It was the kind of inspiring preamble easily forgotten amid Hill’s testimony on Russia’s election interference and the “political errand” that Trump loyalists were conducting with Ukraine. Hill, who previously co-authored an incisive biography of Vladimir Putin, has now written a memoir — one that, in the tradition of former White House officials, gives her a chance to reveal more of the mayhem of the Trump years.
Fortunately, that is not the book this former official chose to write.
As it turns out, we should have paid more attention to Hill’s life story. Though her book does feature first-person accounts of Trump and his inner circle, “There Is Nothing for You Here” is a more ambitious and personal effort. The preamble has become the point. Hill links her experiences in England, Russia and the United States to argue that the countries suffer a similar malady: a steady postindustrial decline that stokes cultural despair and leads to a polarized politics in which populists thrive. “From the late 1980s to the 2020s, in the heartlands of both Russia and the United States, I saw grim reflections of the decline of my hometown,” she writes. “As the sense of hopelessness spreads, so does the anger — and the potential for people’s fears and frustrations to explode into the political arena.”
The argument is not entirely novel — we’ve heard about the plight of the Trump voter — but Hill’s insights on three societies show how economic and political struggles threaten to render the American experiment unexceptional. “Democracy is not self-repairing,” Hill warns, and though she worries about the gap between the haves and the have-nots, she recognizes how the pain of the used-to-haves can pose risks to democratic survival.
Hill witnessed those frustrations in her community of Bishop Auckland, in England’s County Durham. This book is dedicated to her parents, and Hill recalls her father’s despondency when he lost his mining job and had to take lower-paying work as a hospital porter. No matter the decades he spent in the new job, “he was once and for all a miner,” Hill writes. “It was his basic identity.” It was not just jobs that disappeared but the social connections making up the life of a community, too — all the clubs, sports teams and holiday celebrations that surround a workplace. “It was the same in the U.S., the UK, and the USSR,” Hill writes. “When the mine or the factory closed, there was no work, nothing to do, and nowhere to go.”
Her father urged her to seek opportunity elsewhere. “There’s nothing for you here, pet,” he said, both advice and warning. The northeast of England had become “an opportunity desert,” Hill concluded. She left.
In this telling, the economic reforms of the Thatcher era in Britain, the Reagan years in the United States and the post-Soviet “shock therapy” in Russia are a single story. In all three places, the “infrastructure of opportunity disappeared,” Hill writes. The timelines were different, but the reduced employment, higher education costs and devastating substance abuse were eerily similar. Early in her years in the United States, Hill realized that chunks of the country needed an economic revival just as much as the former Eastern Bloc. “The idea that the West had won the Cold War and capitalism had prevailed over communism deflected attention from the troubles of America’s old manufacturing centers,” Hill writes. “But at the end of the 1980s, the Rust Belt was far more like the Soviet Union and the North East of England than most Americans realized.”
Hill served as a senior intelligence officer on Russia during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and as senior director for Russia and Europe on Trump’s National Security Council staff; she understands Putin’s efforts to undermine America’s democracy and global standing. Even so, she regards Russian interference in the 2016 election as a distraction in understanding America’s turmoil. “The voters who had swung the ballot for Donald Trump in critical counties in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan were swayed by consideration of their own personal, family, and communal circumstances, not by the fake internet personas devised by Russian intelligence services,” she asserts.
Those socioeconomic conditions, and their political consequences, are the key Russia connection, Hill argues. “Populism had short-circuited Russian representational democracy, and now it was coming for the UK and the U.S. too.” Hill views Trump and Britain’s Brexiteers as Putin-like populists, offering divisive slogans rather than practical policies. And instead of interpreting Trump’s debacle at the 2018 Helsinki summit — when the president endorsed Putin’s denials of election meddling rather than the findings of the U.S. intelligence services — as evidence of nefarious dealings, Hill sees it as another example of Trump’s “autocrat envy.” Trump admired Putin’s management of Russia, Hill explains, and he regarded foreign leaders as more trustworthy than lowly U.S. administration experts. The result was the embarrassing presidential “word fog” of the kind Americans witnessed throughout Trump’s time in office.
The author’s encounters with Trump exemplify his style and character, especially his casual sexism. When Hill was introduced to the president as his new Russia expert, Trump responded with an icy “Rex is doing Russia,” referring to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In a meeting when Hill paused after the president mistook her for a secretary, he followed up with a demeaning “Hey, darlin’, are you listening?” A female senior official later advised Hill to never wear that same outfit to a meeting with Trump, because he “always noticed what women were wearing.” And Hill even learned that some White House colleagues — if one can call them that — disparaged her as the “Russia bitch.”
Overall, however, Hill’s insights into the Trump White House — he was obsessed with his television coverage, he ran the place like a family business — reaffirm more than they reveal. Hill herself had no illusions about him. Shortly before her formal National Security Council interview, she participated in the 2017 Women’s March. “I went from being a woman marching around the perimeter of the White House one day to going in through the visitor’s gate to the West Wing the next,” she recalls. Yet she is never entirely clear about why she went to work for an administration she had openly protested. Perhaps completing the journey “from the coal house to the White House,” as she puts it, was tempting — the culmination of her career, or a way to prove she had overcome the discrimination of her childhood.
As a White House adviser, Hill worried about Trump’s substantive ignorance. “The problem is the president doesn’t know any of this,” White House Chief of Staff John Kelly whispered to her at a Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, when they both realized that the president was out of his depth. “He doesn’t know any history at all.” She was also disturbed by his authoritarian impulses, even musing that Trump wanted to transform the office into an “elected monarchy.” But her main concern was that the disaffection, and decay behind Trump’s rise would worsen and further enable extremist politics, a trend that could “make the traumas of the four years from 2016 to 2020 seem like a preface, rather than a postscript, to the United States’ democratic demise.”
Ever the wonk, Hill suggests national programs, private-sector efforts and philanthropic initiatives to strengthen school systems, bridge digital divides, remove racial barriers and reduce the male-female wage gap. (She is painfully knowledgeable on this last point, having endured pay disparities in academia, foundations, think tanks and government service.) It is all solid, reasonable stuff — a longtime Brookings Institution researcher, Hill cannot resist citing its studies — but she lapses into her own sloganeering. “Rather than building back better,” she urges, “America would have to build forward together.”(Italics by author, groan by reviewer.) Bold steps are needed, political will is missing, and even a “Marshall Plan for Middle America” makes an appearance.
If not groundbreaking in her prescriptions, Hill is still perceptive in her diagnoses. “There should be no such thing as the wrong place to live,” she concludes near the end of the book. Such simple passages, grounded in experience, prove memorable. It’s the kind of insight occasionally gleaned from congressional testimony, if we listen carefully enough.
Carlos Lozada is the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including: