Hello from the Lincoln Project and welcome back, I'm Ron Kessler. I am incredibly excited for our episode today because I'm going to talk with Anne Applebaum about what it looks like when authoritarianism begins to take hold in a democracy and how to recognize those signs before it's too late. Her new book, Twilight of Democracy The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism is available now. And it is truly a must read, especially for listeners of this podcast who share episodes with undecided conservative friends and family and is a staff writer for The Atlantic and a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, as well as a senior fellow of international affairs and a Gore fellow in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
And I know how busy you must be this year. So on behalf of all of our listeners, thank you for the time you've carved out for us today. I'm delighted to be here. Thank you so much.
Why don't we start with the why for this book? Because it feels somewhat personal and as part memoir, part history. You talk about some of your conservative contemporaries changing considerably from the people you thought they were. That is changing their politics. Could you start by offering a bit of your background for folks who may not be familiar with your story as a conservative thinker and writer? And then what led you to ultimately write this book? It's true.
I have an I have an odd background. I'm American. I grew up in Washington, D.C., but after I graduated from college, I moved to Europe first to study and then to become a originally freelance and then later full time journalist based in Poland. And I was in Poland in 1988. In 1989, when communism fell, I was in Berlin when the wall fell. I traveled all around the region during the early nineties and watched the transition from communism to democracy.
And at the time I would have described myself as a conservative writer. I certainly I was an anti communist. Certainly I was happy with the changes that were taking place in Eastern Europe. I mean, my I felt an affiliation with, I don't know, a Reaganites in America and Thatcherites in Britain and the anti communist dissident movement in Poland, which came to power in those in those early years and some of whose younger members were my friends or my friends and colleagues.
And I spent most of the last 30 years actually in Poland, some of the time in England, some of the time back in the US, but really traveling back and forth between Eastern Europe and Western Europe and the United States. I have a house in Poland. My husband is Polish. Maybe that's an important part of the story. He was a Polish politician. He was foreign minister of Poland.
But nevertheless, somehow I managed to keep writing for American newspapers and magazines for a long time.
I wrote for The Washington Post. I was on the editorial board, and then I wrote a column for them for many years.
And as I say, during much of that time, I saw myself somehow, somewhere in the I don't know, the Tory party in Britain and the Republican Party, maybe the McCain wing of the Republican Party in the US and very happy to be part of the Polish pro-democracy movement. A couple of years ago, I began to reflect back on the past couple of decades. And one of the things I fixated on, and this is what I start the book with, was a party that I had at my house in nineteen ninety nine on the Millennium Party.
And this, of course, I'm not a great party giver. I'm not like a fantastic hostess. You know, it's not a book about parties.
It is a it is a fun intro that the party made a really good metaphor because we we have a house in the Polish countryside that we had rebuilt. And for us, we rebuilt the house, we rebuilt the country, and we had friends from Poland, from the US, from the UK at that party. Remember, it was the millennium.
People wanted to do something exotic and, you know, house in the middle of the nowhere in Polish snow with somehow people thought that was exotic.
So they and my reflection was that there are a lot of people at that party with whom I don't get it. It's not that I don't get along for personal reasons. I would cross the street to avoid for political reasons. And what what I had witnessed over the last couple of decades in particular, was the radicalization of the right. And I probably saw it most intimately and close up in Poland, which was a part of the sort of pro-democracy pro market centre right in Poland.
I saw it become, you know, I you know, I can use the word crazier and crazier.
That's not the words that they would use. But words are they were they became much more radicalized, much more extreme. And ultimately, they turned against the democratic system itself. And then I and I saw. Echoes of that in other countries in my book is about it is really a book about the right in those in the different countries that I've lived in and among the people that I know.
And it poses the question, what happened and how did people become radical and why that theme of people becoming more radical and then losing friends or losing contact with friends for political reasons is something we've heard a lot about in America this year. There was a woman who came on the podcast who who had written in to us. She was just a listener, a voter in Texas. My name is Rita, 72 years old, and she voted for Trump in the first election in 2016.
And because she says she wasn't paying attention and and now she is she's doing everything she can to help Joe Biden win. And she's you know, her story really, really got to me and got to a lot of other listeners, because at her age, her entire social circle has kind of fallen apart for political reasons. And and there's a lot I think there's a lot in your story that will resonate with people who are experiencing the same thing. I want to dig right into authoritarianism and American exceptionalism, because while there really is no single thesis in the book, I think because it's not really that kind of a book, is it fair to say that a central theme at least, is that authoritarianism has allure for all of us, for, you know, on both both ends of the political spectrum?
Is that is that a fair assessment? Yeah, sure.
I mean, both the far right and the far left have come up with authoritarian visions of society. But and I would I would even go further than that. I mean, if you look back through human history, I mean, most societies are organized in an authoritarian way and most democracies have failed.
And because people have been attracted to demagogues or they've been attracted to authoritarianism or because democracy seems weak or because it involves a lot of compromises that people don't like, or because sometimes it becomes bogged down in process. I mean, we certainly know that story in the US and people become frustrated and they want things to they want to just push things to make them happen the way they want them to happen. And then and then they begin to break the rules.
And this is a pattern that's so old. It's written about in in Greek philosophy. I mean, Aristotle writes about it, you know, and then the fall of the Roman Republic is a similar moment was also written about America's founding fathers were actually reading those texts when they wrote our Constitution, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson at the very end of their lives. Were they they were they fought and then they became friends again with one another letters. And when they were very old and the letters were about Cicero, who was the Roman writer who wrote about the end of the Roman Republic.
And that's because what they were thinking about was how to build a democracy that would resist this temptation, this lure of authoritarianism, this frustration with the process, desire to make things happen, and also, frankly, desire to cheat. I mean, you know, democracy, if you think about it, requires unjust, almost inhuman amount of tolerance. So you have to what democracy means is that when you win power, you have to preserve a political system that will allow your political enemies to beat you in four years.
You know, in theory. And, you know, and by the same token, if you lose power, you have to concede and allow your political enemies to rule as long as they as long as they don't break the rules. But that but that you know, that that's almost it's very, very tempting when you have power to seek to cheat and to seek to use your access to state institutions to prevent your opponents from winning. And in a way, that's a kind of it's a sort of lower level.
I mean, it's not as grand as the lure of authoritarianism and the appeal of the of the one party state, although that's all very real. But even just the appeal of cheating in order to stay in power is a very strong one.
And and Americans have not been immune to that over history. Maybe we'll discuss. We're seeing it on a much bigger scale right now in the United States than we have, at least at any time, you know, since since the time of the civil war.
Let's dig right into that, because you write in the book what really made American patriotism unique, both then and later was the fact that it was never explicitly connected to a single ethnic identity with a single origin in a single space. And then also you write, Modern Americans have long been convinced that liberal democracy, once achieved, was impossible to reverse. In other words, it couldn't happen here. Do you think that American exceptionalism leaves us more naive about the potential of authoritarianism?
Those are two separate questions.
I mean, you're you're absolutely right that our luck, our huge continent and. Our great wealth and our great, enormous success, frankly, over the last 60 years, since the Second World War and our influence in the world, I think gave Americans a false idea of how permanent our system was and this idea that there's just nothing you could do to undermine it. You know, it's it's it's it's it's so excellent that it can't be destroyed. I mean, we even hear and I'm talking to you from Poland, I'm in Warsaw right now.
I mean, even here, people had the feeling after 20 years of democracy that that's it. We fixed it. We solved it. We escaped from communism. It's all fine. And all of us forgot the things that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson knew because they were reading Cicero. We forgot that democracies do fail and they do become weaker and people are tempted by alternatives. And I think in the US we we became very complacent and we allowed our democracy to become corrupted.
In some ways, we allowed money to distort politics. We've we've we've allowed unregulated social media to to divide people up into echo chambers and a world where they see false stories and stop speaking to their support, being able to talk to each other. I mean, we've allowed kind of the public sphere, the public sphere, where we talk and debate to become poisoned by bipartisanship. And all those things have had an effect on on our on our political system.
The other thing you asked was one of the great things about America, also what unusual things and this is partly about American democracy and partly about nation, is that we were, as you say, we were not a single ethnic group. And the you know, for many decades, people won elections in America by seeking to appeal to American patriotism and that broad sense of American identity going across social classes, but also across races and across geography and so on.
What the what what the Trump administration is proposing is something really different and familiar to me because it's more European. Know this in Europe, we call it the far right or we call it the nationalist right, or we call it the sort of ethnic nationalism. What we're seeing in the US is the emergence of the kind of political party you can find on the far right of Germany or France or Poland or or Spain, which is a party that is that says we are the true nation and we speak for the authentic nation and our political opponents are enemies or traitors or not real Americans.
And we only we speak for the real and true America. And the America they're appealing to is a is a is an ethnic, you know, in the case of Trump, a kind of a vision of some kind of white America that lives in the suburbs and has white picket fences and cute dogs, I guess, or some vision from the nineteen fifties. Right.
That they want it, that they that they want to bring back. And this is of course to me is extremely familiar because this is how European nationalists talk. It's not how Americans talk, or at least not in any recent contemporary moment. And that that to me is the other dangerous thing that's happening now is one that we were complacent. And to that, we now have a political party, which is a white nationalist party, to use a shorthand which doesn't want to appeal to the whole country.
Yeah, and it's also characterized far more by loyalty to the leader than loyalty to any set of ideas than ideas. And actually, that reminds me of a story I got a week ago in several different directions here, because I do want to talk to you about the importance of civic education and the breakdown of it in in society. We can get to that. But that idea of loyalty to the to a person instead of the ideas reminds me of the, I think, famous letter that George Washington received and then wrote back to a I think it was an officer in the Continental Army right after the battle at Yorktown when I think one of the officers wrote to him and said, you know, maybe actually America should be a monarchy and you should be the first king.
And he writes back to the soldier excoriating him, basically saying, if you if you float this idea to anybody ever again, I will ruin you. Because he had just finished fighting a war against the very idea of a monarchy. And that, to me, is an actually it's in Bill Bennett's book, The Book of Virtues, filed under loyalty. But the loyalty on display. There was not loyalty to a person. It was loyalty to an idea.
The idea of America. How did we get from there to here? I mean, there's no one answer to that, but I do think a part of the answer, which I describe in my book, which is that people became disillusioned or disappointed with America and with the real America that they live in, they began wanting something else, something different, whether they were disappointed by demographic change, whether they were disappointed by economic change or the or even just the speed of change in general by the by the by the pace of of modernity.
They you know, we have we have a class of thinkers and journalists and and politicians and makers of political ideas who who began to feel unhappy with and disappointed with America and in such a sharp and profound ways that they began to want to change it really quite radically.
The character that I profile in the book, who is is very specific as Laura Ingraham, a Fox News presenter who I know very slightly, I've known for a long time, and who is someone who I think started out with a as a as a patriotic Reaganite and was interested in I mean, I used to talk to her about, you know, the post communist world and the collapse of communism, the rise of democracy. And she seemed to be interested in that years ago.
And I think she is someone who dislikes modern America or is disappointed by it and has and so radically so that she now wants to see really extreme forms of change. And she's become she's become captured by this really profound radicalism in this, as you say, this weird cult of personality in which she thinks that if she if that if we if we if we cling to Trump and Trump ism, we can somehow defeat the left, which cheats uses as something much more dangerous.
You know, that's the creation of an idea of the left that includes somehow, you know, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Antifa and all in the same bucket, all in the same bucket is I don't see the right that way.
I mean, I see a range of views on the right ranging from, you know, you guys or others on the center right all the way over to all the way over to the identity or the far right. And I don't think they're all the same.
But but one of the tools that the that the the that the the new authoritarian part of the Republican Party uses is this kind of, you know, black and white division of society into us and them. And this is by the way, this is a classic authoritarian move, is to tell people that either you're with us or it's chaos, you're with us or it's a crisis. If you're not on our side, they'll be war, violence and really frighten people.
I mean, this is this is what Putinism is. For example, you know, that Putin you know, if you watch Russian propaganda, what what what the Russian president puts on TV is pictures of chaos, crisis. You know, this is what happens in Syria. This is what happens in Ukraine if you don't just stick with me. And and the and the idea that it's either me or the deluge is a is a very, very common authoritarian trope that we somehow represent safety.
And it's a form of it's a form of propaganda that eliminates nuance, it eliminates personality, and it also makes argument possible. So I want to pivot to a different theme that you talk about in your book, which is moral equivalence, or we can call it what about ISM or winning is all that matters. I've mentioned in other episodes and other venues that everyone at the Lincoln Project has, of course, taken their own path to this moment and has their own reasons for dedicating themselves right now to our singular mission to defeat Trump and Trump ism.
But for me personally, the subject matter of your book that we're exploring today is what is the most pressing? 2016 was not the beginning for me. It was the end and it was the Southern Strategy when I began to dig into it and and realize that it was a really cynical electoral calculation and that actually the the trajectory of the Republican Party was that winning is all that matters. And so this story that I had told myself for a long time that I could do more good from inside than from outside turned out to be a delusion.
And you write in your book about a Trump donor who said that she told you he is corrupt, but so she believed were all of the presidents who came before him. We just didn't know about it before. And that idea gave her an upstanding citizen, law abiding patriot, the licence to support a corrupt president. So can you talk about the danger of moral equivalence and. What it looks like and and where it leads, I mean, this idea that if everybody is corrupt and always has been, that whatever it takes to win is OK?
Well, this is another authoritarian tactic. And it's another thing you can see in dictatorships, again, most most notably in Russia. But you get hints of it in other places, too, which is the argument. It's a nihilist argument that, OK, we might be corrupt, maybe not all the president's tweets are so nice and maybe we're cutting corners around the edges, but who cares? Because everyone's always been corrupt and it's always the same. And Washington's a swamp and nobody's ever been any good and nobody's ever had any good intentions here.
And that way of thinking is also that way, I think is also prepares people to accept dictatorship. Because once you start to believe that everybody is the same and all sides are equally corrupt and equally bad, then why should you care really who wins and why should you care whether the democratic system survives? This, by the way, also has another historical echo. I mean, this is the kind of language that was used. If you look at Germany, for example, in the nineteen thirties or some other European democracy, even France in that era, a lot of the critics of democracy at that time sounded very similar.
So they also said it's all corrupt. You know, I mean, Lenin even used to talk about bourgeois institutions by which he meant parliaments and voting and, you know, oh, it's all just fake. It's not real. It's all everyone's, you know, it's all it's all capitalists fighting other capitalists and nobody cares about the people. And this kind of language, whether it was Bolshevik language or far right language, you know, what has always been also very tempting, because it's you know, in a way it's intellectually easier to say, oh, well, I don't care.
It's all you know, it's all they're all a bunch of swamp creatures. It's all the same to me. Let it all burn. And that and that that is a that is another one of the roads to authoritarian government because, you know, giving up your giving up your right to vote or giving up your you know, your right to argue, just ignoring the differences between people throwing everyone in the same category. You know, this is this is giving up.
I mean, this is saying that you don't care about your country and you don't care who runs it.
Well, that's it's not encouraging. Let me just briefly tell you a story and then I would like you to to react to it, because I want to talk about this these ideas, sort of this mindset trickling down to voters. I was at home. My my parents are pastors. So I grew up with a lot of evangelical folks and some visiting, some visiting, some friends before the pandemic. And one of my one of my longtime family friends, she's about my parents' age in her 60s, college educated, very thoughtful.
We have really great conversations, really good dialogue. And we were talking about the Lincoln Project, and she she didn't understand her husband supports Trump. And I asked her there she is very pro-life and cares a lot about conservative judges, which is something we hear a lot from, from conservative voters. And I said, would you be willing to trade the type of government that we have now, for example? Would you would you would you be willing to trade our democracy for an autocracy or a theocracy if you got more of what you wanted in terms of this particular issue?
And I asked it rhetorically, but her answer was, I don't know. And that was an alarm bell for me. I never I it was so obvious a question to me that I didn't expect. Didn't expect. I don't know. I'm not sure exactly what the question is. I should ask you about that, but I'd love to hear your reaction to it and maybe what allows this mindset to trickle down to voters.
So that's the I mean, there are others who voiced this out loud, one or two public, you know, one or two journalists and public figures who have said similar things. In other words, that, yes, they think it's time to stop all this argument and just impose what we want on the nation. That's what that's what they would prefer to do. I mean, I suppose there are two separate questions as one is how we got there and the others.
What do you think that means for the future? You know how how we got there is the classic thing. I mean, it's frustration with Democratic politics. It's frustration with the fact that you live in a big country where not everybody agrees with you. It's frustration with the fact that other people also have fundamental issues that they consider really important and they might not be yours and that one of the, you know, the absolute basis for democratic. Society and for success of a democracy is that we have to we all have to compromise as we have to live together and we have to come up with a form of government that suits all of us.
And the positive you know, the positive aspects of that is that we then create a society which is not riven by civil war and isn't undermined by paramilitary groups. And we can become prosperous and promote our culture and and spread our ideas all over the world. I mean, there's been a huge benefit to that kind of society.
But many people have have clearly come to feel that that's not good enough or it's not offering them enough anymore. And so they are they're preparing themselves mentally to undermine it. I mean, what I would say to your friend and what I would say to all people like that is OK. But how are you going to feel if it goes the other way? So in other words, you create a theocracy, an autocracy, and you're in charge for some period of time.
And what happens when I don't know the you know, your leader is is murdered in a coup d'etat and the, you know, whichever boogeyman you want know and the far left takes over and, you know, having having ousted the far right in a military coup. And then you have to live under the rule of someone you don't like or what if what if the dictator, if you like, the sort of, you know, is then succeeded by his incompetent son who then runs your country into the ground or just your incompetent follower?
Look what happened in Venezuela. There were lots of people for whom Hugo Chavez was a great moral leader and figure. He gradually ran the country to the ground and then following him after he and and created an authoritarian system that destroyed Venezuela's democracy. And following him, they got Maduro, who's a who's an incompetent fool and corrupt and is keeping the country going bye bye through his thanks to his elaborate relationships to drug dealers and Russian and Iranian spies. I mean, it's it's a kind of nightmare, nightmare scenario.
And you would have to assume you you have to assume that your favorite dictator could then be replaced by another and then you would have no influence on what happens. I mean, so that's the right answer is do you want to remove your influence from politics? Because that's that's in the long term is what happens.
Do you do you want to comment on that thread on the role of civic education in America and and the lack of it at this point and the way a democratic society can deteriorate without sound education and the underpinnings?
Yeah, I worry a lot about civic education in America. I mean, funny, it's it's a subject that's been coming up for a long time.
I mean, even like 20 years ago, 15 years ago, I was an editorial writer at The Washington Post. And I remember writing about it then that there was a you know, because of the way schools were structured and because of I don't know whether testing and we need to emphasize reading and writing and math. You know, there was less and less time for so-called social studies and for civic education. I mean, I think the problem is actually deeper than that and that the society reads less and less and people deal less and less with big ideas.
And that's partly to do with technology, partly to do with, you know, with I don't know, the nature of modern life, but seem to have the time now to to to to read. And when you don't read, you don't you don't encounter bigger ideas, you know, but look there and there are better and worse versions of it.
There are states and their school systems where it's still pretty good. And I have some nieces who are in a school in suburban Maryland and they come home reciting the Declaration of Independence. And it makes me feel like it's going to be all fine, you know, so so.
So maybe I don't want to I don't want to exaggerate. But but it's pretty clear from the events of the last few, few years that there are a lot of pieces of the American system that people aren't familiar with. I mean, a lot of what held, you know, what kind of made things tick over in Washington and by tick over, I mean, made it possible to have these transfers of power peacefully back from one to where another was a set of rules and norms about how you behave, some of which were coded into law, some of which were.
And it turns out a lot of people weren't aware of I mean, for example, there is actually a law on the books called the Hatch Act, which says that sitting politicians cannot campaign using their administrative state power. In other words, you're not allowed to if you're a public official, you're not allowed to advertise some private concern your business. You have to you have to keep those things separate. We just watched a Republican convention in which the Hatch Act was willingly blown away.
So there is it is absolutely illegal for the president to use the White House for political campaign. I mean, illegal, not just violating norms, but it's against the law. It's against the law. And, you know, given that people like your friend and people like your colleagues talk so much about rule of law and they want to live in a law abiding society, you know, the idea that we just let the president violate the law and let him get away with stuff because he's the president should be I mean, that should be totally unacceptable.
But and and that, I think, is partly about education. I mean, it's not just that everybody has to know that there's something called the Hatch Act.
But but everybody should have it should be deeply ingrained in all Americans that the law applies. Everybody, including the president and the idea the president and does you started with your story about Washington. I mean, this was the you know, since George Washington, the rule has been that the president abides by the same laws as other Americans, as do all other powerful people. And of course, there have been exceptions to that. But those are that's wrong.
And we fight against that. And we seek to we seek that's what we seek to expose those errors and overcome them. But if a large part of the American public no longer cares whether the president is violating the law, then we are in trouble.
How much of the American public not caring about the president violating the law can be attributed to the way information moves now and the messengers that they have access to or that they or that that they choose to hear from you? On a recent podcast episode last week, Steve Schmidt and Stuart Stevens did a great segment on the Hatch Act. And Stewart recalled when they were when they would film at the White House, how they couldn't even ask a staffer to White House staffer to bring them a Diet Coke.
That's how seriously they took it. And now it seems that there has been zero reaction to this within the Republican Party, especially in the media, that no one seems to care now and they know better. Well, yeah, I mean, this is a this is a that's a slightly different I mean, that's partly to do with people being unaware. But you're right at the very highest levels of the Republican Party, it's about something deeper than not knowing or not being educated.
I mean, the members of the Senate who are Republicans know American law and they know the legal system and they don't have a problem with civic education. I mean, that's a.. And so when we're talking about them and even when we're talking about Fox News presenters who are also very educated. Yeah. And also all went to good universities and no. Understand our legal system. I mean, then we're talking about something else. I mean, then we're talking about, you know, then you have to begin asking questions about why, you know, why people collaborate.
This is something else I've written about recently. I did a cover story for The Atlantic a couple of months ago, which was about took some examples from history, but also looked at the present and looked at the question of why people who know better collaborate and then that's it.
And then again, you have to go through the range of reasons. I mean, there's opportunism. There's there's the belief that there will be some better outcome. There's there's there's there's the sense that I need to stay close to power, that I'm only influential if I can if I can keep my, you know, keep my position.
That's a very common rationalization. That one in particular, lot of rationalizations.
I mean, one of the shocking things for me about Washington is I've written a lot of books about communist Europe. And one of the shocking things for me in Washington is how often in the last couple of years I've started to hear people talking like people who live in authoritarian regimes in I in that they say things like, well, I know that, you know, there are problems with the president, but I'm staying here because I think I can do some good despite him or I think I can protect the American constitution by staying in my job and there.
But that kind of language like I will I will help help the system from within or I or people having these kinds of dilemmas whether to keep their jobs or to quit. It reminds me of what Poland was like in the 1970s, very similar kinds of dilemmas that people faced.
So let's talk about let's talk about as we're on misinformation, disinformation, state media. This is one of the reasons I have really been looking forward to talking to you is a piece that you wrote in The Atlantic in June titled The Voice of America Will Sound Like Trump. And this is about the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the takeover compared to Poland. I mean, we can talk about it in relation to Poland or other authoritarian states in history. But could you could you talk a little bit about what you see as the danger there?
And I think in your piece, you note that it doesn't it's not obvious at the moment what Steve Bannon's end game is. And he seems to be the mastermind behind the firing of all of these agencies. And I think maybe just a little bit of background on the role of these these radio stations, why we have them in the first place and then what seems to be happening now.
So so there are two there are two separate things that your question makes me think about. I mean, one is the attitude of the Trump administration towards media and what and people have had the idea for a long time that we're talking about fake news, false stories that circulate with the Trump administration needs to do right now is it needs to create a completely false picture of society. In other words, false vision of the world they need to create for Americans, you know, a vision of a world in which there is no coronavirus.
It's going to go away, in which the economic troubles are temporary or if they exist, they're caused by Democrats, in which the real problem that you face is not the fact that you're about to get chucked out of your apartment because you can't pay the rent. The real problem is the far left and rioters who are going to come and lynch you and they need to. And this is, of course, a fake picture of the United States, but they need to plaster it everywhere.
They need to convince you that it's true and they need to stamp down on facts because facts will disrupt that picture and undermine it. And so that's what we're watching. What we watched over the last few weeks is this attempt to create this. So that is that seems to me to be the big story. I mean, the a piece of that story, which is what your article that you're referring to is there is a the United States has a has a series of radio stations which most which broadcast abroad.
The most famous one is Voice of America. But there's also Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty. There's one that broadcasts into Cuba. There's one that broadcasts in the Middle East. And this is a group of radio stations which have always had I mean, this is another thing about arms and have always been sort of apolitical in the sense that, you know, whether Republicans or Democrats ran them.
They were they were they were about promoting American values abroad and very often just about.
Telling the truth and providing reporting in countries where you can't get any good reporting. And right now, where there are these big riots in Belarus, for example, the Radio Free Europe reporters play really big, an important role there because they're independent of the regime. And what happened in the last few months was that a a kind of sidekick of Steve Bannon was made by the administration, head of this agency that controls these radios. And he did to them what people would do in a communist or authoritarian regime when they take charge.
He fired everybody, including the Republicans. There was some sort of people with Republican links who are running some of the radios and and fired all the boards, put kind of people on the boards of these institutions who know nothing about radio, nothing about foreign policy, nothing about anything. They're just kind of flunkies to sit there. And he seems to be seeking to use them for some other purpose. I mean, as I wrote in the article, it's too early to say what it is mean, but one of the purposes may be to create some kind of alternative, you know, trumpet's division of America that that is accessible both to foreigners and to Americans and to create this false false vision.
And this, of course, is what whether it's Russia today or whether it's Chinese state television or whether it's, I don't know, Azerbaijani television. And this is what dictators do all the world. They use state media to create this false picture. Now, Trump has been trying to do that via Fox and via other channels and via via social media. But, you know, this this strange takeover of America's foreign foreign channels could be an experiment in some deeper direction.
Well, it could give him direct control of the narrative where he doesn't have the filter of the FOX anchors, the reporters. And now we know he likes OCN better than he likes Fox. And and maybe it's only a matter of time before he gets tired of going in and and then.
And then. But the point is that he likes these stations and journalists insofar as they help him create the distorted and false picture of the world that he needs. And this is once again, this is another classic authoritarian tactic, classic. I mean, whether whether you look at the Communist Party, whether you look at Putin, whether you look at, as I said, China, I mean, one of the things that those kinds of regimes always invest in is state media that will create a fake vision of reality.
And that that piece got my attention because it speaks to exactly the kind of complacency or the kind of it can't happen here mentality. But but these are the warning signs.
It seems the warning signs are all around us, the creation of a false reality, the the creation of a kind of cult of personality, the bending of rules so that to make it easier to win, I mean, the the hints that the president might undermine the post office so that it would be more difficult for people to vote the ways in which people in black neighborhoods, in some American cities and in the South and elsewhere have had trouble voting because there just aren't enough voting stations.
I mean, all of these are tactics that are designed to unbalance the sort of even playing field, as I said, to direct this this this delicate system that we've created and to give people a false sense of false reality.
There are a lot of people who are stuck in the echo chamber. They're in it. And they are you know, I don't I don't want to use the word brainwashed, but they they have a particular worldview reinforced by everything that they read and consume. And is there some bread crumb that you might offer to those folks that might lead them to a different reality to open their eyes a bit? We have a lot of folks write in and ask, what can I share with my family?
What can I say to them? Give me some talking points. And we know talking points, especially when they're just about facts, often aren't effective. What might you say to someone who is in that echo chamber?
I would remind people of their values, what are their values, and maybe if they are attracted to if they're conservatives, their values are family, religion, faith, you know, and an idea, an ideal of America and of America's importance in the world. And I would show them the ways in which Trump is in violation of those things, whether it's whether it's the the you know, the I mean, I don't know what I want to descend into trivia, but I mean, whether it's a relationship with porn stars and the and the and the the the flagrant abuse of office or whether it's the you know, whether.
The ways in which they've used you know, they've used the office of the White House to become rich or the ways in which, you know, the ways in which they've sought to undermine America's role in the world, I mean, I would point to those things. I mean I mean, I might also, you know, what used to. It's often effective in dictatorships, is also show people the contrast between what they're watching on TV and what is happening really around them.
I mean, so OK, on TV, you see on Tifa marching down the streets and, you know, they're about to take over. Look out your window. Do you see it there? What is it that you see really? And what what are you what are you encountering in everyday life? Is that really what you're seeing on Fox News? Are or are you being frightened by stuff you see on TV, which is often video that's been, you know, clips from here or there that have been put together to make it to make a narrative?
Or are you what are you seeing in real life and in real life? You know, how do people around you are they how are they dealing with the coronavirus or with the economic crisis? How is the government helping them? How is the Trump administration helping them? I mean, looking at the contrast between reality and the fiction that's on Fox News that is starting. But I mean, so those are those are two ideas. I mean, how does this administration how does it how does it really reflect your values?
And also how does that contrast with reality as we near the end of our time here? I just want to ask you two more questions. And one of them is about the violence that we're seeing now. And I want to note the passage in your book where you you mentioned Trump speech in twenty seventeen in Warsaw where he says the West was saved with the blood of patriots, that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defense. And you go on to talk about what that phrase each generation insinuates about this moment.
Can you talk a bit about that and the rhetoric and mindset that lead to the violence we're watching play out right now?
So one of the things that has terrified me about Trump from the beginning, and I've written about this in several different places, has been these allusions to violence in his speeches. And some of them are in the speeches written for him by other people. But some of them have come in his spontaneous remarks that he makes the idea that we need violence, that we need some kind of cleansing violence, as Steve Benen sometimes goes in this direction. To do that, our generation has become weak and we need to fight for freedom or something and something like this.
Again, I mean, this is this is again, I mean, you know, I hate to keep harking back on it. I mean, this is, again, the kind of language the Bolsheviks used to use this appeal to violence. And and there is a there is a a part of human nature that does find that kind of those extreme experiences appealing or or desirable. And and this idea that you could finally crush your enemies by fighting them or killing them.
And that's just been part of human culture for for forever, in fact. But it is one of the things that we thought that we'd eliminated from American democracy is these appeals to violence.
And, you know, I really I mean, although there is violence coming from different sides right now, I mean, it is I really do think that Trump has set the bar, has created the atmosphere in which he makes all of it possible, including the left wing violence, because, again, when people think they're you know, they're going when people are afraid they're going to be wiped out, when their ideas are going to be eliminated, then that's the moment when when they begin, when they become violent.
And when you lose the you know, that that mushiness of democracy, that compromise that live and let live, that we all need to live in one society together. When you eliminate that and you replace it with this winner takes all politics like the politics of your friend, then you get the possibility of violence, because when people think they're there, they're going to lose than there. Then they begin. And I think there's a part of the US, you know, political sphere.
I think they're part of the black community, certainly that has felt so threatened by Trump being in office that it has been inspired to feel like they're at wit's end. You know, we can't make anything happen. We can't you know, we're in this extreme moment. And then, of course, there's going to be a response on the far right, which is which is similar. And look, I'm really afraid about the next two months and then I'm even afraid of what happens between November and January, you know, if Trump were to lose.
I mean, it's a very, very dangerous moment. You know, we've had the rhetoric of violence and the and appeals to violence and calls for violence creep back into our political system in a way that we just haven't had in generations.
Yeah, and I think he also seems to be one of the one of the only leaders that I know of in America who's who's been uninterested in deescalating the violence and actually is interested in it escalating.
No, he needs it to escalate because if it escalates. And then his you know, his picture of dangerous America, that he want that he wants Americans to be frightened and scared. Then his picture grows closer to reality.
So he you know, look, I mean, one of the other amazing events of the last few few weeks was the moment when he sent these strange, camouflaged uniformed DHS employees to Portland, you know, the customs officers and Coast Guard officers or something in a in a and what was strange about it was that every book or study or anybody who's ever thought about police activity and how you how you police a difficult demonstration or how you take care of political protest, whether it's in Northern Ireland or anywhere else, everyone knows that the one thing you don't do is send untrained, you know, armed men into a situation like that and tell them to to stand guard because they'll make mistakes.
And that is exactly what they did. And the only reason I could think of why they were doing it was that they wanted more violence.
They wanted to provoke more violence so they would be able to film it so that they would be able to put it on Fox and then use it in their campaign material, which they did. So and at the end of the book, you offered two paths forward, one that's Rosie and one that's not.
And I wonder what you would say to voters right now in terms of what they can do to preserve democracy, how important this election is? What what would you offer to them?
So first, I would say vote and then I would say get all your friends to vote. This is not an election to sit out. This is a really, really important election for America as well as the rest of the world. I'm I'm speaking to over here from Europe, from the rest of the world. And I'm telling you, we care a lot over here about who wins and in a victory for Trump would be a disaster for us. So, you know, so that's the first thing.
In the second thing I would say is, you know, democracy. We again, we talked about complacency. You know, we've had this idea for a long time that it's something that professionals do. People, you know, people over there in politics doing stuff. You know, actually, the whole point about democracy is that you can do it. You know, all of us can do it.
You can you don't have to join a party if you don't like any of the parties, but you can join a neighborhood committee or you can run for your school board or you can take part in some decision making at the local level where you will encounter other people who also care about how some part of your community is run. And so I would say that I mean, this is it's you know, it's not just about electing Trump or electing Joe Biden.
They're voting for Trump or Joe Biden. There's also the what Americans need to do also is re-engage in their country and in the running of their country.
You know, if we just leave politics to those professionals, to those people in suits, then it won't really reflect us and what we think and believe. And so I would just encourage people to get involved in civic organizations and community organizations and political parties if you can stand them in campaigns, if you if you think that's fun. But really in anything that will make sure that you're part of public life and you're part of this great decision making process that we are lucky enough to still have.
Thank you to and for being on today. And thanks to all of you at home for listening to this important conversation. I really hope you enjoyed it. And the book Twilight of Democracy, The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism is available. Now you can find a link in our episode description. You can find more information about our movement at Lincoln Project at us. If you have advice or questions about the podcast, you can email us a podcast at Lincoln Project on us.
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