How the daughter of an English miner got up to work in the White House

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There is nothing for you here. From Fiona Hill. Seaman’s books; 432 pages; $ 30

W.SUCH AS the woman with the weird British accent who testified in Congress during the hearings on President Donald Trump’s first impeachment, suddenly found herself in the spotlight and trending on Twitter? For many who have wondered, Fiona Hill now explains: She is a miner’s daughter from Bishop Auckland, a long-neglected city in northeast England who, contrary to expectations, went to university, won a scholarship at Harvard and became a leading expert on Vladimir Putins Russia. For two years she was the top adviser on European and Russian affairs to Mr Trump’s National Security Council – hence her main role in investigating his efforts to defame Joe Biden about Ukraine. Some in Mr. Trump’s White House cruelly called her “the Russia bitch”.

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Readers looking for new inside revelations about the Trump presidency may be disappointed with her new memoir. Of course she’s damned about her former boss. He is a misogynist, a superficial showman, and extremely selfish. “I don’t think Trump intentionally did anything for Putin or anyone else,” Ms. Hill writes. “Trump was only concerned with himself.” He’s interested in details, aside from nuclear arms control issues. His vanity and fragile self-esteem make him “exquisitely vulnerable” and a liability to the country. He abused his position to attempt a “self-coup” after losing to Mr Biden in last year’s election. But most of it is known, at least to the former president’s critics.

The freshness of Ms. Hill’s story, instead, lies in the description of her background and the unique insights she believes it gives her on global affairs – a very different perspective from most Washington national security experts. With the closure of mines and other local industries, Bishop Auckland became a forgotten place with no opportunity. People had jobs, not careers. Her family’s poverty prevented her from taking a place in a private girls’ school, even though it was offered to waive the fees; Ms. Hill’s father shies away from the expense of uniform, transportation, and school trips. A job interview for Oxford University was a disaster as she felt hopelessly out of place. A well-known trifecta of English questions (where are you from, what does your father do, which school do you go to?) Kept knocking her down.

Instead, she went to the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where she studied Russian. After all, America offered an escape from the British classification of accent and class. Other obstacles stood in her way, especially because she is a woman. While working on reforms in post-communist Russia, she was accepted as a prostitute upon entering a hotel for a meeting. As a speaker at a conference, she was mistaken for a tea lady. In the White House, Trump suspected she was a secretary. For years she was paid less than men in jobs of equal value.

Ms. Hill not only overcame these difficulties, she used them to her advantage, using her experiences to discern patterns and connections. In particular, she sees striking similarities between the impoverished region of her roots and deprived areas in both America and Russia. The Cold War had obscured the fact that Britain, America and Russia had much in common: when visiting dark parts of Russia, she encountered “northeast England in a big way”.

The similarities extend into politics, she argues. The gap between ordinary people in such neglected places and the political elites creates fertile ground for populists who claim to be advocating their interests. Once there was hope that in time Russia would become more like America. Instead, suggests Ms. Hill, the opposite has happened: “Trump would become more like Putin in political practice and preferences than he was any of his most recent American presidential predecessors.” As she watched his coup attempt unfold, the parallels with Russia became striking and alarming.

So that they don’t forget

Her path from disadvantaged origins to success is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s bestsellers “Educated” and JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”. In all cases, education is key. Ms. Hill weaves political issues into her story, freely referring to studies by colleagues at the Brookings Institution, the think tank where she now works. An epilogue contains a checklist of ideas on how individuals, from executives to teachers and students, can do their part in removing barriers to opportunity and overcoming the disadvantages of “forgotten places”.

Ms. Hill calls this one of the greatest imperatives of the 21st century. She may exaggerate the parallels between America and Russia (the differences in political institutions and culture are enormous). But the alarm she is raising is urgent. America’s political polarization is not just a domestic problem, it is also a national security problem. “I’ve seen firsthand how vulnerable America is to the political suffering that has plagued Russia,” she warns; Russia’s slide into authoritarianism since 2000 could become America’s. Just as Boris Yeltsin amassed executive powers and paved the way for Putin, the Trump presidency could allow a more capable populist to “draw a Putin in America.”

This article appeared in the Books & Art section of the print edition under the heading “The Russia Option”


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