TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, journalist Anne Applebaum, has devoted years to writing about authoritarianism and for the past few years has been warning about its growth in Europe and the U.S. Her article, "The Autocrats Are Winning," is the cover story of the new issue of The Atlantic, where she's a staff writer. One focus of that article is Belarus, which she thinks represents a new form of authoritarianism and illustrates new ways in which authoritarian countries are helping each other in ways that will help each of those authoritarian rulers preserve their individual power and wealth.
She just returned from the polar side of the Belarus border, where she says Belarus has weaponized human desperation. Belarus lured people from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria who were seeking asylum. But once they spent a small fortune and endured a long, grueling trip, Belarus security forced them, often at gunpoint, to the Polish border and made them try to cross over. Anne Applebaum's latest book is called "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism."
Anne Applebaum, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why has Belarus lured migrants to that country and then tried to force them across the border to Lithuania, to Poland? What's the point?
ANNE APPLEBAUM: Last summer, the dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, lost an election. But instead of losing - instead of giving up power, he arrested his opposition. He forced the main opposition leader outside of the country. He jailed people. He beat them. He tortured them. In response to that, Lukashenko's neighbors in Europe and also in the United States sanctioned him - economic sanctions, personal sanctions, other kinds of sanctions.
This is his response - or it's one of his responses. His goal is to cause instability along his border. His goal is to make leaders of the European Union negotiate with him. His goal is to upset Poland and Lithuania, the two countries that have taken quite a number of Belarusian dissidents. As I said, the leader of the Belarusian opposition now lives in Vilnius. His goal is to show that democracy doesn't work, that human rights is a - is just a slogan. His goal is to cause instability and to simultaneously frighten his own opposition and his neighbors. Remember that his opposition wants democracy. They want the rule of law. They want justice. They want respect for human rights. And what he's doing by playing this game is showing that he doesn't care about those things. And he's going to disregard them as much as possible.
GROSS: So you were just at the border of Belarus and Poland to witness what was going on there. And I think it was, like, shortly after you left that Belarus decided to start offering shelter to the migrants at the border, trying to look like, hey, Belarus is the good guys. But when you were there - tell us what you witnessed, what families who were trapped at the border were going through.
APPLEBAUM: I had an opportunity to speak to a Kurdish family who had made it through the border, the wire of the border. The border fence had been cut for them by a Belarusian guard. And they had started walking westward. When I saw them, together with some other journalists, they were camped on the ground of a forest. I think maybe it's important for listeners to know how strange this site is. This is a very empty and peaceful and beautiful part of Poland. It's a very old forest. Part of the forest in the area is a primeval forest. It's one of the oldest in Europe. And to see a Kurdish family, you know, people, really, from a different culture and a different place, there is somewhat strange and surreal. This was a family that had seven children with them, plus one elderly relative.
The piece of the story that's important to understand is, how did they get there? And what did they think they were going to be doing there? This family, like so many other people, had bought travel packages from travel agents. They were told that they would get a visa to Minsk. They would get an air flight. And then they would be able to walk into the European Union with no problem. They were not told that they were going to be illegally forced to cross the border. They were not told they were going to be breaking the law, which, of course, they have done. They were not told what the situation was. Some of them have even been confused about, where is Poland? Where is Germany? And where is it exactly that they've found themselves? So these are often very disoriented people.
The Belarusian government has lied to them, has manipulated them, has told them there would be some kind of free passage into the EU, which is not the case. Some of them are political refugees who will get asylum - or could get asylum. Some of them are not. There are economic migrants who don't have an automatic right of residence in the European Union. So they've been misled on a number of grounds. They have been getting through the fence using wire cutters. Or in some cases, armored trucks and cars have been used to try to break the fence down. Some have walked through. Some have even made it across Poland to Germany.
The pictures that we've seen in the last couple of days, however, show people who've not gotten through, who have been stuck on the border. It seems that the Belarusian guards have kind of herded them into a group, created a camp of them - at one point, used them to try and force - you know, group effort to force open the border. Now they've taken them into some kind of shelter so that they're not outside in the cold. It's below zero already in that part of Poland. These are people, again, who've been manipulated, who've been lied to and who are now being used by Belarus to create these scenes of chaos on the edge of the European Union.
GROSS: So what did Belarus was do to get this package to travel agents to try to convince migrants to come to Belarus?
APPLEBAUM: So as I said, this is the weaponization of desperation. I mean, these are people from Iraqi Kurdistan. They're from Syrian refugee camps. I saw a very good interview that was done by a group of Polish journalists with a Syrian who was living in a Lebanese refugee camp. And he described his life. He said, look; I'm not able to study. I can't work. I'm willing to do anything to go to Europe. And he had gathered money from his friends and family, I think family in Europe as well. And he had gone to a travel agent who was selling him this package. And the packages have been - as stories of this possibility began to spread - I said this has been going on since last summer - they become more available. It seems that travel agents in Beirut, travel agents in Damascus, travel agents in Dubai and Istanbul have been selling these packages. And, of course, they include a visa to Belarus, which is very expensive. One travel agent quoted to my colleague $1,300, which is very high for a Visa.
The tickets are very expensive. Sometimes they're on charter airlines that have been chartered by the Belarusian government. That's another way in which they're making money out of this story. Then when people land in Minsk, they often have to pay for transport to the border. They're often taken there by soldiers and then, as I said, told to cross illegally. Some have tried to come back. Some have said, you know, we don't want to do this. We'd like to go back to Iraq. We'd like to go back to where we came from. Initially, they were being forbidden from coming back. It looks now, after some pressure from the European Union, that some may be allowed back. But that's a new development. Prior to this, people were being forced across the border. They were being forced to camp along the border, having been told falsely that this was some kind of free access to Europe.
GROSS: One of the really just bizarre developments that you report is from the polar side. The Polish interior minister and the defense minister appeared together on the taxpayer-funded, state TV channel news and played a clip of a man having sex with a horse. What did they tell viewers this clip was? And what was it really?
APPLEBAUM: So this is part of the context for the other half of the story, which is the way in which the current Polish government, which is a populist, would-be autocratic government, has tried to use this situation for its own purposes. We've been talking about how the Belarusian government was trying to use it. But the Poles have done - it's different, but it's a similar politicization of the situation. So they've portrayed this to the nation as an invasion. These are terrorists. These are perverts. These are people who are coming to damage us and harm us. We're sending soldiers and police to the border. We're going to prevent them from getting through. And while there are a lot of nuances here - I mean, of course, Poland is allowed to defend its border. Of course, there are rules about who's allowed to cross the border. This is a European border, aside from being just a Polish border. They can't be blackmailed by Lukashenko.
But nevertheless, it was unnecessary and has been, you know, very upsetting for Poles, particularly those living in the area of the border, to hear this kind of language being used about people, many of whom, as I said, are people who've been manipulated. They're people who are looking for a better life. They're people who are desperate for something, for peace and stability. And to be described as perverts, terrorists, sadists, rapists, has not helped the situation. The Poles have also not helped the situation by trying to lock down the border. They created a kind of zone - emergency zone along the border. They weren't letting in journalists. One of the reasons you've seen more pictures from the Belarussian side is the Poles have been restricting access to cameras in the area, although - and as I said, the immigrants - or migrants are nevertheless getting through. And it's been possible for journalists and others to meet them.
And one of the stranger aspects of this is that because the official line is, we're holding the border, we're protecting you from an invasion, the Polish government hasn't admitted that people are getting through. And that means that for people living along the border, they've had to deal with an extraordinary phenomenon. So they find people in their back gardens, in nearby fields, who are starving, who've been walking through the woods for three days, who have no food or water, who are disoriented. A kind of ad hoc rescue service has even developed along the border, with both local people and volunteers from the rest of the country who've come in, bringing food and water, creating a kind of makeshift series of warehouses to keep supplies in, bringing clothes, shoes. Again, these are people from the Middle East arriving in Europe in - at the beginning of the winter. And they've developed this ad hoc rescue service.
It's psychologically very difficult for people. These are encounters with people who don't speak Polish. They don't speak English. They are from a different culture. It's difficult to know where they are. But the Polish government's attempt to create an image of them as an enemy, as a danger and as a - as I've described in the article, even as sexual perverts, has been - has not helped the situation. In fact, it's made it significantly worse.
GROSS: I want to get back to this video of a man having sex with a horse 'cause I think it shows the lengths the Polish government is willing to go to in terms of disinformation to scare the public.
APPLEBAUM: What they claimed was that the video was found on a telephone that was found in the forest. And then later they modified that to say it was found on a SIM card, you know, a information card on a phone in the forest. In fact, it's a video that's widely available on the internet, on bestiality websites. But the implication of - and the reason why it was shown on the evening news was, they said, that it showed one of the actual migrants. I mean, they weren't saying that this incident happened on the border, but they were implying that it was a person at the border. In fact, the clip was made probably in the 1970s. So it was certainly not somebody on the border. And whether it was really found on somebody's phone seems pretty doubtful. But it does show the lengths to which the Polish government has been willing to go in order to build support for its policy of militarizing the situation, of creating an image of an evil and perverted invader who needs to be pushed back.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. And her new cover story in The Atlantic is called "The Autocrats Are Winning." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Anne Applebaum. She's a staff writer at The Atlantic, and she writes extensively about authoritarianism. Her new article, which is the cover story of the new issue of The Atlantic, is called "The Autocrats Are Winning," and it focuses in part on Belarus.
So, you know, you've said that Belarus wants to destabilize the European Union, and that's what this whole immigrant crisis is about. Why does Belarus want to destabilize the European Union?
APPLEBAUM: Belarus wants to destabilize the European Union because the European Union represents a set of alternative values. It represents the rule of law. It represents respect for human rights. It represents the possibility of international integration and trade. Lukashenko stands for the opposite of those things, not the rule of law but the rule of a single person. Laws and rules are made in his country according to his whim - not respect for human rights in his country, but rather, again, people are treated by the dictator as the dictator wishes to treat them. But that set of values, that set of European values, is very attractive to most Belarusians, most of whom think of themselves as Europeans and most of whom admire the European Union. Those are the values of his own opposition. And so by smearing and undermining and destabilizing the European Union, he hopes also to send a message to his own opposition, both saying, what is this thing you want to join, it's no good, but also saying, look how much I have disdain for these values.
I should add that there is another motive that he may have. You know, this manufacturing of border crises has happened before. This isn't the first time it's taken place. The dictator of Turkey - or the autocratic leader, I should say, the president of Turkey. He's - Turkey remains, in some ways, a democracy. The leader of Turkey has also weaponized the migrant crisis, has also sent migrants to the Greek border in what seems to be a similar kind of action. And Erdogan has in the past received aid from the European Union to help with what is a genuine migrant crisis in his own country. There are - many millions of Syrians live in Turkey now. The difference here is that Lukashenko has manufactured this crisis, so he may want some kind of deal like that. He may want some kind of payoff from the European Union. But his situation is totally different. There is no - you know, there's no naturally occurring pool of Syrians who happen to be living in Belarus. There are people who've been, as we've discussed, imported there on purpose. So perhaps he's looking for some kind of concession, some payoff, some money. But I think that the real motive, the really important motive, is his desire to show his disdain for the values of Europe.
GROSS: So, you know, Lukashenko, the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, has his motives for creating this migrant crisis and forcing migrants into Poland. But do you think it's backfiring? I mean, this is getting a lot of media attention. And is Belarus seeing sanctions against the country now? Is this going to - do you think this might ultimately hurt Lukashenko?
APPLEBAUM: It's very hard for me to predict how this will play out. You know, Lukashenko is seeking to use this crisis to build up his support at home. And, of course, we have no evidence whether that's successful or not. And that's really the real criteria here. I do think that it's likely to produce more sanctions and more anger. Just in the last few days, several European leaders have spoken to Lukashenko. They've spoken to Putin as well. The Russian leader is a backer of Belarus. I don't think Lukashenko would still be in power if it wasn't for Russian support.
There is a possibility of more sanctions, and there is also a possibility of a gas war. Gas pipelines from Russia to Europe do go across Belarus. And he's hinted at, you know, that they may need - they may close down or he may use that as a weapon in this conflict as well. So there are all different kinds of ways that this could still escalate. And I think it's too soon to say, you know, who's benefited and who has lost.
GROSS: Your article is about, like, a new form of authoritarian government, as exemplified in part by Belarus. Compare the image you think people have of what an authoritarian leader is compared to the new authoritarian leader that you write about.
APPLEBAUM: I think all of us have in our minds a kind of stereotype of what an autocracy is. You know, there's a kind of bad guy at the top. He has police who work for him. There is a surveillance system. Maybe there are collaborators, and maybe there are dissidents who fight back. But really, in the modern world, all of these autocrats are linked to one another in new kinds of ways. It's not really one person in charge of Belarus. It's a network of people who are helping to keep that dictator in power.
So, for example, to stay in power, Belarus - the leader of Belarus has support from Russia, economic support to help him overcome sanctions from the West. He has help from Russian police, who have given him advice and who've probably also given him reinforcements to help him repress his own people. He has a major investment from China, one of the largest in Europe, in his country. He is conducting negotiations, economic negotiations with Iran, which is also looking to invest in Belarus and, I think, vice versa. He's had support from the Cubans, who have defended his actions at the U.N. and in other international bodies.
And if you look at the nature of that coalition, it's nothing like the coalitions of the 20th century. This is not based on a common ideology. We're talking about communist Cuba and theocratic Iran and nationalist Russia. These are all states whose elites have very similar goals despite the language and the propaganda that they use. And their goals are to stay in power and very often to personally earn money out of their rule and out of their countries.
GROSS: So how does supporting Lukashenko, the ruler of Belarus - how does that help Russia or Iran or China or Cuba?
APPLEBAUM: All of these countries have the same set of interests. They're all fighting against the same kinds of opposition. So they're all fighting against people who would like the rule of law, who would like democracy, who would like a different kind of justice. And all of them see the benefit of helping one another defeat those kinds of movements. I mean, they all remember 1989, the year when there was one democratic revolution set off another. Some of them remember the Arab Spring, when a very similar kind of phenomenon happened. And they very much believe and have said so - several of them have said so out loud that, you know, a democratic revolution in one country can inspire another. And so they therefore see it as in their interest to make sure that they don't happen anywhere.
So for Putin, it's very important that there not be a democratic revolution in Belarus. There was one in Ukraine in 2014, and that was very disturbing to Putin because, you know, if Ukrainians can have a democracy, then why can't the Russians? It's very similar culturally. They share a long history. And the sight of young Ukrainians carrying flags, saying, you know, we want anti-corruption and we want to be part of the European Union, you know, carrying - waving the European Union flag - this was very disturbing to Putin.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum, who's written extensively about authoritarianism. Her new cover story in The Atlantic, where she's a staff writer, is titled "The Autocrats Are Winning." We'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with journalist Anne Applebaum. She's devoted years to writing about authoritarianism and for the past few years has been warning about its growth in Europe and the U.S. Her latest article, which is the cover story of the new issue of The Atlantic, is called "The Autocrats Are Winning." Her latest book is called "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism."
Belarus had an election in August of 2020. Lukashenko claimed that he won 80% of the vote, which you say nobody believed. And you think, and I think most people in Belarus think it's the opposition candidate who won. Her husband is a political dissident who is in prison. She fled the country. So after the election, Lukashenko turned off the Internet, treated mass demonstrations against his regime with brutality. Then, you say, Russia stepped in with a more sophisticated approach to repressing the population. So what was the difference between, like, holding down dissidents and opposition after Russia stepped in?
APPLEBAUM: The Russians brought in more sophisticated police. They brought in more sophisticated surveillance technology. They also shared their own experience with the Belarusians, which is that it's better to arrest a small group of people and not engage in mass arrests. If you arrest and imprison and threaten a smaller number of people, you can then scare off larger numbers, whereas mass arrests often provoke other kinds of reactions. They also brought in Russian television journalists to replace the Belarusian state television journalists, many of whom had resigned after the election was stolen or appeared to be stolen. So they also reinforced and helped recreate a new kind of Belarusian propaganda. So they were offering police support. They were offering propaganda support. And in addition to that, they've offered economic support to help Belarus get around Western sanctions.
GROSS: Yeah. I think Russia offered to buy goods from Belarus to get around sanctions. Yeah.
APPLEBAUM: There are - so there are stories that the Russians now export cigarettes. It's one of the things that they make. They export them to Russia, where they're repackaged and sold as Russian instead of Belarusian. And there are a number of other products like that that are now flowing out via Russia.
GROSS: So is that another reason why authoritarian governments are forming alliances with each other, so that they could have their whole - their own, like, economic network and support each other economically when there are sanctions against them from Europe and the U.S.?
APPLEBAUM: Yes. Helping one another evade sanctions is one of the primary activities, I would say, of the new autocratic network. Another very good example of how that works is in Venezuela. Venezuela is another country where you have an autocratic government, where you have a large and articulate and sophisticated democratic opposition, but where Venezuela receives, really, extraordinary support from around the world. So you have Russian and Chinese investment in the oil and gas sector in Venezuela. You have - the Turks buy Venezuelan gold. The Iranians invest in Venezuela. The Cubans offer the Venezuelans help with surveillance and police technology, have been doing so for many years. So although there has been some Western support, for example, for the Venezuelan opposition, it's absolutely overshadowed by the autocratic world support from the Venezuelan government. So Venezuela exists, really, thanks to this network. It's an extremely weak state. And it's very doubtful that the government could've survived if it didn't have outside help. More and more around the world, you can see that as a kind of pattern.
GROSS: So what do you think this new authoritarianism, where authoritarian governments are cooperating with each other, forming their own financial networks - what are the implications of that for democracies like the European Union, like the U.S.?
APPLEBAUM: One of the implications of this new autocratic network is that many of the old tools that we have used to push back against autocracy are no longer working. Sanctions do have an impact. They're very important. But they don't work quite as well as they used to. And too often, we apply them in a kind of knee-jerk reaction when some other surprise or outrage takes place. We don't really have a plan for how to imply them. Or - and we're not clear about what exactly will trigger them. You know, that's one kind of problem. Our language about human rights and our expressions of outrage now very often sound weak, given how often they're ignored and even laughed at by whether it's by Lukashenko or Putin or Maduro in Venezuela.
We need to find better ways of talking about this problem. And we need more robust ways of standing up to it. Perhaps, the more important point, though, is that this autocratic network also has power and influence inside democracies. You know, one of the reasons that international kleptocracy functions is because the Western financial system has enabled it. And being aware of how the money of dictatorships flows inside our own countries, and the way in which that money can also buy influence inside our own countries is something that we need to expand. You know, whether it's Russian influence on the politics of Germany, whether it's - you know, whether it's the influence of dirty money on business in the United States, we need to take this more seriously as a national security problem. You know, it's not just a thing that the Treasury should be interested in. It's really a problem that is quite central, now, to American foreign policy.
GROSS: Yeah. You write that many American corporations are caught in personal, financial and business links to China, Russia and other autocracies. What kind of links are you talking about?
APPLEBAUM: Well, some of them are obvious. I mean, you know, most large American companies do business in China. And therefore, when an issue comes up - for example, another subject I wrote about in the piece when - the Chinese repression of the Uyghur minority. It's a mostly Muslim minority that is very often kept in concentration camps and treated as - not just as second-class citizens, but really not as citizens at all. You know, the repression of that minority is something that American businesses have an interest in ignoring, whether it's Chinese violation of human rights, whether it's the Chinese kidnapping some of their own citizens or harassing their own citizens outside of their own borders, which does happen - it even happens inside the United States - we don't have corporate objections to that. We don't have people speaking about it simply because people have interests in China. Or they have financial - personal or corporate financial interests in China. But this is true, really, across the entire autocratic world.
GROSS: If the old sanctions don't work anymore, in part because there's this whole, alternate, authoritarian financial network in which they support each other, are there models for new ways to deal with authoritarian governments?
APPLEBAUM: I think we need to rethink the nature of democratic institutions. You know, the ones that we have - the international institutions that we have were built a long time ago for a very different kind of world, whether it's the U.N. institutions or the existing human rights institutions. I mean, having a forum where democracies talk about how to act together, how to respond, for example, to these incidences of transnational repression. When autocracies reach across their borders, sometimes to murder or to kidnap their own citizens or even our citizens, we need a forum within which we can discuss that. And that would be - I mean, the democracies in Europe, the democracies in America, in the Americas, I should say, in Africa and Asia.
We need a common set of protocols, a way to respond together, a forum in which we meet regularly to discuss these things. Because, as I said, right now, it's very ad hoc. It's very disorganized. We don't, you know, we always seem to be on the back foot. You know, these kinds of things are now happening regularly, whether it's the abuse of migrants at the Belarusian border, whether it's the hijacking of a plane organized by the Belarusian government, as happened some months ago. We don't have a plan for how to deal with these things. We're just reactive.
GROSS: Let's take another short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. And her latest article in The Atlantic is called "The Autocrats Are Winning." It's the cover story of the new issue. She's a staff writer there. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Anne Appelbaum. She's a staff writer at The Atlantic, and she writes extensively about authoritarianism. Her latest book is called "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism." Your new article is called "The Autocrats Are Winning." What do you mean by that, that they're winning?
APPLEBAUM: I mean that they are working together successfully, that they are helping one another stay in power and that they are successfully undermining our rules and our ideals. You know, they don't just ignore language about human rights. They mock it and make fun of it. They don't just ignore, you know, the possibility of democracy. They attack it. They use tools designed to undermine existing democracies, and they do so inside our countries.
I mean, the most famous example of this is still what took place in 2016, when the Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee, released the tapes and then launched a huge disinformation campaign designed to publicize them. That was a sign of a autocratic country interfering in an American election with the aim of manipulating it and mocking the whole system. But there's a lot more of that.
The Russians back far-right and sometimes far-left political parties in Europe and elsewhere. The Chinese have a huge project of infrastructure investment all over the world, called the Belt and Road policy. That very often includes kickbacks for local dictatorships or autocratic leaders. It's one of the ways that that works. And so they are seeking to entrench and solidify the autocratic world while undermining the democratic world. And we don't really have a policy that responds adequately to this new situation.
GROSS: During the Trump presidency, Trump seemed to favor some authoritarian rulers - the Saudis, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin. What do you think the lasting impact is now of the Trump presidency, which many people saw as heading toward authoritarianism?
APPLEBAUM: The Trump presidency undermined maybe forever, but certainly for the moment, undermined the image of the United States as the country that stands for democratic ideals and democratic practices around the world. Really consistently, whether we've had Republican governments or Democratic governments or, you know, different administrations since the Second World War, the United States has stood for a set of values. We haven't always lived up to those values, and we haven't always pursued that policy in a sensible or intelligent way, but we nevertheless remained that symbol.
Trump did an enormous amount of damage to that image of the United States precisely because he himself emerged from the world of autocratic and kleptocratic business, and he'd been doing business in the autocratic world for many years. Many of the investments in his real estate projects in the United States came from Russia or came from other autocracies. And he really brought those values into the White House. While he was conducting American foreign policy, it was never really clear whether he was conducting it for the benefit of the United States and its interests or whether he was conducting it in his own personal business and financial interests.
So, you know, there are a number of very odd connections he made in his deep connection to the Saudis and to, you know, to the autocrats in the Arab world. Did that have a business implication for his family? There are some indications that it did. Of course, none of that's been proved yet. He had a strange relationship with Erdogan, the leader of Turkey. That may also have had business reasons. And there may have been, you know, hotels he wants to build or other projects that he wants to carry out in that part of the world. He didn't behave like a Democrat or like an American president who's pursuing the interests of America and the interests of the democratic alliance that the United States leads. Instead, he acted very much like one of the nepotistic, self-centered autocrats that the United States has historically opposed.
GROSS: I'm wondering if you see the stop the steal movement in the U.S. as connecting with the larger pattern of authoritarianism that you're seeing.
APPLEBAUM: Certainly the creation of a political movement in the United States which seeks to undermine the U.S. electoral system, which rejects the evidence that Joe Biden won the election, which seeks illegally to put Trump back into power, which supports the illegal efforts of Trump to regain power, the ones that we saw play out last January and which may play out again sometime in the future - this is an autocratic phenomenon. It's connected to other autocratic phenomenon in other places in that it follows similar patterns. I'm not sure that it needs Russian funding (laughter) or Chinese funding in order to make it work. It seems to have plenty of American funding all by itself. But you can see it as part of a pattern around the world, where inside many democracies - including very stable democracies, historic democracies - there has developed groups and movements of people who no longer believe in the system, who seek to undermine it in any way possible, who undermine its institutions - whether it's the courts or the press or the electoral system.
There have already been echoes of the Stop the Steal movement in other countries. The Brazilian president, Bolsonaro, has said that there's no way he can have lost an election; and if he does lose his next election, then it must be fake. In other words, he's planning a very similar move. We talked a little bit earlier about Poland. Poland and Hungary are two countries where leaders have indicated that if they lose elections, maybe that's going to be because they were fake or rigged. And so, you know, the Stop the Steal movement has created a kind of pattern for the undermining of democracy that may well work in the United States and perhaps will be copied elsewhere.
GROSS: You're speaking to us from London. But you divide your time between London and Poland. Your husband is a representative in the European Parliament from the Polish opposition party. We're talking about authoritarianism. But what kind of direct impact has that had on your life, both because of your husband's role in the opposition party of Poland, but also because of your journalism?
APPLEBAUM: So to be clear, Poland is still a democracy. We still have some independent media. But we are living in a society where we - there is a ruling party that has pushed away at the institutions of democracy, that has sought to undermine the rule of law, that has sought to politicize the judicial system and that seeks to undermine the press, even to the extent of, you know, trying to buy up the press and trying to undermine the business model of the existing free press. And I think the experience of living through that and watching it start and watching that kind of party begin to convince people, begin to use conspiracy theory, begin to undermine trust and faith in the system - watching how that worked has made me hyperaware of how these kinds of movements can take hold and appeal to people. And it really was with that experience in Poland that I became very alarmed in the United States in 2015 and 2016 and, of course, remain alarmed now as I see a very similar kind of process taking place in a part of the Republican Party - not all of the Republican Party - now.
Prior to that, I spent many years writing about Soviet communism, which is, of course, a very different system. And it's a totalitarian system. It's a - you know, it belongs to a different era and a - different kinds of technology. And yet some of the propaganda techniques that I've written about in the past, in particular, the demonization of minorities and the attempt to divide society and focus people against their enemies and to divide society between, you know, patriots and traitors - I mean, this kind of language - which you now hear in U.S. politics and you certainly hear in Polish politics and you can also hear elsewhere much more loudly than you did before - is something that I recognize from the more distant past. And I find it alarming. So the combination of my past work as a historian and my present experiences have probably made me more focused than most other people are on this particular problem.
GROSS: I'm glad you are focused on it 'cause you've been doing such good reporting and analysis. Thank you so much for returning to our show. It's always a pleasure to have you on our show.
APPLEBAUM: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Anne Applebaum's article "The Autocrats Are Winning" is the cover story of the new issue of The Atlantic. Her latest book is called "Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism." After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new comedy series "Sort Of," about a genderqueer Toronto millennial of Pakistani heritage. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new Canadian comedy series "Sort Of" is now playing on HBO Max. It was written, co-created and stars Bilal Baig, the first queer, transfeminine South Asian Muslim ever to star in a prime-time show in Canada.
Our critic-at-large, John Powers, found the series to be a warm, low-key charmer.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It might be hard to believe, but modesty was once considered a virtue. These days, of course, our world is dominated by people and expressions of pop culture that keep telling you they're big and important. If you call a TV show modest, it sounds as if you're saying that it's bland and unambitious, a loser in the great "Squid Game" of modern life. So let me assure you that I'm not being dismissive when I praise the new HBO Max series "Sort Of" for its modesty.
Centering on a genderfluid Toronto millennial of Pakistani heritage, this eight-part Canadian comedy about identity is not self-important or in-your-face. Created by its star, Bilal Baig, and director Fab Filippo, this under-the-radar show flies by in 20-minute installments that are funny, tender and humane. Baig stars as Sabi Mehboob, the nonbinary child of Pakistani immigrants, who has long tresses, wears dresses and goes by the pronoun they. Still seeking a place in the world, Sabi has two part-time jobs - as a bartender in an LGBTQ bar and as a nanny for the mixed-race kids of a designer, Bessy - played by Grace Lynn Kung - and her narcissistic jerk of a husband, Paul - that's Gray Powell.
Sabi's about to move to Berlin with their equally nonbinary best friend, 7ven, when Bessy gets in an accident and falls into a coma. Should Sabi still go? And what to do about Sabi's mother, who's discovering that the person she thinks of as her son is not what she and her husband had expected? Here, Sabi is being interviewed by Bessy when first applying for the job as nanny.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SORT OF")
GRACE LYNN KUNG: (As Bessy) So why do you want to work with kids?
BILAL BAIG: (As Sabi) I don't know. I like how they process stuff. Like, they don't rush to put things in boxes. Like I am - I was in electrician school before this. I found it tricky because everyone was in...
KUNG: (As Bessy) Boxed?
BAIG: (As Sabi) I don't know. Like, everyone was a certain kind of person, but I'm not that kind of person. I don't know. I'm not making sense.
KUNG: (As Bessy) No, no, no. Yes, you are.
BAIG: (As Sabi) I am?
KUNG: (As Bessy) Yeah. It's like, you know, labels will raise us up until they strangle us to death, you know (laughter)?
BAIG: (As Sabi) Yeah. So I'd like to be around kids for a bit.
POWERS: You know, "Sort Of" is akin to personal comedies like "Girls," "Fleabag" and "Better Things." Where classic sitcoms were wound tight to squeeze every possible laugh, these new shows are looser, less mechanical, more filled with feeling. They have time for the drift of daily life, be it 7ven and Sabi's loving banter or fights over Paul and Bessy's kids eating too much sugar. While Sabi's story is carefully structured with a clear arc and niftily rigged time leaps, you never feel it forcing an agenda.
Nor is it edgily transgressive, like, for instance, Lena Dunham's nude scenes that broke taboos by showing an actual woman's naked body on TV screens. On the contrary, the show's at its worst in those rare moments when its style tries to be hip. Whatever radicalism "Sort Of" possesses is quiet. So quiet that some viewers may find it too tame, too - dare I say it - Canadian, though one should never forget that Canada produced Joni Mitchell and David Cronenberg. The show takes issues that are often used as hot buttons - gayness, trans life, racial difference, interracial relationships - and with decent good humor, treats them as an everyday, often funny part of life.
"Sort Of" is held together by the sweet-faced presence of Baig, a queer, trans-feminine playwright and performer with a gentle charisma. Where Michaela Coel wanted to bowl you over with bravura in "I May Destroy You," Baig low-keys it. Baig nails wisecracks by not hitting them too hard and lets the slightest shift of expression register the conflict between the longing to be personally free and a sense of responsibility for others. Sabi is blessed, or maybe cursed, with being nice.
"Sort Of" begins at a birthday dinner, when Sabi's cute white boyfriend, who also has a straight girlfriend, accuses Sabi of not seeing him. He's just the first person to say this in a show where almost everybody feels that they're not seen for who they really are, but are forced into rigid identities that don't really contain them. If "Sort Of" has a governing idea, it's hinted at in its title, which suggests that nobody is wholly one thing. Everyone is sort of this and sort of that and on their way to becoming sort of something else.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new comedy series "Sort Of," which is streaming on HBO Max.
We were so sad to learn today that the jazz songwriter, singer and pianist Dave Frishberg died yesterday. He was 88. He wrote great songs; witty songs like "My Attorney Bernie," "I'm Hip" and "Quality Time"; ballads like "Heart's Desire" and "Sweet Kentucky Ham"; and kid songs for "Schoolhouse Rock!", like "I'm Just a Bill." Many singers recorded his songs, including Rosemary Clooney, Blossom Dearie, Diana Krall, Susannah McCorkle and Rebecca Kilgore. I love his music and feel so lucky that he performed several times on our show. We're going to produce a tribute to him, which will feature sometime soon. For now, we'll end the show with one of his songs. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE THERE")
DAVE FRISHBERG: (Singing) In the evening, when the kettle's for tea, an old familiar feeling settles over me. And it's your face I see, and I believe that you are there. In our garden, when I stop to touch a rose and feel the petals soft and sweet against my nose, I smile, and I suppose that, somehow, maybe you are there. When I'm dreaming and I find myself awake without a warning, and I rub my eyes and fantasize and all at once, I realize it's morning.
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