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Fascism: A Warning (Book Review)

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright fled Czechoslovakia twice, when Hitler was effectively given the country in 1938 and when it entered the Soviet sphere a decade later--first hand knowledge of Fascism. Fascism should have been finished after World War II, but like smallpox, keeps reappearing in altered form. Albright planned to publish this book during Hillary Clinton's first term as president, but urgency increased with Donald Trump's victory. Much of Fascism focuses on American/democratic values verses totalitarian states. A key point is Trump (and a number of other current leaders) have characteristics of fascist leaders of the past.

The best part of the book is the early chapters that define fascism and focus on Mussolini and Hitler (plus Franco), real fascists and the resulting carnage. Later chapter deal with autocracy of various kinds that revolve around individual charismatic leaders and how these resemble fascists. Albright defines fascism as a political ideology for seizing and holding power, with a charismatic totalitarian leader in a state-controlled capitalist nation. The pathway to power was more important than policy, relying on the anger of the mob in the face of perceived enemies. Deception and propaganda were important tools that worked amazingly well (later psychologists and behavioral economists showed how effective these tools can be). Fascists were aggressive, militaristic, expansionist, consolidated authority especially by controlling information. They focuses on rabid nationalism, repeating lies, focusing on the leader, eliminating rights of the people, and use any means to achieve goals (results justify means).

Benito Mussolini went from an Italian corporal in World War I to Il Duce, fascist extraordinaire. It was his term (from ancient Rome) and he defined it. In the face of a flailing Italian democracy, he directed his angry ex-veteran Black Shirts to march on Rome to replace the unstable government. The fascist motto: "believe, obey, fight." He started as something of a reformer, but entirely in his image (his own version of "drain the swamp"). He believed he was infallible and ran virtually everything. Unfortunately, he was not very good at it.

Fellow corporeal Adolf Hitler followed much of the Mussolini playbook, but could not achieve power until the Great Depression hit, when Hindenburg appointed him chancellor (at the time, he was not a citizen of Germany). His Enabling laws took control of Parliament, eliminated press freedom, and arrested socialists and other perceived enemies (soon to include faithful followers he believed had too much power). He was more or less allied with agriculture, core industries and the military. He could bluff his way to overthrow governments and his faithful military had victory after victory. He gave up on Britain, invaded the USSR, and declared war on the US after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. Four years and 50 million or so lives later he was defeated.

Other totalitarian leaders from Stalin to Chavez shared the traits of charismatic leadership and dictatorial power, but were not fascists. They all had utopian visions and achieved their objectives through violence. But Nazies, for example, were nationalists and racists, while communists focused on the class struggle and targeted landowners and other elitists. This is a weakness of the book, running a one-man police state seems to be the problem rather than trying to fit them all into fascists.

There is a big list of leaders with fascist traits, even in the US (think Huey Long or Joe McCarthy) and the book spends much time on their stories, from Eastern Europe, the Asia and Latin America. Current leaders with big egos and totalitarian tendencies include Putin in Russia, Maduro in Venezuela, and Kim in North Korea. Leaders of budding democracies heading in a totalitarian direction include Erdogon in Turkey and Orban in Hungary.

This brings us to Trump in America. The rule of law and separation of powers should limit Trump's tendencies--he does resemble Mussolini in Albright's telling, but the jury is out. The concepts of fake news, describing the media as the enemy of the people, retelling lies, denigrating securities institutions such as the FBI and CIA, and undoing decades of laws on pollution and the environment, and the seeming ineptness of Congress suggest institutional problems that could last decades.

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