Fascism – Some Warnings

With an alarming number of countries currently led by anti-democratic strongmen and a U.S. president who routinely shows contempt for democratic values, the question for many Americans is: Could fascism happen here? Conventional wisdom says no. Our democratic institutions are too strong, the argument goes, and our tradition of popular resistance has been re-awakened during the Trump presidency.

Perhaps it’s time to think again. Or at least to read Madeleine Albright’s urgent and persuasive new book, Fascism: A Warning. The 64th secretary of state (and first woman to occupy the position) draws on her personal experiences to explain why Americans in the Trump era shouldn’t be lulled into a false confidence that the United States is immune to a disturbing worldwide trend. Albright knows the danger signs that totalitarianism presents. While still a child, her family was twice driven from its home in Czechoslovakia, first by the Nazis, then after World War II by an aggressive Communist regime. In 1948, Albright came to the United States as a refugee. While raising three daughters, she entered public service and became one of the leading voices in shaping U.S. foreign policy. As America’s ambassador to the United Nations and later as secretary of state, she engaged regularly with dictators and autocrats. After leaving government, she became chair of the National Democratic Institute, where she continues to fight for freedom, human rights, and the rule of law.

In Fascism: A Warning, Albright examines the tactics used by such past despots as Mussolini and Hitler and considers their influence on current authoritarian figures, including Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdoğan, and Hungary’s Orbán. These examples show how demagogic leaders can exploit the fears that people have in times of economic insecurity and rapid technological and social change.  

Most worrisome in Albright’s analysis is that fascism doesn’t always look the same. It can appear in many guises, take hold gradually, and go virtually unnoticed while democratic institutions are undermined and popular divisions grow. Is that what’s happening here?

Albright devotes a chapter to America’s current president, including his frequently expressed disdain for democratic institutions and the rule of law. She also notes Trump’s penchant for spectacle (another trait shared by fascists and strongmen) and his fascination with bullies around the world—Duterte in the Philippines, el-Sisi in Egypt, various actors in Europe, and even China’s Xi Jinping (who just managed to make himself president for life). She concludes, not surprisingly, that Trump is the most anti-democratic president in modern American history. And she makes clear that Americans need to be on guard. It’s a stern and timely warning from one of our nation’s wisest and most respected leaders.

Her concerns are shared by Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian who specializes in Central and Eastern Europe and who, like Albright, sees disturbing parallels between what happened there in the previous century and what is happening now. Snyder’s bestselling book last year, On Tyranny, highlighted 20 lessons from the earlier rise of authoritarian regimes in Europe and cautioned against complacency now. In his new book, The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder traces the roots and path of the recent resurgence of authoritarianism, from Russia through Ukraine and Europe to the United States.

Snyder spoke to a packed and riveted crowd at Politics and Prose earlier this month. (A video of his talk can be viewed here.) A P&P event with Albright and co-sponsored with The Atlantic and Sixth & I Synagogue on April 16 is sold out. It will be live-streamed on The Atlantic’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AtlanticLIVE/.

--Brad and Lissa