The Guardian fawns over Madeliene Albright in a long article titled Madeleine Albright: ‘The things that are happening are genuinely, seriously bad’. I’m going to comment on the parts that I found interesting.
[Albright’s new book] Fascism: A Warning is a cry of anguish about the global resurgence of authoritarianism and a lament over the decay of the liberal internationalist politics to which Albright has devoted her career. She quotes Primo Levi – “Every age has its own fascism” – and makes her case with observations about the autocrats she has dealt with and brisk histories of past dictators and the horrors that they unleashed. A devil’s portrait gallery includes Benito Mussolini, the original fascist, and Adolf Hitler, the most destructive. Then there’s Donald Trump.
Ah, of course, Trump. As a nationalist and a populist, he stands against Albrights neo-Liberal globalist politics.
She agrees that we ought to be careful not to casually throw around the F-word lest we drain the potency from what should be a powerful term. “I’m not calling Trump a fascist,” she says. Yet she seems to be doing all but that when she puts him in the same company as historical fascists in a book that seeks to sound “an alarm bell” about a fascist revival.
Kind of a dog whistle to the anti-fascists.
She frequently nudges the reader to make connections between the president of the United States and past dictatorships. She reminds us who first coined the Trumpian phrase “drain the swamp”. It was drenare la paludein the original, Mussolini Italian. She quotes Hitler talking about the secret of his success: “I will tell you what has carried me to the position I have reached. Our political problems appeared complicated. The German people could make nothing of them… I…reduced them to the simplest terms. The masses realised this and followed me.” Sound familiar?
Of course, being part of the establishment, Albright sees the state as good. Therefore, when someone attacks it, she smears them.
I suggest to her that the book struggles to offer a satisfactory definition of fascism. “Defining fascism is difficult,” she responds. “First of all, I don’t think fascism is an ideology. I think it is a method, it’s a system.”
If it was defined clearly, she couldn’t use it to smear those she opposes.
It is in his methods that Trump can be compared with, if not precisely likened to, the dictators of the 1930s. Fascists are typically masters of political theatre. They feed on and inflame grievances by setting “the people” against their “enemies”. Fascists tell their supporters that there are simple fixes for complex problems. They present as national saviours and conflate themselves with the state. They seek to subvert, discredit and eliminate liberal institutions. She reminds us that they have often ascended to power through the ballot box and then undermined democracy from within.
Does Albright contend that Trump is undermining democracy? How, exactly?
Trump is different, she insists. Look at his attacks on the institutions of liberal society as he Twitter-lashes the judiciary and the media. “Outrageous,” says Albright. “It was Stalin who talked about the press being the enemy of the people.
And yet the media was incredibly biased against him, and the judiciary, appointed by the previous president, sought to block his executive actions for what seemed like ideological reasons. You’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you.
“I also think Trump does act as though he’s above the law.” He lies without shame, she says. He threatens to jail political competitors. He foments bigotry. He lavishes admiration on autocrats like Putin and by doing so encourages the worldwide drift to authoritarianism. Observe also, she adds, how Trump exploits a crowd.
It’s hard not to see this as sour grapes over the fact that he won and your candidate lost.
Trump is, I think he’s actually really smart – evil smart, is what I think.”
So Albright thinks Trump is smart, violating the narrative that he is a fool? And that he is “evil”.
The fear that Trump induces in American liberals is matched by the alarm he arouses among the United States’ traditional allies in the democracies. From Nato to the World Trade Organisation, he threatens to rip up institutions that have ordered the planet over many decades. Albright argues that the doctrine of “America First”, which “conceives of the world as a battlefield in which every country is intent on dominating every other”, encourages a Darwinian competition of tribal nationalisms.
Is that really it, or is it a genuine concern for the people that globalism has left behind.
“At the moment, it is hard to say to any European that the US is a reliable ally, which makes me furious because I do believe in the importance of American engagement. I always thought we were reliable.”
And yet how reliable have the Europeans been at meeting their commitments to spend 2% of their GDPs on defense?
True, the international architecture established in the late 1940s does require “refurbishing”. Institutions founded seven decades ago “need fixing”. Trump “does have a point” when he complains that Americans pay a lot more to sustain Nato than do the European countries, which rely on the defence pact for their security. The trouble with Trump, though, is “he sees it all as transactional, as if it were a hotel where you keep raising the price and if you want to stay there, you’re going to have to pay. That is not what it’s about.
Perhaps it should be. If you are in a bad deal, you should try to renegotiate it so that everybody wins. If the other side insists that they win and you lose, you should walk away. This is basic stuff, explained by Stephen Covey in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
“There’s no sin about updating these things, but I don’t understand, I truly don’t, what the purpose is to destroy the system. What is the purpose of having destruction as an ideology?”
Who’s destroying the system? Trump is criticizing NATO. If you can’t criticize something, you can’t improve it.
The Trumpian rampage through the international order has been particularly challenging for Britain, which clings to a conceit that it has a special bond with the United States. Trying to navigate any sort of relationship, never mind a special one, has been a nightmare for Theresa May.
If May had held strong on Brexit, she would likely have found Trump a stauncher supporter.
This week Trump will land on these shores, where he will be greeted by hot protests on the streets and British officials in a cold sweat. “It’ll be interesting to see how he deals with the Queen since he really doesn’t like women,” remarks Albright. “He’s unbelievable to Angela Merkel.”
You can’t look at Melania and say with a straight face that Trump doesn’t like women. Merkel allowed a million migrants to emigrate to her country. Since Trump opposes uncontrolled migration, why would you expect him to be friendly with her?
May is the one facing the biggest challenge of Trump management. Can Albright, who teaches international statecraft at Georgetown University, offer the prime minister some guidance? “I have no idea,” Albright confesses. “I don’t have advice. The device, theoretically, is to tell him how wonderful he is. And to agree with whatever he says – and that’s distasteful. He is unpredictable except when people flatter him and allow him to dominate. I know what it’s like to be in diplomatic discussions with people that you don’t respect. You do begin in some kind of civilised way, but ultimately you have to say what you think.”
What a vacuous statement. Of course Trump is predictably easy to get along with if you treat him nicely and allow him to have his way. Why would May agree with whatever he says? She represents the British people, he represents the Americans. She should be finding common ground, but agreeing to disagree where needed.
Memo to Mrs May: say what you think. It may not get you anywhere with Trump, but at least you will preserve your self-respect.
Better advice than Albright’s.
Albright is a friend to the country which took in her family when she was a young girl, but believes that true friends owe you their candour. She’s clear that Brexit – “an exercise in economic masochism that Britons will long regret” – is a terrible mistake.
That may be. When you choose to take a question to the people in a referendum, you risk the tyranny of the majority. This is why referendums are often a bad idea. But once you’ve done it, you had better listen to the result, or risk the wrath of the voters. Politicians are particularly hated when they thwart the will of the people.
“I happen to think it’s a tragedy. I’m not sure how or why it happened. I think some of it was miscalculation. From an American perspective – and this is somewhat selfish and self-centred – the UK has always been our bridge to the continent and very important in all kinds of aspects.” Burning down that bridge is not sensible. “I think it’s unfortunate, I really do.” Much of politics and diplomacy is a story of “unintended consequences of decisions and this is one of the big ones”.
Like Trump’s election in the US by people in the rust belt, who had been left behind and ignored by Obama and the corporate Democrats, Brexit was in large part an eff you to the establishment from English people living outside the wealthy financial hub of London who saw their jobs leave to the EU, much as the rust belter’s saw their jobs leave for China.
Had Albright had her way, the world would not be riding the wild rollercoaster that is Trump. He would have been sent back to reality TV and Hillary Clinton would be in the White House. She was a vigorous campaigner for her old friend and Albright’s passion got the better of her when she coined the phrase: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” That landed her in some trouble during the 2016 campaign.
As well it should have. If I were a woman considering voting for Johnson or Trump, that statement might well have sealed the deal.
Like many of Hillary’s chums, she is defensive about the campaign’s failure and still struggling to make sense of it. “Hillary did win the popular vote,” she points out.
Yes, because she had massive popularity in a few large population centers. But to win the electoral college (or in Canada’s first past the post system), you need to win broadly, not deeply. Perhaps Clinton should have paid more attention to the rust belt, instead of assuming that the Democratic firewall would hold.
Germany has had a female leader for more than a decade. Britain is on its second female prime minister. A woman has never been president of the United States. Does America have a problem with women in politics?
Judging by the recent victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over Democratic leader Joe Crowley, they do not. Being a women was not Hillary’s biggest problem, though it likely had some impact.
“I don’t understand it, frankly. We are very good at being No 1 in many things and yet we are not in this and I don’t know the answer. Because there are certainly very qualified women,” said Albright.
Being qualified involves many things, including having policies people can get behind and being likeable. Clinton failed at both these things, while Ocasio-Cortez succeeded at both, though it remains to be seen how her (Sandersesque) policies will play in other parts of America.
“When my name came up to be secretary of state,” Albright recalls, “you would think that I was an alien, you know. People actually said: ‘The Arabs won’t deal with a woman.’”
How is that not a legitimate concern? When you need to work with people whose cultures differ from yours, ignoring those differences is foolish.
Her friend Hillary was, in CV terms, one of the most qualified people to run for the White House.
That depends on what you think qualifies one to be the head of the executive branch. Clearly, people preferred both Obama and Trump. The resume gets you in the door, but you have to interview well to get the job.
“I think she would have been a remarkable president. And I think that it’s very disappointing. It’s something that we all talk about. I don’t know the answer.”
The answer is clearly to run a better candidate.
At least part of the explanation for Clinton’s defeat was not to do with gender. It was failing to understand the forces powering her opponent. Clinton notoriously called his supporters “the deplorables”. Albright sounds similarly guilty of seeing the world through an elitist’s prism when she writes in her book: “Globalisation… is not an ideological choice, but a fact of life.”
Calling half of the people who can vote for you deplorable is foolish. Managing globalization is not a choice, but pushing globalism is ideological.
Opponents retort that globalisation is an ideological choice. It was a very good choice for transnational corporations, for prosperous members of western societies, and for many developing countries which have seen their growth accelerated by free trade and the exchange of technology. Globalisation turned out to be – or has certainly come to be seen as being – a very bad choice for less affluent sections of western societies. Many folk felt dislocated and disadvantaged. Lecturing them that globalisation is just “a fact of life” – so suck it up – was surely one of the incitements for those people who voted for Trump, who chose Brexit and who support the rightwing populists surging across Europe.
Yes. Once again, the author of the Guardian article, Andrew Rawnsley, has deeper insight than Albright.
“It isn’t just favouring the rich,” she insists. “Most of us are beneficiaries of globalisation, but a lot of people were not prepared for it in terms of their skill-set and we didn’t consider that enough.” She also concedes that globalisation is “faceless” and “everybody wants to have an identity”.
OK, that’s two for Albright.
“But it’s one thing to be patriotic, it’s another if my identity hates your identity and then it’s nationalism and hyper-nationalism. That’s the very dangerous part.”
Saying that I put my nation first is not the same as saying I hate all others.
Albright is a sage woman, but also one taken by mortified surprise by the turn the world has taken. In common with most liberal internationalists, she hadn’t expected the arc of history to bend in this dark direction. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, liberal capitalist democracy was thought to be irreversibly triumphant. Francis Fukuyama even wrote a book entitled The End of History.
The problem is that liberalism and capitalism are being eaten by the cancer of socialism.
History had other ideas. I suggest that it is not good enough for liberal internationalists to simply bewail Trump and his fellow travellers. They need to examine what they got wrong. Maybe there were too many complacent assumptions that the world had become permanently safe for democracy.
Yes. Socialism is alive and well, and the communists wait in the wings for their chance to rise again. These in turn stoke the fires of the alt-right, and their dreams of a white ethnostate. Meanwhile, the neo-liberal/neo-conservative establishment help themselves and complacently ignore the people they’re meant to represent.
“I don’t know whether complacent [is the right word],” she says. “We were all initially enthusiastic, but then we became euphoric.” One conclusion she draws is that “democracy is obviously harder than we think.
You were complacent. Clinton didn’t bother to campaign in Wisconsin.
“Democracy is not the easiest form of government. It does require attention and participation and carrying out the social contract. And it doesn’t deliver immediately. What we have to learn is how to get democracy to deliver because people want to vote and eat. But it just took me 10 minutes to explain it and that’s the problem.
People become disillusioned when whoever they elect does the same old thing, supporting global corporations and ignoring their problems. Democracy would be a lot easier if you did things the voters wanted.
“The things that are happening are genuinely, seriously bad. Some of them are really bad. They’re not to do with Trump; it is the evolution of a number of different trends. All the various problems that we have, they can’t be solved by simple slogans. But it’s easier to listen to some simple slogan.”
Like “I’m with her”?
Albright is far from alone in worrying about the future of liberal democracy. This anxiety is felt more acutely by a woman who was born in the time of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, who reached the peaks of international diplomacy when freedom seemed ascendant and has since observed the unravelling of so much hope. At the end of our conversation, I am left unsure whether she thinks democracy has the resilience to survive this testing time.
For democracy to remain healthy, we need people like Obama and Trump. Obama largely failed to deliver on his promise of change. We’ll see how successful Trump is. Maybe he will be looked back on as the next Ronald Reagan, though at this point, it seems unlikely. What we don’t need are dynasty’s like the Clintons running things for their own benefit. It’s important for politicians to be thrown out when they forget who they work for–the people.