Mike McQuade; Janek Skarzynski / AFP / Getty
Pempel / Reuters
Attacks on the free press.
An obsession with loyalty.
Recent events in the United States
follow a pattern
Europeans know all too well.
This article is part of a series
that attempts to answer the question:
Is democracy dying?
Our party fulfilled that criterion. We held it at Chobielin, the manor house in northwest Poland that my husband and his parents had purchased a decade earlier, when it was a mildewed ruin.
We had restored the
house, very slowly. It was not exactly finished in 1999, but it did
have a new roof. It also had a large, freshly painted, and
completely unfurnished salon - perfect for a party.
But most of them were Poles, friends of ours and colleagues of my husband, who was then a deputy foreign minister in the Polish government.
A handful of youngish
Polish journalists came too - none then particularly famous - along
with a few civil servants and one or two members of the government.
Even those who might have been less definite about economics certainly believed in democracy, in the rule of law, and in a Poland that was a member of NATO and on its way to joining the European Union - an integrated part of modern Europe.
In the 1990s, that was
what being "on the right" meant.
I kept a list of who was staying where, but nevertheless, a couple of people wound up sleeping on a sofa in our basement.
The music - mixtapes, made in an era before Spotify - created the only serious cultural divide of the evening:
At one point I went upstairs, learned that Boris Yeltsin had resigned, wrote a brief column for a British newspaper, then went back downstairs and had another glass of wine.
At about three in the
morning, one of the wackier Polish guests pulled a small pistol out
of her handbag and shot blanks into the air out of sheer exuberance.
I have a particularly clear memory of a walk in the snow - maybe it was the day before the party, maybe the day after - with a bilingual group, everybody chattering at once, English and Polish mingling and echoing through the birch forest.
At that moment, when
Poland was on the cusp of joining the West, it felt as if we were
all on the same team. We agreed about democracy, about the road to
prosperity, about the way things were going.
The estrangements are political, not personal.
Poland is now one of the most polarized societies in Europe, and we have found ourselves on opposite sides of a profound divide, one that runs through not only what used to be the Polish right but also the old Hungarian right, the Italian right, and, with some differences, the British right and the American right, too.
any society can turn against democracy.
Indeed, if history is anything to go by,
Some now consider themselves center-left.
But others wound up in a
different place, supporting a nativist party called Law and
Justice - a party that has moved dramatically away from the
positions it held when it first briefly ran the government, from
2005 to 2007, and when it occupied the presidency (not the same
thing in Poland), from 2005 to 2010.
After the party won a slim parliamentary majority in 2015, its leaders violated the constitution by appointing new judges to the constitutional court. Later, it used a similarly unconstitutional playbook to attempt to pack the Polish Supreme Court.
It took over the state public broadcaster, Telewizja Polska; fired popular presenters; and began running unabashed propaganda, sprinkled with easily disprovable lies, at taxpayers' expense.
The government earned international notoriety when it adopted a law curtailing public debate about the Holocaust.
Although the law was
eventually changed under American pressure, it enjoyed broad support
by Law and Justice's ideological base - the journalists, writers,
and thinkers, including some of my party guests, who believe
anti-Polish forces seek to blame Poland for Auschwitz.
I have not, for example, had a single conversation with a woman who was once one of my closest friends, the godmother of one of my children - let's call her Marta - since a hysterical phone call in April 2010, a couple of days after a plane carrying the then-president crashed near Smolensk, in Russia.
In the intervening years, Marta has grown close to Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice and the late president's twin brother.
She regularly hosts lunches for him at her apartment and discusses whom he should appoint to his cabinet. I tried to see her recently in Warsaw, but she refused.
Another of my guests - the one who shot the pistol in the air - eventually separated from her British husband.
She now appears to spend her days as a full-time internet troll, fanatically promoting a whole range of conspiracy theories, many of them virulently anti-Semitic.
She tweets about Jewish responsibility for the Holocaust; she once posted an image of an English medieval painting depicting a boy supposedly crucified by Jews, with the commentary,
She follows and amplifies
the leading lights of the American "alt-right," whose language she
We have a neighbor near Chobielin whose parents listen to a pro-government, Catholic-conspiratorial radio station called Radio Maryja.
They repeat its mantras, make its enemies their enemies.
To be clear about my interests and biases here, I should explain that some of this conspiratorial thinking is focused on me.
My husband was the Polish defense minister for a year and a half, in a coalition government led by Law and Justice during its first, brief experience of power; later, he broke with that party and was for seven years the foreign minister in another coalition government, this one led by the center-right party Civic Platform; in 2015 he didn't run for office.
As a journalist and his American-born wife, I have always attracted some press interest.
But after Law and Justice won that year, I was featured on the covers of two pro-regime magazines, wSieci and Do Rzeczy - former friends of ours work at both - as the clandestine Jewish coordinator of the international press and the secret director of its negative coverage of Poland.
Though naturally the
theme recurs on social media from time to time.
In his journal, he described how, one by one, they were drawn to fascist ideology, like a flock of moths to an inescapable flame.
He recounted the arrogance and confidence they acquired as they moved away from identifying themselves as Europeans - admirers of Proust, travelers to Paris - and instead began to call themselves blood-and-soil Romanians.
He listened as they veered into conspiratorial thinking or became casually cruel.
People he had known for years insulted him to his face and then acted as if nothing had happened.
This is not 1937.
Nevertheless, a parallel transformation is taking place in my own time, in the Europe that I inhabit and in Poland, a country whose citizenship I have acquired. And it is taking place without the excuse of an economic crisis of the kind Europe suffered in the 1930s.
Poland's economy has been the most consistently successful in Europe over the past quarter century. Even after the global financial collapse in 2008, the country saw no recession. What's more, the refugee wave that has hit other European countries has not been felt here at all.
There are no migrant
camps, and there is no Islamist terrorism, or terrorism of any kind.
On the contrary, they are educated, they speak foreign languages, and they travel abroad - just like Sebastian's friends in the 1930s.
My answer is a
complicated one, because I think the explanation is universal. Given
the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy.
Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all societies eventually
Not nearly enough
attention has been paid in recent years to a late-19th-century
French controversy that prefigured many of the debates of the 20th
century, and has some clear echoes in the present.
French military intelligence investigated and claimed that it had found the culprit.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus was an Alsatian, spoke with a German accent, and was a Jew - and therefore, in the eyes of some, not a real Frenchman. As it would turn out, he was also innocent.
But French army
investigators created fake evidence and gave false testimony; as a
result, Dreyfus was court-martialed, found guilty, and sent into
solitary confinement on Devil's Island, off the coast of French
Those who maintained Dreyfus's guilt were the alt-right - or the Law and Justice Party, or the National Front - of their time. They pushed a conspiracy theory. They were backed up by screaming headlines in France's right-wing yellow press, the 19th-century version of a far-right trolling operation.
Their leaders lied to
uphold the honor of the army; adherents clung to their belief in
Dreyfus's guilt - and their absolute loyalty to the nation - even
when this fakery was revealed.
Science itself was suspect, both because it was modern and universal and because it came into conflict with the emotional cult of ancestry and place.
The Dreyfusards, meanwhile, argued that some principles are higher than national honor, and that it mattered whether Dreyfus was guilty or not.
Above all, they argued, the French state had an obligation to treat all citizens equally, whatever their religion. They too were patriots, but of a different sort.
They conceived of the nation not as an ethnic clan but as the embodiment of a set of ideals:
This was a more cerebral
vision, more abstract and harder to grasp, but not without an appeal
of its own.
The divide continued to be felt in 20th-century politics, in the different ideologies of Vichy France and the resistance.
It persists today, in the struggle between Marine Le Pen's "France for the French" nationalism and Emmanuel Macron's broader vision of a France that stands for a set of abstract values:
From my point of view, the Dreyfus affair is most interesting because it was sparked by a single cause célčbre.
Just one court case - one disputed trial - plunged an entire country into an angry debate, creating unresolvable divisions between people who had previously not known that they disagreed with one another.
But this shows that vastly different understandings of what is meant by "France" were already there, waiting to be discovered.
Two decades ago,
different understandings of "Poland" must already have been present
too, just waiting to be exacerbated by chance, circumstance, and
All of these debates, whether in 1890s France or 1990s Poland, have at their core a series of important questions:
For a long time, we have
imagined that these questions were settled - but why should they
In the political-science
textbooks of the future, the Soviet Union's founder will surely be
remembered not for his Marxist beliefs, but as the inventor of this
enduring form of political organization. It is the model that many
of the world's budding autocrats use today.
In modern Western democracies, the right to rule is granted, at least in theory, by different forms of competition: campaigning and voting, meritocratic tests that determine access to higher education and the civil service, free markets.
Old-fashioned social hierarchies are usually part of the mix, but in modern Britain, America, Germany, France, and until recently Poland, we have assumed that competition is the most just and efficient way to distribute power. The best-run businesses should make the most money. The most appealing and competent politicians should rule.
The contests between them
should take place on an even playing field, to ensure a fair
Places in universities, civil-service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable. Instead, they went to the most loyal. People advanced because they were willing to conform to the rules of party membership. Though those rules were different at different times, they were consistent in certain ways.
They usually excluded the former ruling elite and their children, as well as suspicious ethnic groups.
They favored the children of the working class. Above all, they favored people who loudly professed belief in the creed, who attended party meetings, who participated in public displays of enthusiasm.
Unlike an ordinary oligarchy, the one-party state allows for upward mobility:
As Hannah Arendt wrote back in the 1940s, the worst kind of one-party state,
Lenin's one-party system also reflected his disdain for the idea of a neutral state, of apolitical civil servants and an objective media.
He wrote that freedom of the press "is a deception." He mocked freedom of assembly as a "hollow phrase."
As for parliamentary democracy itself, that was no more than,
In the Bolshevik
imagination, the press could be free, and public institutions could
be fair, only once they were controlled by the working class - via
is the example usually given. But there are many others. Apartheid
South Africa was a de facto one-party state that corrupted its press
and its judiciary to eliminate blacks from political life and
promote the interests of Afrikaners, white South Africans descended
mainly from Dutch settlers, who were not succeeding in the
capitalist economy created by the British empire.
Others, in Austria and Italy, are part of government coalitions or enjoy wide support.
These parties tolerate the existence of political opponents. But they use every means possible, legal and illegal, to reduce their opponents' ability to function and to curtail competition in politics and economics.
They dislike foreign investment and criticize privatization, unless it is designed to benefit their supporters. They undermine meritocracy. Like Donald Trump, they mock the notions of neutrality and professionalism, whether in journalists or civil servants.
businesses from advertising in "opposition" - by which they mean
illegitimate - media.
Illustration: Mike McQuade; Dundanim
The Polish foreign service also wants to drop its requirement that diplomats know two foreign languages, a bar that was too high for favored candidates to meet.*
* This article originally stated that the Polish foreign service had already dropped its requirement that diplomats know two foreign languages.
The government fired heads of Polish state companies.
Previously, the people in these roles had had at least some government or business experience. Now these jobs are largely filled by Law and Justice Party members, as well as their friends and relatives.
Typical is Janina Goss,
an old friend of Kaczyński's from whom the former prime minister
once borrowed a large sum of money, apparently to pay for a medical
treatment for his mother. Goss, an avid maker of jams and preserves,
is now on the board of directors of Polska Grupa Energetyczna,
the largest power company in Poland, an employer of 40,000 people.
But if you so choose, you can also describe it in positive terms:
A rigged and
uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run
by the talented. But if that isn't your primary interest, then
what's wrong with it?
This impulse is reinforced, in Poland as well as in Hungary and many other formerly Communist countries, by the widespread feeling that the rules of competition are flawed because the reforms of the 1990s were unfair.
allowed too many former Communists to recycle their political power
into economic power.
And there is no powerful ex-Communist business monopoly in Poland either - at least not at the national level, where plenty of people have made money without special political connections.
Poignantly, the most
prominent former Communist in Polish politics right now is
Stanisław Piotrowicz, a Law and Justice member of parliament who
is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a great enemy of judicial independence.
For some of them, it seems to explain their personal failures, or just their bad luck. Not everybody who was a dissident in the 1970s got to become the prime minister, or a best-selling writer, or a respected public intellectual, after 1989. And for many this is a source of burning resentment.
If you are someone who
believes that you deserve to rule, then your motivation to attack
the elite, pack the courts, and warp the press to achieve your
ambitions is strong. Resentment, envy, and above all the belief that
the "system" is unfair - these are important sentiments among the
intellectuals of the Polish right.
That's what I learned from the story of Jacek Kurski, the director of Polish state television and the chief ideologist of the Polish illiberal state.
He started out in the
same place, at the same time, as his brother, Jarosław Kurski, who
edits the largest and most influential liberal Polish newspaper.
They are two sides of the same coin.
The Kurskis came of age
there in the early 1980s, when Gdańsk was both the hub of
anti-Communist activity in Poland and a shabby backwater, a place
where intrigue and boredom were measured out in equal doses.
Senator Bogdan Borusewicz, one of the most important underground trade-union activists from the time, told me that their school was widely known to be "zrewoltowane" - in revolt against the Communist system. Jarosław represented his class in the school parliament and was part of a group that read conservative history and literature.
Jacek, slightly younger, was less interested in the intellectual battle against Communism, and thought of himself as an activist and a radical. In the immediate wake of martial law, both brothers went to marches, shouted slogans, waved banners.
Both worked first on the
illegal school newspaper and then on Solidarność, the illegal
opposition newspaper of Solidarity, the trade union in Gdańsk.
Eventually, in late 1990, Wałęsa ran for president and won, by galvanizing people who already resented the compromises that had accompanied the negotiated collapse of Communism in Poland (the decision not to jail or punish former Communists, for example).
The experience made Jarosław realize that he didn't like politics, especially not the politics of resentment:
That was also his first encounter with Kaczyński,
(Unlike Jarosław, Jacek
would not speak with me. A mutual friend gave me his private
cell-phone number; I texted, and then called a couple of times and
left messages. I called again and someone cackled when I stated my
name, repeated it loudly, and said, "Of course, of course" -
naturally the chairman of Polish television would return my call.
But he never did.)
In the new Poland, he could help build something, create a free press, he told me, and that was enough for him.
Jacek went in precisely the opposite direction.
Although he was still in high school, Jacek was already interested in a political career himself, and even suggested that he take over his brother's job, on the grounds that no one would notice.
He was - in his brother's description - always "fascinated" by the Kaczyński brothers, by the plots, the schemes, the conspiracies. Although he was on the right, he was not particularly interested in the trappings of Polish conservatism, in the books or the debates that had captivated his brother.
A friend of both brothers told me she didn't think Jacek had any real political philosophy at all.
And from the late 1980s
onward, that was where he aimed to be.
He co-authored a fiery book and made a conspiratorial film about the secret forces lined up against the Polish right.
He was a member, at different times, of different parties or factions, sometimes quite marginal and sometimes more centrist. He became a member of the European Parliament. He came to specialize in so-called black PR.
Famously, he helped torpedo the presidential campaign of Donald Tusk (who eventually became prime minister), in part by spreading the rumor that Tusk had a grandfather who had voluntarily joined the Wehrmacht, the Nazi army.
Asked about this invention, Jacek reportedly told a small group of journalists that of course it wasn't true, but "Ciemny lud to kupi" - which, roughly translated, means,
Borusewicz describes him as,
Jacek did not win the popular acclaim he thought a teenage Solidarity activist was entitled to. And this was a huge disappointment.
Jarosław says of his brother:
And of course, Jarosław
was successful, a member of the establishment.
Although the station is funded by taxpayers, the news broadcasts no longer make any pretense of objectivity or neutrality.
In April of this year, for example, the station made an advertisement for itself. It showed a clip from a press conference; the leader of the opposition party, Grzegorz Schetyna, is asked what his party achieved during its eight years in government, from 2007 to 2015.
Schetyna pauses and
frowns; the video slows down and then ends. It's as if he had
nothing to say.
Under Law and Justice,
state television doesn't just produce regime propaganda; it
celebrates the fact that it is doing so. It doesn't just twist and
contort information; it glories in deceit.
He is right where he thinks he should be:
The illiberal one-party
state suits him perfectly. And if Communism isn't really available
anymore as a genuine enemy for him and his colleagues to fight, then
new enemies will have to be found.
The vast ideological constructs that were Communism and fascism, the posters demanding fealty to the Party or the Leader, the Brownshirts and Blackshirts marching in formation, the torch-lit parades, the terror police - these Big Lies were so absurd and inhuman, they required prolonged violence to impose and the threat of violence to maintain.
They required forced
education, total control of all culture, the politicization of
journalism, sports, literature, and the arts.
They don't force people to believe that black is white, war is peace, and state farms have achieved 1,000 percent of their planned production.
Most of them don't deploy propaganda that conflicts with everyday reality. And yet all of them depend, if not on a Big Lie, then on what the historian Timothy Snyder once told me should be called the Medium-Size Lie, or perhaps a clutch of Medium-Size Lies.
To put it differently, all of them encourage their followers to engage, at least part of the time, with an alternative reality.
alternative reality has developed organically; more often, it's been
carefully formulated, with the help of modern marketing techniques,
audience segmentation, and social-media campaigns.
But in Poland, and in
Hungary too, we now have examples of what happens when a Medium-Size
Lie - a conspiracy theory - is propagated first by a political party
as the central plank of its election campaign, and then by a ruling
party, with the full force of a modern, centralized state apparatus
It is the Smolensk conspiracy theory: the belief that a nefarious plot brought down the president's plane in April 2010. The story has special force in Poland because the crash had eerie historical echoes.
The president who died, Lech Kaczyński, was on his way to an event commemorating the massacre in Katyn, the place where Stalin murdered more than 21,000 Poles - a big chunk of the country's elite - in 1940. Dozens of senior military figures and politicians were also on board, many of them friends of mine.
My husband reckons that
he knew everybody on the plane, including the flight attendants.
After all, politicians from every major party had been on the plane, and huge funerals were held in many cities.
Even Vladimir Putin, then the Russian prime minister, seemed moved. He went to Smolensk to meet Tusk, then the Polish prime minister, on the evening of the crash.
The next day, one of Russia's most-watched television channels broadcast Katyn, an emotional and very anti-Soviet Polish film, directed by Andrzej Wajda, the country's greatest director.
Nothing like it has ever
been shown so widely in Russia, before or since.
Once the black box was found, they began to transcribe the cockpit tape. The truth, as it began to emerge, was not comforting to the Law and Justice Party or to its leader, the dead president's twin brother. The plane had taken off late; the president was likely in a hurry to land, because he wanted to use the trip to launch his reelection campaign.
There was thick fog in Smolensk, which did not have a real airport, just a landing strip in the forest; the pilots considered diverting the plane, which would have meant a drive of several hours to the ceremony.
After the president had a brief phone call with his brother, his advisers apparently pressed the pilots to land. Some of them, against protocol, walked in and out of the cockpit during the flight.
Also against protocol, the chief of the air force came and sat beside the pilots.
Seconds later, the plane
collided with the tops of some birch trees, rolled over, and hit the
By that, he meant that it was the government's fault because, intimidated by populist journalism, it had refused to buy new airplanes. But as the investigation unfolded, its findings were not to his liking.
There was nothing wrong
with the plane.
Or perhaps, like Donald Trump, he saw how a conspiracy theory could help him attain power.
at the heart of government policy
was the source of the authoritarian actions
Sometimes he has implied that the Russian government downed the plane.
At other times, he has blamed the former ruling party, now the largest opposition party, for his brother's death:
None of his accusations can be proved, however.
Perhaps to distance himself somewhat from the lies that needed to be told, he gave the job of promoting the conspiracy theory to one of his oldest and strangest comrades.
Antoni Macierewicz is a member of Kaczyński's generation, a longtime anti-Communist, though one with some weird friends and habits.
His odd stare and his obsessions - he has said that he finds the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to be a plausible document - even led the Law and Justice Party to make an election promise in 2015:
But as soon as the party won, Kaczyński broke that promise and appointed Macierewicz.
Immediately, Macierewicz began to institutionalize the Smolensk lie. He created a new investigation commission composed of cranks, among them an ethnomusicologist, a retired pilot, a psychologist, a Russian economist, and other people with no knowledge of air crashes.
The previous official report was removed from a government website. Police entered the homes of the aviation experts who had testified during the original investigation, interrogated them, and confiscated their computers.
When Macierewicz went to
Washington, D.C., to meet his American counterparts at the Pentagon,
the first thing he did was ask whether U.S. intelligence had any
secret information on Smolensk. I'm told that the reaction was
widespread concern about the minister's mental state.
They didn't focus on the
institutionalization of the Smolensk conspiracy theory, which was,
frankly, just too weird for outsiders to understand. And yet the
decision to put a fantasy at the heart of government policy really
was the source of the authoritarian actions that followed.
Those who could accept this elaborate theory, with no evidence whatsoever, could accept anything. They could accept, for example, the broken promise not to put Macierewicz in the government.
They could accept - even though Law and Justice is supposedly a "patriotic" and anti-Russian party - Macierewicz's decisions to fire many of the country's highest military commanders, to cancel weapons contracts, to promote people with odd Russian links, to raid a NATO facility in Warsaw in the middle of the night.
The lie also gave the
foot soldiers of the far right an ideological basis for tolerating
other offenses. Whatever mistakes the party might make, whatever
laws it might break, at least the "truth" about Smolensk would
finally be told.
More to the point, it offered a means of defining a new and better elite. There was no need for competition, or for exams, or for a résumé bristling with achievements.
Anyone who professes
belief in the Smolensk lie is by definition a true patriot - and,
incidentally, might well qualify for a government job.
But - once again - separating the appeal of conspiracy from the ways it affects the careers of those who promote it is very difficult.
For those who become the
one-party state's gatekeepers, for those who repeat and promote the
official conspiracy theories, acceptance of these simple
explanations also brings another reward: power.
The museum, which she
directs, explores the history of totalitarianism in Hungary and,
when it opened, was one of the most innovative new museums in the
eastern half of Europe.
Many visitors didn't like the first room, which has a panel of televisions on one wall broadcasting Nazi propaganda, and a panel of televisions on the opposite wall broadcasting Communist propaganda. In 2002, it was still a shock to see the two regimes compared, though perhaps it is less so now.
Others felt that the museum gave insufficient weight and space to the crimes of fascism, though Communists ran Hungary for far longer than the fascists did, so there is more to show.
I liked the fact that the museum showed ordinary Hungarians collaborating with both regimes, which I thought might help Hungary understand its responsibility for its own politics, and avoid the narrow nationalist trap of blaming problems on outsiders.
Hungary's belated reckoning with its Communist past - putting up museums, holding memorial services, naming perpetrators - did not, as I thought it would, help cement respect for the rule of law, for restraints on the state, for pluralism.
On the contrary, 16 years after the Terror Háza's opening, Hungary's ruling party respects no restraints of any kind. It has gone much further than Law and Justice in politicizing the state media and destroying the private media, achieving the latter by issuing threats and blocking access to advertising.
It has created a new business elite that is loyal to Orbán.
One Hungarian businessman who preferred not to be named told me that soon after Orbán first took over the government, regime cronies demanded that the businessman sell them his company at a low price; when he refused, they arranged for "tax inspections" and other forms of harassment, as well as a campaign of intimidation that forced him to hire bodyguards.
Eventually he sold his
Hungarian property and left the country.
Schmidt - a historian, scholar, and museum curator - is one of the primary authors of that lie.
publishes long, angry blog posts fulminating against Soros; against
Budapest's Central European University, originally founded with his
money; and against "left intellectuals," by which she seems to
mostly mean liberal democrats, from the center-left to the
Although she has led a publicity campaign designed to undermine Central European University, her son is a graduate.
And although she knows very well what happened in her country in the 1940s, she followed, step by step, the Communist Party playbook when she took over Figyelő, a respected Hungarian magazine:
Figyelő remains "private property."
But it's not hard to see who supports the magazine. An issue that featured an attack on Hungarian NGOs - the cover visually equated them with the Islamic State - also included a dozen pages of government-paid advertisements, for the Hungarian National Bank, the treasury, the state anti-Soros campaign.
This is a modern
reinvention of the pro-government, one-party-state press, complete
with the same sneering, cynical tone that the Communist publications
Schmidt speaks excellent English, but she told me that she wanted to use a translator.
She produced a rather
terrified young man who, judging by the transcripts, left out chunks
of what she said. And though she has known me for nearly two
decades, she plunked a tape recorder on the table, in what I took to
be a sign of distrust.
As proof that the U.S. is,
...she cited a speech Barack Obama gave in which he mentioned that a Hungarian foundation had proposed building a statue to honor Bálint Hóman, the man who wrote Hungary's anti-Jewish laws in the '30s and '40s.
She repeated her claim that immigration poses a dire threat to Hungary, and became annoyed when I asked, several times, where all the immigrants were.
Schmidt embodies what the Bulgarian writer Ivan Krastev recently described as the desire of many eastern and central Europeans to,
Schmidt told me that the Western media, presumably myself included,
Western talk of Hungarian anti-Semitism, corruption, and authoritarianism is "colonialism."
Yet despite being dedicated to the uniqueness of Hungary and the promotion of "Hungarianness," she has borrowed much of her ideology wholesale from Breitbart News, right down to the caricatured description of American universities and the sneering jokes about "transsexual bathrooms."
She has even invited Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos to Budapest...
Skepticism about liberal democracy is normal.
And the appeal
of authoritarianism is eternal.
She never turned against liberal democracy, because she never believed in it, or at least she never thought it was all that important. For her, the antidote to Communism is not democracy but an anti-Dreyfusard vision of national sovereignty.
And if national
sovereignty takes the form of a state whose elite is defined not
according to its talent but according to its "patriotism" - meaning,
in practice, its willingness to toe Orbán's line - then she's fine
Angela Merkel's refugee policy could not derive from a desire to help people either.
It's clear that the Medium-Size Lie is working for Orbán - just as it has for Donald Trump - if only because it focuses the world's attention on his rhetoric rather than his actions.
Schmidt and I spent most of our unpleasant two-hour conversation arguing about nonsensical questions:
We spent no time at all discussing Russia's influence in Hungary, which is now very strong.
We did not talk about corruption, or the myriad ways (documented by the Financial Times and others) that Orbán's friends have benefited from European subsidies and legislative sleight of hand.
(A ruling party that has
politicized its courts and suppressed the media is a party that
finds it much easier to steal.)
Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a member of parliament who used to belong to Fidesz, Orbán's party, but is now an independent, was one of several people who told me that,
Thanks to Orbán, Schmidt oversees the museum and a couple of historical institutes, giving her a unique ability to shape how Hungarians remember their history, which she relishes.
Maybe she really believes
that Hungary is facing a dire, existential threat in the form of
George Soros and some invisible
Syrians. Or maybe she's just as cynical about her own side as she is
about her opponents, and it's all an elaborate game.
The transcript also appeared on the Hungarian government's official website, in English.
(Try to imagine the White House publishing the transcript of a conversation between, say, the head of the Smithsonian Institution and a foreign critic of Trump and you'll understand how strange this is.)
But, of course, the
interview was not conducted for my benefit. It was a performance,
designed to prove to other Hungarians that Schmidt is loyal to the
regime and willing to defend it. Which she is.
But this thing I was calling polarization was nothing new.
Polarization is normal.
More to the point, I would add, skepticism about liberal democracy
is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.
But civil war and civil peace are relative terms in Greece at the best of times.
We were speaking just as some Greek intellectuals were having a centrist moment. It was suddenly fashionable to be "liberal," lots of people in Athens told me, by which they meant neither Communist nor authoritarian, neither far-left, like the Syriza ruling party, nor far-right, like its nationalist coalition partner, the Independent Greeks.
people were calling themselves "neo-liberal," adopting a term
that had been anathema only a few years earlier.
A nasty argument had long been brewing about the name and status of Macedonia, the ex-Yugoslav republic neighboring Greece; soon after I left, the Greek government expelled some Russian diplomats for trying to foment anti-Macedonia hysteria in the northern part of the country.
Whatever equilibrium your nation reaches, there is always someone, at home or abroad, who has reasons to upset it. It's a useful reminder.
Americans, with our powerful founding story, our unusual reverence for our Constitution, our relative geographic isolation, and our two centuries of economic success, have long been convinced that liberal democracy, once achieved, cannot be altered.
American history is told as a tale of progress, always forward and upward, with the Civil War as a kind of blip in the middle, an obstacle that was overcome. In Greece, history feels not linear but circular. There is liberal democracy and then there is oligarchy. Then there is liberal democracy again.
Then there is foreign
subversion, then there is an attempted Communist coup, then there is
civil war, and then there is dictatorship. And so on, since the time
of the Athenian republic.
The divide that has shattered Poland is strikingly similar to the divide that split France in the wake of the Dreyfus affair. The language used by the European radical right - the demand for "revolution" against "elites," the dreams of "cleansing" violence and an apocalyptic cultural clash - is eerily similar to the language once used by the European radical left.
The presence of dissatisfied, discontented intellectuals - people who feel that the rules aren't fair and that the wrong people have influence - isn't even uniquely European.
Moisés Naím, the Venezuelan writer, visited Warsaw a few months after the Law and Justice Party came to power.
He asked me to describe the new Polish leaders:
I gave him some adjectives - angry, vengeful, resentful.
In truth, the argument about who gets to rule is never over, particularly in an era when people have rejected aristocracy, and no longer believe that leadership is inherited at birth or that the ruling class is endorsed by God.
Some of us, in Europe and
North America, have settled on the idea that various forms of
democratic and economic competition are the fairest alternative to
inherited or ordained power.
Democracy and free markets can produce unsatisfying outcomes, after all, especially when badly regulated, or when nobody trusts the regulators, or when people are entering the contest from very different starting points.
Sooner or later, the
losers of the competition were always going to challenge the value
of the competition itself.
The authoritarian state, or even the semi-authoritarian state - the one-party state, the illiberal state - offers that promise:
It may be that democracy has to be bent or business corrupted or court systems wrecked in order to achieve that state.
But if you believe that
you are one of those deserving people, you will do it...