Madeleine Albright’s death was greeted with warm tributes, many focused on the old, but sadly still-required, cliches about smashing glass ceilings. However, a more fitting tribute to America’s first female secretary of state might be for people to read – and heed – her final book, Fascism – A Warning.
Published four years ago, as the world was coming to terms with Donald Trump as president, she did not hold back in comparing Hitler with Trump, and other populist leaders. She pointed especially to their rejection of conventional politics, turning of people against elites, capacity for lying, elevation of propaganda above policy, demands of loyalty, misleading simplification of complex challenges, and deliberate undermining of institutions designed to hold them to account. Remind you of anyone close to home?
Trump, she argued, “won the presidency because he convinced enough voters in the right states that he was a teller of blunt truths, a masterful negotiator, and an effective champion of American interests. That he is none of those things should disturb our sleep, but there is a larger cause for unease. Trump is the first anti-democratic president in modern US history.” The Capitol Hill insurrection of January 6 2021, and his continued bleating about a stolen election, confirmed that for sure.
As for Vladimir Putin, Albright stopped short of labelling him a “fullblown fascist” in 2018, but detailed many fascist tendencies and actions. “He has flipped through Stalin’s copy of the totalitarian playbook,” she wrote, “and underlined passages of interest to call on when convenient.” I suspect that in her dying days she shared the concerns of many that Putin has decided the convenient moment has come.
Albright, whom I got to know during the Kosovo conflict of 1998-99 – there are just wars, you know – was one of those political figures whose backstory was highly relevant to how she did her job. It gave her a real moral authority, as Nato took on a European dictator, Milošević, engaged in ethnic cleansing, aka genocide.
Born Madeleine Korbel in Prague, the daughter of a Jewish diplomat forced into exile at the signing of the Munich Agreement, her family converted to Catholicism in a bid to evade the Nazis. They finally settled in London, lived there through the blitz and returned to Czechoslovakia after the war, only to be exiled again because of her father’s opposition to communism. When Madeleine was 11, they travelled to New York, where her father won political asylum. A glittering career of public service followed.
As she narrates the story of fascist history, the echoes today resonate ever more loudly. Read it, and learn that it was Mussolini who first coined the slogan “drain the swamp” so loved by the Trumpian radical right. Read of German newspapers of the 1930s whipping up hatred of judges as “enemies of the people”, and the wretched Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail comes to mind. Read of how totalitarian politicians used the language of treason and treachery, and you hear and see much of our media and politics today, and Putin vowing to liquidate the “scum” who dare to call his war a war.
“Hitler’s claim to distinction rested not on the quality of his ideas,” she said, “but instead on his extraordinary drive to turn warped concepts into reality. He said that most people earnestly desired to have faith in something and were not intellectually equipped to quibble over what that object of belief should be. He thought it shrewd, therefore, to reduce issues to terms that were easy to grasp and to lure his audience into thinking that behind the many sources of their problems, there loomed a single adversary…
“Hitler felt that his countrymen were looking for a man who spoke to their anger, understood their fears, and sought their participation in a stirring and righteous cause. He was delighted, not dismayed, by the outrage his speeches generated abroad. He believed that his followers wanted to see him challenged, because they yearned to hear him express contempt for those who thought they could silence him. The image of a brave man standing up against powerful foes is immensely appealing. In this way, Hitler could make even his persecution of the defenceless seem like self-defence…” Putin is there in every word. And he is not alone.
RIP Madeleine and, unless the fascist, sado-populist trends are reversed, RIP a lot more than one brilliant public servant.
As Rishi Sunak spoke of Ukrainian men, women and children hiding in bunkers as missiles rained down, Boris Johnson was giggling away beside him, with the look of the school bully who had just flattened a girly swot behind the bike sheds, and was now laughing at his own jokes about farting and fondling women’s breasts. My Twitter finger impulse kicked in. “The guy is a sociopath,” I said, then immediately regretted pressing send – I don’t like the use of mental illness labels as insults – despite my supporting arguments that either he wasn’t listening to a colleague making an important statement, or that he didn’t care about Ukraine.
My regret was tempered somewhat when someone replied to my tweet with a link to “Robert Hare’s 20-point psychopathy checklist”, devised by the Canadian psychologist to assess whether a criminal is a psychopath.
Here we go: Glibness/superficial charm; grandiose sense of self-worth; need for stimulation/proneness to boredom; pathological lying; cunning/ manipulative; lack of remorse or guilt; shallow affect; callous/lack of empathy; parasitic lifestyle; poor behavioural controls; promiscuous sexual behaviour; early behavioural problems; lack of realistic/long-term goals; impulsivity; irresponsibility; failure to accept responsibility for own actions; many short-term marital relationships; juvenile delinquency; revocation of conditional release; criminal versatility.
I know we are not always our best judges of ourselves, but I am giving myself four, borderline five, and it is for me and my shrink to know which they are. Bar 19 and 20, which clearly apply to people with long criminal records, Johnson has pretty much a full house. Actually, given his criminal versatility on Brexit campaign law-breaking, Covid corruption and Partygate, he only fails on No 19, revocation of conditional release. Hopefully one day that will get tested, too.
Well done ambassador Catherine Colonna, lighting up the French residence in Kensington Palace Gardens in Ukrainian colours for the embassy spring reception. I am sure the neighbours a few mansions away – the Russian embassy – will have noticed. Every little helps to underline their pariah status.
My Albanian friends having renamed the Tirana street housing the Russian and Ukrainian embassies Free Ukraine Street, Lithuania has followed suit. So if you want a letter or a taxi to reach the Russian ambassador in Vilnius, they must now be directed to Ukrainian Heroes Street.
Given how much our government likes gesture politics, why are they yet to instruct London councils to do likewise? Rename Kensington Palace Gardens Zelensky Navalny Gardens. Rename Highgate West Hill, where the spook-riddled “Russian trade delegation” is based, Boris Nemtsov Hill, in honour of the opposition politician wiped out by Putin’s killers.
Johnson could pretend the Boris bit is in his honour, and Liz Truss could get some great Instagram content doing the unveiling, thereby bolstering what appears to be her No 1 priority in foreign policy. Open goal, Lizzie.
I don’t object to Johnstagram, Sunakagram, Trusstagram et al wanting to be known by the public. I do object to the taxpayer having to fund the gigantic vanity project their army of personal photographers represents.
So should every media outlet, because the purpose is not merely vanity and ambition; it is to limit any real access and scrutiny by genuinely inquisitive photographers whose work, as the war in Ukraine shows, is important for proper public understanding of political events.