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Fiona Hill: “US democracy is on a precipice right now”

The woman who made international headlines with her testimony on Trump talks Russia, conspiracy theories, sexism and Joe Biden.

By Emily Tamkin

Before one of the US’s top Russia experts gave evidence in Donald Trump’s (first) impeachment hearing, her legal counsel’s colleagues prepped her not just on what she should say, but on how she should look. How to minimise the distractions of her outfit; how to style her hair; how to keep from shivering in the cold congressional room.

This is how Fiona Hill begins her new book, There’s Nothing Here for You: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century. Hill had worked as senior director for European and Russian affairs on Trump’s National Security Council. Her testimony at the impeachment hearing made damning headlines: she spoke about the extent to which Trump tried to use American foreign policy for domestic political ends in Ukraine.

Hill is the daughter of a coal miner-turned-hospital porter and a nurse in north-east England. She made her way to the University of St Andrews, then Harvard, and then the White House, authoring numerous books on Russia along the way. Her latest is about her national security experience and Trump, but it’s also about the different kinds of inequality that shape our lives and societies. It’s about the odds that she beat – and Trump used – to get to the White House.

I told Hill that I was surprised – pleasantly so – to see a high-profile woman drawing attention to the pressures of being a woman in the working world. How, I asked, did she decide to start her book with that?

“I’m a woman in all of this,” she told me. Her book, and indeed her story, is not only about Russian politics. It is also about facing the threat of sexual harassment, the gender pay gap and the ways women learn to dress to be taken seriously at work. Trump “never listened to me because I’m a woman”, she said. The former president mistook her for a secretary, and some of her colleagues called her the “Russia bitch”.

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“Being a woman matters a lot,” Hill said. And in the book, she “wanted to just explain how being a woman can be an impediment”.

That isn’t to say it doesn’t include Hill’s area of professional expertise; it does. “Russia is America’s ghost of Christmas future, a harbinger of things to come if we can’t adjust course and heal our political polarisation,” she writes. In our interview, she acknowledged that there was “no equivalency” between the two. But both have very powerful presidencies, she said, and that Russia does not have much else in the way of political institutions is a warning to the US.

Of Joe Biden’s policy towards Moscow, Hill told me that he handled this June’s summit with Vladimir Putin in the “best way possible”. However, she said the fundamental issue was still that the US wants to find a way for Russia not to be an issue, while Russia needs to remain an issue for the US, both for internal mobilisation and to have common ground with China. “We want them to go away, and they can’t afford to go away,” she said. “Biden’s in a bind.”

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Her experience in the National Security Council is also in the book – she recounts, for example, being smeared as a “Soros mole”. She worries about the rise of conspiracy theories and their grip on the American public.

“I don’t see it getting better,” she said, pointing to the “giant conspiracy theory we’re living through now” – namely, 6 January and the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters who wanted to stop the recognition of Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election.

But the main thing she wants people to take away from the book, she writes, is that “opportunity does not materialize from thin air and no one does anything alone”. It’s the very opposite of Trump’s myth of being a self-made man. The former president had a father who could give him a million-dollar start, she observed to me. “Most people don’t.”

This is true in the UK, where, as Hill testified in 2019 and as she writes in her book, class and region of origin mean that she would not have had the opportunities she found in the US. Before joining the Trump administration, she served on the National Intelligence Council and directed research projects at Harvard. She is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank.

The government of Boris Johnson is promoting an idea of “levelling up”, intended to improve outcomes everywhere while decreasing inequality between regions. “Department of Levelling Up sounds like something from Monty Python,” Hill said, adding that this couldn’t be accomplished by the central government alone. Rather, it required “the full participation of communities”.

And the same is certainly true in the US, where Biden’s infrastructure and reconciliation bills, which would pour trillions into roads and bridges, education and healthcare, are currently held up in Congress.

“I think Biden gets it,” Hill told me. “I don’t think the rest of his party gets it.”

Of Biden’s slogan “Build Back Better”, she said, “I think Biden is using it as a motivational message.” She is not sure, however, what exactly we’re aspiring to get back to.

“Back to what we were before? Where’s before? We haven’t addressed an awful lot of our problems.” Those were the problems, she said, that Trump exploited.

“‘Build back better’, ‘we’re back’, ‘Global Britain’ – these are all aspirational,” she told me. What we need is concrete action. She doesn’t think everyone should run for Congress. But she does think there is a need for greater connection within communities; that we need journalism in which people can “see themselves”; and that access to education is hugely important. She concludes her book in a somewhat unconventional way, with a list of recommended steps for teachers, students, young professionals and people in high positions to act as mentors.

Hill also thinks that we need to grapple with what we just lived through. Which brings us back to the US Capitol.

In the US, there is a public debate about whether the country should move on from 6 January. Mitch McConnell, who leads the Republican minority in the Senate, thinks it should. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, appearing on popular daytime talk show The View, said that, while she thought what happened on 6 January was wrong, it was time for lawmakers to “move on in a lot of ways”.

And Hill?

“We don’t need to get past it at all,” she said, calling the day a “seminal event”.

“This is an indicator, to me, about how far we’ve fallen,” she continued. “Our democracy is on a precipice right now.”

And we need to see where we are, and how far we’ve fallen, and how far we, collectively, could still fall, before we can step back from the ledge.

[See also: Ambassador Daniel Fried: The Biden administration should want a strong Poland in a strong Europe]