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Fiona Hill Interview: US Can Fight Democratic Decline – Foreign Policy

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Q&A: Fiona Hill: U.S. Is ‘Canary in the Coal Mine’ of Democratic Decline Fiona Hill: U.S. Is ‘Canary in the Coal Min…

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Fiona Hill might be best known as a key witness at former U.S. President Donald Trump’s first impeachment hearings, where she exposed the administration’s efforts to get dirt on now-President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden by intimidating the Ukrainian government. As Trump’s top Russia advisor, Hill witnessed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to manipulate her boss, as well as Trump’s desire to rule like some of the authoritarian leaders he admired, including Putin.
What bothers this coal miner’s daughter-turned-Sovietologist more than Trump’s tyrannical tendencies are the factors that fueled his populist rise in the first place. In her new book, There is Nothing For You Here, she draws parallels between the postindustrial decline in her hometown in northern England and similar situations in the Soviet Union and the United States—circumstances that created a fertile ground for populist demagogues like Trump.
Hill chatted with Foreign Policy last week, talking about how U.S. democracy is under attack from within, potentially headed down the same autocratic path as Putin’s Russia. The way to turn it around, she says, is to create opportunities for disaffected Americans who feel displaced by globalization and technological change—and to fix the domestic political decay. If Americans don’t, she warns, “we are toast.” 
Fiona Hill might be best known as a key witness at former U.S. President Donald Trump’s first impeachment hearings, where she exposed the administration’s efforts to get dirt on now-President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden by intimidating the Ukrainian government. As Trump’s top Russia advisor, Hill witnessed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to manipulate her boss, as well as Trump’s desire to rule like some of the authoritarian leaders he admired, including Putin.
What bothers this coal miner’s daughter-turned-Sovietologist more than Trump’s tyrannical tendencies are the factors that fueled his populist rise in the first place. In her new book, There is Nothing For You Here, she draws parallels between the postindustrial decline in her hometown in northern England and similar situations in the Soviet Union and the United States—circumstances that created a fertile ground for populist demagogues like Trump.
Hill chatted with Foreign Policy last week, talking about how U.S. democracy is under attack from within, potentially headed down the same autocratic path as Putin’s Russia. The way to turn it around, she says, is to create opportunities for disaffected Americans who feel displaced by globalization and technological change—and to fix the domestic political decay. If Americans don’t, she warns, “we are toast.” 
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: I bet everyone wanted you to write a book about Trump.
Fiona Hill: Yeah, and I didn’t want to write a book about Trump at all. 
FP: Why not? 
FH: Because I felt that a lot of people think he’s the cause of lots of things, while he’s really a symptom or a product of so many things that’s been happening in the United States, but internationally for a long period of time. 
I’d gone into the administration worried about Russia and what Russia did in 2016. And I really wanted to do something about that. And I came out of that very searing experience of being in the blast furnace of domestic politics, realizing that we were actually the problem.
FP: A cynic might say that U.S. democracy is already dead. Game over.
FH: Yeah, I don’t think it is. But I do think we’re stuck in that 1980s mentality. And for me, Trump was a 1980s marketer. This is right out of The Wolf of Wall Street, you know, Bonfire of the Vanities. For me, you know, the 1980s was really that turning point, there were lots of things happening in the runup to that—the Reagan/Thatcher economic policies, or in the case of Margaret Thatcher, this massive effort to transform the United Kingdom overnight literally from an old manufacturing, decrepit heavy-industry-based economy to the new, bright, shiny financial and service sectors. It really created an immense amount of dislocation. 
FP: As a Sovietologist then, and also looking at the decline in your own hometown, and then looking at the United States and seeing the postindustrial decline, I loved how you draw this trilateral parallel.
FH: Yeah, because I go to the Soviet Union for the first time in 1987—the end of the [Mikhail] Gorbachev period, and it’s the period when the Soviet Union is really faltering and central planning has broken down, there’s nothing in the shops because it’s what’s called the deficit period. Everybody is well aware that the place is really in trouble. There’s been no investment in infrastructure. And it just looks to me exactly like my hometown, but just on a huge scale, despite the fact that it’s the capital of a superpower. I kind of feel like I’ve just stepped from one place into a bigger version of the same place. And, of course, the Soviet Union is the country of workers and peasants. Everyone’s blue-collar. Everyone is. And so for me, it’s just the same thing. I see it immediately. I’m attuned to it. When I come to the United States in 1989, just a couple of years later, I go to Boston, Massachusetts, and Boston’s also in decline at that period. Well there’s Harvard, which of course is the world’s richest, most successful university, but all the area around Boston is also in the midst of an industrial transformation. Industries are closing down, and the new industries that we see today around the high-tech innovative industries, the digital sector, the pharmaceutical and biotech, that’s not there then. Not in 1989. And so it’s in a transition, and there’s lots of unemployment.
FP: So the ’80s, the Thatcher era, the Reagan years, the Soviet Union, the Rust Belt, it’s all the same story.
FH: Yeah. I mean, we didn’t call the Rust Belt the Rust Belt then. And the Soviet Union is one big giant rust belt. And I was born in the British rust belt. And so I just see it, you know, kind of all in the same time frame, slightly different time scales. I see it first in the northeast of England, which essentially is almost a sort of centrally planned location, because after World War II, all the heavy industries were nationalized. Then, British shipbuilding, British coal, British rail privatize, like the Soviet Union, Soviet manufacturing, it’s all run by the state in the 1990s, it all gets privatized. It’s the same impact that I saw in the U.K. just a decade before—and in the U.S. the huge industries have been shrunk. They’re already private, but there’s huge corporations that are so enormous the scale is such that they dominate over these cities. If you go to Detroit, it’s all about car manufacturing. Car manufacturing goes, Detroit goes. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Bethlehem Steel. The places are linked to the industries, and the same thing happens. People lose their jobs. They don’t just lose their job. They lose their livelihood. They lose their neighbors.
FP: And then they feel alienated from politics because they feel that no one—
FH: Nobody cares! There is nothing new that comes in, and if it does come in, it is not like it was before. And people move away, and people are saying to their kids, there’s nothing here. And the Soviet Union has a huge brain drain, people leave. In all of these places, people are pushed to leave.
FP: So if you’re looking at someone right now in this country, like a young person graduating from college looking for a job—is there anything for them here?
FH: Well, there is, but they’re gonna have to look hard, because I think, you know, what’s happened again now, we’re at one of those same pivotal periods that we were in the ’80s.
And in the future, we’ve got the green technology, the new economy that’s emerging, artificial intelligence. It’s like the 1980s again. People are going to be displaced. So this is the end of large-scale coal mining in the U.S. It was already for me, you know, the United Kingdom, the last coal mine in my region closed down in 1994, 10 years after the big miners’ strike, which was the year that I went to university, and my dad’s mine closed in 1964. So we’ve got this whole kind of pattern where everything is kind of closing and nothing new comes in. It’s just one cycle after another, and now we’re going to have another massive dislocation. That’s why people are so nervous now, and why it’s so difficult to get us to move forward to where we have to on climate change and many other issues, because people perceive they’re going to be left behind again.
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FP: I don’t want to belabor Trump. But you say you were disturbed by his authoritarian impulses, and kind of musing that he wanted to turn the presidency into an elective monarchy. 
FH: Yeah, because—
FP: Did he use those words?
FH: He didn’t use those words. That’s really kind of my inference. Because he was constantly talking about strong leaders, strong and powerful. He would always make quips with [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, for example, of Turkey, that he was the sultan, kind of quip about, you know, “I wish I could do the same as you, but, you know, I don’t have that same situation.” And he was really obsessed with the queen of England and was constantly talking about the monarchy and the trappings of the monarchy.
And he was most attracted to the presidents or the prime ministers that had the fewest checks and balances around them, those who didn’t have term limits. I mean, the loyalty test that he made people go through, when he would have the cabinet kind of have to go around the circle, saying things to him. He also had a sense of if he could have prosecuted people for lèse-majesté as they can in Thailand and other places, for example, for insulting him, he would have had it done. 
FP: He had autocrat envy. 
FH: He definitely had autocrat envy.
FP: I think the main concern that comes through in your book was that this kind of decay that fueled Trump’s rise would worsen and further enable this kind of trend.
FH: The Biden administration hasn’t been able to pass the legislation it promises, it raises expectations and they haven’t been able to deliver, and we’re already starting to see that in some of the electoral results, that people are frustrated. You know, they voted for Trump in 2016. And also there’s political and cultural issues, too, it’s not all socioeconomic, but cultural values often come out of economic issues as well. People want the system to deliver something for them, and they’re frustrated. In 2016, Trump says, I hear you, I see your problems, I’m going to deliver.
FP: He appears to have empathy. 
FH: He does appear to have empathy, everyone else is calling people deplorable, basically dismissing them. You know, people felt disrespected if they didn’t have a college degree. Or people dismissing their values and their kind of viewpoints, and Trump appears in 2016. He’s a wild0card candidate, he is not from established parties—he basically hijacked the party—and people are like, yeah, okay. 
Members of my own family voted twice for Obama and once for Trump. They didn’t vote for him the second time, because they thought that he hadn’t delivered, and they had voted for Obama because they thought he was bringing hope and change. And then [Trump] doesn’t bring change. And now Biden is not bringing change, in their view, because he’s not able to push through the legislation. So there’s this vicious circle that we get into, because, of course, we all know it takes a lot of time to make change. You can’t do it overnight. And people’s frustrations are rising. And eventually people start to think they’re going to take matters into their own hands.
FP: But Trump didn’t deliver. So why are people still—
FH: Because he gave the impression of delivering. As a populace it’s all about the show. And he spent a lot of time in performing delivery—not delivering, performing delivery. Why did he always go down to show he was building walls? Because he promised he would, and he did build sections, but not the whole thing. Why did he spend lots of time in the Oval Office, in the Roosevelt Room with workers? One of his early acts is to pull out of the Paris accord, because he’s going to deregulate and, you know, give a gift to coal miners, so he says. Each time he does something, it’s intended to show that he’s delivering. 
Remember the relief checks during the pandemic, when the government wanted to make sure that everybody had a relief check, he wanted his name on them—then he, Donald Trump, is delivering the relief. And Biden hasn’t done any of that. He’s actually tried to push legislation through. Trump dismantled things, deregulated. But there wasn’t the big signature legislation, infrastructure or anything like that. So it was all the performance and the semblance of delivery. And that’s the populist element.
FP: Biden campaigned on reinvigorating democracy in the United States and defending it abroad. But you argue he’s failing at both.
FH: Yeah, the problem is: It’s not really democracy abroad that’s the issue, it’s democracy at home. 
FP: And we don’t have it, so how can you promote it abroad?
FH: Well, that’s the problem. Unless we fix ourselves, we’re not going to be a very good role model for the rest of the world, because everyone’s looking at us right now, kind of worrying if the U.S. can’t pull this together, how can we—I mean, we are right now the canary in the coal mine. 
FP: You say that Russia is America’s Ghost of Christmas Future. Like a harbinger of things to come if we can’t get our act together.
FH: Yeah, but this is a specter of a ghost, right? It doesn’t have to happen. It’s a warning of what might happen—if. But that’s an “if”; we don’t have to go down this path.
FP: It’s less about Trump and more about us. 
FH: It’s more about us. Yeah, we can basically choose not to go along this path. We can restore our checks and balances. We can reinvigorate and renew our democracy. If we get serious about it. 
FP: So we can’t blame Trump or even Putin. 
FH: No, of course not. I mean, Trump is a product and a symptom of this.
FP: So let’s look at Jan. 6. People are saying we need to move on.
FH: Of course we don’t—we have to understand what happened there. This is like the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution, or the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 during the Russian Revolution. People will be looking over this for decades to come, and future historians will be writing about this moment. We can’t move on from this, because the U.S. Congress, the Capitol building, is supposed to be the symbol of representation in our democracy, a symbol of our democracy. It’s not supposed to be a symbol of repression or oppression, or a distant citadel to be stormed, you know, to kind of take the country back again. And what was the effort of the mob? They wanted to stop the transfer of power. The whole basis of our democracy is trust in institutions and trust in elections and the expectation that there will be a peaceful transfer.
FP: And they were willing to use violence.
FH: Well, they were using violence, they stormed the building! And they were going to take the ballots. They were going to take the Electoral College certifications.
FP: You’ve said that this could be a dress rehearsal for what’s to come.
FH: I think it’s all part of what’s coming. We’re in this. This is not just a dress rehearsal—it’s all underway here. I mean, the fact is that … I’m always surprised that people can’t see this. That’s kind of what disturbs me the most.
FP: If you look back to George Washington’s first inaugural, or his discussions with James Madison, they were concerned about foreign interference, because we were a small, weak democracy. The debates that shaped foreign intervention, factionalism, the death of the American experiment—that’s really what’s happening now.
FH: Exactly, exactly. That’s exactly right. I mean, we can see it in our own history. I think for anyone who is a historian of the United States, I mean, they see this. 
FP: Are we starting to look like Russia?
FH: Well, I mean, at different historical periods. There are hallmarks, as I said, harbingers that we should be very worried about. I mean, there’s very different histories, very different circumstances, so I don’t want to be too reductionist here. But it’s enough of the signals, it’s the signs, the signposts, that we should be wary of when people say, what are the indicators? Well, here’s a few indicators.
FP: How do you view Biden’s diplomacy with Russia? Is there a way to walk that high wire with cooperation on arms control and cyberterrorism, and still be wary of Russia’s efforts? 
FH: Yes, absolutely. You do it with your eyes wide open, which somebody like [CIA Director] Bill Burns most definitely is, and push back whenever they hit us. You kind of keep it no drama behind the scenes. I mean, behind all of the bluster that everybody saw under the Trump administration, we were doing the same thing. This is not appeasement, because you are actually telling them, “Hey guys, you know, knock it off. If you do something on X or Y, or look, if we find out that they are behind the Havana syndrome, there will be consequences.”
FP: We talk so much about Russia, but how big of a threat is China to our democracy? 
FH: Look, I mean, the big problem for us is that we have no collective action, so we can’t be competitive. You know, while we’re kind of knocking ourselves out, they’re moving on. They no longer see us as a model or anything to emulate. I mean, I think the Chinese and the Russians couldn’t believe what a disaster the financial crisis was in 2008-2009. They thought that we knew what we were doing, and now they know we don’t know what we’re doing. We have to show them again that we do, because otherwise we’re going to get eclipsed here. It’s all on us. It’s on us to basically fix ourselves, all the chaos and confusion, polarization, partisan infighting, you name it. It is a national security crisis, because we can’t get our act together domestically to get anything done, and we can’t push back, and we’re incredibly vulnerable. We’re just knocking ourselves out.
Elise Labott is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

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