Really, if you do a little translation of cultural reference points, it’s not that big of a gap from first-term Congresswoman Rashida 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 next 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).
As Albright writes in a new preface to the paperback edition:
“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. That is when the yearning is felt for a strong hand to protect against the evil ‘other’—whether Jew, Muslim, black, so-called redneck, or so-called elite. Flawed though our institutions may be, they are the best that four thousand years of civilization have produced, and cannot be cast aside without opening the door to something far worse. The wise response to intolerance is not more intolerance or self-righteousness; it is a coming together across the ideological spectrum of people who want to make democracies more effective. We should remember that the heroes we cherish—Lincoln, King, Gandhi, Mandela—spoke to the best within us. The crops we’ll harvest depend on the seeds we sow.”
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.”
“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 Donald 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.”
I had to look that one up for a refresher, and when I did, wished I’d asked a follow-up. The 25th amendment calls for the vice president to replace the president “in the event of death, removal, resignation, or incapacitation.” Since Trump is already somewhat incapacitated, more so all the time, it would seem, I’m assuming she was probably alluding to the “resignation” option, which I for one have been espousing for a while as our most likely way out of this long national nightmare. If you attend Albright’s Santa Cruz speech, this would be a great follow-up question for her.
“The reason I also wanted historic parts of my book, like how Mussolini happened, was to illustrate how fascism can creep up on a society,” Albright told me. “By the way, Mussolini said he was ‘a stable genius.’”
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 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.”
Albright has devoted her life to democracy to a degree few could really fathom. She’s worked on democracy the way Steph Curry has worked on his jumper. Albright was born in 1937 and grew up in Prague—her father, the diplomat Joseph Korbel, a supporter of icons of Czech democracy like Masaryk and Beneš. The family fled Hitler to live in England during World War II, then returned briefly to Prague before moving to Belgrade, where Korbel had a diplomatic posting, and ultimately moving to the U.S. by the late 1940s.
“On the day the fascists first altered the direction of my life, I had barely mastered the art of walking. The date was March 15, 1939. Battalions of German storm troopers invaded my native Czechoslovakia, escorted Adolf Hitler to Prague Castle, and pushed Europe to the threshold of a second world war. After ten days in hiding, my parents and I escaped to London. There we joined exiles from all across Europe in aiding the Allied war effort while waiting anxiously for the ordeal to end.
When, after six grueling years, the Nazis surrendered, we returned home with high hopes, eager to build a new life in a free land. My father continued his career in the Czechoslovak Foreign Service and, for a brief time, all was well. Then, in 1948, our country fell under the control of Communists. Democracy was shut down and once more my family was driven into exile. That Armistice Day, we arrived in the United States, where, under the watchful eyes of the Statue of Liberty, we were welcomed as refugees.”
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.”
Diversity was a strength of the Prague of Albright’s youth, so she’s not just mouthing slogans, she’s speaking of honest regard. I’ve always felt very at home in Prague—the Prague of Milan Kundera, the Prague of Havel, a place where the storytellers and the dreamers had a seat at the table, which sounds to me like California. But Prague also teaches the world about how much can change quickly. I was in Prague the night of the Velvet Divorce, when Slovakia decided to sever itself and create two states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, watching a tiny TV with my Czech friend Ondrej. It’s worth studying enough history to understand that you never know what’s coming.
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.”
As I spoke, I was in Virginia, working on a book (to be published this summer) looking at the events of the deadly August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Albright is correct. We do have to worry, and we have to use that worry to push us not to yell louder, not to tweet meaner tweets, but to ask ourselves again what more we can do for decency, what more we can do to reach out and bring people together, what more we can do to understand better the fault lines and underlying causes of so much of the angst and fear that fuel the hate and resentment. Absorbing the words and message of rare individuals like Madeleine Albright, truly a wise woman, is a good place to start.
Madeleine Albright at the Kaiser Permanente Arena
Bookshop Santa Cruz will present an evening with Madeleine Albright on Tuesday, Feb. 5, at 7 p.m. at the Kaiser Permanente Arena in Santa Cruz. The event is co-sponsored by The Humanities Institute at UC Santa Cruz and Temple Beth El.
Tickets are $23 and include one general admission ticket and one pre-signed paperback copy of ‘Fascism: A Warning.’ All books will be distributed at the venue. Albright will not be doing a signing at the event.
Update: Jan. 14, 2019 — This story originally misspelled the name of Rep. Rashida Tlaib. We regret the error.