Former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is on a whirlwind media tour right now to make her completely unique, insightful, and original case that Trump is a fascist danger to democracy that must be stopped.
On Tuesday, Albright appeared on “CBS This Morning” to promote her new book “Fascism: A Warning,” which argues that, alongside leaders in countries like Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines, Trump is “turning to the same tactics used by fascists like Hitler and Mussolini nearly a century ago” and perpetrating an “assault on democratic values that has gathered strength in many countries abroad and that is dividing America at home."
After approvingly quoting from the first chapter of Albright’s book, “This Morning” co-anchor Norah O’Donnell asked the former Secretary of State to explain why Trump is similar to mass murdering fascist dictators [transcript from NewsBusters, emphasis mine]:
O’DONNELL: I want to read from your book. Because I think you hit that point when you write, "If we think of fascism as a wound from the past that had almost healed, putting Trump in the White House was like ripping off the bandage and picking at the scab." What has Trump done?
ALBRIGHT: I think part of the issues here, first of all, he's attacked the free press which is central to having a democracy. He acts as though he's above the law. He has, in fact, used kind of rallies and propaganda and provided a lot of simplistic answers to questions and does not respect the rights of others.
O’DONNELL: Yesterday he called from inside the cabinet room, he called the FBI raid on his personal attorney an attack on our country.
ALBRIGHT: I find that ridiculous. And it's one of those things where as I said, we can't have a leader that feels that he is above the law. The law and the rule of law is the most essential part of a democratic system.
Count me slightly underwhelmed by Albright’s train of thought here:
Trump used his freedom of speech to criticize the press?
Trump holds political rallies and gives simple answers to questions (like every other politician in existence)?
Trump doesn’t like the seemingly endless special counsel investigation that has undermined his presidency from day one with simultaneously bold and vague accusations of “treason” and “collusion”?
Trump “does not respect the rights of others” (what does she even mean by this, specifically)?
(Never mind that) — FASCISM!
At this point, even those with just a mild interest in clarity or intellectual honesty are probably asking themselves how Albright defines fascism. Well for that, we can turn to the first chapter of her new book, which provides a pretty amusing answer [emphasis mine]:
(Spoiler: She asked her grad students to define the term. No, seriously.)
What, then, is real Fascism, and how does one recognize a practitioner? I put these questions to the graduate class I teach at Georgetown—two dozen students sitting in a circle around my living room balancing lasagna-leaking paper plates on their laps. The queries were harder to answer than might be expected, because there are no fully agreed-upon or satisfactory definitions, though academic writers have spilled oceans of ink in the attempt. It seems that whenever some expert shouts “Eureka!” and claims to have identified a consensus, indignant colleagues disagree.
Despite the complexity, my students were eager to have a go. They began from the ground up, naming the characteristics that were, to their minds, most closely associated with the word. “A mentality of ‘us against them,’” offered one. Another ticked off “nationalist, authoritarian, anti-democratic.” A third emphasized the violent aspect. A fourth wondered why Fascism was almost always considered right-wing, arguing, “Stalin was as much a Fascist as Hitler.”
Still another noted that Fascism is often linked to people who are part of a distinct ethnic or racial group, who are under economic stress, and who feel that they are being denied rewards to which they are entitled. “It’s not so much what people have,” she said, “ but what they think they should have—and what they fear.”
Are these really the brain surgeons that have been running our government for the past few decades? When they want to know what something is, they ask university students?
Here’s a thought — whatever you want to say about fascists, they were not illiterate. They wrote books and essays explaining their philosophy, ideology, influences, and motivations. They ran governments whose policies impacted the lives of tens of millions of people and whose actions are very well-documented. We don’t have to guess what they believed by free-associating in a lasagna-eating hippie drum circle in D.C. We can not only read about what fascists thought, but what they actually did when they were in power. (Incidentally, the main reason that “academic writers” tend to have trouble finding a “satisfactory” definition of fascism is that any honest definition includes the fact that fascists support a corporatist, heavily government-regulated economy and a welfare state, two things that find strong support in both the modern American left as a whole and the Democratic Party more specifically.)
But alas, doing real research on the topic was apparently too much trouble for Albright, who instead stuck to using her and her students’ irrelevant musings to come up with the following rock-solid definition of a fascist:
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.
So was the March for Our Lives fascist? I was at their rally, and based on what the pro-gun control activists and other speakers said there, they certainly seemed to fit the bill: they constantly talked about themselves as if they represented the beliefs and values of the entire country (minus anyone who is a member of the terroristic, bloodthirsty NRA, of course), they repeatedly denounced gun rights and the Second Amendment as a cover for those who are indifferent to the murder of children, and they advocated for banning and confiscating semi-automatic “assault weapons” from Americans, which would likely require the violent intrusion of police officers into millions of homes across the country. (For the record, Albright praised the March for Our Lives as inspirational in her recent New York Times opinion piece “Will We Stop Trump Before It’s Too Late?”)
And there you have the problem — Albright’s definition is so broad and imprecise that it could include pretty much any politician or politically interested group.
When is the last time that you heard a politician in this country not purport to speak for the American people?
Where are the Quakers on Capitol Hill and the White House who never advocate for using the violence of the state to accomplish political goals?
And who truly believes that no right can be restricted under any circumstances, whether it is our right to keep and bear arms, to free speech, to privacy, etc.?
While there are certainly some committed libertarians, pacifists, or anarchists who are exempt from Albright’s dragnet definition of fascism, pretty much anyone else could be swept up in it. Not exactly a useful metric for classifying people's political beliefs.
Why not try something new for a change? If someone is:
1) An ultranationalist who believes that his or her nation, ethnic group, or race has the moral right to dominate or exterminate other peoples,
2) Supports a dictatorial, non-democratic state,
3) And wants a socialism-lite economy and a welfare state,
Then let’s call them a fascist, because that’s what fascism actually is.