The first woman U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently released a book with the alarming title: Fascism: A Warning (2018; HarperCollins). Though President Donald Trump is a looming specter throughout the book, the former secretary claims that she was already writing this book, and would have published it even if Hillary Clinton would have won the U.S. presidency in 2016. She does, however, declare in the first chapter that one reason that Americans are asking themselves existential questions such as “Why have such dangerous splits been allowed to develop between rich and poor, urban and rural, those with a higher education and those without?,” and “why, this far into the twenty-first century, are we once again talking about Fascism?” is Donald Trump. Further, she adds, “we have not had a chief executive in the modern era whose statements and actions are so at odds with democratic ideals.”
The opening chapter also attempts at defining fascism but does not do so in a very specific way. She sets the scene by relaying to the reader a discussion session that she and her Georgetown graduate students had attempting to answer the question(s) what is fascism? or what makes a fascist…well…a fascist? Albright ends up describing the characteristics of a fascist as “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 to achieve the goals he or she has.” I like the historian Robert O. Paxton’s description of fascism better. He writes that fascism is “a compound, a powerful amalgam of different but marriageable conservative, national-socialist and radical Right ingredients, bonded together by common enemies and common passions for a regenerated, energized, and puriﬁed nation at whatever cost to free institutions and the rule of law” (2004, 207) However you define it, the important part of getting a reader to really understand something is to give them concrete examples of a phenomenon.
Albright spends a good third of the book giving a sort of biography and history of the birth of twentieth-century fascism, and various pivotal characters and events leading up to, and during, World War II (WWII). She does this first in a chapter on Benito Mussolini. Mussolini rose to power in a post-World War I (WWI) Italy, a country that was part of the winning coalition yet one that felt cheated out of unheeded promises given to them by Britain and France. Socialists had power in the parliament, and Mussolini tapped into discontent and the urge, desire, and belief that Italy needed to become powerful. As Albright puts it, Mussolini “promised all things,” in a time of desperation, depression, and in the very alive memory of the last great calamity, WWI, which claimed 1.2 million Italian deaths. Next, she profiles Adolf Hitler. After being appointed chancellor Hitler convinced the parliament to pass the Enabling Law, which began the Third Reich, and, as they say, the rest is some of the darkest history of the modern era. Most of the details she offers regarding fascist Italy and Germany are common knowledge, at least for people most likely to read her book. I do love it when I come across quotes that are chilling. For Mussolini: “It is better to break the bones of the democrats…and the sooner the better;” “Often, I would like to be wrong, but so far it has never happened.” For Hitler: ” “There are . . .only two possibilities: either the victory of the Aryan side or its annihilation and the victory of the Jews.” Such blinkered narcissism and binary, black and white thinking is a devastating combination. And, to this day, we keep electing such leaders because of their charisma, and unconcern in over-promising.
She later profiles modern despots such as Chávez/Maduro in Venezuela, Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, and the recent rise of far-right illiberal parties in Hungary (under Victor Orbán) and Poland (under Jarosław Kaczyński). She also profiles North Korea; the one state that she considers truly fascist. Readers of political science and history know much of what Albright writes about, but it is a decent book for a refresher on some of the most important people, countries, and pivotal moments and events. She adds anecdotes and personal stories from her experience meeting several of the men she profiled. She calls Putin “small, and pale, and so cold as to be almost reptilian,” for example (2018, 158). She also was the first secretary of state to visit and speak with the North Korean leader, who was Kim Jung-il at the time. She mentions that President Bill Clinton, with only months to go in his second term, was planning on meeting up with the North Korean president, but instead chose to attempt to make headway regarding the Israel-Palestine situation. The former president has expressed regret that he chose the latter instead of the former.
The final section of the book is the part that she was asked about in interviews during her speaking tour: the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. It is interesting that Albright mentions a few policies of President Trump in supportive terms. “He deserves credit for preserving Crimea-related sanctions against Russia, sending arms to a beleaguered Ukraine, and managing an effective military campaign against ISIS. In December 2017, he implemented a law, the Global Magnitsky Act, that imposes penalties on individuals and entities accused of corruption and human rights violations,” writes the former secretary (2018, 220).
President Trump has continued the Middle East policies of his predecessor Barack Obama, who’s administration championed the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, a 75 country organization with multiple goals, including degrading and defeating ISIS in Syria, and Iraq. While the military campaign might be effectively campaigned, ISIS is still alive, Iran has gained an operating base in Syria, and rebuilding efforts will take trillions of dollars and nearly a decade; and that is if efforts are enacted with earnest, little graft, and if the frail peace actually becomes a sturdy peace. It is hard to give Trump credit for simply continuing what was already in motion; and the specific changes that Trump has made, such as “looser rules of engagement,” has contributed to a more than 200% increase in civilian deaths, according to AirWars. It is not surprising that Albright does not mention the serious problems with U.S. strategy but it was disappointing nonetheless.
Albright warns Americans, and her global readers alike, of this new era, one of encroaching authoritarianism. However, there is no action plan, or concrete steps offered. Instead, she offers questions we can ask ourselves regarding future leaders. I find myself asking who exactly is this book written for? And I also am reminded of better books that cover the same terrain such as How Democracies Die (2018). Young readers just getting into international affairs and American politics would find this book a helpful primer, as Albright hops around the world and provides decent profiles of important countries right now. However, more educated readers could completely ignore this release. Read The Anatomy of Fascism instead for a deep dive into the ideological and historical contingencies that produce such monstrous regimes.
References not hyperlinked:
Albright, Madeleine. 2018. Fascism: A Warning. HarperCollins: New York.
Paxton, Robert O. 2004. The Anatomy of Fascism. Alfred A. Knopf: New York.