ok, talking to the historian in you now: why do you think we are at a Dreyfus moment?

AA: I started reading about the Dreyfus affair several years ago, when I was looking for examples of deep polarisation from the past. And I was amazed by how contemporary it turned out to be. The Dreyfus argument was really an argument about the nature of the French state: was it an ancient, mythical institution embodied by Joan of Arc, to which everyone owed absolute loyalty, right or wrong? Or was it a set of institutions that treated every citizen as equal? We can hear echoes of this same divide, between these two visions of the state, being played out today in Poland, Spain, the USA – and, of course, France.

JIT: Finally, going back to the American election: do you dare to predict who will win? Do you have any hope that Republicans will regain their decency and turn against Trump?

AA: I know nothing but what the polls and the newspapers say, and they say that [Joe] Biden is going to win. But they said the same in 2020 with Hillary [Clinton]. If he does win, then a lot depends on how he wins. If his victory is overwhelming and he also takes the Senate, it is possible that a substantial sector of the Republicans will say: we have lost with this disastrous president; it’s time to change and renew our party. The US needs a conservative centre-right party. But, if the result is very close, then this won’t happen. When they discuss who should be the next leader of the Republican Party, you will have people who want to continue the Trump legacy.

Obviously, if Trump wins, the Republicans will not change. Then, the party’s authoritarianism will deepen and American democracy will not survive.

A Spanish version of the interview was published in daily EL MUNDO on October 14th, 2020.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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