Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warns of fascism at forum

Slotkin calls her a ‘total badass hero’

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at MSU, Feb. 19, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned of fascism in the United States during an East Lansing appearance Wednesday.

She was speaking at the former Gov. Jim Blanchard Public Service Forum at Michigan State University. Albright served under President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001 and was the first woman to hold that role. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, by then-President Barack Obama in May 2012.

In 2018, she released a book, “Fascism: A Warning.”

“The best quote in my book is from Mussolini, which is, ‘If you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, nobody notices.’ So I thought there were a lot of feathers being plucked,” Albright said. “The part that blew my mind was that he and Hitler both came to power constitutionally.”

While she never mentioned President Donald Trump by name while discussing fascism, she implied that he exhibits fascist tendencies.

“Fascism is not an ideology; it is a process for taking power. It’s a process of a demagogic leader identifying himself – by the way, they’re all ‘himselves’ – with one group at the expense of another which is then made kind of the victim of it or the responsible power,” Albright said. “It’s somebody who thinks that he’s above the law, who thinks that the press is the enemy of the people and really operates in his own way.”

Albright said Mussolini used the slogan “drain the swamp” and called himself a “stable genius,” which are both phrases Trump has used.

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Albright, who was born in the former Czechoslovakia, said the signs of fascism are especially alarming for her as she has personally dealt with the effects of fascism in the past.

“I was very concerned about things that I was seeing going on, especially as somebody that was a victim of fascism,” Albright said. “I have, in fact, done a lot of research now, and 26 members of my family were killed in concentration camps. So I could see what fascism had done.”

She criticized U.S. Attorney General William Barr, saying that he “seems to have some other guiding principle than being attorney general.” But Albright stopped short of calling on Barr to resign for allegedly abusing his power, as more than 2,000 former Justice Department officials did earlier this week.

“I don’t give people advice about resigning, but I do think that something has to be straightened out,” Albright said.

Among the issues Albright raised with Barr was his handling of Robert Mueller’s report on his special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. She warned that partisan divisions mean the country has not adequately responded to Russia’s influence in the 2016 election.

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“[Russian leader Vladimir] Putin is a former KGB agent — he knows how to do propaganda better than most — and they have figured out how to use some of the tools of our free system to undermine us and we’ve got to figure out that it’s unacceptable and illegal,” Albright said. “That part has not really been accepted enough by the overall policy.”

Albright also criticized the Trump administration’s Iran strategy, including the decision to back out of the Iran nuclear deal.

“I do think Trump walking away from it has created an awful lot of the issues that are there now, making it very difficult to deal with the Iranians,” Albright said. “I think part of the issue is also that they are fighting to be the hegemons of the region. I think most people don’t understand Islam, much less the difference between Shia and Sunni* or between Arabs and Persians, and so there’s a huge battle going on.”

Albright warned that by backing out of the Iran nuclear deal, the United States isolated its allies.

“I think Iran is a major problem, but what we’ve done is cut off any kind of way of dealing with them at this point because of walking away from what was a multilateral agreement,” Albright said. “It has complicated our relationship with our allies and it hasn’t made anything any safer.”

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Albright said these new divisions on the world stage were on full display at the Munich Security Conference, where current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not receive applause after speaking this year and Vice President Mike Pence also was not applauded after speaking last year.

“I do think that it shows that there’s a real disconnect all of a sudden between the United States and Europe, that we see the world very differently,” Albright said.

Albright encouraged young people to go into public service, warning that students’ concerns about having their names tied to the Trump administration could lead to long-term disruption in the country’s foreign policy.

“One of the things that troubles me — I teach at Georgetown [University] at the School of Foreign Service — and there’s a lot of people that have gone into the diplomatic service there. But I’ve had a number of students come to me and say that they didn’t want to be identified with the policies of this government so they weren’t sure they should take the foreign service exam,” Albright said. 

“And I said to them, ‘Guess what, you’re not going to be making policies for a while; you’re going to be stamping visas, to the extent that we still do that.’ It’s very important for them to go in because we need diplomats, and if young people don’t go in now it breaks the whole pipeline of people.”

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Albright said it is also important for those who are not planning to launch a career in public service to be involved with the political system.

“We’re at a very complicated time. Democracy is not a spectator sport. I think that people need to absorb the things that are going on and participate in many different way,” Albright said. “I think that democracy is a gift. It really is. I know from having been a victim of having to leave the country I was born in because of totalitarian governments that we have a responsibility to understand what is going on and participate. We all know, ‘See something, say something.’ I added to that: ‘Do something.’”

Albright is also scheduled to appear Thursday at Oakland University at an event hosted by U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), whose background is in national security. Slotkin introduced Albright at the MSU forum Wednesday as “a total badass hero of mine.”

Rep. Elissa Slotkin introducing former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Feb. 19, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who is currently serving as acting governor while Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is out of state, also was in attendance at the event. Blanchard recognized Gilchrist as “one of the rising stars of American politics.”

Clinton, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and late journalist Cokie Roberts are among those who have previously been honored at the Blanchard Forum.

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Sunni.