Fascism: a warning from Madeleine Albright

A seasoned US diplomat is not someone you’d expect to write a book with the ominous title Fascism: A Warning.

But that is what Madeleine Albright, who served as the first female secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, has done — and it’s not a reassuring read. In it, she sounds the alarm about the erosion of liberal democracy, both in the US and across the world, and the rise of what she describes as a “fascist threat.”

And yes, she talks about President Donald Trump.

Which isn’t to say that Albright believes Trump is a fascist — that’s not a claim she makes in the book — but she clearly sees Trump as a manifestation of a deeper trend sweeping the globe.

I spoke to Albright about that trend, why she fears the world is inching closer and closer to a genuine political crisis, and why, even though Trump exhibits so many of the characteristics of fascism she describes, she still isn’t willing to label him a fascist — at least not yet.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

When you use the term “fascism,” what exactly do you mean?

Madeleine Albright

Well, first of all, I’m troubled by how thoughtlessly people throw around that term. At this point, anybody who disagrees with us is a fascist.

In the book, I try to argue that fascism is not an ideology; it’s a process for taking and holding power. A fascist is somebody who identifies with one group — usually an aggrieved majority — in opposition to a smaller group. It’s about majority rule without any minority rights. Which is why fascists tend to single out the smaller group as being responsible for or the cause of their grievances.

The important thing is that fascists aren’t actually trying to solve problems; they’re invested in exacerbating problems and deepening the divisions that result from them. They reject the free press and denounce the institutional structures within a society — like Congress or the judiciary.

I’d also add that violence is a crucial element of fascism. Whatever else it is, fascism involves the endorsement and use of violence to achieve political goals and stay in power. It’s a bully with an army, really.

Sean Illing

How do you distinguish between populism and reactionary conservatism on the one hand and actual fascism on the other? The lines, as far as I can tell, are awfully thin.

Madeleine Albright

Well, I don’t take populism as a bad thing. I really make a point of that because, actually, you need people for a democracy, you need popular support to get things done.

I think what differentiates fascism from other ideological movements is the use of violence and anger to achieve political ends. What you almost always see in fascist regimes is propaganda being used to set people against each other without any potential solutions to any of the problems.

Fascism is always, in the end, about stirring people up and giving them someone to hate.

Sean Illing

You say that fascism is ascendant right now. Why do you think that is?

Madeleine Albright

A lot of reasons. Most of us were looking toward a system that had been established after World War II — democratic governments, a globalized economy that would gradually bring the world together — and thought it was remarkably stable.

But the situation has gotten more complicated. A lot of people have benefited from globalization, but it has huge downsides. It’s faceless, and people want to know their identity, want to be connected to some religious or ethnic or national group.

Identity is fine, but if my identity makes me hate your identity, then it becomes very dangerous and it falls into hypernationalism. Suddenly, groups are pitted against each other or scapegoated and all of political life becomes tribalized conflict. And we can see this happening in a number of places. Viktor Orbán’s embrace of ethnic purity in Hungary is a good example of this.

The other major factor is technology, which has incredible advantages, but it’s also desegregated voices and made it harder to take political action because individuals are sucked into echo chambers. Weirdly enough, this has managed to make us more tribal and more fragmented at the same time.

So there are just a lot of forces coming together and creating an atmosphere of anger, and people have no idea what the solutions are, or if there are any solutions. Then some strongman comes along and says, “I have the answers, I can fix everything.” And this is when you get fascism.

Sean Illing

We’re dancing around a giant elephant right now, so I’ll just address it: In the book, you call Donald Trump “the most undemocratic president” in modern American history. But you very explicitly do not call him a fascist. Why not?

Madeleine Albright

You’re right, I don’t call him a fascist. He’s certainly anti-democratic, and I say so in the book, but I don’t call him a fascist because he isn’t violent. If he ends up declaring an emergency at the border over immigration, then I might change my position. There’s a long history of fascists using “emergencies” to create fear and conflict, so that’s a potential red line. If Trump does that, then he really is a bully with an army.

But I do think his approach to the free press, to democratic institutions, to the independent judiciary, is extremely dangerous and anti-democratic. And his general disdain for the rule of law is genuinely alarming.

Sean Illing

I have to push back here, because I think you’re wrong on the point about violence. In addition to denouncing the free press, in addition to threatening to jail political opponents, in addition to undermining rule of law, Trump has actually incited political violence at his rallies, and he’s created an atmosphere in which violence is far more likely.

It seems to me he’s checked nearly all the fascist boxes.

Madeleine Albright

I’ll tell you where the line gets crossed. If Trump actually uses the military to deploy or incite violence, that’s when all bets are off. I’m very careful about who I call a fascist because I really do believe this is where the line is.

Kim Jong Un, for example, is pretty obviously a fascist by my definition. He puts people into labor camps, starves them, uses his own military to execute political enemies. Other leaders, like Hungary’s Orbán, have fascistic tendencies, but I’m not sure they’ve totally crossed this line yet.

Sean Illing

I worry about the trends you’re describing becoming a wave. Authoritarian leaders have a way of learning from one another in real time, which can create an anti-democratic spiral. Is that what you’re seeing?

Madeleine Albright

Absolutely. No question about that. There’s a kind of brotherhood of undemocratic leaders, and you can see it in the flattery they give to each other. I just read that Secretary [of State] Mike Pompeo is going to Hungary and Poland soon, and I’m really interested to see what he’s going to do and say there. It will be very telling.

But are we witnessing an anti-democratic spiral? I think so. Some people have said my book is alarmist, and my response is always, “It’s supposed to be.” We ought to be alarmed by what’s happening. Demagogic leaders are taking advantage of all these various factors and using it to divide people further. We should absolutely be alarmed by that.

President Donald Trump speaks during a rally on border security at the El Paso County Coliseum on February 11, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. 
President Donald Trump speaks during a rally on border security at the El Paso County Coliseum on February 11, 2019, in El Paso, Texas.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Sean Illing

America isn’t a fascist country, and I know you stopped short of calling Donald Trump a fascist president, but is it fair to say that the US is facilitating this global fascistic shift?

Madeleine Albright

Well, that is certainly the sense I get. America is not an example of a good democracy right now, and that’s a problem. We’re not the leader I think we used to be.

Trump’s rather peculiar relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin is especially troubling. I mean, Trump is hiding the details of these conversations from his own administration, so we have no idea what they’re talking about.

But Putin is a former KGB officer, and he knows how to use propaganda. He actually has a plan in terms of extending the influence of Russia, as he’s been doing in the Middle East, and then undermining our allies through the militarization of information in Central and Eastern Europe and screwing up their elections.

So when Trump panders to Putin and talks about leaving NATO and questions whether our allies are fulfilling their responsibilities, it’s a gift to Putin and a blow to democracy everywhere. There seems to be a brotherhood-of-autocrats relationship between them, and it’s very alarming.

Sean Illing

How confident are you that America is experiencing just an anti-democratic moment and not an anti-democratic trend?

Madeleine Albright

You know, I’m actually out on a book tour right now, and every place I go, the venue is packed. I don’t say that to be self-serving at all. What I mean is that people are interested in trying to figure out what’s going on, and they have a clear sense that something is wrong and are looking for answers. I take that as a sign that citizens are engaging and that there will be lots of discussions and questioning about where we’re headed and where we need to go.

Democracy is resilient, but it’s also fragile and it’s a constant struggle to get it right. But yeah, I think this is a moment more than a trend, and the last elections and all the energy out there speaks to that.

People always ask me if I’m an optimist or a pessimist about all this, and I say, “I’m an optimist who worries a lot.” My worry is the reason I wrote the book. And to be honest, I was going to write this book no matter who got elected because I could see all these divisions and problems long before Trump took office.

Sean Illing

Fascism has always been a latent force in American politics, going back at least a century. My sense is that Trump has uncorked this force and let it loose in the body politic in a way that can’t be contained.

Am I being too pessimistic?

Madeleine Albright

You’re right that fascism has been here, but it’s been put down before. We’ve gone through some pretty weird periods. But I think the issue we’ve got to get our head and hands around right now is what’s going on in the media.

I’m troubled by the fact that there is almost an addiction to constantly covering and commenting on the tweets and the divisive acts of the president. We really do need a press that refuses to treat politics as though it were a reality show, which is what Trump wants and thrives on.

Sean Illing

What would you encourage citizens to do?

Madeleine Albright

Run for office, or support those who do. Get involved in your community. Talk to people with whom you disagree. We have to reengage with each other and our democracy, and that means having civilized discussions with our fellow citizens.

This happens to be the anniversary of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Those kids that went out there and demonstrated and organized and rallied are an example for all of us, and I think we should all be supportive of that kind of civic engagement.

I’m a professor, and I know that my students are community-oriented and service-oriented and are looking for ways to participate. I would encourage young people to do everything they can. I don’t want us to fall into the trap of thinking anything is inevitable.

I think we have to call it out, and that’s what I’m going to do.

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