Madeleine Albright. Fascism: A Warning Chapters 16 & 17

Global Studies Group Discussion

9 June 2019

Fascism:  A Warning by Madeleine Albright, chapters 17 and 16

The report made by each facilitator is reproduced at the beginning of the discussion with comments of the members following:

Chapter 17 – The Right Questions – notes from Bill

She equates the need for a strong leader as being a precursor to authoritarian rule—

she states that when we are angry afraid and confused we may be tempted to give away bits of our freedom or other people’s freedom in the Quest for direction and Order—

so she sees fascism or authoritarianism as coming out of people being scared, wanting Direction, wanting to see strength in their leader—

she speaks of many leaders in recent history coming to power amid political and economic crisis and speaks of these leaders as offering their constituents some kind of protection or Shield against uncertainties—

she speaks of leaders who were thought of as Heroes until they revealed some kind of defect of character and became more like authoritarians –she speaks of leaders who stayed in office a very long time and were not really Democratic leaders anymore—

speaks of power as being kind of an addiction– the idea that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely—

she speaks of Hitler as explaining his own popularity in terms of the fact that he reduced the problems that the German people faced into very simple terms

she quotes and statements that George W bush made in 2017 which make him sound very pro-democratic and very anti-authoritarian—

But these were general statements he made after leaving office and one wonders how his behavior as president compares to these general statements

how important it is to work with others around the world to achieve our national goals

another one of these general goals–she seems to be rebutting against the ideas of trump which is to encourage people to be very paranoid about working with foreign countries—

believes that fascism and fascist policies pose a more violent threat to International Freedom prosperity and peace than at any time since World War II

speaking of a fascist as someone who claims to speak for whole nation or group, is utterly unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use violence and whatever other means are necessary to achieve his or her goals

she’s beginning to have doubts at the age of 80 now that America could be counted upon not to allow such a leader to gain power—

Trump is the first anti-democratic president in modern US history– he flaunts his distain for Democratic institutions, the ideals of equality and social justice–in a less Democratic country he would audition for dictator because that is his instinct—

this is influencing other world leaders in a more authoritarian Direction

Trump’s rise, in concert with the existence of so many authoritarian leaders around the world like Erdogan, Putin, Orban, Duterte puts the whole global system in peril

she doesn’t want to give a long list of specific proposals that would hopefully further a democratic regime in America, which have been worked on by many of the conferences where she has been an attendee– she does speak about some of the initiatives that Obama instituted during his presidency, involved with education, tax and spending policies, racial healing, immigration and the economic meltdown which he inherited when he came into office

These policies she feels were favorable to promoting the growth of Democracy–

in November 2016 Obama’s favorability rating was very high- the highest of his presidency- and yet Trump still won– it seems as if she doesn’t understand this too well– which I guess a lot of people would feel the same way, that they also don’t understand it

this puzzle does not seem to be limited to the United States—

countries like Hungary Poland in Philippines were not in unusually dire economic Straits either–and yet they also have very authoritarian type leadership at this time–

the world seems to be overall in much better position- extreme poverty is down- there is an increased availability of medicines- many public health and Refugee care agencies have done a lot of good in dealing with the refugee crisis and she attributes China’s rise in recent years to its people being very Adept at capitalism

considering all the progress that’s been made in the last seven decades it doesn’t seem as if democracy has failed why then do we feel so often that it has and is failing?

she suggests that we have become impatient as a people and we’ve grown so inured to our quick technological solutions to all our problems in life that we don’t have the patience anymore to deal with democracy’s sluggish pace—

perhaps we’ve been manipulated by hucksters who pledged to deliver the world on a silver platter but have no clue how to make good on their promises—

that sounds to me a lot like Trump or somebody like that

she suggests we might need to redefine the concepts of greatness and strength

But it seems to me that she herself is just guessing here. She doesn’t seem to know the answers to her own question and is just offering some tentative guesses

she speaks of Lincoln and then of Mandela as men of great patience and understanding- men who tried to understand all of the people who they served who were often ridiculed- at least in the case of Lincoln – and yet were able to understand the people that they governed and to reach out to them and in the case of Lincoln, he was able to keep a nation together which was threatening to tear itself apart– in the case of Mandela, he learned much about the Afrikaners, the white South Africans in prison and later when he got out of prison he was able to communicate with them to find common ground with them, to forgive them and to lead them as president—

she concludes that each of them fought with monsters but neither became one

she concludes with a number of questions that we should ask about our leaders in order to determine whether they would be good leaders or not –

these are questions such as :

does the person who aspires to be leader cater to our prejudices?

does he want us to nurture our anger toward those we believe have done us wrong?

does he encourage us to have contempt for governing institutions?

does he seek to destroy our faith in essential contributors to democracy such as the press and judiciary?

does he exploit the symbols of patriotism to turn us against each other? will he accept the verdict of the polls if he loses the election?

does he brag about his ability to solve all problems, to put to rest all anxieties and satisfy every desire?

does he solicit support by speaking with pumped up machismo about using violence to blow away enemies ?

all of these questions seem to invite a comparison with Donald Trump, because many of these things sound like the kind of things that Trump would say or do—

she describes the Democratic type of leader as someone who would “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”

this sounds kind of General to me, kind of vague but I guess it’s a good start

she does say at the end that the answers to these questions will not tell us whether respective leaders are left or right wing, conservative or liberal, democrat or republican,–

to that I would disagree- I think anybody who said the things that she lists in her earlier previous statements would definitely be someone like Trump or some other Republican—

I was just listening to all the major Democratic candidates give their presentation and and all of them echoed the kind of positive, pro- democracy statements that she enumerates thoughout this book, not just in this chapter—

so I think yes they would be Democrats who would say the good stuff and it would definitely be a Republican or someone like Trump who would say the bad stuff- so in that I disagree with her-

I think the interesting thing about this chapter is that she’s able to zero in some of the key features in a very general way that that do distinguish an authoritarian from True small D Democrat—

but I think what she doesn’t do in this chapter is explain why so many people voted for Trump in 2016, knowing the kind of person he was—

she doesn’t really offer any explanation for that other than this thing about people wanting an authoritarian person who will tell them what to do, who will give them definite answers. who will seem strong and and kind of knowing everything about what to do—

first of all Trump doesn’t fit completely the kind of stereotype of the authoritarian leader that she puts out –

I don’t know if he really projected the image of someone who was very capable or very much in control either of himself or able to control and to adroitly managed complex governmental systems and policies

I wonder if he came across even during the election campaign as being all that competent in those areas—

although he did seem like he certainly knew what he wanted to do and had very strong opinions about what he wanted to do

But I wonder how closely he resembles the kind of profile of the authoritarian leader that she describes—

So I wonder how well she understands or is really able to explain the phenomenon of Trump

I think she focuses on some very general features of democracy as opposed to authoritarianism which are useful in a general sense but she doesn’t answer many specific questions about our particular situation—

Why was Trump elected, why did people vote for him that kind of thing– and many other specific questions about our specific situation right now

These specific questions about our current situation are not really well addressed in this book—

but as a general statement of principles I think the book is valuable and I think that the historical examples that she cites throughout the book are very interesting to read about– to learn about these historical examples and to observe how she uses them to buttress her General points about authoritarianism vs. democracy


  • The “Warning” of Albright’s is that we don’t know how fast fascism is coming.
  • “Democracy” has been a conundrum since the founding of the republic, and democratic practices have been attacked since the beginning.
  • That we live in a democracy is misleading.
  • The rapidity of shocks like 911, climate change, population, migrations will continue.
  • We are entering an age of continuous unexpected shocks when people will look to a strong leader.
  • Trump looks strong, but in fact he is an incompetent tv character who delivers his own shocks. We are going to have to learn how to live with it and navigate the times.
  • We need to learn the “Right Questions” in terms of migrations. People migrate when they are no longer able to produce as they used to in home areas – not because they want to move per se.


Chapter 16 – Bad Dreams – Elvira


Entitled “Bad Dreams” chapter 16 talks about the subtle and insidious rise of fascism which can gradually poison a democracy, and envisions how fascism might infiltrate American democracy:

Albright begins this chapter with a discussion of populism, saying that

  • there is nothing inherently biased or intolerant about being a populist”… the dictionary defines a populist as “a believer in the rights, wisdom or virtues of the common people”.
  • most political movements are populist to some degree, but that does not make them necessarily fascist
  • populism is not inherently a threat to civil liberties
  • most American politicians profess a belief in the rights, wisdom and virtues of the people,
  • populist beliefs of many politicians stem from a desire to appeal to the majority, as a strategy for winning elections.
  • It is the combination of a popular base and a leader who is compelled to dominate at all costs, including the use of force to trample on the rights of others, that results in fascism.


Albright briefly gives a history of populism in the U.S., illustrating how populism had supporters  both on the left and the right:

1890 American People’s Party: presidential candidate James B.Weaver. The party attracted workers, promised to raise taxes on the wealthy, nationalize telephone lines and railroads. Won 5 states in 1892 election.

1930’s Huey Long, left-leaning LA senator, promised people their fair share of the American Dream, called for income guarantees, property limits, old age pensions. Long was assassinated in 1935

1960’s George Wallace representing the anti-Washington right: criticized the rich as well as “welfare queens”, hippies, civil rights advocates and “pointy-headed” college professors. He was shot in 1972, spent rest of his life in a wheelchair, apologized for his racist past.

1980’s Ross Perot, libertarian nationalist, attacked the entire political establishment, campaigned against corruption, budget deficits, globalism; got 19% of the vote in 1992 presidential election.



Given the belief that fascism takes hold gradually, when demagogues seize onto popular movements for their own purposes, Albright entertains the question of whether it could proceed very far in the U.S. before being stopped. In this context she asks the reader to envision her 3 bad dreams:


The first nightmare, right-wing fascism:

Millionaire reactionaries take over the media, pour money into getting their candidates elected, and when elected they assert power to appoint compliant judges. In this dream, the president has full authority to manipulate the media and thereby institute his right-wing policies. In this scenario, epic disasters result in armed militias who use violence in “self-defense” with the promise of presidential pardons.

The second nightmare, liberal fascism:

Wealthy liberals fund candidates who institute standards of political correctness (e.g. banning right-wing ideas, racial profiling, etc.) which result in bigotry and intolerance, enforced by the use of violence.

The third nightmare, revolution:

The U.S . suffers multiple terrorist attacks in which thousands are killed, inspiring terror in the populace, leading them to lose faith in their government. They take matters into their own hands, heeding the call to revolution of a charismatic young leader to “free the country from lies that have been sapping its will and shackling its might”, promising to protect them from the terrorists, to restore America as it used to be, urging them to strike first.

Albright notes the following as facets of an environment that invite a demagogue:

  • The failure of responsible leaders from both parties to address national interests together
  • The failure of Congress to rein in executive power
  • The lack of effective mechanisms to assuage social and economic grievances (others are getting better treatment)
  • The prevailing attitude of contempt for those who don’t agree with us
  • The lack of trust in political leaders
  • The disparity of sources of information – what should we believe?

As hopeful signs, Albright points to

  • Those (among them George W. Bush) who do not generalize blame or condemn whole populations for bad acts
  • Renewed interest by young people to participate in the political process

Conditions that could make the U.S. susceptible to a fascist demagogue:

– economic injustices: stock market soars but living standards for the majority don’t improve

– polarization of opinions and growing hostility towards each other

–  racial unrest, natural disasters, threat of war


Albright’s commentary does not discuss whether the Trump administration sets the conditions for a demagogue to take advantage of a populist movement in a fascist takeover, but it certainly invites the reader to contemplate the question.


  • “Neo”liberal fascism – the old liberalism has been crushed. It emerged when finance capitalism became the economic form, with stocks and bonds and securities.
  • Strong law and order are required to keep the masses in order.
  • No fascist movement emerges without a party to organize it, the Republican Party cannot do that.
  • There is a possible danger of liberal fascism – the tendency of liberals to demand “my way or the highway”
  • The most probably danger is right wing fascism.
  • Trump has been allowed to use the military on the southern border.
  • Disagree – this would be unconstitutional. The military is not being used directly but is deployed in a supportive role.
  • Trump has been successful in appointing compliant judges (very scary), the election of legislatures, abortion currently. There is a struggle to take back control of our bodies.
  • In terms of the three “Bad Dreams,” the main challenge is coming from the right. Trump is dismantling the centrists – the establishment.  Revolution would come from the left.
  • What is the role of the bourgeoisie?
  • MLK didn’t stay at home and sing to the choir, but preached to his loudest opposition – as should we.
  • There is a corporate take-over with regulatory schemes and the running of various agencies.