Nonfiction – Kindle edition. Harper Perennial, 2019. Originally published 2018. 320 pgs. Library copy.
In the conclusion of her book, Albright says that some may find the title of her book to be alarmist, but it is her belief that we are living in an alarming time. Her assertion holds gravitas because of her credentials – she served as the United States Secretary of State and the Ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 2001 – and her personal history.
Her family lived in exile in London when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, returned hoping to live in a country transitioning to democracy, and then fled as refugees to America when the Communists seized power in 1948. Albright, therefore, was raised in the shadow of tyranny, affording her a unique vantage point from which to observe and comment on the rise of fascism across the globe today.
“To my mind, a Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary—including violence—to achieve his or her goals.”
The subtitle of Albright’s book – “A Warning” – proclaims the ultimate goal of her writings. Of the seventeen chapters, fifteen of them are dedicated to explaining how fascism arose in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Franco’s Spain, Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey, North Korea, Milošević’s Yugoslavia, Orbon’s Hungary, Kaczynski’s Poland, Chavez’ Venezuela, and Trump’s America. An avid student of history could find her recaps unnecessary; the only chapters I found to contain new information were the ones on Franco and Kaczynski.
By covering so many leaders, Albright shows how people across the political spectrum can fall under the sway of fascists. A population upset because of a lost war (Germany), a memory of humiliation (Russia, Yugoslavia, Poland), or a sense their country is in decline or their way of life is threatened (Hungary, the United States) will support a leader vowing to take back what has been stolen.
“Fascist attitudes take hold when there are no social anchors and when the perception grows that everybody lies, steals, and cares only about him- or herself.”
In her view and experience, fascism is part of humanity. People are drawn to fascists leaders because they offer easy solutions to complex problems or because they claim to see a population that feel downtrodden upon or like others are jumping the line of economic prosperity and receiving more than they are due.
(To that point, Arlie Russel Hochchild’s book, Strangers in Their Own Land, asserts this grievance is the major driving force for the voting behavior of Tea Party conservatives in the American South.)
While some leaders professed to know what they were doing to sell their message, others involved in such movements are unaware or unwilling to see how their motives are driven by ambition, greed, or hatred. Chavez serves as Albright’s main example, although her chapter on North Korea follows this a similar vain.
She spends all but the last few paragraphs ignoring the cruelty of the Kim regime towards its own people in order to focus on why Kim wanted nuclear weapons following the collapse of the Communist powers around the world and to bemoan a lost opportunity to potentially denuclearize the country. I haven’t read much on North Korea, but the memoirs of defectors and nonfiction books on the regime I have read are very disturbing and at odds with Albright’s views on the country.
Only in the last chapter of her book does Albright attempt to offer ideas on how these perceptions or the draw of fascist leaders can be countered, and this is where the book started to fall apart for me.
She bemoans that voters no longer have measuring sticks with which to judge democracies, either because the Soviet bloc disintegrated or because we no longer study history. (Hence why she devotes most of the book to reviewing history for her readers.) I was ready to agree with her until, in the same paragraph, she falls into the “pull your pants up” trap.
If you’ve ever read the comments section of an article on inner-city poverty or heard President Obama speak, then you’ve probably read the assertion that problems can be solved by pulling up ones pants, wearing a belt, and getting a job. No mention of systemic racism or generational poverty. Just pull up your pants.
Along the same vain, Albright asserts that “we the people” demand more of our governments while not asking more of ourselves. Instead, she says “we are spoiled” and decries how “even those too lazy to vote feel it is their birthright to blast our elected representatives from every direction”. It is a maddening assertion to read, especially since I see the rise in political engagement following Trump’s election to be the small silver lining that came out of this.
Her final piece of advice is a series of questions a voter should ask themselves when they hear a candidate for office speaking. I didn’t write the exact questions down, but they follow the lines of: Am I being asked to hate people based on race, identity, politics, creed? Is this person trying to divide myself and my fellow voters? Does this candidate make promises they can’t fulfill?
Albright states in the final chapter that she had planned to write this book prior to the 2016 election in order to warn the world about what she was seeing occur in Europe. Perhaps her questions would have been more useful in that context, but I’m afraid they seem naïve, unhelpful, and even rather silly following Trump’s election.
She misses the status quo, the time people pulled up their pants and didn’t question their political leader’s every action. Clearly, the status quo isn’t working if people voted for Trump. If Albright can’t see this, then her warning will only go unheeded.