voice for democracy

Opinion | Fiona Hill testified against Trump. Now she's worried Biden isn't doing enough to save democracy. – The Washington Post

President Donald Trump was a symptom, not the source, of the United States’ democratic decline, one of his top officials argues in the latest book to come from inside his crazy presidency. In an interview, she also told me that President Biden is so far failing to do what is necessary to fight for democracy both at home and abroad.
Academic and scholar Fiona Hill had a front-row seat at the Trump show. She served for more than two years as the senior director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council and later testified at Trump’s first impeachment on her boss’s scheme to withhold military aid to Ukraine as a way of pressuring its president to investigate the Bidens. Her new book, “There Is Nothing for You Here,” certainly has its share of eye-popping anecdotes from inside the Trump bubble.
But the core of Hill’s argument in the book is that the root causes of populism and nativism in the United States, Europe and Russia lie in the discontent of working classes left behind by globalization. Having grown up in a northern English industrial town, studied Russian society and politics for several decades, and reached the highest levels of the U.S. government, Hill has a unique perspective on the common threads that tie the three societies’ disparate narratives together.
According to Hill, America’s homegrown populism and our democratic dysfunction are now undermining our democracy in fundamental ways at the worst possible time. But blaming Trump or even Russian President Vladimir Putin for the decline of U.S. institutions misses the point, she told me in an interview.
“People were fixated on the idea Putin created Trump and Trump was a kind of a Russian stooge, that he was in collusion with them, not realizing this larger context that could produce a Trump,” she said. “Trump is an all-American product.”
Trump and Putin are actually cut from the same cloth, she said, populists who were able to capitalize on post-Cold War discontent in their societies. Putin came at it from the perspective of an intelligence officer, while Trump approached it as a business owner. But their similar conclusion was that democracy didn’t really work and that one strongman running things was a better approach.
“Trump’s not a competent strongman,” Hill said. “But he seems to have basically the same idea as Putin that democracy is messy and you just need one guy in charge to fix things and to put things right.”
Biden campaigned on reinvigorating democracy inside the United States and defending it around the globe. Hill, while applauding that aim, says that his administration hasn’t done a good job on either front. His lofty rhetoric hasn’t resulted in meaningful action on the ground, she says, which may be more of a reflection of his team than of the president himself.
“I’m really worried about Biden,” she said. “He gets this. I’m convinced he gets it, but he just doesn’t have the people behind him pushing in the same direction.”
The Biden administration claims that it’s pursuing a “foreign policy for the middle class,” but its officials rarely explain, in ways that connect with voters, how the fight for democracy at home and abroad are linked. Biden’s party is going to suffer in the coming elections if it can’t convince voters that repairing U.S. democracy (and helping other countries to do the same) is the most important issue, Hill said.
“The Democrats have lost the common touch,” she said. “They need to get out there and be campaigning in the way that Trump is, not for the midterms, but for American democracy.”
Making matters worse, Hill argues, America’s internal political dysfunction and democratic erosion undermine Biden’s own efforts to support similar fights against populist moments in other countries, such as Germany, France, Norway and Sweden. European countries were encouraged by some of the Biden administration’s early signals, but now, Hill says, they are skeptical that American democratic leadership is something they can count on.
“Most Europeans I talk to are just appalled by what’s happening in the U.S., and they’re talking about sort of decoupling themselves because they don’t know where the U.S. is headed, skeptical that Biden can hold on,” she said. “They see it’s difficult for Biden to get traction domestically, and they have questions about whether the United States is ungovernable.”
The solutions Hill prescribes in her book and in our interview are practical, not revolutionary. More people must become engaged in government and civic organizations on the local and state level. At the top layer of national politics, both sides have to step back from zero-sum politics and deliver better socio-economic outcomes for the working class. When and where government stumbles, private and community-based organizations must step up.
For someone who has tracked the struggle between democracy and autocracy from both sides, Hill knows of what she speaks. Those who still think the democratic experiment is worth preserving should be paying close attention to what she’s saying.
“I would never count the United States out,” she said. “But I wouldn’t be complacent about it, either.”
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