Book Review: There is Nothing for You Here, by Fiona Hill

Fiona Hill burst onto the national, and international, stage when she testified in the 2019 impeachment hearings for President Donald J. Trump.

At the time, British commentators were struck by the woman with a distinctive working-class Northern accent who was an advisor to a US President and senior member of the American foreign policy establishment. The Financial Times referred to her as the “improbable” Fiona Hill. The sting in the tail of her testimony was, for the British establishment, her comment that she felt her background impeded her in the UK in the way it did not in the USA. They wondered how on earth she’d made it from an obscure northern hometown (Bishop Auckland, County Durham) to work in the White House, or, as she puts it in her new book There is Nothing For You Here, “from the coal house to the White House.”

The book is part autobiography, part indictment of the failings of the Trump administration. It embodies the lyrics of the Beatles song, Honey Pie:

She was a working girl
North of England way
Now she’s hit the big time
In the U.S.A.

A coal miner’s daughter

Hill was, literally, a coal miner’s daughter. Born in 1965, her childhood was marred by the decline of the mining industry in the north-east of England. Her father was laid off from the mines and scraped by as a hospital porter. Her lived experience in the region stayed with her as she passed the 11+ exam, survived the challenges of a comprehensive school, made it to St. Andrews University, a scholarship to Harvard, and a stellar career as a fluent Russian-speaking expert the geopolitics of the 21st century and Vladimir Putin.

The book resonated for me because it has echoes of my own path from the north-west of England and the declining industrial town of Crewe to the States. I bailed out of an academic career, but the coincidences, fortuitous meetings, significant mentors, and sheer improbability of life in the USA that Hill notes were also my experience. That, and a shared distaste for what America has become under Trump, were themes in the book that grabbed me.

Populism at home and abroad

Throughout the book, Hill notes how the three countries she has lived and traveled in have embraced populism. The declining industrial areas of the UK are mirrored in the “Rust Belt” regions of the USA and magnified by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Time and again, in ways large and small, she notes how the rise of an authoritarian like Putin is predicated on the same populism exploited by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign in the UK, and, inevitably, the 45th President of the US.

Her academic background and serious foreign policy chops give rise to analysis and insights that distill the confusion surrounding Trump, Brexit, and Russian influence into clearly understandable themes. When political elites ignore the dispossessed, strongmen take center stage. Here’s one of many passages in the book–worth quoting at length–where Hill analyzes this:

Those who were attracted to the Tea Party and other populist movements were reacting to, and hoping to counter and even reverse, the effects of economic crises and demographic changes. The populists’ supporters were also reacting to and seeking a salve for the intense emotions that these changes and challenges elicited. Major societal changes, especially when they happen rapidly and in combination, help fuel what celebrated scholars of the twentieth century like Fritz Stern called “cultural despair.” Cultural despair is the sense of loss, grievance, and anxiety that occurs when people feel dislocated from their communities and broader society as everything and everyone shifts around them. Especially when the sense of identity that develops from working in a particular job or industry, like my father’s image of himself as a coal miner, also recedes or is abruptly removed, people lose their grip on the familiar. They can easily fall prey to those who promise to put things–including jobs, people, or even entire counties–back in “their rightful place.”

Hence, Hill demonstrates, Brexit, Putin, Trump. The clear and present danger she identifies is the continuation of populism and the emergence of a leader as competent as Putin on the American scene.

In the aftermath of Trump’s disastrous reign, it was tempting to breath a sign of relief. But that would have been premature, because there was no indication that his dynasty would fade away. And American populism looked like it was here to stay–unless we could find a way to mend our social and political divisions.

The “Russia bitch”

The experience of this multi-lingual academic expert in the Trump White House is no surprise, but nevertheless shocking. It follows challenges she’d experienced being mistaken for a high-end prostitute by hotel doormen when attending senior-level meetings in Moscow, discovering her salary as a woman was significantly lower than less qualified male counterparts in academia, and–early in her university days–being dismissed as a ‘common northerner’ by hoity-toity classmates. In the White House Trump’s first words to her were to yell “Hey, darlin’, are you listening?” when he mistook her as the only woman in an Oval Office meeting for a secretary. Later, she heard, staffers and first family members dismissed her as “the Russia bitch.”

She dishes the dirt on how Trump’s view of the world was that of a New York construction boss used to bullying suppliers, his lack of interest in briefing documents, and fragile ego easily exploitable by savvy foreign powers. Her account adds more damning evidence to the likes of Woodward and Costa’s Peril and Leonning and Rucker’s I Alone Can Fix It.

Education

Hill mounts an appeal to expand the opportunities that gave her a ticket out of County Durham, and me a ticket out of Crewe: education as, in the words of the books’ subtitle a way of ‘Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century.’

Absent this, she concludes

These left-behind people deserve better. but their problems are everyone’s. They are our fellow Americans and fellow Brits, in some cases our family members and friends. Helping them will not be purely a selfless act. Because as long as they feel that there is no hope for them, there will be no hope for the rest of us. There will be nothing for us, anywhere.

1 Comment so far
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Wonderful review! I was wondering why I should read this book, and this review reveals the roots of populism from a personal perspective as well as its dangers. Thanks for posting.



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