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The Good Old Days

Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning is full of criticism of Trump — but it’s silent on the swamp from which he emerged.

Former secretaries of state (L-R) Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, and Hillary Clinton participate in the ceremonial groundbreaking of the future US Diplomacy Center at the State Department's Harry S. Truman Building September 3, 2014 in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Madeleine Albright was not yet two years old when Nazi Germany invaded her native Czechoslovakia. Forced to flee to England with her parents, she watched as Adolf Hitler’s bombers rained terror on the streets of London. From a Jewish family, she later learned that three of her grandparents had been killed in the Holocaust.

Albright’s new book, Fascism: A Warning, begins by tying this highly personal experience to democracy’s current malaise. Albright argues that the historical examples of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy illustrate the danger of democracy’s gradual erosion, ultimately leading to dictatorship, war, and chaos.

The former secretary of state is impatient with complacency about the health of US institutions. The risk she highlights most centrally is that, as in past European history, liberals and conservatives will fail to respond to a buildup of attacks on the rule of law. But what her anti-Trump polemic tends to overlook are the dangers that lie outside the Oval Office.

While Albright grounds her narrative in foreign examples, the book not only has little to say about the historical roots of an indigenous, American fascism; astonishingly, it entirely omits any reference to racism and white supremacy, the swamp in which the far right is growing today.

Racism

Albright has made clear in repeated interviews that her book is intended as a response to the rise of Trumpism. In her argument, if Trump is not “fascist,” what he’s doing at least looks something like what Benito Mussolini called “plucking a chicken one feather at a time” — that is, gradually chipping away at democracy.

Insofar as Trump’s rise has produced a real change, it’s most notable in the relationship between the leader and his reactionary base: he has taken aim at GOP elites while explicitly exploiting white resentment to electoral ends and feeding a climate in which far-right and even explicitly fascist movements have grown.

This did not come from nowhere. Advances in anti-racist politics, and even the Obama presidency, have produced a backlash from groups who now feel a sense of decline. The crisis of white supremacy combines with economic malaise and a sense of emasculation to produce a toxic radicalization of the Right.

Fascism is something more than militant racism. And yet it’s hard to imagine without this particular element, with its drive to forge a ”national community” excluding outsiders and “disloyal” elements. In the US, white supremacy is the key glue of the militant far right, crossing other class or religious divides.

Racial backlash has been central to far-right organization since the Civil War. It has taken various forms, from the KKK to the Dixiecrats or the militia movement. This is, in all these cases, very much an American history. Yet in Albright’s account, the radical resentment expressed by Trump appears somehow unprecedented.

We get a sense of this whitewashing of America’s past in the book’s first chapter, when Albright describes her own arrival in New York City in 1948. Forced out of her homeland first by the Nazis and then (after briefly returning to Czechoslovakia) the Communists, her family set out in search of a land of freedom and tolerance.

Albright has every reason to celebrate this experience. As in so many Ellis Island narratives, she speaks of how the Statue of Liberty appeared as a beacon to her family, unwelcome in their own homeland. She notes that while her “chauvinism” may seem “unsophisticated: today, she is “proud to be an American.”

Albright does briefly appear to put this picture in doubt, when she warns against romanticizing the postwar years as a “time of sky-blue innocence when everyone agreed that America was great.” This seems to portend a discussion of the dark clouds that still hung over US society, including its entrenched racial conflicts.

After all, fresh from the war against European fascism, America was a land of liberty for only some. Jim Crow ruled the South, and even the US army, which had just helped defeat the Nazis, was a hotbed of racial segregation. Here as elsewhere, the antifascist war had only partly undercut white supremacy.

Yet none of this is apparent in Albright’s account. Having noted the clouds over the postwar US, she immediately pivots to a discussion of Russia. The stain on the American idyll came from abroad — the Soviet nuclear threat — producing “an unceasing anxiety in which the lingering shadow of Fascism was darkened by another kind of cloud.”

Extremism

This sets up the fundamental analytical structure of the book, in which fascism appears simply as part of a generic “extremism” — including the Eastern Bloc countries, as well as modern Venezuela — without any particular characteristics of its own. The threat to liberal fair play comes from resentment and indignation of all kinds.

Indeed, given its focus on the risk of a slide toward fascism in modern America, it’s remarkable that the book mentions black Americans only once. This single reference is a hostile mention of the Black Panthers in a list of 1960s movements, alongside Nazis, Communists, the John Birch Society, Yippies, and the Klan.

For Albright, what these groups have in common is that they are “extremists” who attack liberal democracy from the edges. What matters is not the content of what they are fighting for, but merely the fact that they are fighting: weaponized resentment challenges the rule of law and the smooth functioning of democratic debate.

Instructive in this regard is Albright’s treatment of Venezuela. She acknowledges that the country had been misruled and that the emergence of Hugo Chávez, first elected in 1999, was a response to popular discontent. Yet he, too, soon proved an opponent of liberal institutions: the Venezuelan leader, she writes, “began to pluck the chicken.”

The “chicken” analogy thus comes to paint any form of “demagogy” as proto-fascist. In this perspective, breaking up media monopolies is the sign of a new Mussolini, whereas the 2002 military coup against Chávez, defeated by a popular mobilization, was simply a bid to restore liberal fair play.

Albright recognizes that the erosion of liberal democracy did not come from nowhere. Venezuela had been mismanaged, after all. When the previous order is no longer able to hold firm, elites come under suspicion and mainstream expertise is distrusted. Fascism in Italy emerged when liberal parliamentarianism had already been exhausted.

Albright’s solution amounts to no more than a more robust defense of the status quo: an end to the “divisions” that stop liberals and conservatives uniting against fascism. “Quarreling” is no good when all energies must be devoted to tackling the supposed threat to democracy itself. It’s the Clinton argument against Sanders, all over again.

This sets up an essentially hopeless political picture: a “plainspoken commitment by responsible leaders from both parties to address national needs together.” If Clinton’s defeat left the center looking weak, the solution is for centrist Democrats and liberal Republicans to huddle together for warmth.

The Dinosaurs: A Warning From History

Opening with Primo Levi’s mock-profound claim that “every age has its own fascism,” Albright’s book opens the way to an infinite definition of “fascism” (whatever it is, it won’t look like it did before), allowing the term to be applied to pretty much anything. It’s a bit like saying, “every age has its own Henry VIII — of course, this time he’ll look different.”

But this is to overlook fundamental historical realities. Fascism’s initial rise came in the wake of World War I, when millions of men were conscripted, pitched into chaos, and then left on the street. Unlike the traditional right, it adopted socialist and working-class traditions of mass mobilization, turning them against the Left and labor unions.

Fascism’s power did not come from “lies” or “good people doing nothing.” It was a mobilized, armed reactionary force, fighting to control every street, even before it was handed control of government. If the roots of something similar exist in today’s America, they are more likely to be found in the police (however emboldened by Trump) than in disses against the White House press corps.

Albright’s attempt to link Trumpism to fascism is in fact more than sketchy. Asked by a CBS anchor if calling Trump “fascist” was an exaggeration, Albright replied, “I’m actually not saying he’s a fascist. I’m saying that there’s certain elements of the kinds of behavior that he has, that reminds me of a variety of issues that have taken place.”

This “variety of issues,” listed in the book, mostly concern foreign policy and in fact have little to do with fascism. A great deal of ink is wasted deriding Trump for failing to assert America’s role as global policeman. Since the book’s publication, Albright’s hawkish stance on the “secular ISIS” of North Korea is already looking untenable.

No matter. The “unpredictability” of the coming fascism, combined with the assertion that it will come gradually, allow Albright to deem anyone and anything she does not like as part of the slippery slope to Hitlerism. Venezuela, Russia, and criticism of the FBI are proto-fascist; police violence against blacks is not even worthy of mention.

We end, then, with a tale of nice, calm people standing up to angry, bad people. Removing racism and inequality from the picture, Albright presents a bipartisan neoliberal consensus as the necessary alternative to twin extremisms. She wants us to fear the fascists plucking one feather at a time. But some of us want more than a dead chicken, however well-plumed.