Madeleine Albright knows from totalitarian regimes.
The future UN ambassador and secretary of state was only a toddler when Nazi storm troopers invaded her native Czechoslovakia, forcing her family to flee to London. Then, having resettled back home after the war, the family was forced to flee again when the Communists took control of the country.
So Albright’s new book, Fascism: A Warning, is the work of a woman who knows authoritarianism when she sees it. And she sees the seeds of it not only in a slew of leaders hell bent on subverting democratic norms—Turkey’s Erdoğan, Venezuela’s Maduro, Hungary’s Orbán, and others—but also in Donald Trump, whom she calls in the book “the first antidemocratic president in modern U.S. history. On too many days, beginning at dawn, he exhibits his disdain for democratic institutions, the ideals of equality and social justice, civil discourse, civic virtues, and America itself.”
Don’t misunderstand Albright. “I do not call Trump a fascist,” she said in an interview with The Daily Beast. But ever since she wrote the book, Albright says POTUS has gone “beyond what I thought was possible in terms of disrespect for the rule of law, that nobody is above the law.”
Trump may be the reason Albright decided to write Fascism, but the book’s subjects range far beyond the orange-haired one. Essentially a history of 20th century fascism and authoritarianism, the work opens by discussing the original goose-stepping bad boys, Hitler and Mussolini, and how they came to power, thanks to a combination of rising nationalism, technology driven angst and revulsion at governments that appeared corrupt.
Sound a bit familiar? Albright told The Daily Beast that when it comes to similarities between the ’30s and today, “In the United States there are people who are feeling left out economically. Also, there’s the sense that America is better off not being involved in international relations, that people around the world haven’t appreciated America enough.”
Fascism is particularly valuable for its analysis of how democratic regimes can slowly descend into authoritarianism and then fascism. “The tipping point is when there has been a systematic attempt to undermine the rule of law, to have the judiciary be a proponent of one point of view,” she said in the interview. “Also, when freedom of the press is subverted, and there is a sense that all the vehicles of information are identified with the leader and his policies. The absolute tipping point [toward fascism] is violence, when the military is being used to control people.”
Given these parameters, probably the only truly fascist regime in existence is Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, although Albright identifies plenty of authoritarian governments—Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, Hungary—that are close to the tipping point, and other countries—Germany, France, Poland, Greece—where extreme right-wing parties are gaining increasing influence.
“The interesting regimes to watch are those who have just had their elections,” said Albright, who pointed to Russia and Hungary as countries where re-elected autocrats might take steps to further subvert democracy.
Here in the U.S., Albright, who describes herself in the book as “an optimist who worries a lot,” describes a whole checklist of Trumpian horrors. He likes strongmen. He speaks with scorn about U.S. institutions. His analysis of events is full of exaggerations unsupported by facts, which are designed to exploit insecurities and stir up resentment (Think: Mexicans as rapists). He threatens to lock up political rivals, denigrates the press, nurtures bigotry toward Islam.
Even more frightening, the book draws distinct parallels between Trump and Hitler (the powers-that-be underestimated both men initially, thought they were in over their heads), Trump and Mussolini (a belief in their own infallibility, a poor judge of individuals) and Trump and Sen. Joseph McCarthy (political leaders uncomfortable with their bullying tactics but afraid to call their bluff).
Not that there hasn’t been a little bit of a learning curve since Trump was elected. “As far as North Korea is concerned, he has begun to understand the importance of diplomacy,” said Albright. But with the hollowing out of the State Department under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, “we don’t have a lot of diplomats,” she said, “and any meeting like this involves a lot of preparation.”
Plus, when it comes to brand new national security adviser and super hawk John Bolton, Albright isn’t really all that sanguine about the foreign relations situation. “I am very nervous about Bolton,” she said. “If you look at what he has said in the past, it makes me very nervous. He is a hard-liner and doctrinaire in a job that requires collegiality.”
Albright admitted that like many people, she is dumbfounded that given his failures, GOP leaders have not denounced Trump. “I don’t know why,” she said, “I’ve been surprised they haven’t. When they look at the cliff they are about to go over in the midterms, well, I am fascinated by the number of retirements taking place.”
She also seems perplexed by the total commitment of the president’s supporters. “I try very hard to be careful about not denigrating those who voted for Trump,” she said. “Is it that they are enamored of reality TV? It’s entertaining, it’s something outrageous.”
But she does see some slight movement away from total support, and it all has to do with the pocketbook. “What I find interesting is the Chinese trade aspect,” she said. “You are now seeing these ads by farmers who see they are going to be hurt by the tariffs. When they see a policy that has unintended consequences, it becomes a matter to what extent they are being hurt.”
This slight bit of optimism comes when American democracy is definitely at a crossroads. For the first time ever, the Democracy Index published by The Economist lists the U.S. as a “flawed democracy,” and nearly one in five Americans (and 23 percent of Republicans) believe military rule would be good for the country. Albright’s book discusses how lies spread on phony websites and Facebook, conspiracy theories, false science, and the coarsening of political discourse all play a role in a lack of faith in our most basic institutions.
“When social media began, I thought it was democratizing,” said Albright, “it would give people access to information. But what has happened is we now see some of the problems, everyone gets their information in their own way, and it becomes an echo chamber. It kind of works against creating functional political parties.”
Still, she remains that worrier who is optimistic. On a scale of one to ten, she said she is “in the ten point optimist category, but I am worried in the seven to eight point category, because of the coming together of a whole set of issues. Clearly what’s going on internationally is worrying, and the fact that every hour we are getting some kind of information that President Trump thinks he is above the law.
“But I do believe in the resiliency of democracy.”