Books for Our Times: “Fascism: A Warning,” by Madeleine Albright

Carla Seaquist
7 min readMay 23, 2024


Sixth in an ongoing series, Books for Our Times

Care must always be taken when invoking the word “fascism.” Few words are more firecracker than this particular f-word or, since the author under discussion capitalizes this phenomenon, the capital F-word. Yet one suspects few of those invoking the word, especially if they invoke it in anger and fear, understand precisely what the word means.

Someone who knew — Madeleine Albright — tells us of the perils America and the world face if we do not understand this phenomenon’s import and how it is our anger and fear, manipulated by demagogues, that feed it. Albright knew in her bones about Fascism: She was born in a country that fell to Fascism (Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia). As President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations and, later, as Secretary of State (1997–2001), Albright was an ardent advocate for democracy. She wrote this book, titled simply “Fascism,” her second to last (she died in 2022), during the tenure of the “anti-democratic” (her term) Donald Trump, but she noted, pre-Trump, “snares” confronting the world’s democracies. Present at the creation of a flood of new democracies after the West won the Cold War, she now saw democracy ebbing around the world.

Published in 2018, this book’s subtitle — “A Warning”— gives it new validity now. The anti-democratic Trump, running to retake the White House in 2024, is polling way ahead, by double digits, of the GOP field; his campaign promises to be a retribution tour fueled by lies of a rigged 2020 election. His party refuses to acknowledge the violent Trump-incited insurrection of January 6, 2021 meant to overturn that vote; it refuses to disavow political violence and instead escalates the violent rhetoric; it deprives, legislatively and judicially, whole sectors of citizens of their rights (voting, abortion); and it fetishizes gun culture. Armed militias with patriotic names (Oath Keepers, Proud Boys) comport themselves as Trump’s army. Internationally, the post-World War II order is violated by Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s criminal land grab in Ukraine.

All these factors figure in Albright’s definition of Fascism: “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.” It is this element — the willingness to resort to force, often in the name of reform or crusade — that makes Fascism lethal. To paraphrase a Clinton campaign slogan, “It’s the violence, stupid.” In pursuit of the Holy Grail — absolute power — today’s Fascist comes into power via legitimate means, i.e., elections. Propelling him there is his skill in harnessing people’s grievance “because of a lost war, a lost job, a memory of humiliation, or a sense their country is in steep decline.” Unlike military dictatorships imposed from above, grievance comes from below.

Albright charts Fascism to the early 20th century with the rise of Italy’s Benito Mussolini, whose lane to power was the workers’ movement; who argued justice is obtained only through violent struggle; who vowed to “drain the swamp” (drenare la palude). Getting granular, Albright relates how “just a few dozen angry men….pledged their readiness ‘to kill or die’ in defense of Italy against all enemies.” She writes, “To dramatize their unity, they chose for their emblem the fasces, a bundle of elm rods coupled with an ax that in ancient times had represented the power wielded by a Roman consul.” With similar granularity, Albright details the rise of other tyrants: Hitler, Stalin, Venezuela’s Chavez, Turkey’s Erdogan, Hungary’s Orban, the Kim family in North Korea, Putin. Albright is particularly illuminating on the climb to power taken by Mussolini and Hitler and their macho interaction: Example, as payback for Hitler taking Romania’s oil fields, Mussolini took Greece, a feat he wanted Hitler to learn of “from the newspapers.”

Tellingly, once in power and to strengthen their grip, all these tyrants work the same page from Mussolini’s playbook: that is, as Albright writes, “in seeking to accumulate power, it is wise to do so in the manner of one plucking a chicken — feather by feather.” Little by little, attack and dismantle the components of representative governance: by “reforming” the courts and electoral system and military; smearing, jailing, killing political opponents; doing same to the press and filling the empty space with propaganda and lies. It is all so banal yet so awful, considering the millions upon millions of suffering lives.

Also telling are the violent precepts by which tyrants operate, proudly so. Mussolini vowed to “break the bones of the democrats…and the sooner the better” and exulted that the time had come for Italians to “horrify the world by their aggressiveness….instead of charming it with their guitars.” Hitler boasted of the Nazis, “We have no scruples, no bourgeois hesitations…. They [the “reactionary forces”] regard me as an uneducated barbarian. Yes, we are barbarians. We want to be barbarians. It is an honorable title.” Hitler instructed his senior officers to “close your hearts to pity. Act brutally,” adding “The victor will not be asked afterward whether he told the truth,” thus “the colossal lie” was allowed. Boasted Hitler lieutenant Hermann Göring, “I have no conscience.”

Awful as these precepts are, it’s important to remember: They garnered wide public support when first invoked. Albright cites the unhappy recognition, too late, of a member of the German public, who, though nonpolitical, realizes:

“What….all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing…. And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jew swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.”

Which brings us to Donald Trump, democracy-wrecker. Albright, ever the diplomat, refers to him as “the present embarrassment” and, in executing the office of the president of the United States, a “cause for shame.” She cites as his antecedent Joseph McCarthy’s “vituperative style.” Among her bill of particulars, she cites Trump’s “peculiar view of NATO as a protection scheme in which the United States is ‘owed’ billions of dollars for supposedly hiring out its armed forces to provide security for others. Personally, I have never conceived of NATO as a business proposition.” (Albright died just as President Biden and NATO mounted the West’s response to Putin’s Ukraine invasion.) What galls Albright most: Trump’s high praise for today’s Fascists, which praise she quotes in full.

How to counter this tide of Fascists? Collectively, institutions like NATO and the European Union must be maintained and fortified. Politically, in this time of extremes, it’s the moderate middle that must be fortified: “The vital center,” she writes, “which in the past has saved the country from divisions over a host of contentious issues, has become a lonely place — historically an augury of more extreme problems in the offing.”

Individually, Albright would have us modulate: “It seems today that almost everyone has a grievance.” To give demagogues less fodder, serve up less grievance, contempt, anger. She chides us for being “spoiled”: “to look for and expect easy answers when the most serious problems we face are anything but.” She worries about a national type reflected in “addiction counselors and reality TV stars.” Bravely, she chides fellow liberals with Fascist tendencies (she actually calls them “Fascist liberals”): “For those on the far left, virtually any corporate bigwig fits the bill”; she especially worries about “the contempt” that “makes us unwilling to listen to what others say — unwilling, in some cases, even to allow them to speak.” Albright stresses responsible exercise of rights. And she prays we “push back harder against the debilitating cancer of cynicism.” She admired Abraham Lincoln for his mission: “to save a nation from the ugliness of its own worst passions and policies.” In sum, Albright urges us to reform and mature.

In this struggle, Albright’s primer-type book instructs and inspires. The level of detail is what we would expect from a Secretary of State’s briefing notebook. Her writing style is concrete and clear, not abstract; she endeavors to convey meaning. And she conveys that meaning urgently. Albright famously invoked, often, that America is “the indispensable nation”: In a world devolving back to brute force, the nation that Benjamin Franklin said embodies “the cause of all mankind” — against tyranny and for liberty — must hold.

Albright also famously said she was “an optimist who worries a lot.” This book makes clear: Albright’s foremost worry was Fascism, the return of. We should worry, too.



Carla Seaquist

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" (Vol. II). Playwright. Fmr. HuffPost.