The Former Secretary of State alerts us to the dangers America faces at this perilous moment.
Republished from Leader Joe Chuman’s Substack, Beyond Appearances.
As an avid obituary reader, I perused with interest the article in the New York Times on the life of former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who died on March 23rd at the age of 84.
I came away from the review of Albright’s life and accomplishments with the impression that she was a person of prodigious substance and ability. Madeleine Albright was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, a place and time rich in history. In addition to English, she spoke Czech, Polish, French, and Russian. Madeleine Albright held a doctorate in international affairs from Columbia University, having studied under Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. She taught at Georgetown and was a director of the Council of Foreign Relations.
Albright was arguably born into a career on the international scene. Her father, Josef Korbel, was a high-ranking Czech diplomat and, having emigrated to the United States, became a professor of international politics at the University of Denver, where he served as a mentor to Condoleeza Rice. Born just before World War II, Albright fled with her family to England, returned to Czechoslovakia, and fled again when their homeland fell to Communism, before coming to America.
One surveys Albright’s life story with the impression that she was not only keenly intelligent, but also highly educated in academia, as well as by personal experience drenched in historical events. Albright was a model of independence and accomplishment and did not have to expound feminist ideology to admirably exemplify a strong, self-confident, and independent woman.
Albright authored five books. Fascism: A Warning, published in 2018, is the last. Clearly, the election of Donald Trump was an inspiration for writing the book. But while strongly supporting Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, she asserted that she would have written the book anyway had Donald Trump not become president, wanting to lend momentum to democracy during the first term of a Clinton presidency. Yet she states, nevertheless, that Trump’s victory gave her a sense of urgency.
In my view, the most striking aspect of the former secretary of state writing a book warning of the dangers of Fascism is the fact that she chose to write it. As such, it takes its place among a long list of volumes sounding the alarm about the emergence of Fascism, the demise of democracy, and the rise of authoritarianism in the current moment.
While citing urgency as a motive for writing the book, I scanned the pages with the sense that her warning is not urgent enough. The text suffers from a lack of tight organization and the voice of the author often sounds desultory and diffuse. Fascism is part history, weak on theory, while sprinkled with interesting tidbits from Albright’s biography. But the urgency is lost in a tone of academic distance, and to a great extent is lacking in academic or theoretical rigor.
For example, even Albright’s definition of Fascism seems overly broad and somewhat vague. It is an extreme form of authoritarianism to be sure, but it is not clear what conceptually defines it. Noting that there can be Fascism emanating from the political left as well as the right, the closest she comes is as follows:
“…Fascism should be viewed less as a political ideology than as a means for seizing and holding power.”
“Fascism…is an extreme form of authoritarian rule. Citizens are required to do exactly what leaders say they must do, nothing more, nothing less. The doctrine is linked to rabid nationalism. It also turns the traditional social contract upside down. Instead of citizens giving power to the state in exchange for protection of their rights, power begins with the leader, and the people have no rights. Under Fascism, the mission of citizens is to serve; the government’s job is to rule.”
Or, “I am drawn again to my conclusion that a Fascist is someone who claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is utterly unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use violence and whatever other means are necessary to achieve the goals he or she might have.”
True enough. Fascism is a species of authoritarianism, but it is not clear from Albright’s rendition what makes Fascism distinctive as a manifestation of authoritarianism.
This wide interpretation opens the door to a survey of history’s bad actors, but how they are ideologically similar beyond a yen for power and dismissal of democratic norms is not clear. Within her study, she places in the same tent Mussolini and Hitler, but also Joseph McCarthy and such contemporary figures as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Roberto Duterte of the Philippines as well as Kim Jong-il, and the contemporary Korean ruler Kim Jong-On. While Mussolini and Hitler are the prototypical Fascists, and we can readily place the Kims with them, is it theoretically coherent to locate Joseph McCarthy in the same camp as Chavez and Duterte. No doubt, they are all tyrannical and power-hungry. But Fascism relates to a political system that goes beyond personalities.
Albright’s thesis would most helpful if she could clarify the common political, social, and economic conditions that enable Fascist leaders to assume the helms of state. Assuredly in reviewing the historical accession to power of each of her protagonists, she discusses the context of their emergence. But systemic similarities are not sufficiently clear by which to draw confident lessons that can pertain to the current moment.
What seems broadly true is that Fascist leadership fills a vacuum created by political and economic instability. So it was with Benito Mussolini, the archetypal Fascist, who organized his own squads of armed men to wrest power from a Socialist parliament with the help of Italy’s powerless king, Viktor Emmanuel. Hitler and Nazism arose out of the losses and humiliation following the German defeat in the First World War. As Albright notes:
“…the silencing of guns had been accompanied by the dishonor of surrender and so, also, the victors’ demand for blood money, the loss of territory, and the dissolution of the territorial regime. To Hitler and many other soldiers, this startling and humiliating outcome was not something they could accept. The war had reduced the ranks of German men between the ages of nineteen and twenty-two by a number of 35 percent. The fighting and economic deprivation had pulverized the nation. In the minds of enraged survivors, the cause of their disgrace had nothing to do with events on the battlefield: Germany had been betrayed, they told themselves, by a treasonous cabal of greedy bureaucrats, Bolsheviks, bankers and Jews.”
After a series of elections in which the Nazis failed to win a majority, but fearing the communists, the aging president, Paul von Hindenburg gave the keys of power to Hitler, as Viktor Emmanuel did with Mussolini a decade earlier. As Albright notes, Hitler and the Nazis went on to amass power via a political blitzkrieg, destroying what remained of German democracy. This he did by sending out thugs to brutalize opponents and sending them off to newly formed concentration camps, taking over the unions, banning Jews from the professions, barring unsympathetic journalists, and consolidating police functions under a new organization, the Gestapo.
It is important to know, as Albright reminds us, that Nazism had its allies in the United States. Fritz Kuhn, a chemical engineer and German immigrant, organized the German American Bund in 1936, which championed a Nazi victory in Europe. Its high water mark was a rally at Madison Square Garden in February 1939. Twenty thousand attended to shouts of “Seig Heil” while Kuhn mocked FDR as President Frank D. “Rosenfeld” and his “Jew Deal.”
Albright includes a chapter on Stalin. While Fascism and Communism viewed the other as enemies, and each augmented its legitimacy through calumniating the other, Albright’s definition of Fascism is sufficiently broad to include Communism within its fold. While delineating their marked differences – Nazism was obsessed with race and nationality and Communism with class – both consolidated power in the state, sought to shape the minds of citizens through relentless propaganda, and employed violence and murder at monumental scales. Both were utopian schemes that sought to create “a new man.” This is sufficient to identify Communism as a species of Fascism. Despite discussing Stalin at length, for reasons unexplained, Albright does not include a word about Mao, who one might conclude fits into the same broad political parameters as other major purveyors of violent tyranny.
Nothing here is new and one can ask whether an understanding of history is best served by so closely bringing Nazism and Communism together under the rubric of Fascism.
Albright’s treatise is most valuable when discussing more recent figures who are shaping our contemporary political landscape. There is a chapter devoted to Putin, but I found the sections on Recep Erdogan of Turkey and Viktor Orban of Hungry to be most instructive. Erdogan’s assault on Ataturk’s secular legacy, his increasing Islamicization of Turkish society, which has resulted in the condemning of the LGBT community, and sending women back to traditional roles as mothers and into the home, holds out little promise of a democratic future for Turkey.
Viktor Orban’s Hungary represents the autocratic state of greatest consequence to the United States in that Orban’s “illiberal democracy” is a projected bellwether for the type of government that the Trumpist camp would like to see America become. Orban has hollowed out the Hungarian parliament. He has made the judiciary subservient to the executive and he has roped in journalists who are critical of the regime. He is also championing Hungary as a Christian society while barring immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. He attacks the European Union, a common trope of right-wing nationalists. And he is not beyond conspiracy-mongering, using George Soros as a scapegoat, and making moves toward antisemitism. One finds a direct line to Trump’s proto-Fascism, and, as mentioned, Orban has become a darling of ultra-conservatives and Trump’s acolytes in the United States.
Trump bookends Albright’s thesis. In many ways, Albright gets it right. She is on target in asserting that Trump is a demagogue. She points to his mendacity, his undermining of democratic institutions, his railing at “fake news,” his attacks on the FBI, and his claims of rigged elections.
It is no surprise that Albright extends much of her critique to Trump’s foreign relations. She critically notes the renunciation of the Paris climate agreement, his badmouthing of the Iranian nuclear deal, squandering resources on the Mexico wall, and other destructive acts of folly.
But she is most concerned with the diminution of America’s standing in the world, especially in the eyes of our allies. She notes:
“… the presidency has been painful to watch. I find it shocking to cross the Atlantic and hear America described as a threat to democratic institutions and values. A month after Trump’s inauguration, the head of the European Council listed four dangers to the EU: Russia, terrorism, China, and the United States. In the wake of one Trump visit, an exasperated Angela Merkel said, ‘The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over.’ Since early 2017, surveys show a marked decline in respect for the United States.”
She rightly points to Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, noting how this recapitulates the 1940 America First Committee that brought together Nazi sympathizers to try to halt the nation’s entry into World War II. Albright states that the America First Committee claimed 800,000 members and had the active support of Charles Lindbergh, who made antisemitic allegations of Jewish influence pushing the United States into conflict.
Albright appropriately concludes that Donald Trump is setting the stage for Fascism, and she is rightly worried. She ends her book by saying,
“Some may view this book and its title as alarmist. Good. We should be awake to the assault on democratic values. That has gathered strength in many countries abroad and that is dividing America at home. The temptation is powerful to close our eyes and wait for the worst to pass, but history tells us that for freedom to survive it must be defended, and if lies are to stop, they must be exposed.”
This is assuredly true, and Madeleine Albright’s admonitions are essential. Yet I leave her text having wanted more. Her tone is reminiscent of mainline news reporting early in Trump’s term. Then Trump was seen through the lens of a political actor whose policies were worthy of rational critique. Missing then, and missing in Albright’s treatise, is a strident and militant assertion of how Trump is not merely a political actor with an extreme agenda. He is a malignant narcissist and sociopath, whose policies are outside the domain of rational or normative assessment. Lacking also in her critique is an appreciation of Trump’s penchant for violence: his fomenting conflict at rallies, his support for white supremacists and haters, and most significantly his egging on armed insurrectionists to attack the Capitol, even failing to protect his vice-president when threatened with murder.
Had Madeleine Albright survived a few months longer to have witnessed the select committee’s hearing on the January 6th insurrection, she might have tightened her critique of Trump, the man and his madness. I read Fascism: A Warning, wanting to avail myself of the insights of a learned insider whose career has been devoted to formulating and executing policy at the highest levels. Yet being an insider may not be the most advantageous perspective to hold, as war may be too important to be left to the generals.