Folks who showed up to hear the first female Secretary of State speak at the Granada Theater on Tuesday night were greeted outside by protesters calling Madeleine Albright a fascist, ostensibly, according to their signs, for her inaction during the 1994 Rwanda genocide. It was an ironic – or perhaps deliberate – taunt because Albright was appearing at the UCSB Arts and Lectures event to promote her book called Fascism: A Warning.
However fair it is to blame President Clinton’s Secretary of State for the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda, the protesters were not fair to the definition of the word, “fascist,” which is not just any old four-letter epithet. In her book, Albright reminds us that fascism is a word with both a specific meaning and a history.
Taking various turns as journalist, diplomat, academic, author, politician, consultant, and maybe most importantly, the inspirational face in the framed photograph looming behind Leslie Knope’s desk, Albright, twice a child refugee whose family fled the Nazis and then the Communists from their native Czechoslovakia, definitely knows a thing or two about fascism, the ultra-nationalist authoritarian strain of leadership creeping across the globe and infecting our democracy here in the United States.
Calling herself “an optimist who worries a lot,” Albright warned about the dangers of the U.S.’s absence from international institutions, and of President Trump’s fascist tendencies, including his efforts to discredit the free press. “A free media is the basis of democracy,” she said, while also lamenting that in our splintered media environment, citizens can isolate themselves in echo chambers. That’s why, she said, she listens to right wing radio while driving to work in the morning, endangering the pedestrians of Washington, DC with her angry reactions.
After opening remarks, Albright engaged in a dialogue with Jeffrey Greenfield, the television reporter and commentator, author, and Politico columnist now semi-retired in Santa Barbara. For his part, Greenfield put on his valiant journalist superhero costume and attempted to challenge Albright. Weren’t Trump voters reacting to the establishment of which Albright is a member, he asked. Weren’t voters sick of the experts?
As Albright would deftly illustrate, Greenfield’s questions undressed themselves. It’s true that Albright had the privilege of serving as Secretary of State in a quaint era when the womanizers running our country chose cabinet members who actually possessed knowledge about the departments they would lead.
And while Albright wanted to make the case that policy – especially foreign policy – matters, and that we’re screwing it all up, there’s an absurdist quality to having ideological debates when the leaders at the top levels of our federal government barely have wet brains, let alone consistent philosophies. Expert or amateur.
She gave the example of Trump’s recently announced pullout from Syria, the subsequent clarification from his national security advisor John Bolton, then the seeming contradiction from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (not to mention the resignation-in-protest of Secretary of Defense James Mattis.) “We have confused our adversaries as well as our allies,” she said. She also pointed out that our political system requires the executive branch to sell its policies to Congress, and that because the executive branch can’t craft a unified message, Congress is often just as confused as the rest of the world.
Sure, the “establishment” has made some piss poor decisions (see e.g. the Iraq War), but the infatuation with Trump isn’t necessarily about specific conditions at home or abroad. She did single out globalization, whose facelessness has spurred people to cling to national or ethnic identities, and technology’s displacement of unskilled laborers as two crucial sources of alienation among Trump voters. (She also stressed that Hillary Clinton won the election, if not the Presidency.)
Albright, however, said that much of Trump’s appeal was emotional. She pointed out the political rally as an important feature of fascism. She said that Trump made his supporters feel like he was responding to their needs, that he made it alright to be a victim (despite his own wealth and the country’s power), that he offered up scapegoats. She made comparisons to Mussolini’s rallies and his politics of grievance.
“If you pluck a chicken one feather at a time,” Albright quoted the Italian Mussolini, the first fascist leader, “nobody notices.” She said, “there’s a lot of feather-plucking now.”
If she didn’t say this explicitly in her remarks the other night, Albright makes the point in her book that fascism isn’t aligned with a particular ideology. There have been right-wing fascists and left-wing fascists.
To discuss policy decisions outside of the context of our current leadership, which is accented by fascist overtones, and the emotional tenor of our national mood – “cranky” – is almost beside the point, Albright seemed to be telling her audience and her interlocutor.
That said, she did lament the United States’ abrogation of leadership on the world stage, telling Greenfield that we have made the wrong decisions, among others, in pulling out of the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Iran nuclear deal.
Albright was perhaps most heartfelt in her comments about immigration policy. She stressed her own gratitude to the United States for opening its doors to her family. She also suggested that an integrated global economy was a better solution to illegal immigration than isolationism. “Most people want to stay where they were born if they can live in peace and find decent work,” she said.
At the same time, she advocated for a major immigration bill that does not discriminate against specific parts of the world and that is “generous,” calling for some amnesty, specifically for DREAMers. “We are a very large country,” she said, “and we have plenty of room.”