Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, was born into a totalitarian age. She was only a toddler when she and her parents, who were of Jewish descent but later converted to Catholicism, fled Czechoslovakia after Hitler’s invasion in 1939. They returned following the war, but fled again in the wake of the communist coup in 1948.
Her father, the diplomat Josef Korbel, sought asylum for the family in the United States, writing in a letter to a U.S. official that if they returned home he’d be arrested “for my faithful adherence to the ideals of democracy.” America took them in as refugees. Korbel became an eminent foreign policy scholar, and in 1997 President Bill Clinton made Albright the country’s chief diplomat, the first woman to hold that position.
At the time, the Cold War was over and the great ideological battles of the 20th century appeared settled. Liberal democracy was ascendant, and Albright’s adopted country was its most powerful champion. The arc of her life seemed to coincide with a global evolution from widespread tyranny toward expanding freedom.
So it is sad and jarring that Albright, now 80, has just published a book with the stark title “Fascism: A Warning.” The book is not just a warning about President Donald Trump; Albright is concerned with the eclipse of liberal democracy all over the world and told me in a recent interview that she had planned to write on the subject before Trump’s election. But the president looms over her project. “If we think of fascism as a wound from the past that had almost healed, putting Trump in the White House was like ripping off the bandage and picking at the scab,” she writes.
The mere fact of this book would be astonishing, if Trump hadn’t pulverized our capacity for astonishment. Albright has long been an optimistic exponent of American exceptionalism, a consummate establishment figure not given to alarmist diatribes. It should be shocking that she feels the need to warn us not just about fascism abroad, but also at home.
In January, Freedom House, an international democracy watchdog, reported that 71 countries suffered declines in political rights and civil liberties last year, while only 35 saw improvements. Rather than standing against this trend, America under Trump has become part of it. As Freedom House concluded, “A major development of 2017 was the retreat of the United States as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy.”
Albright is not accusing Trump of being a full-blown fascist. He has yet to resort to extrajudicial violence – except, of course, for encouraging his acolytes to beat up protesters at rallies – and his efforts to undermine the rule of law have had only mixed success, in part due to his own fecklessness.
But Trump is, Albright told me, “the most undemocratic president” in America’s modern history. He empowers authoritarianism globally and is in turn empowered by the international growth of right-wing populism. As she writes in her book: “The herd mentality is powerful in international affairs. Leaders around the globe observe, learn from, and mimic one another.”
The historian Roger Griffin once described the core vision of fascism as “the national community rising Phoenix-like after a period of encroaching decadence which all but destroyed it.” (His italics.) Albright’s definition is broader than most academic taxonomies; she tends to use “fascism” as a synonym for authoritarianism.
Her book includes Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, but also Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, who was succeeded after his death by his son Kim Jong Un. Except for Mussolini, she has met all these men. “What they do have in common,” she said, “is this assumption, or decision, that they embody the spirit of the nation and that they have the answers and that their instincts are good, that they are smarter than everybody else and can do things by themselves.”
Trump conflates himself and the state in just this way. Many of the details in Albright’s pocket histories of various dictators are similarly familiar. Before reading it, I hadn’t realized that Mussolini had promised to “drenare la palude,” or “drain the swamp,” and that his crowds jeered and booed clusters of reporters at his rallies. (Nor did I know that Mussolini, like Trump, thought it unsanitary to shake hands.) Of Chávez, Albright writes, his “communications strategy was to light rhetorical fireworks and toss them in all directions.” He gloried in dominating the media, “boasting about his accomplishments and deriding – in the crudest terms – real and suspected foes.” (Many of his followers, incidentally, wore red baseball caps.)
The book’s echoes of the present are intentional. “One of my editors said, ‘Make the reader work for it,’” Albright said. “So you can kind of see the various steps.”
I asked Albright how she avoids despair, seeing the authoritarianism that marked her childhood now sweep the globe in her old age. “It’s something that I really do think I learned from my parents,” she said. “You have to make a way of dealing with the problems that are out there in order to avoid despair, and not just be an observer of it. And realize that we all have a role.” Her role right now is to speak out, with whatever authority her history and career confer.
Albright is well known for her collection of brooches, which she uses like shiny emojis to send subtle diplomatic messages and make wry jokes. (The Smithsonian once did an exhibition of them.) In 1999, she found out that Russia had bugged a conference room near her State Department office; at her next meeting with Russian diplomats, she wore an insect pin. When I spoke to her, she was wearing a silver brooch of a winged figure. I asked her what it was. “It is Mercury,” she said. “The messenger.”