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Historian Anne Applebaum connects Hannah Arendt to the state of democracy today


We turn now to Anne Applebaum. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian has written about the current rise of populist authoritarian regimes around the world. She's author of the introduction to the new Folio Society edition of Hannah Arendt's post-World War II classic "The Origins Of Totalitarianism." That may seem especially resonant during these times of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Chinese mass detention centers and the insurrection of January 6, 2021. Anne Applebaum joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANNE APPLEBAUM: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You begin by writing, to quote you, "so many of the seemingly novel illnesses that afflict modern society are really just resurgent cancers." So what do you see as you look around the world today, including the United States?

APPLEBAUM: Starting with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the use of mass violence, the use of torture and concentration camps, filtration camps to deport people en masse, the use of genocidal language in that conflict, Putin's language about his discussion of eradicating Ukraine from the map, the use of falsehoods and propaganda on a mass scale - and that's something we see not only in Russia. We see it in other countries, and of course, we see it in the United States. The attempt to create alternate realities - Hannah Arendt wrote extensively about the way in which propaganda creates a different reality for people to live in or can do. And this, of course, was in a time before social media and modern technology made that even easier than it was in her era. So, you know, autocrats have risen before. They've used mass violence before. They've broken the laws of war before. And what we're seeing now is some of the same phenomenon that she witnessed when she wrote that book in 1950.

SIMON: Yeah. She warned also against clannishness and isolation. You write, it's impossible not to wonder whether the domination of public debate by algorithms that increase emotion, anger and division doesn't present some of that same danger today.

APPLEBAUM: Yes, ironically, you know, we now live in a world where supposedly everyone is connected. But actually there's a lot of evidence that the kind of connection that you get from social media only makes you feel more lonely and isolated. You know, people talk about being on social media and feeling afterwards worse about themselves, worse about their relationships. And one of the things she writes about in her book is the way in which autocrats use loneliness. So they separate people from one another, and that then makes it easier to dominate them because, you know, when people aren't able to act together, when they're not active, when they're not participants in society, then they can't push back. They can't even think about the nature of the political reality that they live in.

SIMON: And does it make us vulnerable to misinformation?

APPLEBAUM: That goes without saying. I mean, we're always vulnerable to misinformation. I mean, humans have a tendency to want to construct worlds that are the most comfortable for them. The modern world has created whole new vehicles to make that possible.

SIMON: Let me ask you about what the world confronts in Ukraine. You have written that you're worried about the credible strength of U.S. security around which the NATO alliance was built. Why is that?

APPLEBAUM: We've had really actually a couple of decades of doubt and sort of boredom with Europe and with Europe's problems and successive administrations not wanting to be devoted to or interested in European conflicts. More importantly, during the Trump administration, we had a president who was openly aggressive and anti-NATO and anti-American allies. He saw it as more of a mafia relationship, like the U.S. was demanding, you know, expenditure from NATO, and there was no conversation about joint security. And at that time, there was a lot of fear that the U.S. would actually leave NATO. And so the fact that the U.S. has decided in the conflict in Ukraine to play a role and to be a defender of democracy and to push back against tyranny is - you know, it's miraculous. And I assume it's because Joe Biden comes from a previous era. He has a different set of values. He sees exactly why this conflict is such a hinge moment, why it could change European and even world politics if Russia destroys Ukraine. But, you know, we had prior to that four years of a president who I don't believe would have seen that at all.

SIMON: Well, why do you see it as a hinge moment? What do you say to those Americans who say, look, I feel sorry for Ukraine, but it's a world away and not worth the risks?

APPLEBAUM: It feels like a world away. But, you know, the United States, our prosperity and our stability is built on our relationships with other places in the world that are also prosperous and stable. And allowing Russia to eradicate another state - you know, much in the way that Hitler eradicated the Jews, and it's the same kind of language, I should say - opens the door for other states to do the same. So if it's allowed, you know, for Russia to do it - first of all, I don't think they would stop in Ukraine. They would move on to Poland, to the Baltic states, even to Germany, I think. You know, but we also leave the door open to China to begin to behave the same way in its part of the world. And so we're talking about American markets. We're talking about places where America has trade. This is where American prosperity and influence come from. And so I think all Americans would sooner or later find that it matters.

SIMON: Anne Applebaum has written a new introduction to Hannah Arendt's "The Origins Of Totalitarianism." Thank you so much for being with us.

APPLEBAUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.