A Warning from Madeleine Albright
One of my book groups recently read Madeliene Albright’s book, Fascism: A Warning. It was published in 2018, though much of it written before Donald Trump was elected to the presidency. While it didn’t succinctly describe the current situation in dire terms, it did describe many historical examples of rule by fascists which allows one to see patterns, similar to walking through the wing of an art museum that is focused on a dark period. I got the sense the editing may have been truncated to allow a timely warning.
It’s Albright’s sixth book, and she has led an impressive life both as a citizen of the United States, and as a Czechoslovakian immigrant first to Britain, and then to the United States in her youth. She and her family experienced, and fled twice, the repressive regimes of fascists, and she spent her career studying and facing these world leaders who have exhibited these behaviors.
I offer you my synopsis of the key points, in case you don’t have the time to read this important and timely book yourself.
What is Fascism?
Albright is a professor at Georgetown University who poses this question to her thoughtful students. She notes that the word is commonly and sloppily used these days in the US as a slur. When people on all parts of the political spectrum don’t like the way someone else is governing, it’s a popular go to ad hominem. “They’re a fascist.” So as a result her students’ thoughts are wide and varied, and could be debated by academics, but she (and we) just need working definition to move forward in our public lives.
So Albright suggests this:
“A Fascist is someone who identifies with, and claims to speak for a whole nation or a group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use any means are necessary – including the use of violence – to achieve his or her goals.”
“A Fascist expects the public to have his back.” Many dictators are wary of their public and often surround themselves with royal guards to protect them, whereas fascists rile the crowd up – and ensure they are armed for when the fighting begins.
The context for a successful fascist is usually widespread dissatisfaction of a large number of the people, often caused by economic hardship. A strong personality promising all things becomes attractive to people in a situation that feels hopeless and demeaning.
In the majority of chapters, Albright describes the history and the development of Fascists and aspiring Fascists. See Table 1 below. It’s important to note Fascism is not necessarily coupled to any particular ideology, although it seems to be more easily accomplished and maintained in some ideological environments than others. I’m also tempted to expand this table with personality/psychological characteristics of these men, though other authors have explored this specifically. Suffice it to say, there may be a pattern of frustration early in life. I did add the ‘avid reader’ characteristic, which may be correlated with intelligence and probably knowledge.
Table 1. Fascists and near Fascists in history
While not a particular emphasis of hers except that Fascists always have a scapegoat, an enemy, an outgroup, against which they foster hatred. I found Albright’s statements illuminating for our current situation.
“Uncontrolled migration produces social friction not because many refugees are criminals or terrorists (They aren’t), but because living side by side with strangers requires two precious commodities: goodwill and time – both necessary to build trust.”
“Ultimately illegal immigration is a symptom of failures that will not be solved either by welcoming newcomers or by keeping them out. Humanitarian emergencies demand a generous response, but a sound policy will concentrate on preventing crises from arising. Such an approach would separate genuine political refugees from economic migrants, allow high levels of legal migration, share intelligence to prevent terrorists, and strive to put human traffickers out of business.”
Appropriate for her roles as Ambassador to the United Nations (1993-1997) and US Secretary of State (1997-2001), Albright offers an even-handed description of democracy as well as other forms of government.
“Democracies as we know, as prone to every error from incompetence and corruption to misguided fetishes and gridlock. Therefore it is astonishing, in a sense, the we would be willing to submit the direction of our societies to the collective wisdom of an imperfect and frequently unengaged public. How could we be so naïve? To that fair question we must reply: how could anyone be so gullible as permanently entrust power – an inherently corrupting force – to a single leader or party? When a dictator abuses his authority, there is no legal way to stop him. When a free society falters, we still have the ability – through open debate and the selection of new leaders – to remedy these short comings. We still have time to pick a better egg. That is democracy’s comparative advantage, and it should be recognized and preserved.”
And this from Tomas Garrique Masaryk, the President of an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918:
“Democracy is not only a form of state, it is not just something that is embodied in a constitution; democracy is a view of life, it requires belief in human beings, in humanity … I have already said that democracy is a discussion. But the real discussion is possible only if people trust each other and if they try fairly to find the truth.”
She notes a ‘boiled frog’ dynamic of the development of a Fascist:
“Democracy has enemies who do not advertise the fact. Mussolini wrote that in seeking to accumulate power, it is wise to do so in the manner of plucking a chicken – feather by feather. … [including] the discrediting of mainstream politicians, the emergence of leaders who seek to divide rather than unite, the pursuit of political victory at all costs, and the invocation of national greatness by people who seem to possess only a warped concept of what greatness means.[and] attacks on free press justified by security, the dehumanization of others marked as a defense of virtue”
She also notes:
“It would be easier to raise the alarm against this trend if Fascism too, were not excellent in parts – at least for a time, at least for the privileged.”
The Role of the United States in the World
“In the early-morning hours of June 6, (1944) Operation Overlord, the Normandy Invasion, established five beachheads along a fiercely contested fifty-five mile stretch of the French coast. Despite a chilly northwest wind, 160,000 troops moved across the channel in a flotilla so thick with ships and boats that it seemed possible almost to walk from England to France. In the sky, more than 11,000 allied warplanes weakened enemy defenses and guarded against attacks from above.
It is in such testing moment that a country discovers its own purpose, and carves out a singular identity in the eyes of the world. … From “Give me liberty or give me death” to “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” the United States has been counted on to speak as John Quincy Adams said early on, “though often to heedless and often disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights.”
Standing to proclaim equal liberty, equal justice, and equal rights is our tradition.
This is what makes our country great.
George Orwell suggested the best one word description of a Fascist was “bully”. Our current president is a bully – one who consistently expresses delight in other leaders’ violent means of maintaining power.
Albright, like many of us, finds it shocking to hear people around the world describe the US as a threat to democracy. She claims to be an optimist who worries a lot, and believes that the US has banked enough goodwill from the time of George Washington to the time of Barack Obama to enable us to “recover from the present embarrassment”.
Importantly, relating to the definition, she notes that what makes a fascist is not dependent on any one ideology (socialism, communism, etc.), but “the willingness to use any means – including the use of force and trampling on the rights of others – to achieve victory and command obedience.” (Again Table 1.)
She reminds us that the process of slipping into fascism is so gradual as to be almost imperceptible, until one wakes up suddenly.
We must wake up. Although it is tempting to close ones eyes, democracy must be defended to survive against its enemies.
Albright ends her book with a list of questions we should ask about every prospective leader to discern their propensity for fascism:
- Do they cater to our prejudices by suggesting that we treat people outside our ethnicity, race, creed or party as unworthy of dignity and respect?
- Do they want to nurture our anger toward those who we believe have done us wrong?
- Do they encourage contempt for our governing institutions and our electorate process?
- Do they seek to destroy our faith in essential contributors to democracy such as a independent press and a professional judiciary?
- Do they exploit the symbols of patriotism to turn us against one another?
- If defeated at the election, will they accept the defeat?
- Do they brag about their ability to solve all problems, put to rest all anxieties?
- Do they speak casually and with pumped-up machismo about using violence to blow enemies away?
Let’s stay awake together. Your thoughts are welcome, as always.