State of Democracy

Talking with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on her book ‘Fascism: A Warning’

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Beware of leaders who peddle simple solutions to complex problems, warns Madeleine Albright.

Really, if you do a little translation of cultural reference points, it’s not that big of a gap from first-term Congresswoman Rashia Tlaib’s much-clucked-about “Impeach the motherfucker” remark earlier this month to the line that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright dropped on a Washington banquet crowd in December, eyebrow raised for emphasis.

“Leaders such as Viktor Orbán and Rodrigo Duterte have said that these times demand a governing model that is more autocratic than democratic,” Albright intoned with slow, steely deliberation, referring to the neo-fascist thugs who have taken power in Hungary and the Philippines. “There is a diplomatic term of art for such thinking, and it starts with a ‘b.’”

I happened to be in the crowd for the National Democratic Institute event, next to where Albright was sitting before taking the podium, and considered yelling out: “’Bullshit!’” to complete her thought. It was the kind of fancy-fancy Washington function where I’d have probably been dragged out of the place for such an outburst, but I’d have done my part for the public discourse.

“Balderdash,” Albright quickly added, with perfect comic timing and a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth look.

Indeed, it’s time to call balderdash, loudly and repeatedly, to the notion that there’s anything at all justifiable about dallying with fascism, as our dim-witted monster of a president so loves to do. Fascism is a power grab. Fascism is crude self-love writ large. Fascism is the enemy and the opposite of democracy, real democracy, as Madeleine Albright has articulated better than anyone—in that speech in Washington, to a degree, but especially in her New York Times No. 1 bestseller Fascism: A Warning, due out this week in paperback. And, I expect, at her upcoming appearance at the Kaiser Permanente Arena in Santa Cruz on Feb. 5 (the $23 admission also includes a paperback copy of the book).

Speaking with the Secretary

I spoke to Secretary Albright on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, just after I sat through the numbingly cynical sight of President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence toddling along in winter coats after laying a wreath at the King memorial in Washington. Yes, the likes of Trump and Pence shall reap just what they sow, and the same is true for all of us. Democracy is not just what you take out, it’s also what you give back.

“Citizens must consider voting and participation not just a right, but a responsibility,” Albright told me. “Some people think my book is alarming. It is supposed to be alarming. . . . I do think that it’s tragic what is going on. Clearly there are issues in all our societies in terms of divisions, and whether the social contract is broken, and what technology is doing to our societies.”

History, which Albright has lived to a remarkable degree, can indeed be a good teacher.

“I don’t think most people focus on the fact that Mussolini and Hitler and Franco in Spain all came to power constitutionally,” she told me. “There are those who are copying things that Mussolini said initially, which was that there are simple answers to problems. The problems are complicated. People don’t want to hear that.”

No, they don’t, especially in an era when most of our dialogue comes in short bursts via social media.

“If all of a sudden there is a leader who says, ‘I have the answers, just follow me,’ and the extrapolation of that is that there are scapegoats, which are the reasons that this happened, and the identification with one group that feels that they have been robbed or neglected, then divisions are exacerbated. So what we need is leaders who can find common ground.”

So what of Trump, then? Albright paused before answering.

“I don’t call him a fascist,” she said evenly. “I do think he’s the least democratic president in modern American history. I draw an allusion in the book, first made by Mussolini, which is that you can pluck a chicken one feather at a time and nobody notices. What I think is happening is Trump is plucking feathers. Thinking he’s above the law or having no respect for the judiciary and generally putting down institutions—those are pretty significant feathers. He is taking steps that are undermining how government is supposed to operate.”

The Impeachment Question

I didn’t think it likely that the former Secretary of State was going to stand with Tom Steyer, our California firebrand, and others loudly calling for the impeachment of Trump, and I was right. That’s not her position, but it was still fun to listen to her say a lot between the lines when I asked if she supported an immediate push toward pursuing the impeachment of Trump.

“I don’t,” she said, and paused to choose her words carefully before expanding on the thought. “I do think laws have to be followed. I have witnessed two impeachments, and they suck the air out of everything going on, but I think if a president is breaking the law, there are processes here, and I do believe in the constitution, or maybe even the 25th amendment.”

The 25th amendment calls for the vice president to replace the president “in the event of death, removal, resignation, or incapacitation.”

Staring fascism straight in the face is a great way to get us thinking in a fresh way about democracy and what it really means, just as staring death in the face—when cancer claims a relative, for example—has a knack for reminding us that we’d better get out there and live our lives like we mean it. Make no mistake, the American experiment in democracy has been on life support these last two years, dangerously close to slipping away in the night, and we’re not through the woods yet.

This is a good time to ask yourself, really ask yourself: Do I care about democracy? What am I willing to do for it? And do we Americans ask ourselves often enough what democracy requires of us?

“I think they don’t,” Albright told me. “I wasn’t born in the United States. When we came to this country, my father used to say that he worried that Americans take democracy for granted. You have to work for democracy. It is both resilient and fragile—both are true.”

I’ve written on foreign policy for publications from The New York Times to Salon to Foreign Policy, and I had some reservations about some of Albright’s positions when she first took over from Warren Christopher and served as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State. But she soon won me over, and in the years since, I’ve crossed paths with her repeatedly and have always been amazed by her combination of knowledge, considered opinion, feel for people and self-aware sense of humor.

Ask her about her pins and she can talk to you for an hour—and you’ll love every minute of it. She has what can only be called old-world charm and manners, but at the same time, a uniquely American love of ideas and engagement. She’s always excited about what’s coming next, especially some time in California.

“I love coming to California,” she told me. “It’s beautiful and the people are very politically engaged. I think it’s a fascinating state. Some people think it’s very different than the rest of the United States in its dedication to diversity. That to me is its great strength.”

I asked Albright if she worries, watching the way Trump eggs on his hardcore followers. To me, he does not look so much like someone trying to put together a winning coalition in 2020. He looks like someone wanting a bigger mob when things get ugly.

“It seems at times as if Trump’s primary goal is having an energized group of supporters who tune out facts or reality and blindly support the leader, and would be willing to create chaos in the streets if called on to do so,” I said to Albright. “Is that your concern as well?”

“It is worrisome,” she said, and again talked about history and its lessons and what it tells us about the anti-democratic figures coming to power all around the world, most recently in Brazil. “We have to be very careful how they come to power and use rallies and threats and promises to get into office, and then there is the danger of violence. That’s certainly what happened in Charlottesville.”

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