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Fiona Hill
There Is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century.
Mariner Books. 2021.

     In the Fall of 2019, the nation watched President Trump being tried by the House of Representatives in the first of two impeachments. The outcome was foreordained—it was clear from the beginning that the Senate would not vote to remove him from office. But the drama was nevertheless intense as witnesses in the first impeachment trial painted a picture of an out-of-control chief executive, one who clearly attempted to extort damaging information about his political opponent from Ukraine, a small nation facing an existential threat from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The president of the United States, it became clear, was more interested in his fantasy of a scandal about Joe Biden than in providing vital military aid to an ally. Lives in Ukraine were lost as a result. The international standing of the United States was damaged. 


     The most riveting public testimony in the drama came from a hitherto little-known former member of the National Security Staff, Fiona Hill. In her British accent she calmly, eloquently, and with great insight told the simple truth about the Ukraine scandal. She was articulate and dignified, a sharp contrast to the chaos and tawdriness she was called upon to describe. Perhaps because of her gender and her accent, the nation paid attention. 


     Hill has now, not surprisingly, published a book, part memoir, part political analysis. The two parts do not always mesh, although when they do the book is at its strongest. 


     Hill was born in the Northeast of England, coal country, to a struggling working class family in that economically depressed region. She escaped her background and a bleak future through a series of educational scholarships, first near home, then at Harvard. She married an American and rose quickly through the American foreign policy establishment, and is keenly aware of how lucky she was. British by birth, an expert on Russia, and now an American citizen, she is perhaps uniquely placed to offer political commentary on all three nations and what she perceptively points out are the similarities among them.


     Americans like to think of themselves as unique, the exceptional nation, but Hill sees that we are not, and that, very much like the United Kingdom and Russia, we have fallen prey to populist politics born of economic inequality and a lack of opportunity. “Opportunity” is Hill’s favorite word, whether describing her own, achieved academically, or in making policy prescriptions. 


     It is the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economy that left regions such as her family’s corner of Britain stranded, she correctly argues, and she sees unmistakable parallels between the people left behind where she grew up and Americans who voted for Trump, as well as Russians who support Vladimir Putin. More than most commentators on Trumpism and the state of American politics, she is not afraid of describing the psychological elements of this kind of politics. Jobs, unions, and economic security disappear as industries are shuttered. The result is hopelessness. Prolonged hopelessness turns into anger, and that populist anger is harnessed by ruthless and amoral politicians. The politicians who benefit merely pretend to care about the people who put them in power.


     The result is profound shock to democratic systems. Trump tries to ignore electoral defeat and horrifying violence ensues. Putin sets himself up for lifetime power and critics and dissidents are murdered or jailed. Opportunists pull Britain out of the European Union. All three processes, Hill argues, have the same source: A lack of economic opportunity for huge swaths of the population and the anger that results. Authoritarian or would-be authoritarian leaders are elected but nothing is actually done to help the working class. People want a level playing field and will vote for leaders who pretend to share their aspiration, but still the rich get richer. In essence, it’s a game, a game with dire consequences for democracy. 


     Having worked in the White House, Hill also has perceptive, first-hand observations about Trump. She points out that he was in Scotland at the time of Brexit and grasped the class dynamic at play there, a connection most American commentators have missed. And she is not afraid to give Trump his due, pointing out that he knew how to talk to and connect emotionally with the working class and how to channel their grievances. She argues that by focusing on Russian interference in the 2016 election—which she sees as real but not determinative—most American political and journalistic elites ignored the domestic political divisions that were the real cause of Trump’s victory. Class division, not Russia, put Trump in the White House. 


     At the same time, she is unsparing in her criticisms. She portrays Trump as “selfish to the core” with a fragile ego, and says she quickly realized that his ignorance and his need for adulation made him a risk to national security. She describes his admiration for and jealousy of other authoritarian leaders, which, along with his lack of concern for policy, opened him to manipulation by foreign heads of state. His ignorance created such a vacuum that he could be persuaded of almost anything. And she experiences his misogyny, as when he mistook her for a secretary and called her “darlin.” Along the way she doesn’t resist the opportunity to throw choice barbs in Ivanka’s direction.


     Throughout the book, Hill is keenly sensitive to what it meant for her to be a woman in a male-dominated atmosphere, whether at Harvard or the White House, and these are some of the passages that resonate and that best combine her personal story with larger political themes.


     What Hill does not do, however, is fully account for her willingness to work for an ignorant and divisive president who rose to power on the basis of deep societal divisions, divisions she clearly recognized from the outset. She participated in the Women’s March at the start of Trump’s presidency, but literally one day later went to work in his administration. She stayed  well past the point at which she knew Trump was a security threat. She was horrified by much of what was happening, but stayed. 


     Every successful memoir, Vivian Gornick has famously argued, should describe both a situation and a story. The situation is what happens—the setting, the events. The story, on the other hand, is the emotional and intellectual experience of the author—their inner journey. When describing her time in the White House, Hill describes a situation but does not tell us the story. What was it like, day after day? Why did she do it? Did she have trouble sleeping? Did she feel guilty? Why did she stay? How did she justify her choices to herself? Why did she not leave and raise the alarm, as she clearly could have done? Does she have regrets?    


     Hill has very little to say about any of this, and it is hard to escape the conjecture that the reason for this is that she is uncomfortable talking about her own ambition. She tosses in a phrase here and there to justify her choices, saying meekly that she “thought I could help,” but that really isn’t sufficient, given the jarring dangers she describes. Thus the book succeeds as political analysis but falls short as memoir.


     The book ends with a long, elaborate plea for educational opportunities being made more widely available, as they were made available to her. Her aim here is admirable but she demonstrates a degree of naivete about how likely this is to change the current political dynamic. Not everyone is as bright and intellectually precocious as she, or interested in or capable of obtaining a college degree, let alone a PhD from Harvard. She argues that “everyone can play a role” in creating what she calls the “infrastructure” of opportunity. “We all have agency and the power to do something to make a difference in the lives of other people,” she writes. 


     Perhaps. But people stuck in low-wage, insecure jobs, or in neglected regions, really don’t have much agency, nor the time or money to think about others; they’re too busy trying to survive. Education is important, to be sure, but so is tax policy and the shredded social safety net, healthcare and affordable housing and a living wage. The Americans portrayed in the recent, devastating film “Nomadland” help each other when they can, fulfilling Hill’s admonition, but that is not the kind of agency she is advocating. Nor is it the kind of agency that will heal the nation’s deep divisions.


     Hill also argues that “identities are not rigid constructs.” That is hard to swallow in 2021, especially given a 400-yeare history of the color line in America and the endless exploitation of racial animus for political gain; we need only look at the current flap over Critical Race Theory to see the latest incarnation of this dynamic. 


     Despite these flaws, this is a worthwhile book, an inside look at a horrifying administration and the dynamics that brought it to power, dynamics not unique to the United States. And it stands as a warning; as Hill correctly points out, even if Trump goes away, Trumpist populism will remain a potent danger. 

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