Within a decade or so, no Americans with first-hand recollections of fascism will be around. Unless, that is, Madeleine Albright’s worst fears are realized.
The former UN ambassador and U.S. Secretary of State spent her entire life collecting string for her latest book, “Fascism: A Warning.”
Born in 1937 in Czechoslovakia, she became victim, refugee, close observer, high-level diplomatic participant and philosopher-teacher during 80 years in which fascism took civilization to the edge of self-destruction, faded for a few decades and now seems to be running just under the surface of a worldwide spasm of ultra-nationalist, undemocratic sentiment.
Assuming that Hillary Clinton would be elected in 2016, Albright began tying together the strings of her life for her sixth book. Her original objective was “lending momentum to democracy” against the 21st Century’s troubling illiberal tides in other countries.
But Donald Trump’s surprising election, she writes, brought “a new sense of urgency” to her task. The resulting cautionary tale is not, however, about left wing versus right wing, liberal versus conservative, Republican versus Democrat or Trump versus Clinton.
Rather, it is precisely what the subtitle announces: a warning that many countries, including America under Trump, show symptoms of a revival of fascism as it has classically been defined and tragically demonstrated: leadership that “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 its goals.
Discussing the dynamics of fascism with one of her Georgetown University classes, she asked whether a fascist movement could establish a significant foothold in the U.S. The immediate response from one student was, “Yes, it can. Why? Because we’re so sure it can’t.”
Albright reminds us that most of the modern world’s fascist dictators were elected by their people — Mussolini and Hitler, for example — and their first steps are to undermine the authority of competing power centers such as legislatures, the courts, news media and non-governmental institutions.
Fascist regimes operate on depressingly predictable themes and emotions. Albright’s meticulous — and first-hand — analyses of authoritarian regimes suggest questions that we need to be asking ourselves in order to discern “ … what our prospective leaders believe it worthwhile for us to hear.”
Among the questions she suggests:
“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 us to nurture our anger towards those who we believe have done us wrong, rub raw our grievances, and set our sights on revenge?
“Do they encourage us to have contempt for our governing institutions and the electoral process?
“Do they seek to destroy our faith in essential contributors to democracy such as an independent press and a professional judiciary?
“Do they exploit the symbols of patriotism — the flag, the pledge — in a conscious effort to turn us against one another?
“If defeated at the polls, will they accept the verdict or insist without evidence that they have won?
“Do they go beyond asking for our votes to brag about their ability to solve all problems, put to rest anxieties, and satisfy every desire?
“Do they solicit our cheers by speaking casually and with pumped up machismo about using violence to blow enemies away?”
The answers, she concludes, “will not tell us whether a prospective leader is left- or right-wing, conservative or liberal … Democrat or Republican. However they will tell us much about … those wanting to lead us and much, also, about ourselves. For those who cherish freedom, the answers will provide grounds for reassurance or a warning we dare not ignore.”
Consider yourself warned. Must a new generation learn of fascism the hard way?
Davis Merritt, Wichita journalist and author, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.