I have decided to embark on a mission to read a number of books on subjects that will be of great importance to the upcoming 2020 US Presidential Election. Many of these will focus on actors intricately involved in the process, in hopes that I can understand them better and, perhaps, educate others with the power to cast a ballot. I am, as always, open to serious recommendations from anyone who has a book I might like to include in the process.
This is Book #4 in my 2020 US Election Preparation Challenge.
The term ‘fascism’ elicits numerous reactions when mentioned in everyday parlance. Some consider it a country whose people goose-step in line with the leader’s views, while others feel it is an overused epithet uttered by teenagers towards their parents. Still others find it to be a way of defining a country whose political ideology differs greatly from their own, thereby suppressing the masses to a belief that no one ought to support. Whatever the definition the reader holds, Madeleine Albright brings the discussion around to something seriously worth considering, especially with the goings-on in the world over the last century and specifically America’s dabbling with it since 2016. Sure to ruffle more than a few feathers, Albright brings her diplomatic past and ongoing role as an academic to this tome, in which she effectively argues that America need be leery of the path down which it is headed, under a leader who knowingly thumbs his nose at the democratic ideal.
After offering some personal sentiments about being a wartime refugee from Czechoslovakia, Albright lays the groundwork for the book by exploring the general tenets of fascism and citing two early (and best known) examples of the ideology. Coined and popularised by Benito Mussolini during Italy’s inter-war years, the leader sought to create a country centred strongly on nationalist sentiment and bundled up key voices to strengthen the whole of the Italian state. His German counterpart, Adolf Hitler, rose through the ranks in Germany and pushed the same sentiment, railing against the need to remain under the allied thumb and pay reparations. There was also the desire to create ‘pure’ states, which would only strengthen the base and make the country even more cohesive. Discounting anything but Italy (or Germany, depending on the dictator), fascism fed on this fiery rhetoric and the central theme echoed through the streets. Enemies were jailed, tortured, or disappeared, while the core supporters were brought together to create an even stronger collective. An interesting fact that Albright shares is that Mussolini appeared to feel that his German counterpart was taking things a little too far, clashing with him on a number of aspects of the Nazi state. While the general ideas of these two countries are likely known to many readers, the details Albright offers add a wonderful depth to the discussion and provide scintillating fact for a history buff like me.
Albright moves on from the far-right examples to explore whether fascism is merely cemented on one side of the ideological spectrum. She argues that it is not, as national pride and extreme exertion to hold onto the belief can be just as effectively found in communist regimes. Albright goes through a number of key leaders of countries that have used fascist tendencies to keep their people in line and other states out. While some of the early ones are more academic examples, Albright’s time as UN Ambassador and US Secretary of State provided her a chance to see many of these men in action for herself. Albright explores the plight of Venezuela under Chavez and how he sought to vilify anything that could have seemed to be Western flavouring of his country, while remaining staunchly nationalist and punishing his people with crippling economic harshness. Other examples like Putin in Russia, all three Kims in North Korea, and Erdogan of Turkey provide some interesting perspectives and are likely leaders more Americans would recognise. Her thorough exploration of these men and their leadership styles tie-in closely with some of the early definitions of fascism as an ideological way of life. While all the men bask in riches and power, their people suffer greatly. Albright argues that this lack of power by the masses feeds into this consolidation of control and the ability for nationalist rhetoric to continue. One cannot keep the people eating from one’s hand without there being disparity and the ‘fat’ West cannot be vilified if everything is going well!
With an exploration of some of the world’s leaders, Albright turns the tables around and explores some of the American examples since early 2017. There has surely been a strong push towards American nationalism, which is less a pride-based rallying call, but one that seeks to divide and isolate. American ‘greatness’ has always been present, though President Trump created a mantra that led many to believe that it was completely gone. Looking to bolster certain sectors by cutting off ties with other countries and imposing crippling tariffs to prove a point will only create economic hardships in the long run. Looking at America’s place on the world stage as being a business partner and not a whole-hearted international partner for democratic stability has also led to this ‘take my ball home’ approach, which feeds not only into an American nationalist sentiment, but also helps open cracks for international groups to crumble and like-minded fascists to topple them like a poorly designed Jenga tower. Pulling America into this way of thinking not only proves troubling on the world scene, but will leave the country in tatters for the next administration, as Trump has (yet) no ability to suspend constitutional limits and keep himself at the helm to bask in the power he is creating. Albright effectively argues that the American people, or at least portions of it, have been lapping up the rhetoric and not looking out for the bigger picture, where years down the road, it will not matter that American nuclear power is strong and the army is large. Without strong regional and international support, there will be a new and troublesome isolation that could take decade to rebuild. A powerful piece for those who have the inclination to hear some of the strong arguments made about the pending trouble that awaits America. Recommended to those whose political mind is piqued by these sorts of discussions, as well as the reader who seeks to take some reflective time determining which path they would like America to follow after January 20, 2021.
Many will know that I love a good political tome, especially when it forces me to think about the world. While I do not have any love loss for the current US president or his administration, I was eager to see if I could follow the arguments made in this book without considering it overly partisan. While Albright served in Democrat camps and rose to prominence under Bill Clinton (one of Trump’s enemies, as he has gladly admitted), she is also an academic whose arguments are strongly based on history, as well as personal experiences. Albright sells her case effectively without needing to dissect either the president or the Trump Administration as being clueless and completely horrid. Her views are substantiated and, as the title suggests, she wishes to warn the reader about what is to come if things continue on the same path. The book itself is thorough and offers the reader a great deal of information to synthesise as they consider what has been going on in the world over the past one hundred years. With well-balanced chapters that offer insight and frank commentary, Albright presents her case without getting overly partisan or muddy. Perhaps a tad academic at times, those readers who enjoy this type of book will surely want to delve deeper, exploring some of the source material offered in the latter pages of the tome. While there is the ongoing debate about whether democracy is the saviour of the world (think of Churchill’s famous comments about the ideology) or simply another option for countries to choose, the arguments made in this book are surely something sobering at a time when ideological fluidity appears to be on the rise. Whatever the answer, it is time for Americans to choose who and what they want, knowing that there is surely some outside (fascist?) base seeking to sway things to disrupt the democratic process. Then again, what do I know, being a Canadian looking in from the outside?
Kudos, Madam Albright, for an enriching experience that I will refer to any who want a great read. I am eager to explore some of your other work, which I can only hope will be as insightful as this piece.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons