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Fiona Hill for president!

There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century. Fiona Hill, Mariner Books. 432 pages.

I rarely read political memoirs, but I made an exception for Fiona Hill. She made a strong impression on millions of people during the House impeachment hearings of 2019. She was a visible example of the kind of people who, during Trump’s term in the White House, saved the American government from being completely corrupted by political hacks who did everything they could to turn the United States into Russia. Political hacks refer to this kind of people as the “Deep State,” by which the hacks mean: principled professionals who could not be corrupted or easily taken down, people who stood in the way of the Putinization of America.

Hill is a Russia expert. Trump called her “the Russia bitch.” Because she was born down and worked her way up, she did not go down easily. Principle, professionalism, and truth were her secret weapons.

Even from where I sit in the provinces it was clear that the Trumpist intent was — and is — to turn the U.S. into Russia. When someone like Fiona Hill confirms this, we ought to pay attention. She spent her career studying Russia, from the cold and grit of decaying Siberian cities to Moscow dinners sitting beside Putin. She worked in the White House and saw up close how the Trump White House operated. Her many hours of testimony to the House Intelligence committee are on the historical record. Most Republicans will never admit what happened or how close we came to an authoritarian coup, and the Republican cover-up continues. But one of the things that I find comforting, no matter where we end up a few years from now, is that historians are going to know the full story of what happened.

If you heard Hill’s testimony (it’s still available from CSPAN and on YouTube), you know that she is from the north of England. Hill’s perspective on the past thirty years allowed her to see connections that most of us are unable to see. Most important, of course, are the similarities between the Putinization of Russia and the Trumpization of America. She grew up very poor, in impoverished coal country. She is able to see how the policies of the Reagan-Thatcher era destroyed provincial economies but did nothing to mitigate the damage (though Hill also acknowledges that Thatcher was faced with trends and forces beyond her control). During the 1990s, Hill was on the ground in Russia, witnessing how efforts to create a Russian democracy failed and how oligarchs and so-called “populists,” who feed on grievance and disorder, took control. And then came Trump, riding the same whirlwind.

Hill writes that her training and her work have been nonpartisan. But, as Paul Krugman likes to say, reality has a distinctly liberal bias. This entire book, whether Hill intended it or not, is a powerful and urgent case for the enactment of the progressive agenda and a damning historical indictment of where Reaganism, neoliberalism, and so-called populism have led.

The book is in four parts. First, her deprived childhood in County Durham in the northeast of England. Second, how she found her way out, first to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and then to Harvard. Third, she writes about her time in the White House and what she saw there. And fourth, she does her best to offer ideas on what it will take for the United States to avoid Russia’s fate. The key to that is investing in people in the places that have been left behind.

One of the reasons I love this book is that I identify with Fiona Hill. My circumstances were never as harsh as hers, and my achievements were far less. Yet when she writes, for example, about “code switching,” I completely understand. She writes in the book about how she was often humiliated for her provincial accent, in particular when she interviewed at Oxford (and decided to go to St. Andrews instead). Some disadvantaged Brits, she writes, actually take elocution lessons to lose their provincial accents and learn “received pronunciation,” or what we used to call the BBC accent. Margaret Thatcher, for example, took voice lessons in the 1970s. I grew up with the Southern Appalachian dialect. But even in the provincial city of Winston-Salem, where I got my first job, that would not do. Because I had a good ear and an aptitude for languages, I was able to learn to “code switch.” People in San Francisco always told me that they could not detect a Southern accent. “Prove it,” someone once said. “Say something in Southern Appalachian.” I did, and the involuntary look of disgust on his face surprised even me, as though he had found a roach in his soup. Fiona Hill had similar experiences, and I greatly respect her for not trying to change her accent. She moved to America for greater opportunity, just as I moved to San Francisco for greater opportunity.

The subtitle of this book is about finding opportunity. How people talk is only one of many things that keep them down. Lack of education, lack of social support (meaning that there is no one there to help them), racism, classism, and the economic decay of rural and post-industrial regions are the biggies that keep people down.

Conservatives and even today’s so-called “centrists” have no solutions. In fact, conservatives do everything possible to block progress and push societies toward inequality and authoritarianism.

In a way, I regret that I have to say that this book is a powerful argument for the progressive agenda, because I don’t think that was Fiona Hill’s intention. But (like reality) a rational, historical, pragmatic, and nonpartisan outlook has a distinctly liberal bias. Conservatives dismiss Hill as a subversive and a George Soros mole in the White House. But what is clear to me is that the progressive view, and the progressive prescription for our problems, are not just a bias. It’s just a sensible, informed, and pragmatic way of looking at the world today. If I have a bias, it’s this: the progressive view and the progressive prescription for our problems are the only sensible, informed, and pragmatic way of looking at the world today.

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