When Donald Trump heard Fiona Hill was publishing a memoir, he characteristically tried to land a pre-emptive blow, dismissing his former Russia adviser as “a deep state stiff with a nice accent”. As Trumpian insults go, it was enough of a backhanded compliment for one of Hill’s friends to have it printed on a T-shirt as a gift.
A lot has happened since Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings in late 2019 in which Hill gave evidence, not least a frontal assault on US democracy by his supporters. But people still remember her accent. There was something so calm and matter-of-fact in Hill’s flat County Durham vowels that was the antithesis of Trump’s bullying bravado. Her voice, that of a coalminer’s daughter from northern England describing the turmoil and corruption inside the White House, instantly raised the question: “How did she get there?”
Hill’s book, There Is Nothing for You Here, is a long, thoughtful answer to that question. It takes in the story of industrial and political rot in three nations: the UK, the country of her birth; the US, the country of her choosing; and Russia, the object of her lifelong vocation.
The powerful currents driving the modern history of those three states carried her on her remarkable life’s journey. The state-assisted euthanasia of the British coal industry in the early 80s drove her from her home town of Bishop Auckland, where her family had been miners for generations.
The book’s title was a warning from her father, Alf, to get out while she could. He had first gone down the pit at the age of 14, but by the time Fiona was growing up, the only job he could find was as a hospital porter, the bottom of the heap with no way up. The Hill family were the archetypal victims of the post-industrial decline she would go on to study. “We were living data points,” she realised.
Following her dad’s advice she worked her way out through study. She went to St Andrews University and then to the Soviet Union in time to observe its last climactic years. The expertise she gained took her to the US and Harvard as a Russia scholar with a growing reputation that ultimately brought her to the White House.
Trump took his pre-publication shot at Hill because he naturally assumed her book, like a shelf-full of others by former staffers, would be all about him. But for Hill, the ex-president is just the symptom of a deeper, chronic dysfunction.There is plenty here about the craziness of life in the Trump administration and Hill has a knack for capturing the absurdities of the court of King Donald. She describes the scramble to get his attention (he had no idea who she was and on one occasion mistook her for a secretary), the relentless bullying (she was called the “Russia bitch” by her “colleagues”), and the universal fear the president would turn against them.
While other Trump-era memoirs have focused almost solely on the carnival, Hill’s scope pans out to the wounded country that put him in office, and then wider still, across the Atlantic to Britain and then across Europe to Russia.
What they all had in common is rapid, catastrophic deindustrialisation. In Russia, that came about through the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union. In the US and the UK, it was inflicted by the political leadership and their economist gurus.
“Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan helped to drive the nail into the coffin of twentieth-century industry while ensuring that those trapped inside the casket would find it practically impossible to pry the lid off,” Hill notes. Those buried alive, in that memorable metaphor, lost their sense of community and self. Being a miner was more than a job to Alf Hill and his contemporaries, it was an identity.
That is where political populism comes in, offering to fill the hole with comforting illusions. Hill points out that 61% of voters in Bishop Auckland chose Brexit even though it meant cutting off EU structural funds vital to its attempts at regeneration. It is also why American rust belt voters convinced themselves that Trump understood them.
It is an analysis that has been laid out by others before, but what makes it particularly compelling here is that it is intertwined with a unique life story of a working-class English woman who ended up sitting across from, and cooly observing, the preening “strongmen” of our age.
Where Hill is most provocative is in her warnings that having centuries of democratic experience will not necessarily protect us from Russia’s fate. “Russia is America’s Ghost of Christmas Future”, she argues, a harbinger of things to come if we can’t adjust and heal our political polarisation.” What if the next Trump is “less personally insecure and more capable”? And what if the next insurrectionary mob that invades the US Capitol is better prepared, Hill asks in this fascinating book. The answer? “They might just manage to hold it.”