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01:11:00 mins

The Problem Podcast

The Far Right Is Going Global: Anne Applebaum on Decline of Democracy

Brazil’s insurrection is just the latest in a series of attacks on democracy around the world. So we’re talking to Anne Applebaum, a staff writer at The Atlantic and author of the book Twilight of Democracy, about why autocracy is making a comeback and how to stop it. We dive into democracy’s roots as an unstable form of government, the role of global elites on both sides, and why fascism is really just a money-laundering scheme.

The Far Right Is Going Global: Anne Applebaum on the Decline of Democracy

Ep. 222 Final Transcript

​​Jon: I just got some, I got something in my teeth. Oh, here we go. Alright hold on.

Henrik: A little, uh, product placement for big spinach. [JON LAUGHS]


Jon: Welcome back. Uh, it’s the podcast. The Problem with Me, the actual problem, Jon Stewart. Don’t forget to watch our Apple TV+ Show. We got more of those coming for God’s sakes. You just gotta wait like a month or two, something like that. I don’t know. It take, we rely on elves. Unfortunately, we rely on content elves, and, uh, they are off in the Caribbean right now, so we’ll have to see. But today is gonna be an exciting one. We are talking about the end of democracy, autocracy on the move. Uh, Brazil, uh, had a little insurrection. It looked a little bit like uh, the January 6th insurrection, but with people with much nicer a**es. That’s how Brazil does things. It was a Carnival, uh, insurrection. We’re gonna be talking to Atlantic writer Anne Applebaum, who’s, uh, written an awful lot about, uh, these networks of far-right anti-democratic movements. But first, Maria Randazzo and Henrik Blix, you are the writers for, uh, our program on Apple TV+ called The Problem. 

Maria: Hello.

Henrik: Hey, Jon.

Jon: First of all, may I just comment on Henrik.

Henrik: Please.

Jon: The beard is magnificent today. [MARIA LAUGHS]

Henrik: Thank you. 

Jon: This may be the lushest, this may be the most fully developed that I have seen. 

Henrik: Thank you so much. Um —

Jon: Henrik can I ask you a question?

Henrik: Yeah.

Jon: Is that crocheted or is that grown?

Henrik: This, uh, yeah, my sister made this for [JON LAUGHS] Christmas. She does amazing beard work. Jon, have you ever thought about going full, uh, wizard mode? Like really lettin’ it? ‘Cause you got a pretty good, you got a pretty solid beard. 

Jon: Yeah, if I could Dumbledore this, I would do it. My only problem is with the Judaic, uh, nature of my face. Any, even anything longer than this and the only questions I will get are from people saying, “Rabbi.”

Henrik: Sure. We all have watch outs where I’m like, if I lean in too much, people are gonna start being like, “Hey man, we got a pretty fun militia if you want to join.” [JON LAUGHS]

Maria: If I were to lean in too much, um, it would become very clear to people that I’m a Sicilian-American woman [JON LAUGHS]. So there is, even though you might not see it, there’s a certain amount of upkeep that’s also happening behind the scenes here. 

Jon: Understood. But more importantly, uh, I have been watching, have you guys seen George Santos since he’d been sworn in?

Henrik: I can’t get enough. I’m so excited to see, uh, what happens to the guy that I voted for [JON LAUGHS] and, I— 

Jon: Is he your congressman?

Henrik: No, no, he’s not. 

Jon: No, that’s good that you’re voting in the place where you live. I think that’s important, uh.

Henrik: It’s, uh, I like to cast a legal vote.

Jon: Now, Maria, you’re Ohio, so Santos is obviously not your, uh, your guy either, but pleasant to watch.

Maria: Pleasant to watch. A real, I mean, just a sprawling Cheesecake Factory menu of stories to choose from, from this man. As to which to follow.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Maria: Um, it’s astounding what’s what he’s done, what he’s offering up to us.

Henrik: I think there’s something very funny that the reaction to me feels less outrage and more amusement.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Henrik: And I think it’s the nature of what he’s doing is so funny cuz you know, most like congressional or political scandals are mired in complexity.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Henrik: Or, uh, interpretation of the law or like —

Jon: Or corruption.

Henrik: Yes.

Jon: Quid Pro Quo!

Henrik: Is it coincidence that —

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Henrik: — uh, you know, they sold this stock right before this legislation passed, and his scandals are like “He said, he invented a car?” [LAUGHTER] And so it’s just, it’s all these like Tom Sawyer a**, Rumplestiltskin-y tricks —

Jon: Right.

Henrik: Where he’s truly like, “Guess what my real name is.”

Jon: “I was a dentist!”

Henrik: Right.

Jon: What? No.

Henrik: “And I was the best dentist until my hands fell off.”

Jon: I really think that the reason why his scandal and you know, people shout about it and do things but nobody really cares, is because of how he looks.

Henrik: Sure.

Maria: Oh.

Jon: It’s just everything about him is screams of just mediocrity. He’s not obese, he’s not skinny. He’s just, he’s everything in the middle. And I have to say, when I watch him now on the floor trying to interact with his new Republican brethren, it looks like one of those movies, like prison movies where they yell like fish. [HENRIK LAUGHS] Like it’s like “Fresh meat! Hey, fresh meat.” Like he’s got that look on his face like, “I’m going to have to join the Aryan gang because the Spanish gang is threatening me.”

Henrik: Yeah. 

Jon: “So can I hang out with you fellas?” Like he doesn’t ever look like he belongs.

Maria: No, he’s always on the outside.

Jon: He looks like he just had to give up a carton of smokes to get to keep his muffin.

Henrik: Yeah.

Jon: That’s what it, that’s what he looks like to me.

Maria: Maybe he’ll undergo like a makeover and come back with kind of like a leathery looking face and a crazy haircut.  

Jon: No, that guy’s got baby’s bottom written all over him. [MARIA LAUGHS]

Henrik: He does. He just seems like he would be a treat to wrestle.

Jon: Lemme just say this, that took an unexpected turn. [HENRIK AND MARIA LAUGH]

Henrik: You know what I mean? You’re just trying to feel strong.

Jon: No, no. I don’t know what you mean.

Henrik: He’d be a treat to wrestle. I stand by it. [MARIA LAUGH]

Jon: Alright. I think a little slippery and squishy, but OK. [JON AND HENRIK LAUGH]

Henrik: Oh! He really, to me, it looks like his mom drops him off at Congress and like kisses him on the cheek. He’s like, “Mom, don’t! Matt Gaetz is gonna see me!”

Maria: “Drop me off a few blocks in front of it.”

Jon: Alright. Yeah. “By the way, that’s not my mom. That’s Princess Diana.”

Henrik: Right.

Jon: “You know, my real mom is Grace Kelly.”

Henrik: Mm-hmm. [JON LAUGHS] Yeah. He’s like — I mean the funniest one to me is like we were talking about some of ’em. The funniest one to me is he claimed he played division three volleyball at Baruch College and both of his knees had to get replaced cuz he played too hard.

Jon: Sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Henrik: And that to me is like playing a D3 sport is impressive.

Jon: Sure.

Henrik: But it’s not a thing that people are like “Oh, you played volleyball at Baruch? We have a table for you right here, sir.” Like, it’s not that crazy. And it’s so funny to hear him tell the lie cuz he is like, “We were playing, we were playing some of the big dogs. We were playing Harvard, Princeton.” 

Maria: He slayed them.

Jon: Yeah, sure. Listen when you go up and when you’re throwing down for Baruch. And by the way, shout out — go, go Fighting Hamentashen. Uh, Baruch, uh, they bring it and their volleyball team is renowned, uh, amongst — I can see why he chose that.

Maria: Oh, they really do have an outstanding volleyball team?

Jon: I have no f***ing idea.


Jon: And my guess is no, but that’s the beauty of his lies is you wouldn’t even think to check cuz it’s just so stupid.

Maria: Right. I would crush him in volleyball.

Jon: Do you think that’s the, uh, chat bot? Like, do you think George Santos, typed in, “Lies I could tell that people wouldn’t check?” And just an AI chat bot. 

Henrik: The originality is not the lies, the originality is that he tried it. And when I watch him, like, you know, he did that podcast with like Matt Gaetz, and when I see it’s sort of like what you talked about on the floor, which is like, you know that phenomenon when a comedian that all other comedians think is a hack makes it big.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Henrik: And everyone’s like, “F***, you can’t just say whatever you want.”

Jon: F*** that guy.

Henrik: “There’s like a little bit of skill and nuance to this.” It feels like watching Gaetz talk to him felt like that, where he’s like—

Jon: “Here’s how you lie.”

Henrik: “He’s f***king saying s***.” Yeah.

Maria: Mm-hmm.

Jon: Right, right, right. 

Maria: Stick to one thing.

Jon: The thing we have to be careful of, and I always caution myself on this and I ran into this trouble with Trump, is we cannot mistake absurdity for lack of danger.

Henrik: Yes.

Maria: Mmm.

Jon: Because it takes people with no shame to do shameful things.

Maria: Yes.

Jon: And so I always — and the same thing is going on, like there’s that Brazilian insurrection and you could say like, “Oh, this is absurd.” But in absurdity is where the real danger always is. It’s like with Gaddafi, you would see Gaddafi and you’d be like, “Oh my God, he’s dressed like Michael Jackson. What a ridiculous person!”

Henrik: Yeah.

Jon: And he is like, “And I’m developing a nuclear bomb.” You’re like, “Oh f***.” Its absurdity always makes you think something is more benign than it is. I had the same problem. I misjudged Trump because he’s so ridiculous. And then you think about, well, the worst people in history have been ridiculous.

Maria: Mm-hmm.

Jon: The Hitler mustache.

Henrik: Right.

Jon: Anybody who would walk out of his house and go like, “This is I think the best I can do.” [HENRIK AND MARIA LAUGH] Like, that’s a dangerous person right there.

Maria: There’s something behind these choices. They’re not just funny, random.

Jon: Right. But I didn’t think Bolsonaro would be like that. I — Bolsonaro struck me as like kind of a handsome dude, like, you know, tried to be the alpha male. Like he didn’t have that. So thi– I think he, watching what happened in Brazil and watching how he has attached himself to the MAGA World, it feels beneath him to be quite honest. [MARIA LAUGHS]

Henrik: But it isn’t, it isn’t necessary. You know what I mean? Like, if you are, it’s like in, for a penny, in for a pound, like Bolsonaro might have started on this Earth.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Henrik: But eventually you have to get to the point of being like, “I’m the biggest, strongest man in the world.”

Jon: Right.

Henrik: “And anyone who says they can beat me is a liar.” Like you have like, you have the Kim Jong-uns of the world who are like, “My best score in golf is 17,” [JON LAUGHS] and like, that’s national doctrine. So Bolsonaro being like, “I can’t be killed and I will always be in charge.”

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Henrik: Is like, I think it’s necessary at some point to do what they’re doing.

Jon: I think it also, at a certain point, the more ridiculous the s*** you try and pull, the fewer people you have around you to do it. Like the semi — it’s how you end up with the pillow guy, because the, the other folks, even Home Depot guy at a certain point is like, “Look, I think people don’t work because of socialism, but even I won’t be that f***ing crazy.”

Henrik: Right.

Jon: Like I think the further you go down the rabbit hole, the fewer people, the less competence, the more crazy. And those are the only people that will still lie in the bed with you.

Henrik: You get to a point where it’s not all first round draft picks anymore [JON LAUGHS] where it’s like, it’s gotta be Jason Miller and then – 

Jon: He’s like the, uh, the head of Truth Social, I think or Parlor, I can’t remember which one. Grindr. I think he’s with Grindr.

Maria: Um, Gettr, G E T T R is Jason Miller’s thing. But it’s, you know, I want them to all go back to being nationalists and not—

Jon: Dangerous straight up nationalists? OK.

Maria: Yeah. I just want them to go back to being pure nationalists. Stop working together.

Jon: You want fascism classic.

Maria: Exactly. I want the classic.

Jon: Yeah. It’s morphed into something. But I have to think that even back in the 30, you know, there is a certain, like when you see the footage of Mussolini on the, uh, you know, balcony, standing with his hands crossed and giving a look. You’re like, “Oh, what a ridiculous human being.”

Henrik: Yeah.

Maria: Mm-hmm.

Jon: And then you see the damage that this individual, you know, and those stories don’t always end with him hanging by his feet in a square. Like, you just don’t know how this thing’s gonna play out. My guest is she knows all about this. She’s written books on creeping autocracy, how, uh, democracy is on the back foot. So, uh, I’m gonna check in there, uh, see if she believes democracy. This democracy could already be over, we just don’t even know it. So she may have the answer, but when I get it, I’ll come back. I’ll tell you guys.

Maria: Let us know.

Henrik: Yeah, I definitely want to know because I want to know, um, who, who I should be aligning with.

Maria: And what kind of beards we should all start growing.

Henrik: Yeah. 

Jon: Oh, do you think there’ll be a new fascist? Because ridiculous and absurd, uh, hair configurations are a hallmark of those fascist movements.

Maria: They really are.

Henrik: It’s never been normal. It’s like —

Jon: Yeah. 

Henrik: Hitler is like, “I’m gonna dress like Charlie Chaplin.” And Mussolini is like, “I’m gonna dress like a Shriner general.” And, uh, Kim Jong-un is like, “I’m gonna dress like Hillary Clinton at a debate.” [JON LAUGHS]

Jon: Alright, I’m gonna go talk to Anne Applebaum. I’ll talk to you guys in a second.

Interview with Anne Applebaum Begins

Jon: Alright, everybody, uh, it is time to get to our guests. We’re very excited. We’re gonna welcome staff writer for the Atlantic, author of “Twilight of Democracy,” which I’m sure sounds more depressing than it actually is. Please welcome Anne Applebaum. Anne, thank you so much for, uh, for taking the time to join us.

Anne: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great pleasure.

Jon: Uh, Anne, I was so sorry to hear that democracy is dying and that autocracy is now, uh, ascendant. Uh, but you, you’ve written quite a bit about the perilous nature that we find healthy, liberal democracy in. Uh, do you want to expand on that, that’s not something that we just saw after January 6th? This has been an ongoing backslide.

Anne: Uh, no indeed. My book predates January the 6th. 

Jon: Yes. 

Anne: Also, I would put it a little differently. I would say there’s an ongoing contest. I’m not, um, predicting the demise of democracy or that it will end because that’s not how history works.

Jon: We’re still in the game?

Anne: We’re still in the game and nothing’s over till it’s over, right? So, one of the ways in which you can, uh, shape events is by thinking positively about them or thinking about what’s wrong, analyzing the problem, and changing the situation and moving on.

Jon: That sounds like hope and prayers. That sounds like—

Anne: That sounds hope and prayer. Maybe that’s a little bit too optimistic [JON LAUGHS] but, you know, but, I feel a kind of professional responsibility to be optimistic. You know, I mean, how could I say to my kids or to my students, or to people younger than me —

Jon: Right.

Anne: — that everything’s over, you know? That seems unfair even when I do sometimes feel it. But no, there, there’s been a challenge to the mainstream of liberal democracy that’s actually begun percolating, I think about a decade ago.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Anne: Um, and it’s got different sources. Um, there is an economic source, which is the one that’s most famously talked about, but I think really it’s more cultural. There’s a part of the western elite in America, in Europe, in many other countries that became discontented with its role and its influence and began trying to imagine something different. Usually, I know it’s talked about in a different way. We talk about you know, the masses being unhappy about this or that, but I actually think this is something that began in a different place.

Jon: So you talk about global elites. Generally, uh, global elites are seen as the liberal establishment, not the illiberal. In fact generally autocrats and the illiberal, uh, crowd are fighting against global elites. So you’re saying they themselves may in fact be global elites?

Anne: Well, that’s of course their narrative. 

Jon: Yes. 

Anne: Um, that’s the narrative that they use in order to claim that they’re the underdogs. I mean, do you think, you know, Donald Trump wasn’t part of the global elite or, you know, Boris Johnson wasn’t part of the global elite? You know, there is no autocratic movement, whether of the far left or the far right, whether in Venezuela or in Hungary —

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Anne: That doesn’t have elites working for it. So whether it’s, uh, journalists or propagandists or, um, speech writers or the political candidates themselves, um, they are invariably people who come with connections and preparation and ideas and sometimes education. And if you look —

Jon: Anne Applebaum, am I hearing this correctly? Are you telling me that populism is a scam? Is that what I’m hearing here? [ANNE LAUGHS] That demagogues rule the day no matter what the political movement is?

Anne: Uh, I’m afraid populism is a scam.

Jon: What?

Anne: I dunno. I don’t know how to break it to you at this late date.

Jon: Ugh, Applebaum. Uh, it’s, you say 10 years, you know, I wanna look back a little bit further as we trace this thing and then we’ll get up to sort of where it’s at, stands now in Russia and Brazil, and as you said, Venezuela and Hungary. I’m old enough to remember Francis Fukuyama telling us that, uh, history had ended and this was post the fall of the Soviet Union. America’s dominance, liberal democracy’s dominance was unquestioned. Uh, we could close the book on fascism, communism, socialism. That this was ascendant and it was over. And that lasted, I think a week. And, uh, then there was an invasion in, uh, Iraq and Afghanistan and the whole thing turned on its head. Has this movement against democracy actually never ended? That it really, that this is a post World War II kind of, there was a grace period and then the battle just started all over again.

Anne: I’m afraid, I think it’s even older than that. If you look at the American founders and what they were talking about at the time they wrote the constitution.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Anne: What they were most afraid of was a demagogue coming to power. I mean, they knew it from their reading of classics, right? They were reading the history of Ancient Rome mostly. And they were afraid of Caesar. They were afraid of some demagogue coming to power and changing the rules.

Jon: Right.

Anne: And some of the weirdest things about our constitution were deliberately written in order to prevent that. Uh, and so really from the beginning, the idea that democracy might be overthrown by autocrats or by anti-democrats has been — 

Jon: Mm-hmm

Anne: — You know, part of the nature of democracy. I mean, and all the rule writing and all of the debating that’s ever gone into creating a democracy wherever they’ve been created, whether in America or in Africa or in Asia or in Europe that’s been one of the central concerns. So this idea that somehow you know, the first challenges to democracy happened maybe in the 20th century, is really a misreading and a forgetting of the older history. Um, so it’s kind of inherent to the idea of democracy is an idea of instability, that there will always be people who want to challenge it. There’s always gonna be an alternate elite who want power for themselves. There are always gonna be people who don’t accept the rules, who don’t wanna. Um, you know, make it possible for their political enemies to win the next election. I mean, that’s inherent to the nature of the thing.

Jon: So, throughout history, you know, let’s, let’s say Caesar to Trump, let’s call that both, by the way, casino owners, oddly enough. Uh, it, it’s really the push and pull of autocracy and mob rule. That’s kind of the founder’s game is to find that sweet spot, checks and balances between allowing tyranny or mob rule and the tyranny of the mob to run things and that’s kind of the delicate balance that we’re always trying to maintain. Would that be it?

Anne: Yeah, I think that’s the right way to describe it. Um, you know, you have to think of democracies as a system that’s constantly being challenged really by human nature itself. I mean, it is a normal, desire of people who are in power to wish to keep power and to keep it indefinitely. 

Jon: Right. 

Anne: And to alter the institutions of democracy in order to keep it. And so you have to create rules in advance that doesn’t let them do that. Um, and that, and those rules are things like an independent court system, rule of law, um, uh, you know, a set of norms and ideas built up around that. A kind of education system attached to that. And you have to teach people to accept the idea that when someone wins an election, it doesn’t mean they get to destroy their enemies and lock them up and put them in jail, and then rule indefinitely because that’s – you know, that’s the natural instinct of people who seek power. Um, and democracies have to find a way of preventing that from happening. And, um, you know, historically there aren’t so many democracies. I mean, I think through most of human history, they’ve been pretty rare. It’s why when the founders were designing our system, what they were reading about was Greece and Rome. So there hadn’t been anything in between that impressed them all that much. [JON LAUGHS]

Jon: A little bit of a gap.

Anne: There was a gap.

Jon: There’s a little bit of a gap. And so they started and you see that it’s so interesting you mentioned it, but I wanna ask about the role of, you know, power doesn’t want to seed itself, but it also, in order to be empowered to do the anti-democratic things, kind of paradoxically it needs an angry mob. And you see that now in the stirring up of the angry mobs. You see it in Brazil. You saw it on January 6th. Uh, you hear it on talk radio. There is that idea of it’s not just the people who are the leaders wanting to punish, uh, their opponents, it’s their supporters. That there is a real vigilante, vindictive, I mean, for God’s sakes, “Lock her up,” was maybe, uh, the single, biggest bumper sticker issue, you know, in the 2016 election. How important is it that they have the angry mob behind them?

Anne: It’s very important and they spend a lot of time thinking about how to create the angry mob. What are the issues —

Jon: That’s the point. That’s the point. 

Anne: Right. What are the issues that can inspire it? What can keep it together? And one of the things that’s happened, but you know this is now a cliche, me even saying this in the last several years, is that social media has made that easier. It’s easier to create links between people who wouldn’t have known one another before. It’s easier to find the people who are dissatisfied with the current political system or the current, you know, national order. Um, and it’s easier to link them together and to create the mob. Um, it, you know, it was, it was actually a lot harder in the past when you had to do it in sort of — in real life.

Jon: Right.

Anne: Um, you had to actually have people on streets, you know, hanging around street corners, talking to one another. Now it can be done electronically. 

Jon: Well it seems like the real advancement in mob rule was probably radio, was it not? I mean, that was really like in the thirties. And again, this is a very, uh, American-centric view of it because I think it’s probably different in different areas around the world. But here in this country, you know, it went from radio to direct mail to AM radio to social media. But why is it that these movements — why do their communications, why are they so, uh, easily passed and whipped up? Whereas the communication of moderation or of, uh, you know, a more democratic way has such a difficult time. Lies spread faster than truth.

Anne: First of all, you’re absolutely right about radio. The two people who best understood radio and who instantly saw the possibilities of it at the beginning of the 20th century were Hitler and Stalin. I mean, they were both—

Jon: Wow.

Anne: —addicted to radio. They loved radio. you know, Hitler communicated by radio. Stalin was obsessed with radio.

Jon: I thought you were gonna say Wolfman Jack. [ANNE LAUGHS] I thought you were gonna say that, the one who understood it best was Wolfman Jack, uh, and Father Coughlin in this country.

Anne: And Father Coughlin in this country. And, um, of course, you know, the responses to radio are also very interesting. So the creation of the BBC was actually an attempt to find a way to use radio for Democratic purposes to use radio to reach different parts of the population, to unite Britain into a single national conversation. I mean, there were, there was a lot of thinking that was done about this at that time. Um, I mean, I think the main problem is that these are. Um, the demagogues are looking at a different audience. So they’re looking at an audience that wants very clear, simple slogans. 

Jon: Mm-hmm. 

Anne: Um, that’s bothered by raucous debate and divisive argument,that favors a kind of homogeneous conversation that wants, um, you know, wants kind of to simplify the public sphere and they’re aiming at that group of people. And as you say, the more nuanced conversation is aiming at a different sort of people. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it’s that it has a different impact.

Jon: And a different audience. How important is nostalgia in the mix of sort of this more populist radio and rabble rousing. This idea that you had something that was better, that was lost, that is being taken from you. That idea of, uh, you are the victims of this new movement.

Anne: It’s, it’s hugely important. 

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Anne: And always has been in these kinds of movements. I mean, going back to the 18th and 19th century. So the idea that, um, you’re losing, that you’re falling behind. That you’re falling out of something, um, and that it can be restored. and their idea of restoration is not just, I mean, I have some nostalgia for the past two, you know, I like old buildings—

Jon: Sure. 

Anne: I like old things.

Jon: I like Charleston Chews, the old candy.

Anne: That’s right. You know, what was wrong with Good & Plenty, you know, [JON LAUGHS] but their idea is, is to use an idea of the past to destroy the present we’re gonna wipe away all the ugliness that we see around it, and we’re gonna substitute something better. Um, and it’s absolutely central to almost all populous movements and also to some left-wing movements as well.

Jon: I think too, the, for me, the important thing to remember is, and I think this is something that sometimes gets overlooked, is that these movements are not spontaneous in any way. They’re designed, that they are — there are meetings upon meetings in rooms where these strategies are discussed, designed, deployed, and before we get to that moment in present times. Talk a little bit about how these movements, the, they’re never a spontaneous kind of, uh, a moment of inspiration leads to this movement. It’s not how it appears in Hollywood narratives, it’s how it appears in, uh, boardrooms, that these are strategies laid out very meticulously.

Anne: Well this, this is why I was talking about elites, um, because yes — 

Jon: Right. 

Anne: You’re absolutely right. So there’s a, there’s a planning process, you know? 

Jon: Mm-hmm. 

Anne: You know, just behind January the 6th, there was a planning process. We’re going to bring people together. There’s an online conversation, there’s a, um, there are people planning what will happen. There are people who think about, in that case, the impact of that day. I mean, there was, there was a goal to that particular riot. It wasn’t just people spontaneously gathering at the Capitol.

Jon: That’s right.

Anne: It was meant to block Mike Pence from certifying Joe Biden’s election. So it had a kind of, you know, there was a point.

Jon: And explicitly, explicitly, so, this is, this was the design of, not necessarily the whole group, but a portion within that group.

Anne: Absolutely. I mean, a portion within that group knew that’s what it was for.

Jon: Right. 

Anne: You know, you can see it, you can read it in what they were saying. You know, this is why they were saying “Hang Mike Pence.” 

Jon: Mm-hmm. 

Anne: Um, this was their, this was their idea. They were there in order to, in order to block this and the planning process included lawyers and constitutional scholars or —

Jon: Right.

Anne: — scholar might not be the right word, [JON LAUGHS] but people who were thinking very hard about the constitution and what were the loopholes in the constitution and — 

Jon: Right. 

Anne: — how could we use our weird electoral college, you know, and its strange regulations. How could we use that to block the Biden presidency? So absolutely, it involved a lot of educated um, uh, people who are working behind the scenes in order to create that spectacle. And so, you’re right, the idea that it happened spontaneously is wrong. And actually a lot of what happens online isn’t particularly spontaneous either. I mean, you know, people create campaigns. They create hashtags, they try to link people together.

Jon: Mm-hmm. 

Anne: How can this particular community be brought into touch with that other particular community and how can they be made to think the same things? And if, and actually, you know, this can be done for good or for evil. This is just a neutral fact.

Jon: Right. 

Anne: How do you campaign? How do you, you know, create single ideas? I mean, this is, um, this is what advertisers do. It’s what political groups of all kinds do. Um, but the idea that a riot is spontaneous is of course absurd.

Jon: But, uh, the interesting point there I thought especially is that idea of loopholes. You know, when you have a liberal democracy, there is space within it because one of its sort of, uh, main selling points is a certain freedom and within certain freedoms, which means there’s going to be more spaces for activities that can undermine those freedoms. It’s what we all heard after 9/11. You know, uh, “They used our freedom against us. They undermined us in that way.” These movements do the same things. They weaponize the modes of communication. They weaponize the loopholes, uh, in the systems to gain control. And then once in control, then that’s the real, you know, it’s sort of like they plant themselves, but then the roots have to grow out and they have to erode all those democratic systems and bulwarks, those guardrails, and that seems like stage two. Would that be correct?

Anne: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, one of the things that we’ve learned from the Trump administration was that there was a lot more about American democracy that operated on the basis of kind of norms and assumptions and behavior.

Jon: Mm-hmm. 

Anne: Stuff that wasn’t written into the law. 

Jon: Right. 

Anne: Um, just for just a petty thing, the fact that presidents reveal their tax forms. 

Jon: Right. 

Anne: Which has been true since Nixon first started doing it.

Jon: Or they’re visitor logs.

Anne: Or they’re visitor logs. 

Jon: Right.

Anne: I mean, none, none of, there’s no law that says you have to do that, but it was just a thing that people did and everybody got used to the idea, you know, or ethics rules about who gets paid in the White House and who, um, you know, what’s the role of presidential children in an administration.

Jon: Right. 

Anne: And there were a lot of norms around — ethics norms, you know, about what money you can take and what kind of deals you can be doing on the side turned out to be easily vilable. And the same was true with the electoral process. It turned out that this thing that happened on January 6th, that we all thought was a kind of ceremony without that much meaning. It turned out that some people looked at the ceremony and said, “Wait, there’s no, what if we stopped that ceremony? What if we made it not happen?” 

Jon: That’s right. 

Anne: “You know, then we’d throw a wrench into the system.” And it, no one had thought of doing it before because it was just outside the realm of imagination. And once you begin to imagine that, then yes, you begin to imagine all kinds of other things. You know, what are the other institutions that keep things on track? For example, inspectors general —

Jon: Right! 

Anne: — and ethics advisors.

Jon: Yes.

Anne: And people who’ve been stuck inside bureaucracies to keep them independent and –

Jon: Yes, the Deep State, Anne, the Deep State.

Anne: The Deep State.

Jon: It’s incredible to me though the amount of, and I think the January 6th commission for ultimately whatever accountability will be brought to bear in it. The most interesting thing to me is the amount of conversation, the amount of the administration that it takes to undermine a healthy democracy. The lawyers that have to come in and check things over, you know, absent a military coup, which they also, I think were laying the groundwork for. It’s amazing to me how many f***ing meetings, you know, uh, autocrats need to take over.

Anne: Oh, you need a lot of meetings. You need a lot of smoke-filled rooms. [JON LAUGHS] You need a lot of dinners. You need a lot of conversations around kitchen tables. 

Jon: Right.

Anne: No, no. There, there’s a, you know, the planning and thinking about how you undermine the institutions, figuring out which ones are weak, you know, who are the people who can be replaced, you know? Which are the jobs that if you put a loyalist into it, he could screw you know, screw up the most things. And by the way, that was something that Trump didn’t understand very well when he first became president. And he got better at, with as time went on, I mean, so he —

Jon: Sure.

Anne: — he began to understand better how you could use, for example —

Jon: The Department of Defense.

Anne: The Department of Defense. Exactly. Your defense secretary.

Jon: Right. Here’s where it gets us to sort of now more of the present moment. And I think you’ve written an awful lot about this, which is this kind of loose movement of autocrats that in some ways look like kind of independent weather systems that are going on. But it’s a larger climate and it is connected from Hungary to Brazil to Russia to the United States. And oddly enough the recipe for this autocracy was laid out in full view for everyone to see. I mean, you could almost, uh, there’s that speech that Steve Bannon gave at the Vatican where he just sort of lays out, you know, Putin is a defender of western civilization, western civilization is under attack, and we must all ban together against liberalism and just sort of laid out the game plan.

Anne: Oh, it’s not a secret, the game plan. I was at a, um, kind of strange event in Rome it was right before the pandemic organized by this kind of national conservative movement where Victor Orbán was one of the guest speakers, and there were some Americans there and other Europeans and so on, and Orbán was interviewed and he was asked a series of sycophantic questions and, you know, why are, “Why are you so wonderful? And how, how is it that you’ve remained in power so long, Mr. Orbán?”

Jon: Wow. Did Tucker do the interview? Was that Tucker? [ANNE LAUGHS]

Anne: No, Tucker was sadly not there.

Jon: Alright.

Anne: “You know, how, how is it that you’ve remained in power so long?” He said, “Well, it really helps to have no opposition. So if you can [JON LAUGHS] eliminate your opposition and make sure they don’t have any power, that helps. And the other thing that really helps is to have no journalists who disagree with you. So if you can eliminate the journalists, um, then you can stay in power longer.” And he said it, I was sitting in the back with the other journalists, you know, and we all laughed, but you know, wasn’t that funny.

Jon: Was there even, like, see that’s the kind of thing that you think when a leader says it, you’d get at least an audible gasp. Like the audience realizing that democracy was, you know, uh, backsliding, gasped as they saw the creeping face of fascism coming across. Like you always think it’s going to be more dramatic than it is.

Anne: No, the audience lapped it up. You know, these were sort of Italians and, you know, Spaniards and Poles and others, and they lapped it up and they said, “Wow, wow. You know, if we could eliminate our journalists, if we didn’t have this constant criticism, if we didn’t have an opposition, think what we could do. We could dismantle, you know, the entire state. We could, we could change, um, change everything about our society and make it the way we want it to be.” 

Jon: But what is the ideology? Is the ideology that connects them, “I just don’t want to be bothered by journalists and the, uh, checks and balances of a democratic system?” What, or is the ideology more about liberalism itself? Is it more about, “We are going to protect the Conservative view of Christian western civilization.” Is there something that connects these sort of disparate autocrats that’s larger than a billionaire power dictators club?

Anne: So there’re different people in that group and they have different motivations.

Jon: OK.

Anne: Sorry to be over nuanced.

Jon: No, no, no, no, no. Please.

Anne: Some of them do believe that, you know, the world has been taken over by a kind of left wing, communist gay ideology. And we need to bring the world back to some traditional way of being. And we need to restore the hierarchy between men and women. And some of them believe we need to restore the hierarchy of race. And some of them say, you know, “It’s all this immigration has diluted our societies and we need to bring it back to some,” as we’ve discussed “some previous world that was, that was better and stronger. We need to be like that.” Some people are very interested in money. And one of the other things that happens when you eliminate your journalists and your political opposition and your inspector generals and your ethics councils is that it’s a lot easier to steal and you can steal a lot. And so, you know, for example, in Victor Orbán’s Hungary, they steal like crazy, you know, because they can.

Jon: Right.

Anne: You know, there’s nobody watching them and nobody preventing them. Some of them are interested in power, you know, they just wanna be in charge indefinitely, and they don’t wanna have any opposition in the future. So they wanna just take power and then keep it, because it’s a more comfortable way to live. So there are different, there’s different versions of it.

Jon: Let’s break these groups down. Let’s, let’s talk a little bit about, OK, so who’s, let’s call it fascism classic. Uh, they’re against an hierarchy of race and immigration. Which of these sort of modern autocrats is more ideologically aligned with the political aims of these kinds of fascist ideologies or autocrat ideologies and who is using it more cynically? I’ll give you an example. Uh, Putin recently gave a speech, it must have been, uh, two months ago. Where he almost mirrored, he talked about there’s two wests, there’s a liberal west and an illiberal west. And we, “I’m on the side of the west. We just want to get back to primarily patriotism, great culture.” Uh, he wanted to, uh, eliminate gays and wokeness. And it struck me as boy, he could have delivered that at CPAC in Florida and been followed by Matt Gaetz and nobody would’ve been the wiser. It was that unremarkable a speech.

Anne: So that is an example of extraordinary cynicism. 

Jon: OK.

Anne: So Russia is a country where almost nobody goes to church. [JON LAUGHS] Where something like 5% of the people have ever read a Bible. [JON LAUGHS] Um, it’s also a country which is, I think officially or 11% or 12% Muslim, but might even be higher than that. 

Jon: Right.

Anne: It’s a, it’s actually a multiethnic society with lots of little, these little Muslim republics in Central Asia and Chechnya and so on.

Jon: Right.

Anne: Um, one, one part of Russia, which is Chechnya, is actually run by Sharia law. So the idea that Russia is, you know, some kind of defender of western Christian civilization is —

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Anne:—absurd. I mean absurd.

Jon: So he’s, it’s a cyn— right now for him, it’s a cynical reach to try and shore up this populism stream that he thinks will help. Basically, it’s all there to undermine Europe and undermine the United States.

Anne: Yeah. His goal is to undermine the European Union, make it fall apart, make NATO fall apart.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Anne: Get Americans to leave Europe, um, get Americans out of the world and make the world safe for Russian corruption. And he sees that he can, by talking about this, whatever traditional values he sees that he can win some allies onto his side.

Jon: I see.

Anne: Some political leaders in the West —

Jon: Total cynicism. Do you feel the same way about Orbán? Is that cynicism as well? Is he trying to be Putin light or is there, uh, more of a belief system behind this?

Anne: I think in his case it’s cynicism as well. I mean, Orbán discovered Christianity very late. [JON LAUGHS] Um, he realized that it was good for him.

Jon: Yes.

Anne: Um, he’s tried —

Jon: Trump as well from what I understand.

Anne: I wasn’t aware that Trump had discovered Christianity.

Jon: Oh, I think he’s got, it’s his favorite book, besides “Art of the Deal,” I think the Bible might be his second favorite book. [ANNE LAUGHS] And then you’ve got the link there from those guys into South America through Bolsonaro. I mean, guys from MAGA World, it’s this incredibly weird confluence of, you know, MAGA World and Putin and Orbán and Bolsonaro, and they’re all texting each other.

Anne: Yes, they are. So one of the interesting things about nationalism is that nationalists didn’t used to be able to work together almost by definition.

Jon: Right.

Anne: Because if you’re a nationalist, then you know, you hate everybody who’s not you. Right? And so it, you know, Italian and Austrian nationalists couldn’t talk to one another because they had border conflicts. What happened in the last several years was that, um, the sort of international sort of autocracy international, found a set of issues that they could share. And the issues were in Europe, it’s mostly to do with immigration, but in this sort of South America, America, Southern Europe link, it is often to do with feminism, gays, um, you know, these kind of fake, you know, traditional causes.

Jon: Right. That they don’t really care about to a large extent.

Anne: I mean some, some people might care about them and some of their followers probably care about them, um, but some people see them purely as ways of manipulating an audience.

Jon: It’s a means to an end.

Anne: But they’re also kind of, they’ve, you know, it’s in a way, it’s like the weird flip side of globalization. So they also are a way to connect, you know, I mean, what do Brazilian politics and American politics have to do with each other historically? I mean, nothing in the sense of what do we have in common? We don’t have any history in common. We don’t have traditions in common.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Anne: But now there, you know, there are these, you know, you can take slogans. I mean, literally, you know, the ‘Stop the Steal’ slogan or the, um, you know, the you can take English language slogans and you can try and pump them up on the Brazilian internet and you can get people to put them —

Jon: They had signs that were like —

Anne: In English.

Jon: — #StoptheSteal, right.

Anne: Yes in English.

Jon: They had social media savvy signs, but, and what I’m wondering is again, when we get back to sort of fascism classic versus what we see today. Today feels more like a caper. It almost feels like a heist movie. An international heist between fat cat businessmen, right wing media ideologues, right wing media cynics, and this sort of movement to capture these resources for the oligarchy. Now, the flip side of it, on the liberal side, you have everybody going to Davos, which immediately presents itself as an incredible target for these right wing autocrats. Like the liberal world is not doing itself any favors by having these banana’s gatherings of elites in sleepy Swiss town, you know, it’s not helping itself.

Anne: No, I mean, one of the main sources of power, certainly of the modern, the real modern autocracies, by which I mean Russia and China.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Anne: And, you know, Iran. One of their main sources of power is that, I mean they literally come to power using our financial system. So international kleptocracy, the thing that, the systems that allow people in autocratic states to steal from their people, to take the money into the west to recycle it on, you know, in Caribbean islands, um, or sometimes in American states and to bring it back again. We created that system. So the western —

Jon: The money laundering scheme. It’s a money laundering scheme.

Anne: It’s money laundering. So the western financial system is complicit in helping to create this world of modern autocracy. In that sense, you’re absolutely right. I mean, we allowed this to happen, you know, we cynically allowed autocrats to use our financial system in a way that enabled them to stay in power. And now they’ve, you know, flipped it around and they’re using our, um, open social media space and our public conversation to undermine us. 

Jon: So when you talk about fighting autocracies and you know, again, going back to sort of fascism classic. The mindset, and maybe this is, you know, misremembering and nostalgia in and of itself, is that the free world has to gather all its resources and fight this battle, as Churchill would say, you know, “In the streets, in there on the.” You know, “Never give up. Never give in.” But the reality of it is we’re fighting it in all the wrong ways and in some ways fueling it. So we’re getting to that, you know, the, the traditional ideas of fighting fascism is, you know, we sort of think about these, it’s the two armies coming together in the bloodiest conflagration that you could possibly imagine in a — and it’s really about the forces of good versus the forces of evil, and we must triumph. The reality of it is much trickier because even liberal democracies are faced with a crisis of corruption. A crisis of the corrupt financial systems that are exploiting the very people that are then put vulnerable to these more autocratic messages. We’re — by not dealing with the corruption in our own liberal democracies, are we not making the soil more fertile for these autocrats to take hold and exploit those same financial loopholes that liberal democracies and capitalism have been exploiting? Aren’t we sowing the seeds? Aren’t we doing the autocrats work for them? Aren’t we are, by exploiting our population financially, aren’t we setting the stage for these autocrats?

Anne: So, the best thing that we could do to fight modern autocracy, whether it’s in the form of Russia and China, or whether it’s in the form of autocratic movements inside our own country, the best thing we could do is clean up our own financial system. So fixing —

Jon: Wow.

Anne: — fixing money laundering, changing the dark money funnels that lead all kinds of people to be contributing to our political system in ways that we don’t know. Um, this is absolutely the best thing we do. If we change our internal behavior, if we stop enabling autocracy and we stop enabling kleptocracy, um, we would benefit from it domestically at home as well.

Jon: That’s in— I think that’s something that can’t, can’t be said enough. And in some ways, you almost look back and you think, my God, could Citizens United have been the decision that allows, you know, democracy to be eroded throughout not just this country, but Europe and the world? Could it have been as easy as that?

Anne: I do know if I would point at that alone —

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Anne: — but it’s certainly part of the problem. Um, you know once you have systems whereby people can try to use money to corrupt the political system, um, once that money can be coming from almost anywhere in the world and from almost anyone in the world, um, then you know, you have the effect. You have a corrupted political system that isn’t able to, that doesn’t reflect, you know, the real interests of people.

Jon: And it’s so interesting because if you were to look for the boogeyman of, uh, these autocrats, it’s always, uh, the global elites, globalization, the, you know, uh, all those institutions, uh, that are charged with international economics and finance. And by the way, not saying those institutions function well or don’t create, uh, all kinds of opportunities for corruption, but it really is so much of fascism is really just a money laundering scheme.

Anne: Well, and as I said, so many people see these issues cynically, and they see, you know, they use this kind of populist, you know, um, authoritarian rhetoric in order to enact policies that will continue to be good for the financial elite. I mean, there’s a, you know, they, in other words, they’re preventing you know, real people from having a voice in politics because they’re so overwhelmed by the amount of money that comes from the influence of kleptocracy both in the world and in the United States is one of the great underwritten stories of the last couple of decades.

Jon: I mean, and if you think about it and the lack of accountability, and I can’t remember which bank this was. It might have been HSBC, it might have been Wells Fargo. I think it might have been HSBC. That they were found to be laundering money for drug cartels as part of their, you know, business model. They were taking money from drug cartels, laundering it and putting it back in the system. And I think they were fined. I think, you know, they’re basically, they were, HSBC was found to be laundering money for drug cartels and international terrorism. And when they got caught it was like, “Hey man, just give us like 5% of that.” And, uh, and everything should be OK.

Anne: Right. Actually the reaction should be what do we have to do to make this never happen again.

Jon: Right.

Anne: How do we make this impossible? You know, how do we—

Jon: And how many of you have to go to jail?

Anne: And how many people should go to jail? And how do we change the rules so that it’s not possible anymore?

Jon: How do you separate the sort of kleptocracy from, again, fascism classic Stalin’s and Hitler’s who have world domination as their goal. Not necessarily just a more tin pot dictator gonna get as much money out of this as I can. How do you draw the distinction? 

Anne: Well, I think there is something now like, um, I wrote an article a few months ago in which I used this expression, Autocracy Inc.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Anne: Um, Autocracy Incorporated in which there is a system by which, you know, and this is not, this is Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela you know, Zimbabwe and a network of other countries do now seek to keep one another in power. They, you know, they help one another get around sanctions. They lend one another surveillance equipment. The Chinese are now constantly teaching other nations how to use their, um, you know, their forms of social media control. Um, you know, the Russians have the Wagner Group, which is this group of mercenaries who they now send around Africa and around the world in order to help keep dictators in power. I mean, this is a somewhat separate story from the conversation we were having earlier about autocracy in our own country.

Jon: Right.

Anne: Except that there is a link, which is that, um, some of these same systems that, you know, fund the Wagner Group or fund the, um, fund the surveillance systems are also looking at how they could, they’re also spending a lot of time thinking about how to undermine democracy in America or in Europe. So, um, so they’re not unrelated, but I do think they have, if not a, you know, an idea of world dominance. You know, if not a central ideology, they have a kind of set of shared practices, you know, in a way. So it’s not like there’s a secret room, you know, like in a James Bond movie where all the bad guys get together and they say, “Right now we’re gonna run the world.” It’s not really like that, but they do have a kind of um, you know, shared practices, they learn from one another. They lend one another ideas, you know, the corrupt state controlled companies of one autocracy invest in the corrupt state controlled autocracies of another country. Um, they learn, you know, they use the same social media ideas and symbols. We’ve already talked about this kind of you know, neotraditionalism.

Jon: Right.

Anne: Um, that they share and they copycat from one another. So they have a set of shared practices and they have a set of common enemies, and the common enemy is us. I mean, what, you know, what really bothers them is liberal democracy. Partly because their own opponents inside their countries continue to say things like, “We want free speech.” And they continue to, um, protest and some, you know, go to jail and organize opposition. And they, you know, they see us as somehow connected to that. So they see us and they see liberal democracy as a kind of common enemy, even if we don’t see it that way. I mean, we don’t think of ourselves as being, you know, at war with this network, in any way. But they see us, you know, they see us as the main opposition to their form of total control.

Jon: I mean, let me present it in a less charitable light, which I think is, you know, the charitable light is we are a beacon of freedom and democracy and they can’t stand, uh, the idea that their people, uh, would have a role in self-determination and all that. Is there also something to this that says, you know, we’re the largest competitor they have for cheap exploitation of, uh, minerals materials, oils. Is this just another form of colonialism? Where powers are competing to see who can extract the most out of the less developed countries, and aren’t we playing that game as well?

Anne: I suppose, you know, you’d have to, again, you’d have to look country by country. I mean, actually the Chinese are now so far ahead of us in Africa in terms of their influence and their control over minerals and resources that I’m not sure we’re even competing there anymore to the extent that we, you know, that we might once have been. So yeah, I’m sure there’s an economic element to it, but there is an ideological element as well. If only because, as I say, the Russian opposition, um, you know, the Hong Kong protest movement, the Iranian Woman Life Freedom Movement, I mean, all of those movements, which are the thing autocrats fear the most, are still inspired by the ideals of liberalism or the ideals of democracy, even if they’re not directly inspired by us. You know, even if they’re all rather disgusted by us and tired of us and, you know, not impressed by us. They are, the germ of the idea, which is very, very old um, remains inspiring to a lot of people around the world.

Jon: And so difficult to, in many ways, pull off. I mean, I think, you know, if the Arab Spring had more success and less chaos and led to less autocracy. I mean, you saw it in Egypt kind of play out writ large. You know, they get rid of the autocrat. They have a democratic election, but they don’t really have any civil institutions that can help. So the only people organized enough to succeed there is the Muslim Brotherhood. And then when that gets too chaotic, another autocrat steps in, you know, they go between these autocrats and military coups. Is the way to make liberal democracy more contagious, to make sure that it’s less chaotic?

Anne: Well, you know, we don’t have the power to make Egypt less chaotic, but, um —

Jon: Right, I meant in terms of support. 

Anne: Well, you know, you’re right in that the effort to support independent groups and organizations, the effort to support independent media, some of which we do actually in mostly pretty small ways, but we do, do it. Um, the effort to provide people with good or at least better information, you know, those are all things that we could do to help eventually make the world more civilized. Um, and as I said, in different bits of the U.S. government and non-government organizations as well do some of that. But you know, finding a way to make the democratic alternatives real and to give people the feeling that they have a real voice or a real stake in their societies is, you know, it’s God’s work. I mean, it’s again our ability to influence other countries is limited, but to the extent that we can help, we should be doing it.

Jon: And so in your mind, you know, when you look at kind of the state of play right now, uh, it certainly feels like, uh, liberal democracy is a little bit on the back foot. Autocracies and in some ways, look, there’s no question destabilizing the Middle East did not help our case in generally for liberal democracy. Uh, we went in there with those high-minded ideals supposedly, and by not having it come to fruition, I think set back the cause quite terribly, but where do you see it sort of holding firm? You know, there’s threats to it now France. Italy went with Meloni, uh, Germany just had a coup attempt, you know, who is safe now and where do you see kind of, uh, what’s gonna be the bulwark?

Anne: The German coup attempt was, let’s admit, it was pretty funny. Um it was —

Jon: Oh what? [ANNE LAUGHS] Was it really? I didn’t know German coup and funny could be in the same sentence.

Anne: It was a bunch of old reactionary aristocrats. I mean, I’m not even sure it was a coup attempt. It was a —

Jon: Oh, OK. No Reichstag fire. They just had a weedy road —

Anne: There was no Reichstag fire this time.

Jon: — at like a manse and that was the end —

Anne: No.

Jon: Alright.

Anne: It was the history starts as tragedy and second time as farse kind of thing.

Jon: I see. OK. That’s comforting.

Anne: Look, I mean, you know, in some ways, some of the most, um, the most optimistic and impressive people I meet now are the democrats who come from the autocratic world. I mean, let me introduce you sometime to the Venezuelan opposition, you know, or the Hong Kong opposition.

Jon: Right.

Anne: You know, or let me introduce you to the Taiwanese, you know, who are in a way, kind of on the frontline, you know, they’re trying to maintain their little island democracy in the face of this overwhelming autocratic monolith that wants to destroy them, you know. Or, you know, let me introduce you to the Ukrainians, um, who have a very idealistic and but also very pragmatic vision of how their version of democracy will eventually triumph. Not only over the Russians, but over their own, you know, past traumas and their own pathologies.

Jon: They have their, they have their own ultranationalist problem, though, don’t they?

Anne: They do. Although most of those problems now kind of dim by comparison to the big problem, which is the war. 

Jon: Right.

Anne: Um, you know, people have really unified around the cause of fighting the war and they’re, they’re fighting fewer differences between one another. But you know, when you talk to Ukrainians who are, who very much believe that what they’re fighting for is their right to sovereignty and to democracy and to some kind of liberal space by comparison to an increasingly autocratic and almost totalitarian Russia. You will be inspired. I mean, they’re the ones who talk in idealistic terms, who think about big ideas and who hope that they can, you know, bring them, you know to victory. And there, in that case, it’s a real victory. It is a military victory and it is a military conflict. So —

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Anne: — I mean, there are surprising numbers of people even in the most hopeless circumstances who continue to fight for or believe in free speech and freedom of movement and the importance of choosing your own governments and the importance of civic involvement in politics and continue to try and create systems even at great risk to their own lives. And they’re the ones who really give me a lot of hope right now.

Jon: Well that certainly is more optimistic than some of the other things that I’ve heard. And it seems as though the west and the liberal west has to get more realistic about just how allied and organized the forces against it are throughout the world. And I don’t mean militarily, I mean in terms of, you know, the old message of hearts and minds. The old idea of, you know, these folks are weaponizing media and financial instruments and all kinds of other things, and it’s something that has to be fought you know, not in the hamlets of Zurich, but you know, people have to get smarter about the ways in which they’re trying to erode democratic institutions.

Anne: So Russia and China combined spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars on propaganda every year. Directed at us, directed at Africa, directed at Asia, directed all over the world.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Anne: What we spend by comparison is a tiny fraction of that. We don’t even, it’s not even really on our radar —

Jon: Right.

Anne: — that we should be doing that. 

Jon: That’s ‘cause we’re spending it all on radars. [ANNE AND JON LAUGH] We’re just, all we’re doing is making more planes and bombs and, you know, we’ve somehow taken the idea that the military is the only way to go with all this. And I feel like there has to be a rethink.

Anne: There has to be a rethink and a recalibration of you know, rethinking about what’s important. And as you say, an understanding of the multiple ways in which the civilization that we still wanna believe in and still want to be real, the ways in which it’s under attack, both internally and externally, and we need to begin reorganizing our political system and our, maybe our foreign policy in order along those lines. I agree with you.

Jon: And step one financial. Cleaning up the corruption in the world financial system.

Anne: Step one is financial. Step one is cleaning up the money laundering systems, ending kleptocracy, making it impossible for people to have secret bank accounts or own property secretly or own companies secretly. There’s really no reason why that has to even be possible. You know, and yet it is and it’s how so many people, both Americans and non-Americans hide their money. Even in places like South Dakota and Delaware. It’s not just Caribbean islands and it’s not just foreign countries where these things are possible.

Jon: Right, and that’s listen, we can’t even get, uh, our representatives to stop insider trading. We  can’t even get people to not walk outta committee meetings and call their broker and have them make a quick deal. So that’s gonna be a tall test. But I think you’re absolutely right. I think that’s job one.

Anne: That is job one.

Jon: Alright. Uh, Anne Applebaum, writer for the Atlantic, I can’t thank you enough for the conversation. Truly appreciate it.

Anne: Oh, it’s a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much.

Jon: Thank you so much.

Interview with Anne Applebaum Ends


Jon: Anne Applebaum. I don’t know if I feel better or worse. That’s my takeaway. She seems concerned.

Henrik: I feel the same way.

Jon: Mm-hmm.

Henrik: And it was concerning when she was like, um, “Look, I can’t say we’re losing because that would be too hard on my students.”

Maria: Yeah. [JON LAUGHS]

Henrik: And I was like —

Maria: Give it to me straight, Anne.

Henrik: She was like, “I can’t say that we’re gonna lose.” 

Maria: “What kind of mother would I be?”

Henrik: “Because that would be too sad.” 

Jon: Yeah. I did like that. It’s — the idea that her students wouldn’t be able to handle it. “There’s just too much going on right now for them to also deal with the fact that, uh, democracy is a dying political form.”

Henrik: I do think the idea though, I like that she said it’s an ongoing struggle because I think, you know, you reference all the time that there’s that book, “The End of History,” and then like a week later, history started back up again.

Jon: Right.

Henrik: And I think because we’re so incredibly privileged to have been born in the 100 years of human history, —

Maria: Mm-hmm.

Henrik: — where democracy was a prevailing power structure. We forget that the default system of government is like the Dothraki, which is like the guy who’s the best at killing makes all the decisions and he tells us who else we have to kill.

Jon: Yeah.

Henrik: And that’s gonna be —

Jon: No, the default —

Henrik: — an ongoing struggle.

Jon: The default governmental system is the king gets to have sex with your wife on your wedding night. [MARIA LAUGHS]

Henrik: “God says he has us to have prima nocta.” And you’re like, “It would be an honor for the king to share my bed.”

Jon: “I would hate for, uh, myself to bring on seven years of drought [HENRIK AND MARIA LAUGH] by not allowing the king to make passionate love to my wife.” 

Henrik: Yeah. So that’s, that I think is the, um, is what the inert is, the gravitational pull is toward that. 

Jon: Mm-hmm. 

Henrik: And I think being real about the fact that like, this is never gonna be locked up and just done for, you know? She talked about like the democracies that we reference, like Rome eventually had a Caesar. And so I think it’s healthy for us to be like, we’re always gonna be kind of in a push and pull.

Maria: Yeah. And we take it for granted. I mean, we really do. We take democracy for granted. And, um, you know, I love when she talked about how nostalgia is a really important part of authoritarian messaging.

Jon: Yeah.

Maria: And I’m like, how do we get, you know, how do we get messaging across to make democracy sexy and interesting and like, what is the nostalgia we can bring into that? Like, remember when we didn’t have to see neckbeards charging the Capitol? Remember those days? Like how do we get into that that?

Jon: Remember when we didn’t have fences around the National Mall? That kind of a thing.

Maria: Yes, yes, yes.

Jon: Yeah, nostalgia is a, it’s a huge part of it, but I also think that people who believe in liberalism or progressive values tend to think that they are immune from the pull of authoritarianism. And I think that is a huge mistake. There are very few people who would not give leeway to the dictator as long as it was their dictator. And as a matter of course, who is probably considered the greatest progressive president, Democrat of all time, and that would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Henrik: Mm-hmm.

Jon: And by the way, wanted to stack the Supreme Court, interned the Japanese Americans in prison camps. Did not serve two terms, decided to go for four. Uh, you know, he is the one who blew past all the democratic norms and all the, uh, so-called liberal values to get the things done that progressive thought was necessary and would consider important, but God bless, nobody would be like, “Roosevelt was like Hitler, but with food stamps.” 

Henrik: To be fair, I had a religion teacher in high school who did say that Roosevelt was like Hitler with food stamps. [JON LAUGHS]

Maria: Oh no.

Henrik: So that’s not an out of this world take. But I think you’re right cuz like when I look at these, you know, the Bolsonaro or um, the other, the other fascists that are rising, Orbán, I’m like, I don’t agree with authoritarianism.

Jon: Mm-hmm. 

Henrik: But I get it because it’s so simple. And there’s a speed and efficiency to that type of government. Like I think we’ve talked on this podcast before about, um, China and how they’re able to switch gears so quickly because there’s no resistance.

Jon: Yeah.

Henrik: And that’s the advantage to it but the disadvantage is if you are in their way, you’re gonna get completely steamrolled.

Jon: Right. I’ve always said this, and I’ll say it again, and this has been taken up by many scholars, China is the Razzles of, uh, economic systems. Is it a candy? Is it a gum? We don’t really know, but they shift back and forth and there’s a lot of, are they communists? Are they —

Maria: A Razzles? I’ve never had a Razzles.

Jon: Maria, is that —

Maria: Tell me about the Razzles. Sounds like something I should — 

Jon: Dear Lord, did I just —

Maria: Sounds like something my family made.

Jon: Did I just step into the old man cave for a moment?

Maria: It’s OK.

Jon: And I wandered out? So Razzles are, uh there have not been a lot of, uh, innovations in the candy world in a long time. Generally the innovation at this point is like, “What if we put dark chocolate on it?”

Henrik: Yeah. 

Jon: Or like M&Ms are like, “What if we put rocks in the middle of the M&M?” A razzle comes in a bag, I don’t even know if they still make ’em. And it was like, uh, oh it looked like a tablet.

Maria: OK.

Jon: And you would put, uh, let’s say 10 of them in your mouth. And you would start to chew them and you would think, “Oh, these are like sweet tarts.” And as the longer you eat them, the more you realize, “Oh, these motherf***ers aren’t going away. They’re not going away! They’re, they are somehow managing to defy the laws of saliva and chewing and they are staying in my mouth and quite frankly, they seem to be forming what appears to be, what I normally recognize as gum. Gum!” Now, Maria, did you not know the Razzles? Is that just, does it ring a bell as I describe it?

Maria: I’ve never heard of a Razzle. I think my closest thing to a Razzle would be a Blow Pop. But you know what’s coming. 

Henrik: Mm-hmm.

Maria: You’re [JON LAUGHS] you’re in for it. 

Henrik: They’re pretty, they’re —

Jon: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. All I want to see is the commercial for Blow Pops, where two people are eating them and the one says to the other “You know what’s coming?” [LAUGHTER]

Maria: That’s the kind of government I want too.

Henrik: “You know what’s about to happen, right?”

Jon: So you don’t want a Razzles government, you want a Blow Pop government.

Maria: Yeah.

Jon: And that’s the appeal of authoritarianism. That’s what I’m trying to, uh, express here. Uh, thank you guys very much. Thanks to Anne Applebaum for, uh, a fantastic conversation on, uh, autocracy and illiberal governments and how we have to remain vigilant. Maria Randazzo, Henrik Blix, as always a pleasure and check out The Problem it’s airing on Apple TV+. You can get the episodes in the descriptions there of our little program. Thanks so much guys, and we will see you next week.

Maria: See ya.

Henrik: Bye.


Jon: “The Problem with Jon Stewart Podcast” is an Apple TV+ podcast and a joint Busboy Production.