The bookshelves surrounded Anne Applebaum, engulfing her in the dimly lit space. Behind her, the fireplace crackled as she began to discuss the implications of President Donald Trump’s presidency, a stark contrast to the warmth of her surroundings.
In the 31st annual Richard W. Leopold Lecture, Applebaum, the author of Twilight of Democracy, focused on the long history of both liberal and conservative groups that have disagreed on the definition of American values, drawing a contrast between the left’s criticism of “bourgeois politics” and the right’s scorn of what they view as a deterioration of American morality. Medill professor Peter Slevin moderated a Q&A following her talk.
“In 2016, some of the arguments of the old Marxist Left and . . . their longing for revolutionary change met and mingled with the Christian Right’s despair about the future of America, and together they produced the campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump,” Applebaum said.
As Applebaum discussed Trump’s presidency, she highlighted the risk it poses to American democracy and drew parallels between his constant “what-about-ism” to justify his actions and the rhetoric of other authoritarian leaders.
She argued that Trump’s rhetoric has given the American people a “license to support a corrupt president” and that the administration has caused society to take “a nosedive off of the moral diving board of humanity.” Consequently, she stated, Trump has begun to “delegitimize” American institutions by saying that they are “no different from their opposite.”
“Instead of representing the shining city on the hill, we are no different from the killers of Putin's Russia,” Applebaum said.
Appelbaum began her lecture by placing the tenets by which American society was ostensibly based upon—democracy and optimism—in contrast to Trump’s rhetoric.
“These men of the Enlightenment knew that human nature was imperfect,” Applebaum said. “They were extraordinary optimists and they believed that democracy in America was at least worth a try.”
Over time, according to Applebaum, American democracy grew to include more people, and now, more Americans share a common belief in the power of freedom in America. However, behind that belief lies those who do not believe in the American experiment of democracy.
“From the very beginning. . . there were different versions of what America is or should be, different definitions of the nation,” Applebaum said. “Some people have always found the American project naive or frightening or oppressive or false.”
Despite labeling the current moment the “worst crisis of American history since the Civil War,” Applebaum called for American society to understand its faults as the Founding Fathers once did and to begin to emulate their sense of optimism for society.
“I started out the lecture speaking about the Founding Fathers for a reason,” Applebaum said. “They knew American democracy could fail them. They were realists, and yet they were optimists. And so let's look to the spirit of their times for new inspiration for ours.”
Applebaum called on audience members to continue to vote and encouraged others to do the same.
“Maybe it's time for all of us to join political parties or to run for a school board or county council,” Applebaum said. “Maybe it's time to volunteer as a poll worker in the elections a few weeks from now. Maybe it's time to join a phone bank or to support one of the many organizations that protect voting rights.”
Across the world in Poland, Applebaum shared the light and warmth from her fireplace with viewers of her lecture, explaining the possibility for a brighter future. Despite being at one of the lowest points in American history, Applebaum asked viewers to remember the ideas the country was founded on.
“It's this moment when everything feels so cataclysmic and even apocalyptic,” Applebaum said. “Even now, we don't give up.”