Madeleine Albright saw hope of future employment dashed when Donald Trump took the White House and that setback seems to have inspired a deranged bitterness: her girl lost, therefore the winner is a ‘proto-fascist’. That ridiculous notion informs an even more ridiculous book
Fascism: A Warning
by Madeleine Albright
HarperCollins, 2018, 216 pages, $27.99
Fascism, it would appear, is very much in the eye of the beholder. Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001 and currently a professor of International Relations at Georgetown University, attempts to argue in Fascism: A Warning that if President Donald Trump is not a fully-fledged fascist then he’s nevertheless a proto-fascist and constitutes “the first anti-democratic president in modern US history”. His malign influence on the international order encourages a growing “circle of despots”, a list that includes everyone from Maduro and Erdogan to Putin and Duterte, not to mention Kim Jong-un, “the sole example among them of a true Fascist”. What Albright cannot concede, along with the entire Trump-approximates-Hitler brigade, is that Donald Trump is a conservative-populist who stole the march on progressive-populists.
While populism is no bad thing, insists Albright, Trump’s 2016 victory should not be categorised in those terms. She does cautiously acknowledge that ordinary Americans were fed up with the de-industrialisation of the country and the slow economic recovery after the Global Financial Crisis. To state the matter any more strongly would reflect poorly on Obama’s tenure, and any criticism of the Healer-in-Chief remains taboo. The best Albright can do is suggest that while some Americans perceived their prospects as bleak before the advent of Candidate Trump, others did not: “On the economy, I’m reminded of the Sgt Pepper tune where Paul sings ‘I’ve got to admit it’s getting better,’ and John sings, ‘It can’t get no worse.’” Because of their “personal gripes—legitimate or not”, aggrieved voters, from “the unemployed steelworker”, “the veteran waiting too long for a doctor’s appointment” and the “low-wage fast-food employee” to the “fundamentalist who thinks war is being waged against Christmas” and the “businessman who feels harassed by government regulations”, put their trust in the unlikely candidature of Donald J. Trump.
This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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The decision by ordinary Americans, steelworkers, low-wage employees, veterans, small-business owners, Christians and so on, to support Trump at the 2016 election is one few now regret, given the booming economy and Trump’s masterful handling of international trade negotiations, including those with South Korea, Japan and the European Union for starters. According to Albright, Donald Trump cannot be the champion of ordinary folk—that is to say, a genuine populist leader—because of “his country-club life-style, a cabinet stocked with billionaires, and a penchant for hiring foreigners to make the beds in his hotels and stitch together clothes stamped with his brand”. Leaving aside the vituperation, the key point about Trump’s wealth is not its magnitude but its origin: a business comprising (mostly) American real estate and 23,000 (mostly) American workers. The billionaire forged an alliance with the working men and women of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by distinguishing national capitalism as mostly practised by him from supranational capitalism as mostly practised by Wall Street and, yes, Hillary and Bill Clinton. His unsophisticated personal tastes—sports, fast food, blunt language, unapologetic patriotism and the “Gold Room” in Trump Tower—simply corroborated Ivanka Trump’s depiction of her father as “blue collar with a big budget”.
Trump’s populist “Make America Great Again” program might be best characterised as economic patriotism: the encouragement of domestic manufacturing, energy independence, twenty-first-century infrastructure, bilateral (rather than multilateral) trade arrangements, low unemployment and an accelerated GDP. There is, possibly, an argument to be made that policies of this kind echo the autarkic pretensions of 1930s fascist regimes, but it is not a case to be made by left-of-centre critics such as Madeleine Albright. Progressives have, if nothing else, a history of advocating government intervention in the economy to serve the national interest, from Roosevelt and Attlee to Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who now adopts the Trump-like manifesto “Build it in Britain”.
Neoliberal fundamentalists, like the National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson, might be a different matter, given their preference for unfettered markets. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, for instance, Williamson wrote a notorious article disparaging Donald Trump as “Father-Fuhrer” for promoting economic patriotism as a means of mitigating the effects of the global economy. Williamson’s contempt for ordinary Americans is almost palpable: “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die … The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.” Williamson’s tirade complemented Candidate Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” diatribe from the other side of the political divide. Instead of disparaging the working class, Candidate Trump promised them an economic recovery—and delivered. How does that make him, in the words of Madeleine Albright, “the first anti-democratic president in modern US history”?
Accepting Albright’s thesis that President Trump is a proto-fascist and an enabler of foreign “fascist” leaders is built on a fallacy. We are invited to believe that fascism is not an “ideology” but a “process”, and that any political figure or movement Albright deems menacing can be located on a fascist spectrum. Thus, her extraordinary claim that the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a “true Fascist”. A totalitarian he most certainly is, but a fascist? Albright reflects that portraits of Adolf Hitler in the classrooms of her native Czechoslovakia were exchanged for ones of Joseph Stalin in 1945, as if this proves annihilationist racialism is the same as Marxism-Leninism. Albright’s loose definition of “fascism” allows her to make other awkward claims such as “the DPRK is a secular ISIS”. Professor Albright’s flawed methodology is the opposite of illuminating.
Some authoritarian movements in the 1930s certainly had trouble articulating a systematic ideology. Francoism, for instance, was mockingly referred to as “a bayonet in search of an ideology”, while Mussolini, the original fascist, struggled with communicating a coherent philosophy. Italian fascism extolled a dictatorship and a one-party state, along with a form of collectivism that borrowed from Social Darwinism. Everything—including Mussolini’s state corporatist “Third Way”—was intended to absorb the individual into the state: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” That almost mystical regard for the state—“Believe, Obey, Fight!”—is obviously an ideology of sorts. And it has little to do with Trump’s tax cuts and elimination of government regulations.
Madeleine Albright might not be an ideologue herself, but she is a political partisan of the highest (or lowest, if you like) order. Everybody on her side of the political aisle in America, not least Hillary Clinton, is a pro-democracy player. Albright remarks that if Clinton had won the 2016 election she would have written her tome with the goal of “lending momentum to democracy during Hillary Clinton’s first term”. In other words, she was planning to be an apologist for a Democratic administration but since the honest and transparent Clinton lost, Albright made it her job to tar President Trump with the fascist brush in a left-wing version of McCarthyism. Any attempt by the White House to negotiate with a less-than-democratic foreign leader is just Donald Trump chumming it up with “the circle of despots”.
By linking Trump’s “pumped-up machismo” and economic patriotism to 1930s fascism and today’s “circle of despots”, Madeleine Albright gives legitimacy to what she supposedly laments: the polarisation of political opinion. Her misdiagnosis of Nazism is the most striking example of this. She mentions Adolf Hitler frequently in Fascism: A Warning; however, because of her emphasis on “process” to the detriment of “ideology”, the Fuhrer turns out to be just another strongman, albeit more manipulative and murderous than today’s “circle of despots”, Kim Jong-un excepted.
In fact, there is a specificity about Hitler’s worldview that qualitatively differentiates it from Mussolini’s fascism, despite the shared anti-democratic views and even the anti-Jewish 1938 Reform Laws. At the centre of Hitler’s apocalyptic and millennialist Aryanism is a cosmological anti-Semitism that makes nonsense out of any attempt to understand the Holocaust and Nazism with PC notions of intolerance. To leave ideology out of our calculations benefits no one more than modern-day ideologues who equate Donald Trump, regulated immigration, protected borders, patriotism, Christianity, white heterosexual males, the constabulary, America, the West and even Israel with Nazism.
All of that might be nothing more than an absurd joke if it did not threaten to undermine democratic discourse in the West and open the way for genuine fanatics on the Left and the Right. How can you compromise or negotiate with someone you believe embodies a kind of absolute negative? This, for what it is worth, would be my warning to Madeleine Albright and all those who caricature conservative-populism as fascism or Nazism and, by so doing, help extinguish civil debate.