Last month, leaders from around the globe gathered at the Washington National Cathedral to say goodbye to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. To pay my respects, I decided to read her penultimate book, Fascism: A Warning.
Fascism is a blend of personal memoir, reflections on diplomacy, history, and analysis of the moment in which Albright wrote the book in 2018. As then President Donald Trump swept aside political norms and attacked government institutions, Albright noticed both rising fascist tendencies and widespread misunderstanding of what fascism entails.
Fascism is not an ideology, nor is it a political party. It does not belong to the right or left, nor to one region of the globe. Fascism is a commitment to obtain and retain power using whatever means necessary, even violence.
Albright detailed fascist leaders’ methods and explained how they consolidated power. She considered the rise of authoritarian leaders, including Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Kim Jong-Un and Kim Jong-Il, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, and Vladimir Putin. She compared how they stack up against the core fascist tenets and how they retained or retain power. Albright carefully described a fascist playbook on full display in red states and embraced by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, among others.
Every fascist leader’s rise is unique, but there are common traits. Fascists usually come to power through a groundswell movement rather than a top-down imposition like a military coup. They exploit economic, cultural, and political grievances to build support and promise to restore their perceived former power or wealth. Fascists often come to power through legal means, and once in power, they crack down on information and spread propaganda and disinformation to reduce the threat of opposition. They also obsess over children—what they are taught, who teaches them, and how to shape them into loyal supporters.
Albright argued that Putin was “fascist-adjacent” because he hadn’t fully adopted all elements of fascist leaders—not because of scruples, but because he had no need to resort to those measures to consolidate and retain control. On the fascist side of the ledger, he seized power in 1999 at the expense of “provincial governors, the legislature, the courts, the private sector, and the press.” Additionally, a suspicious number of his critics have found themselves poisoned or thrown out of windows. On the other side, he insisted that Russia be integrated into the West, cultivated the appearance of rival political parties, and permitted independent news organizations, like The Washington Post and The New York Times, to operate within his borders. Four years later, those self-imposed limitations have evaporated. Putin has cracked down on the independent press, instigated wars against other nations, and positioned Russia as in a fight for survival against the West.
On February 23, 2022, in her final opinion editorial for The New York Times, Albright wrote, “Should [Putin] invade [Ukraine], it will be a historic error.” I wish she were still here to help make sense of the war in Ukraine, the January 6 investigation, and fascistic legislation in the states.
The last item doesn’t have anything to do with foreign policy or military power, of course. But bills prohibiting abortion, DeSantis’s battle with Disney, banning books from local libraries, and “anti–critical race theory” legislation is the stuff of fascism. These measures focus on breeding a new generation of what Albright called “true believers, striving to produce ‘new men’ and ‘new women’ who will obey without question or pause.”
First, the goal is to produce as many children as possible who will become faithful supporters in the future. In the Third Reich, Hitler promised women “emancipation from emancipation.” Women were encouraged to leave their jobs, return to their homes, tend to the hearth, and give birth “to the next generation of Aryan supermen.” Closer to home, the bills passed in states across the country to provoke the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade have succeeded wildly.
The next step is to control how children are raised and what information they learn. Like fascists, DeSantis’s policies in Florida have driven a persistent rejection of facts and, as Albright put it, a series of “colossal untruths.” Take his “Don’t Say Gay” bill, for example. There is zero evidence that teachers are “grooming” children, brainwashing them to become gay. After the Walt Disney Company, one of the largest employers in Florida, spoke out against the bill, DeSantis and other Republicans passed a series of measures designed to punish the company for voicing the opinion. In fascist states, differing opinions are not allowed.
Once alternative voices are crushed, fascists then turn to regulating what information is available to children. In March, the Florida legislature passed sweeping bills designed to purportedly allow parents greater control over the information available to their children. Schools are now removing books by award-winning authors like Judy Bloom, Toni Morrison, Khaled Hosseini, and Jodi Picoult because they might contain “obscene material.” As Albright noted, Hitler not only banned books but required all students to read Mein Kampf.
Many states are also passing bills that restrict what teachers can discuss in school. In Alabama, four bills are pending that forbid “the teaching or ‘affirming’ of certain concepts connected to gender, religion, or race.” If students learn about our nation’s complex history, it’s much harder to convince them that a common enemy—the Jewish people, the radical left, or immigrants—is to blame for all their troubles. Fascists cultivate an “us versus them” mentality to excite their supporters, and an enemy is essential to their success.
Albright poses questions that citizens should ask about “what our prospective leaders believe it worthwhile for us to hear.” One is particularly instructive and reveals how far we’ve already traveled toward fascism: Do our leaders “invite us to join with them in building and maintaining a healthy center for our societies, a place where rights and duties are apportioned fairly, the social contract is honored, and all have room to dream and grow?” In the years since Fascism was published and the weeks since Albright’s death, the answer is increasingly no.