Journalist: Poland's Shift Toward Authoritarianism Is A 'Red Flag' For Democracy Atlantic journalist Anne Applebaum says the changes taking place in Poland — including a rise of conspiracy theories and attacks on the free press — mirror similar shifts happening in the U.S.
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Journalist: Poland's Shift Toward Authoritarianism Is A 'Red Flag' For Democracy

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Journalist: Poland's Shift Toward Authoritarianism Is A 'Red Flag' For Democracy

Journalist: Poland's Shift Toward Authoritarianism Is A 'Red Flag' For Democracy

Journalist: Poland's Shift Toward Authoritarianism Is A 'Red Flag' For Democracy

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/652127648/652230624" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Atlantic journalist Anne Applebaum says the changes taking place in Poland — including a rise of conspiracy theories and attacks on the free press — mirror similar shifts happening in the U.S.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Is Democracy Dying? is the subject of the October issue of The Atlantic magazine. My guest, Anne Applebaum, has an article headlined on the cover as "A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet To Come." Polarization, conspiracy theories, attacks on the free press, an emphasis on loyalty over competence - these are patterns she sees in the U.S. and in several countries in Europe and Eastern Europe, including Poland, which is the country her article focuses on.

Applebaum is American and lives in Poland, where she is also a citizen and her husband is a former foreign minister. She also lives part of the time in England, where she runs a research program on disinformation at the London School of Economics. Applebaum is a columnist for The Washington Post, covering national politics and foreign policy with a special focus on Europe and Russia. Her book "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine" has just come out in paperback.

Anne Applebaum, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So your article is part of a special issue in The Atlantic called Is Democracy Dying? So you're living in London now. You're looking at Europe, Eastern Europe. Are you concerned about the future of democracy on an international level? Do you see a larger trend?

ANNE APPLEBAUM: Absolutely. I have been concerned about democracy on an international level for several years now actually. And I think I first started writing about it in 2014 and '15, back when I admit that I didn't think these were problems that would afflict the United States. But there is a pattern not only in North America and not only in Europe but also in Asia of assaults on democracy, of a new way of using social media to undermine democracy, of new ways of conceiving of political parties as authoritarian political parties. And it's repeating itself all over the world.

GROSS: So let's look at Poland, the subject of your new article. You describe Poland as one of the most polarized societies in Europe and as openly authoritarian. Your husband was - he worked in the government. In December 31, 1999, New Year's Eve, when you and he threw a big party for journalist friends from London and Berlin, a few diplomats based in Warsaw and Polish friends - and you say on New Year's Eve 1999, they all believed in democracy and the rule of law, but now half the people who were at that party won't talk to the other half. You say you would cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at the party, and they'd probably do the same.

So what's the side that's no longer your friends? What are they politically identified with?

APPLEBAUM: We were roughly - and I mean very roughly - associated with what you would call the center-right, people who were admirers of Margaret Thatcher, people who were anti-communists, people who thought about free markets and who believed Poland should be a market democracy. And that movement, that group of people in Poland who were all roughly on the same page all throughout the 1990s has now split into two very, very bitterly opposed groups.

And one group, I would say, is roughly the same. It doesn't seem to me that the people I am still close to have changed much. And the other group went a very different direction and became more openly authoritarian, more doubtful of the West and of Western liberal democracy, much more nativist, nationalist, interested and concerned for the preservation of Poland as an ethnic - homogenous, I should say - ethnic state, worried that this might - that this is something that needed to be fought for, with a different interpretation of history, and an idea of Poland as a victim and an idea that Poland needs to stand up for itself and shout loud in public forums rather than being part of - blending into and being part of the European Union and NATO.

It went right - cut right down the middle of a group of people who'd kind of been roughly on the same side. They were all anti-communist. They were all fairly young. They were all in favor of 1989 and the transition. Many of them came in...

GROSS: The transition to democracy from communism.

APPLEBAUM: The transition to democracy from communism in 1989, which really occupied the whole of the 1990s.

GROSS: So the people who identify more now with the authoritarian government in Poland - they're identified with the Law and Justice party, which is currently in power in Poland. What does that party stand for?

APPLEBAUM: Yes. I should say it's not authoritarian yet. It's still - Poland is still a democracy. There's still independent media. There's still opposition political parties. But the tendency of the ruling party is in that direction. They - what they don't believe in is independent institutions. So they despise the independent press. They despise the independent judiciary. They've taken over state media, which in many European countries, including Britain, including Germany and also in Poland, is very important. And it's traditionally a neutral space, and they've taken that over, and they've made a new kind of party political media.

They've sacked, fired civil servants in all departments, particularly touching the foreign ministry but not only. And they're lowering the standards for the people who replace them - so no longer changing the qualifications, looking for people who are not qualified by some independent metric but who are loyal to them.

I mean, in essence what they're looking for is a loyal media, a loyal judiciary, a loyal civil service, loyal institutions, by which they mean loyal not to the Polish state but to their party. And that's a very different philosophy of ruling than actually any party has had in Poland for the last 30 years.

GROSS: How have the courts been changed?

APPLEBAUM: In the most recent change, for example, they - Poland has a supreme court that consists of several dozen justices actually. It's different from the U.S. But they passed a law that forces judges over the age of 65 to resign, and this will give them the opportunity to appoint dozens of new judges to replace them. And this is - if you can imagine a U.S. president suddenly getting out of the blue to replace six out of nine members of the Supreme Court, you can see how this is a form of court packing designed to put, again, people who are loyal to them into the court.

GROSS: And what about changes in the media in Poland?

APPLEBAUM: So the media is subtler. Some parts of it are subtler. As I've said, the state media has been taken over and, instead of being a neutral source of information, is now a party political broadcaster. It's actually very - it's a little bit like the Communist Party media used to be. It's very sarcastic. It's very angry. It's very anti-opposition and very pro the ruling party. But they've also put subtle pressure on independent media.

So for example, putting pressure on companies who advertise in independent media - they're trying to starve them out so that they - essentially so that they bankrupt them. Again, imagine an American president telling companies, you can't advertise in The Washington Post, or you can't advertise on CNN. That's a little bit like what they're trying to do, particularly to large companies that need government contracts, that need good relations. And they have scared a lot of them.

GROSS: You've used the word illiberal. I'm seeing the word illiberal used more and more. What does it mean to you?

APPLEBAUM: It's a tough word to use because when you - actually, the term illiberal democracy is a contradiction in terms. I mean, I don't think you can have a democracy that isn't liberal, that doesn't have a balance of powers. But it's a stopgap term because the phenomenon that we're seeing - we don't yet want to use harsher words. We don't want to talk about fascists. We don't want to talk about authoritarian in every case. But we want to talk - we want to use a word that describes political parties that are pushing back against the institutions of liberal democracy. And by which I mean, again, courts, the media, the civil service, the balance of powers, in some cases parliaments.

And so the word illiberal has become the - I think it's a better word than populist because populist is an even vaguer, less clear - it doesn't necessarily mean authoritarian, whereas illiberal I think implies authoritarianizing (ph) parties, parties that are pushing the state in the direction of a one-party state and away from competitive democracy.

GROSS: You're also ready to give up on words like left and right. Why?

APPLEBAUM: Left and right I think were words that described the politics, you know, of the last half century or so when the real political battle was mostly economic and it was a battle about the size of the state. So it was about people who wanted a large state. And we called them left-wing, and they wanted more government involvement in the economy. And people who wanted a smaller state - and we called them right-wing. And that's roughly - particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, that's roughly what it meant.

That isn't the main battle line anymore. Particularly in Europe, although not only, the battle line is now often between people and parties that believe in liberal democracy, that believe in balanced institutions, and, in Europe, that believe in the European Union and international cooperation and parties which are nativist or nationalist and which believe in closed borders, which want to - which believe in greater state sovereignty and which you might roughly describe as illiberal.

For example, in the last French election, we had a very clear contest between a liberal and an illiberal party. And they were not in any classic definition, in any, you know, 1990s definition. They were not left and right in the old sense. And I think those words are now misleading because they don't really describe the issues that people are arguing. People are now arguing about issues of identity, of nationality. They're not arguing in the same way about the size of the state.

GROSS: Are there a lot of conspiracy theories now circulating in Poland and being published in state-run media?

APPLEBAUM: Well, in Poland there is one big conspiracy theory. Or, as I've described in the article, it's a medium-sized conspiracy theory because it doesn't seek to explain everything. It's the theory that a plane crash in 2010 that killed the previous - one of the previous presidents of Poland who is the brother of the leader of the more authoritarian ruling party - and there's a theory that this was - it's sometimes couched in different ways, but the theory is that it wasn't an accident, that it was planned by the Russians, that maybe the opposition parties who were then in government had a role in it, that it was a cover-up; it was a denial and so on.

And this theory which was at first not - I don't think was believed by the president's brother, the one whose alive - has been worked on and promoted and agitated until it really became almost a driving cause of the party. I say in the article that it reminds me a little bit of the way birtherism functioned for Donald Trump.

And I think also, you know - 'cause we all underestimated how powerful this was because they never have produced any proof - they've never shown anything that disputed the official reports. They don't have any alternative explanations. All the reports, I should say, showed that the crash was an accident, probably caused incidentally by the brother's desire to land quickly. This was a flight that was going to Russia. It was landing at a memorial site where many Polish soldiers were murdered by the Soviet government during the Second World War. And the president was eager to get there to start his election campaign. But it was never - they were never able to show any alternative.

And we all underestimated how powerful this was. You know, we thought, well, they don't have any facts; they don't have any proof. Why would people believe them? But it's a little bit, as I say, like birtherism in the United States. I think many people underestimated how powerful that was. But actually - very large percentage of Americans believed in that, and that motivated how they then felt about the elections in 2016. And I think the similar thing happened in Poland.

GROSS: You have been the target of some conspiratorial thinking. What's the conspiracy about you?

APPLEBAUM: Well, the conspiracy about me is that I'm the American-born wife of a Polish politician, which is always odd actually in any country, to be fair. And so people are always interested in me. I'm also a journalist, and that also is unusual. And so people were interested by that. After this - but after the Law and Justice government came to power in 2015, for the - really the first time in decades, really, Poland started to get very bad press. So as they started their crackdown on the media, as they started their crackdown on the courts, as they came out with racist and anti-Semitic statements, they began getting bad write-ups in The New York Times or in Le Monde or in Western press, and they needed some way to explain this.

And so their explanation was that I was secretly coordinating the Western press behind the scenes, that it was me in charge of - I don't know - Le Monde and the BBC and Dutch television and, you know, la Repubblica in Italy and it was me who actually coordinated all this coverage. And actually, my husband and I dealt with it by just making fun of it. And so whenever there would be any - some new negative article, my husband would tweet it saying, look; it's another Anne Applebaum, you know, achievement. Here, look what she's - and we made fun of it.

And over time, they kind of - they laid off. But there was a very unpleasant moment when they put really very sort of hideous pictures of me on the covers of these far-right magazines that are their sort of in-house magazines. And there was a feature about me on Polish evening news as well, implying that I'm behind all this. So it was a - it was - you know, you have to - you know, in a small country, it was a lot of coverage.

GROSS: You must have kind of found it odd and strangely funny to be accused of having way more power than you have (laughter).

APPLEBAUM: Well, as I said, that - we tried to make it into a joke. You know, I'm all powerful. Of course there was - and I - this was very hard for me to admit because I've lived in Poland for - on and off for almost 30 years. And I had never had any personal experience with anti-Semitism of any kind actually. And - but there of course was in these articles anti-Semitic undertone. So the Jewish - I mean, the Jewish media controls everything, and that's why people are writing bad things about us abroad. And that was extremely unpleasant and very peculiar.

GROSS: So what was the point of targeting you and making it seem like you were responsible for controlling the Jewish-controlled media and that you were controlling, like, negative things about Poland that were being written?

APPLEBAUM: Yeah. I think they needed to explain to their followers why there was all this bad press, and they needed to explain away the arguments of that press. You know, people were writing as people wrote about their so-called judicial reform, pointing out that it was illegal. They needed to push back and say, you know, this is all lies. And, you know, it's a way of creating an alternate reality, again. We need to explain away. We need a theory that explains why this is happening, and it can't just be because we're doing bad things and it's - and we're disgracing our country. There needs to be an explanation and a scapegoat, and that was why they chose me. I think it was also an attempt to intimidate me and to get me to stop writing about them.

GROSS: Anne, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. And she's based in London and Poland. She's a columnist for The Washington Post. And her new article is in the new special edition of The Atlantic magazine. And the special issue is called, Is Democracy Dying? Her article is called "Polarization In Poland: A Warning From Europe." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC BROUSSARD'S "INNER CITY BLUES (MAKE ME WANNA HOLLER)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. Her new article, "Polarization In Poland: A Warning From Europe," is part of The Atlantic Magazine's special issue Is Democracy Dying? She's a columnist for The Washington Post, covering national politics and foreign policy with a special focus on Europe and Russia. Her book "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine" has just come out in paperback.

Is the move toward authoritarianism in Poland affecting your day-to-day life when you live there? And I don't mean personal attacks on you but just day-to-day life.

APPLEBAUM: So very slowly, it will begin to. The crucial question is, what happens to the courts - because once there ceases to be a reliable judicial system - and by the way, Poland's court system right now is not particularly corrupt. It has problems, and it is very slow, but it's not a bad or evil court system. And once that ceases to be the case, then, yes, I think there will be big repercussions in ordinary life. And it'll be felt by everybody. People I know...

GROSS: What kind of repercussions?

APPLEBAUM: Well, if you if you have a court system which is politicized - and so - I don't know - imagine you have a car accident, and one of the people you have an accident with is a member of the government. And this was actually a real case that happened recently. And then - and the member of the government was speeding. It's you who will be blamed and not the member of the government. In other words, once the judges are party judges, then they can make - and that's maybe a trivial example, but then they can begin to make decisions that are favorable to the party.

Now, there's another recent example where there was a member of the opposition - was arrested on various dubious grounds for a supposed corruption charge that was unproven. If you had a totally politicized court system, then he would be put in jail, and there wouldn't be a - in this case, he got off. And the proof was so weak that I think they decided not to pursue it. It wasn't a good enough case. But they - but you can imagine politicized cases where they would begin to arrest people.

I mean, perhaps a better example is not the courts but the politicized civil servants. So I know numerous people who've lost their jobs. And these are competent, apolitical people, you know, who simply have the bad luck not to be in the ruling party. And this hasn't affected me because I'm - I have - my profession is different. But people who work in - you know, in all kinds of government ministries, in local government, people who work in - you know, we know quite a lot about it, obviously - about the foreign ministry. So very competent, educated civil servants who've served multiple governments suddenly find that they're unemployed. And that has affected a lot of people and many people that we know.

I also heard a recent - recently a story of somebody who had been involved, sort of close to the previous government, applying for a job in the private sector and being asked at his job interview about his politics. And that's because private companies, including some Western companies who are in Poland, are now afraid to employ anybody who might be seen as a government critic because, again, it's a small country, and the government's ability to influence your business can be very strong.

GROSS: My guest is Anne Applebaum, a columnist for The Washington Post. Her new article warning about the move toward authoritarianism in Poland and other parts of Europe is in the October issue of The Atlantic, which focuses on the question, Is Democracy Dying? We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO SONG, "SEYMOUR READS THE CONSTITUTION")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Anne Applebaum, who has a warning from Europe. Several countries there are moving toward authoritarianism with increasing polarization, attacks on the free press, conspiracy theories and an emphasis on loyalty over competence in government and civil service positions. She's seeing some similar patterns in the U.S. She has an article in the new issue of The Atlantic, an issue devoted to the question, Is Democracy Dying? The main focus in her article is Poland. Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist who lives in Poland, where her husband is a former foreign minister. She also lives part of the time in England, where she runs a research program on disinformation at the London School of Economics.

So your article in The Atlantic is really about why intellectuals - why engaged intellectuals interested in politics - why many of them have moved in support of a more authoritarian government. And, you know, democracy in Poland is so new. It was only in 1989 that the solidarity movement really took hold and then overthrew the Soviets and formed a democracy in Poland. Democracy in Poland is very new. So why would intellectuals - not all intellectuals but a lot of them in Poland - be moving in an anti-democratic direction?

APPLEBAUM: I think it's because democracy wasn't working for them. Democracy is - liberal democracy, as we defined it, involves a series of competition, so meritocracy in the civil service, competitive elections in politics, free markets in terms of in business. Not everybody could succeed at those particular kinds of competitions. And there was a group of intellectuals or a group of thinkers who felt that the system was not favoring people like them, and on top of that, the system was somehow hollow or immoral.

You know, they were patriots. They represented the true Poland. And so therefore, they - once they came to power - and they won power legally and so on, but it was a, you know, certainly - you know, power in a democracy's only temporary. They've now decided to fix the system to make sure that they don't ever lose power again. That's essentially what they're doing, undermining the opposition, undermining the media, undermining the courts so that they can remain in power because they feel they're more moral, they're more patriotic, they deserve it.

GROSS: You're not describing a philosophy, an ideology that's holding this together. You're describing, like, resentment and a desire for power and the feeling that they had been passed over earlier on and now they're getting what they want.

APPLEBAUM: Yes. The comparison I made, which I know is one that irritates them, is to Lenin's one-party state. So, you know, Lenin is - you know, the Bolsheviks are remembered for their Marxism. But actually, the really original thing they did was they invented the one-party state. And the one-party state promotes people not on the basis of whether they're good or whether they're better or cleverer than other people, it promotes them based on how loyal they are.

And this model of ruling and this model of deciding who gets to be the elite has actually been remarkably successful. And, you know, it exists all over the world. Think of Zimbabwe. Think of China. Think of Turkey. And it's appealing to intellectuals who think that loyalty, rather than cleverness or ability to win competitions, should be the factor that determines whether people get to be rulers.

GROSS: It was a worker's movement in Poland that initiated the successful drive to make Poland a democracy. The Solidarity union movement was like a movement of workers. Is there a lot of worker opposition now in Poland to the move toward authoritarianism, the move away from democracy that workers worked so hard to create?

APPLEBAUM: There's a lot of opposition in general to them. One of the reasons I'm quite hopeful about Poland is that it's been clear that, I mean, millions of people, in fact, have been willing to demonstrate against them or willing to demonstrate against the so-called judicial reform, which is really an exercise in court packing. People have demonstrated against very strict new abortion laws. For example, you had a large women's movement out on the street. And those demonstrations have had a huge range of people in them - workers, middle class, intellectuals of all kinds. So I think there's still a healthy opposition in Poland.

GROSS: So recently, the president of Poland, Andrzej Duda - and the president is less powerful than the prime minister. So the president of Poland recently met with President Trump. And one of the things that the president of Poland said was, I would very much like for us to set up permanent American bases in Poland, which we would call Fort Trump. What was your reaction when you heard that? How did you interpret that?

APPLEBAUM: Well, the Poles have wanted a greater military - American military presence in Poland for many decades. Several Polish administrations, including my husband, have asked for that. But, of course, what that looked like to me - and I'm not alone - what it looked like to many people in Poland was almost a kind of act of desperation. The Poles have had a lot of trouble with almost all of their European allies in recent months and years, precisely because of their internal assault on democracy.

And the one ally that doesn't seem to care about that right now is the United States. And they see in Trump a kind - an ally precisely because he himself is capable of criticizing judges who he doesn't like. You know, he himself appeals to those same kinds of illiberal sentiments that they do. And they think that they can have a special relationship with him, and this will - you know, this will sort of solve all of Poland's security problems.

And so that's made them almost penitents in the United States. You know, they'll do anything for Trump's approval because right now they have no more allies. And it's really a tragedy because for 20 years, Poland's been building close relations with Germany, with Britain, with France, and all of those are now rocky. But they have put all their chips on President Trump, hence the idea that we would have Fort Trump.

GROSS: A lot of people in the United States are concerned that we're moving toward illiberalism. What's your perspective of what's happening in America in the Trump administration, seeing it in the context of what's happening in Europe as several countries move further toward the far right, further toward authoritarianism?

APPLEBAUM: Trump uses the language of illiberalism all the time when he talks about the fake news media, by which he means The New York Times and CNN, when he criticizes a judge for being Mexican as he did at one point, I think, during his campaign. All these - the assault on independent institutions - also, interestingly, when he talks about the deep state, by which he seems to mean the civil service, the State Department, you know, I don't know - the bureau of environment. All these assaults on what had been independent institutions that exist to curtail the powers of the president, this is a kind of red flag to the illiberal parties of Europe because this is exactly what they're trying to do.

So they're trying to establish political systems in which they can't lose power because they've pushed back against all the institutions that are designed to control power. They admire him. They see him as a kind of leader. They say so very openly. Viktor Orban supported Trump during his campaign. He was one of the few European leaders to do so openly and publicly. And they hope for a transformation of America that will make America more similar to them.

GROSS: So you describe Poland as moving toward an authoritarian government. Viktor Orban has moved Hungary more toward authoritarianism. What other countries do you see in Europe and in Eastern Europe moving toward the far-right, toward authoritarianism?

APPLEBAUM: So there are quite a number of parties that are not yet fully in control of the government that I would also describe as illiberal. So one of them, for example, is the Northern League, which is the - one of the main parties in the Italian ruling coalition, which uses much - many of the same kind of language and many of the same kind of propaganda techniques. The division of people, you're either for us and then you're a real Italian. Or you're against us and then you're a cosmopolitan elite who isn't really Italian. This kind of language is very much part of Italian politics now which it never was before.

The main opposition party in France, the Marine Le Pens (ph), used to be - until recently was called the National Front. And this is another party that has the same - uses the same kind of language and the same kinds of tactics. So what you see in a number of countries, either they're in power or they're part of ruling coalitions. It's really only in Poland and Hungary where you have this, you know, them actually controlling the government and actually making these changes. But the possibility that there will be more is very real.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum and her new article is in the Atlantic magazine's special issue titled Is Democracy Dying? Her article is called "Polarization In Poland: A Warning From Europe." She's a columnist for The Washington Post, and she spends her time - she's American with Polish citizenship. She divides her time between Poland and England. And at the London School of Economics, she runs a research program on disinformation. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN JEANRENAUD'S "AXIS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. Her new article, "Polarization in Poland: A Warning From Europe" is about Poland's move toward the far-right, and it's part of a special issue of The Atlantic magazine titled, Is Democracy Dying? She's a columnist for The Washington Post who divides her time between London and Poland. She runs a research program on disinformation at the London School of Economics.

You recently wrote, maybe we in the United States underestimated the degree to which our Constitution, designed in the 18th century, has proved insufficient to the demands of the 21st century. Can you elaborate on that?

APPLEBAUM: When it was originally written, our Constitution was designed with the idea that it should - could contain a president who was a populist, who was a rabble-rouser, who sought to destroy institutions. And, for example, it included the institution of the Electoral College, which was meant to put a layer of kind of educated people in between the popular vote and the president. It included the 25th Amendment, which was supposed to allow the cabinet to, you know, to get rid of a difficult or unconstitutional badly-behaved president with no problem, that it contained methods of impeachment.

All of these methods of controlling the president have atrophied. The Electoral College doesn't really function anymore, except in name. Its real function now or its real effect now is merely to give more power to rural America than to urban America. That's really how it - what its effect is, it doesn't do what it was originally meant to do. More to the point, the - both impeachment and the 25th Amendment are now so highly, they're so polarized, they're so difficult to use that it's almost as if people don't dare use them. Even to talk about it can get you fired in the Trump administration.

And so this means to me that people aren't - that they aren't behaving as the Constitution would have wished them to behave. So a president who is incompetent, a president who's corrupt, a president who is pushing back against constitutional norms, all of these things. The Constitution was designed to be able to control him and it's actually not functioning. And this seems to me that it should be a kind of warning bell for Americans.

GROSS: You know, you've said that a lot of Americans assume that if the Trump presidency is a bit of an anomaly, that when the presidency is over, then America will return, and American institutions will return to the status quo. You question that. And I wonder on what grounds you question that America will return to the status quo?

APPLEBAUM: Well we, see that - we see the Trump administration. When the Trump administration undermines norms, when it for example, establishes the fact that it's OK to put pressure on your department of Justice. Or that it's OK for the president to attack the media. You know, once Trump has done it, what's the guarantee to say that the next president won't do it? Maybe the next president will do it more effectively. There's no reason why the next president should go back to the previous situation and behave as presidents up until Trump behaved. We assume that things might get better again but they might not. I mean, there are plenty of cases all over the world in which one president begins to break down the next system and the one who follows takes advantage of it.

GROSS: America has a democracy that's hundreds of years old, whereas Polish democracy is relatively new. Hungary's democracy, relatively new. So do you think the things that you are seeing in Eastern Europe are comparable to anything that might happen in America because our institutions in America have withstood the test of time?

APPLEBAUM: Our institutions in America have withstood the test of time with one or two large exceptions, for example, the Civil War. Our constitutional order has broken down before. And just because it's been in good shape for the last century or so that doesn't mean that it will be forever. I think Americans have - it's almost a problem that we have with the assumption that we have a system, it can't go wrong, things can only continue to get better because so far that's the way it's always been. Actually, history is often quite circular. If you look at a country like Greece, Greece has had in the last just 200 years, never mind Ancient Greece. Greece has had periods of democracy. It's had periods of military rule. It's had periods when it's been invaded by foreign states. It's gone up and down. And it's had almost a circular experience.

It's not as if history has to go one way all the time. And the Americans are so lucky. And things have gone so well for us most of the time over the last century or two that we tend to believe it always will. And there's no - but there's no historical law that says it has to be like that.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned the Civil War, but that's often used as an example of the strength of America and democracy. Even after the Civil War, we recovered and maintained our democratic institutions.

APPLEBAUM: We did recover after the Civil War, but the Civil War was a breakdown. And Americans were killing one another in very large numbers. And what's to say that couldn't happen again?

GROSS: You're a columnist for The Washington Post. You were formerly on the Post's editorial board. What do you think the consequences are and might be in the future of President Trump's attacks on The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN and other media?

APPLEBAUM: I think we can already see the impact of Trump's attack on the media. And the impact has been, of course, to reduce the believability of the media or reduce the credibility of the media in the eyes of many Americans. It's also helped him hide particular transgressions or prevent certain stories from becoming known. The story of what's in his tax returns. There isn't a lot of public pressure for him to release his tax returns. Most people don't see this story, or they don't care about it. They don't think it's important because Trump has told them that it's only an issue that's raised by the, you know, the illegitimate media. It's a kind of very narrow example.

But I think we'll see more and more instances of the government being able to get away with things or not just the president but other perhaps other branches of government with corruption or with other kinds of illegal behavior. If the media is no longer believed, then who will expose that or when it's exposed who will believe it?

GROSS: Have you seen that happen in Europe?

APPLEBAUM: Yes, I think the undermining of the press has been a factor in the rise of illiberal parties and the rise of populist parties in almost every single European country. And almost all of them, you know, beginning middle and end start with, end with attacks on the mainstream media or what they call the mainstream media. And in an era when a lot of media is in trouble financially, has a much less reach thanks to the advent of social media, these attacks have been pretty effective.

GROSS: Well, Anne Applebaum, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

APPLEBAUM: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Anne Applebaum's the article about the move toward authoritarianism in Poland and other countries in Europe is in the October issue of The Atlantic, an issue focused on the question, Is Democracy Dying? Her book "Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine" has just come out in paperback. This is FRESH AIR.

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