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Is your leader a fascist?

A stark record of a world gone mad from a woman who's had a ringside view

‘It’s hard to imagine any other Russian leader posing shirtless with a wriggling fish,’ Albright says. Photo: Reuters
‘It’s hard to imagine any other Russian leader posing shirtless with a wriggling fish,’ Albright says. Photo: Reuters

In 2000, Madeleine Albright became the first US secretary of state to board a plane to Pyongyang—a place where fascism has been a “family enterprise" for three generations—and spend 12 hours over two days with Kim Jong-il. The two of them were the same height, partly because they wore the same-size heels, as she observes in her just-out book, Fascism: A Warning (HarperCollins).

The North Korean leader suggested the two countries normalize diplomatic ties. In this new, feel-good era, his country would work on educating its young differently. “Our children are taught to call people from your country ‘American bastards’," he said. Then he asked his interpreter for a translation. “Yankees," the interpreter replied.

Albright, who had her first brush with fascism in 1939 when Germany invaded her country of birth, Czechoslovakia, explores the scope, modern history and meaning of the word that we now use to label anyone from a parent who imposes cellphone restrictions to an articulate feminist with whom we happen to disagree. In 2016, it was the most searched word on the Merriam Webster website after “surreal" (it was the year Donald Trump was elected US president), Albright says.

A fascist, says Albright, 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". Fascists use your personal data to track you, and spread false narratives through technology (Adolf Hitler used radio to reach 80 million people), repeating these narratives until they begin to sound plausible.

Of course, Albright has herself displayed some of the traits listed above. Who can forget the time she told a 60 Minutes reporter that the Bill Clinton sanctions imposed on Iraq that were believed to have led to the deaths of over 500,000 children, were “worth it"? Predictably, she doesn’t do too much introspecting.

In the history of 20th century fascism, Albright gives credit where it’s due: Benito Mussolini and Hitler. Mussolini abolished the political opposition, eliminated freedom of press, killed the labour movement and put himself in charge of everything from the police to the appointment of municipal officials. He interfered with the monarchy, church and education system, yet he was no match for Hitler—who hit peak performance one decade later—when it came to turning “warped concepts into reality".

The section on Hitler reads like a history primer for an audience that didn’t grow up on World War II horror stories; one that hears the name come up as part of political mud-slinging, like when Arun Jaitley compared Indira Gandhi to Hitler a few years ago or the former Karnataka chief minister drew parallels with Narendra Modi just last week. The book is a must-read for millennials who have grown to adulthood in a hate-fuelled world where there is no safe haven, not even in Albright’s own America

There’s such a crowd of contemporary leaders who employ the age-old tricks of fascism vying to be featured in this book that Joseph Stalin must share a chapter with Joseph McCarthy. Slobodan Milošević’s Bosnian bloodbath, Vladimir Putin the “bald liar" and “show off", Hugo Chavez’s rise against the backdrop of other Latin American military rulers, Oxford-educated Viktor Orbán’s “Illiberal democracy", Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the cult of North Korean fascism, and Donald Trump all get a chapter each, but Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte barely gets a mention. In fact, the competition is so fierce that the book finds no mention of any South Asian leaders who might fit the textbook definition of fascism that Albright offers.

“If this was a college of despots," she says, “we could imagine the course names: How to Rig a Constitutional Referendum; How to Intimidate the Media; How to Destroy Political Rivals Through Phony Investigations and Fake News; How to Create a Human Rights Commission That Will Cover Up Violations of Human Rights; How to Co-Opt a Legislature; and How to Divide, Repress and Demoralise Opponents So That No One Believes You Will Ever Be Defeated," she says. Cue: Mexican wave across the globe.

Ignore the Clinton-era back-slapping (she was secretary of state from 1997-2001); the spirited defence of the American foreign policy juggernaut and the country’s human rights record; and the predictable critique of Trump, who thinks Egypt’s dictatorial military leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is “fantastic", and whose “eyes light up" every time he encounters these bully strongmen.

Albright’s book targets people who don’t fully grasp the influence exerted by the sheer quantity of these modern-day bogeymen. Though she falls short of calling these leaders fascists—Putin isn’t a “full-blown Fascist because he hasn’t felt the need" and Erdogan still has a chance to “mend his nation’s democracy by moving away from recrimination and towards dialogue..."—she agrees that every step towards fascism makes the subsequent step shorter. If Mussolini was once convinced that he had given Hitler many good ideas to follow, now Albright worries that Putin is a model for other national leaders.

Lining up these leaders cheek by jowl in 300 pages, probably the publisher’s genius idea, makes this book a stark record of a world gone mad. Albright defines the scope of modern-day fascism well in this potboiler, her sixth book since she retired. Early on, Albright says that generosity of spirit is the “single most effective antidote to the self-centred moral numbness that allows Fascism to thrive". I wish she had told us more about that.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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