At the outset of her book, “Fascism: A Warning,” Madeleine Albright quotes Primo Levi (1919 -1987), an Italian chemist, partisan, Holocaust survivor, and writer: “Every age has its own Fascism.” It is true today in Europe and the United States just as it has been throughout history. The European Union’s primary problems today are Hungary and Poland. Viktor Orban of Hungary has undermined democracy by changing election rules, packing the courts with allies, and insisting on uncritical media coverage. In Poland, Jaroslav Kaczynski has taken a similar approach, mostly by neutralizing the judicial system. Albright, who was born in Czechoslovakia and served as the United States’ first female Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, devotes chapter after chapter to modern-day autocrats, beginning with Benito Mussolini and ending with Donald Trump.
According to Albright, fascism is not an ideology but a means to obtain and maintain power. It is the willingness to do whatever is necessary—including the use of force and trampling on the rights of others—to achieve victory and command obedience. It arises from a social environment of unrest: anger and dissatisfaction among the populace, conflicts and strikes, a sense of unequal treatment, a weak and/or corrupt government, and the lack of “a center” to govern or find solutions. This was true of Italy following World War I. Mussolini was a magnetic leader who exploited widespread dissatisfaction by promising all things to everyone. He did not pit class versus class, but proposed that all unite—workers, students, soldiers, and business people. In a step-by-step process, he abolished all competing powers, eliminated freedom of the press, named municipal officials himself, and took control of the national police.
Trump became president during similar circumstances. For years, there has been a growing economic disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots.” In addition, The New York Times recently reported that a measure of social progress finds that the quality of life has dropped in America over the last decade, even as it has risen almost everywhere else. Both the people and the politicians have become politically polarized. There is little compromise in the government—no calming “center” to find solutions and unify. Racial and social unrest have led to demonstrations and violence. Whereas Mussolini sought to govern and to unify under his absolute power, Trump doesn’t care about governing. His transactional style is driven by “what’s in this for me?”. He is dividing and creating conflict, fear, violence, and racial unrest so that he can be the leader of “law and order.” Stoking violence is a key tool in the authoritarian’s playbook—Mussolini had his black shirts, and Trump has his supporting thugs and a private military.
Neither Mussolini nor Trump distinguished themselves academically. They were not original thinkers nor held ideological commitments. They are both narcissists and actors who could invoke theatrics. And they believed that they were and are infallible. Storefronts in Italy held signs that said, Il Duce ha sempre ragione, that is, Il Duce is always right. Trump never takes responsibility—he claims to always be right and blames others for any problems. Both disdained their adversaries and did not appoint strong advisors—only loyalists. Both lied continually—another tool in the authoritarian’s playbook—because lies repeated often enough—and echoed in the supporting media– are believed by too many people.
Trump’s entire Republican National Convention in August 2020 invoked the imagery of dictatorships. Family members and subordinates piled on over-the-top praise, and every speaker demonized anyone who didn’t support Trump’s continued rule. First Lady Melania Trump’s dress evoked a Nazi uniform. And the backdrop of the White House—a completely illegal setting for this political event—with its wall of flags was an attempt to project majesty and might. All of this would be bad enough, but it comes on the heels of Trump continually undermining the press, running roughshod over the justice system and the courts, and thumbing his nose at the rule of law.
The downfall of Mussolini came during World War II. Neither the average Italian, nor the beleaguered armed forces, nor the king wished to be associated with the Third Reich. Many were unhappy when Mussolini consented to the same anti-Semitic laws that had been in effect in Germany. Even those who supported Il Duce didn’t like seeing him play junior partner to a Teutonic racist. In 1943 his delegates circulated a secret document proposing that constitutional powers be restored to the king and parliament. The proposal’s author, Dino Grandi, told Mussolini, “You believe you have the devotion of the people, but you lost it when you tied Italy to Germany.” Mussolini fled but was captured and shot by a firing squad. His body, and that of his mistress, were dumped in Milan, only to be hanged, upside-down, in a piazza there, which today is commemorated with a plaque.
Who knows what destiny awaits Donald J. Trump. He too is in the midst of a war—against COVID19—but he has done nothing to confront this killer of more than 200,000 Americans. And he has continually lied to Americans about this deadly virus. Despite poll numbers that show Biden comfortably ahead in the November election, many fear that Trump will do anything to maintain power – solicit foreign interference in the election, manipulate the voting, fuel more violence, even start a civil war. And that is exactly what fascism is—no end to satiating a hunger for power.