🎧 Fiona Hill on the Working Class, Populism, and Russia
Fiona Hill and Yascha Mounk discuss growing up in the north of England and the insight it offers to contemporary politics.
Fiona Hill is the former Senior Director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council under President Trump and a key witness in his first impeachment trial. She is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. In her latest book, There Is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century, she describes her journey from the post-industrial north of England to the world of academia at Harvard and the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.
In this week’s conversation, Fiona Hill and Yascha Mounk discuss the resonance of populism for working class voters, remaining true to principle in the Trump administration, and the future of Great Power conflict.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: Your book tells the story of how a working class girl from the north of England ends up getting into positions of influence and authority an ocean away, in the United States. What is the relevance of that to how you experience and see the world?
Fiona Hill: Well, obviously, it gives me a very different vantage point. All of us bring a particular lens to not just our own lives, but also to larger affairs and how we understand the world around us. If you get into a position like you and I are, in terms of being analysts of politics, you bring that perspective to it as well. I'm not a member of the elite—I suppose I am now, but I wasn't when I started off. There's a certain accident of birth that comes to it. But there's also much specificity to the place and the time of my childhood. It was shaped by an awful lot of impersonal forces. There were a lot of interactions that I had that really gave me a different outlook from the people that I've later worked with. All the way through my childhood and career, I’ve felt that I've been an outsider, someone who's always kind of looking in, and having a very different set of experiences. And part of that comes from also being a woman.
Mounk: Tell us a little bit about the place where you grew up: what its culture was and how it continues to influence how you see the world.
Hill: The United Kingdom seems [to outsiders] like a fairly monolithic kind of place. But England as a political entity has undergone a lot of changes historically, and has a very strong regional component. The place that I was born in, County Durham in the north of England, has this very peculiar history. It was a principality of bishops. After the Norman Conquest in the UK, it was kind of a world apart: the prince-bishops of Durham were basically entrusted with guarding the frontier against Scotland. They were allowed to have their own private armies and lived in castles with highly fortified settlements.
The other important point about County Durham is that it was one of the centers of the Industrial Revolution. It was really the center of coal mining, and all the associated industries that came from there. There were freight railways for transporting coal; steel works; shipbuilding on the coast and the export of coal from major ports; the first passenger railway. In the aftermath of World War II, all of that industry had to be nationalized because of the impact of the war. The private sector couldn't really recover. And this was sort of the beginning of the end. Everybody was working for the public sector, essentially, and the commercial aspects of the industries really took a hit.
And you start to see massive decline in that period after World War II. I was born in the 1960s. By that time, a lot of the industries are in trouble. They're no longer profitable, the world is moving on, there's modernization, we're moving to the new knowledge economy with more automation. And when Margaret Thatcher comes into office in 1979, she launches a mass privatization campaign. You get in the 1980s hundreds of thousands of people suddenly laid off all at once. So my region goes, in the course of a century, from being the cradle and the source of innovation for the Industrial Revolution, to basically the source of mass unemployment.
Mounk: Douglas Alexander, the Scottish politician, came on the podcast a little while ago. He told me that when he was campaigning for the Labour Party in his old constituency at the last election, he felt like they were offering people a trip to the local Mining Museum, when they really wanted to go to Euro Disney.
What does it do to a country to see the pride in working class culture erode? Do you agree with Douglas on this point?
Hill: I do agree. I know him well, and the constituency he represented in Scotland is very similar. People became, in many respects, trapped in the past.
There's very strong senses of community and culture derived from the workplace. You really see how a particular form of work can manifest itself in culture and language. A language had grown up around the coal mines. There were various dialects that were even given names in the Northeast of England. And in the Durham coalfields, there was a language the miners and their families spoke called Pitmatic, from the “pits.” And a lot of it is various common references to tools that they would use, or the practices they built up—words that weren’t used anywhere else in the country. There were all kinds of pastimes, their own songs, their own cultural clubs, from soccer teams to reading and writing circles and sketching circles.
What struck me as a kid was reading about these famous Soviet writers like Yevgeny Zamyatin—who I later studied—who'd come to the northeast of England to understand it. George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier was writing about his time with miners, not just in Yorkshire and the Midlands, but also in the northeast. So this was a very storied place, with lots of political focus as well; the Durham miners used to actually set the agenda of the labor movement in the United Kingdom, and also the political movement within the Labour Party. Trying to explain this really set me on something of my own personal odyssey of trying to understand these larger phenomena.
Mounk: How did you end up moving out of that community and studying, among other places, in Moscow and at Harvard?
Hill: Well, first of all, the title of my book is There's Nothing for You Here, which is what my dad said to me when it became obvious that I was doing well enough in school that I would be able to apply to university. My parents really wanted me to do that. My dad left school at 14; he had been pushed to go down the mines and not continue with schooling. My mom had left school at 16 and gone to train as a nurse. But neither of them had had the kind of educational opportunities that were expanding and opening up in the period after I was born, in the 1960s. My local education authority would pay all the fees and provide a maintenance grant for students like myself from poor backgrounds, and who had got the requisite skill qualifications and the ability to study at university.
My dad said to me, “Look, if you get these qualifications, you won't be able to come back here. You're going to have to start thinking about what else you do and where else you go.” And the reason I started studying Russian was very much the timing. It was the time of all the war scares, the peak of the Cold War, the so-called Euro missile crisis that went from 1977 to 1987, the whole idea that the Soviet Union and United States could get into a nuclear confrontation. I decided to study Russian as a kind of almost practical response to this, to try to figure out: if we were literally going to be facing nuclear Armageddon—why?
My uncle Charlie, who I talk about in the book, said to my dad one day, “Your Fiona's good at languages,”—I'd been studying French and German—“she should study Russian and try to figure out why they bloody well try to blow us up.” He'd been in the Atlantic convoys supplying the Soviet Union from the UK and Canada and the United States during the height of World War II, and wondered why once wartime allies now seem to be implacable enemies. What had gone wrong here? Why was it that the relationship with the Soviet Union had deteriorated so much from 1945 onwards? So I decided to study Russian, thinking: “maybe I'll become an interpreter. Maybe I could help figure out negotiations.” There was that naivety, and that kind of thought that maybe I could do this.
I got a chance to go to St. Andrews University in Scotland, where I could take lessons from scratch, because Russian was not available in the schools in my hometown. But of course, there was discrimination against people like me—only 5 to 6% of kids in the UK, in any circumstances, went to university. The likelihood of a person from a working class background going to university was slim anywhere. Following this career path seemed unlikely. I also didn't have all the money necessary for the studies. I didn't have money for all the other essentials: books, internships, summer programs. Sometimes you have opportunities but can't take them because you don't have the wherewithal to do so. I had to then be very creative. And I was very lucky in finding sources of additional funding. The Durham Miners Association gave me some money, my local Rotary Club, good friends, relatives, neighbors—I had all kinds of mentors and benefactors who stepped up to try to make it possible for me to basically pursue education, beyond the fact of going to university. I was very fortunate to get grants and fellowships. Lots of things that I was able to take advantage of disappeared after that. When I reflect back, and I think about that journey that I took, that trajectory is not that feasible for people. The things that I did are not so easy to do. They weren’t easy at the time, but now they are impossible for people from similar kinds of backgrounds.
Mounk: Resentment over lack of opportunity for various groups in different contexts is one of the drivers of populist politics. How is it that politicians who are often quite elite themselves—whether it's Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, or Silvio Berlusconi—were able to effectively tap into this sort of working class resentment in a way that actually is politically efficacious?
Hill: Johnson, Berlusconi, and Trump—all three of them are entertainers in some respects. Berlusconi owned a whole TV and media and communications company; Trump emerged as not just a celebrity businessman, his whole rise to the top is through reality television; and Boris Johnson is a journalist, who also has a very quick wit, kind of a bit of a flair for stand up, improvisational comedy. He obviously has been well trained as an orator in the context of coming from Eton, and the various clubs and the debating society he was part of at Oxford.
All three of them, in a way, have a chameleon quality to them. They can kind of adapt their personas to the people that they're interacting with. And they are in some respects political geniuses. They have a knack for feeling the moment and feeding into the grievances. With Berlusconi and Trump, I think they felt themselves disrespected in larger society. Johnson is part of the society and part of the elite, he kind of knows what makes it tick. But he's got a kind of warmth and empathy in his external interactions with people. He's engaging and entertaining. And I think that's part of it as well. They're extremely good retail politicians. So they're tapping into the grievances; they're channeling them. They’re telling people they're going to fix them. But there's an entertainment quality that I think we can't underestimate.
Part of that is kind of like a “bread and circuses'' approach. People were really into soccer and football and other pastimes in the north of England to distract themselves, to divert themselves. In a way, Berlusconi, Trump, and Boris Johnson are feeding into that as well, providing entertainment. You're on their team, you're on their side, they're going to be the champion for you. They're going to go out there and fight for you. They're going to do things for you, but they're going to engage with you and they're listening and hearing you. They're not talking at you. They're engaging with you. They're making people feel like they're connected, and that they matter.
Mounk: So you do your graduate study at Harvard and then bounce around between full-time jobs and stints in government. And then you're asked to join the government of Mr. Trump. Tell us about that moment.
Hill: It was a bit of a shock. I never anticipated it. I mean, I don't think in my wildest dreams I would have expected to end up in this particular administration. I'm not a political person. I had been in the government as a national intelligence officer, very much in a professional expert position, under the George W. Bush administration and into the first year of the Obama administration. But really, that was incidental. It wasn't that I was hired by the administration; I was hired by the National Intelligence Council. I was plucked out of Brookings, and I was on loan. In this instance, I ended up coming to the attention of a couple of people who had been in and around the campaign for Trump because of my previous work in the National Intelligence Council and the book I'd written with my colleague, Clifford Gaddy, on Putin: Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. It was a direct response to Russia's efforts to interfere in the 2016 election and trying to figure out how to respond to this. And I was basically asked to come in, sit down with Trump, and explain Putin to him.
Well, of course, that never happened. He wasn't interested at all in hearing from me, a middle-aged woman. Irrespective of my background and what I had to say, he wanted to sit down with Putin himself. Rex Tillerson—the former CEO of Exxon Mobil who was Secretary of State—was supposed to make the introduction for him. But that was the general idea and not for me.
In 2016, a really sophisticated Russian—old-style, frankly, Cold War—propaganda and influence operation had just metastasized and gone out of our control because of the effects of social media, given the acute vulnerability of the United States to that kind of operation at this specific time and the chaos of the presidential election. In any case, this was a really unusual and very vitriolic election, and in the midst of it, the Russians decided to leap in and intervene. It created a domestic disaster. We're still living through the consequences of it. And when I got asked, I felt really strongly I had to do something. I just wasn't expecting to be asked.
Mounk: It's obvious to me that Russia attempted to intervene in the election; it's not obvious to me how much impact that actually had. It’s obvious Trump and the campaign were very receptive to various forms of aid; it's not obvious to me how much of a difference that made. What were the stakes in the Russian interference?
Hill: There are two issues here. First of all, it's a fact that Russia interfered. And as you said, it's also a fact that people in and around Trump's campaign were quite willing to take information from any kind of sources that would help the campaign in the pursuit of defeating Hillary Clinton. And it's also the case that the Clinton campaign were doing some of their own dirty politics as well. It's not a fact, though, that the Russians affected the actual outcome of the election. And although people have suggested that that's the case, I think it's extraordinary difficult to basically say that 70,000-plus people in three counties in three states that swung the Electoral College in favor of Donald Trump were persuaded by Russian propaganda, or by the fictional personas that Russian operatives created on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
So, Donald Trump was elected by real Americans who were pushed by their own personal political preferences. But it is also a fact that the perceptions of the intervention, and the facts of that intervention—because the Russians did interfere—had a huge impact on our domestic politics: Russia becomes, for the first time since the Cold War, an issue in our domestic politics. And the whole way that we act in our politics is shaped by various people's perceptions, what they think happened or didn't happen in the course of 2016. We're still dealing with the fact that the former president thinks that there was a “Russia hoax,” that the Russians didn't intervene. We're still trying to deal with lots of actions that people took in response to those perceptions. In fact, we put off addressing the deep-seated grievances and problems within American politics as a result of a big argument about what Putin did or didn't do, and what Trump and their campaign did or didn't do, in 2016.
It's also Trump's perception that many Democrats were trying to unseat him after being elected, because of their views on what the Russians did. This really shaped his own view that there was an effort to get rid of him, and that he has a right to try to retain power by all kinds of different means. So we ended up in an absolute bloody mess—to put it bluntly, and in very British terms—as a result of what happened in 2016.
Even the Russians themselves couldn’t quite believe the impact that it had. They just couldn't understand how they'd become so toxic, and how our politics had just gotten so derailed. They kept expecting us just to get over it and get on with the usual stuff of US-Russian relations. And of course, we couldn't.
Mounk: Tell us about your time in the administration. How were you able to stick to your principles, and wind up as one of the few people to come out of the administration being able to hold their heads up high?
Hill: Well, first of all, I went in purely focused on the national security aspects and trying to deal with a multifaceted problem. Plenty of people gave me their thoughts on it. Some said that they wouldn't speak to me again, by making that decision, because they were very convinced that Trump had been elected by the Russians’ intervention.
I wouldn't (I thought at the time) get so embroiled in the domestic politics and the campaign. Of course, pretty early on I realized that was naïve, that this was a permanent campaign, that I was going to have to tread very carefully, and be prepared to leave if I became part of the problem. By 2019, it was very clear there were problems on every front. I wanted to leave the position in a way that I could hand it on to others.
I got off just that week before the fateful phone call [with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky]. But I took an oath to the Constitution. I was very focused on the issue of national security, trying to do the job. And when I then got called up to testify, there was no question that I would do so, because all the way through, I had been speaking out behind the scenes to my immediate chain of command. I had the good fortune of having people like General HR McMaster and Ambassador John Bolton, who were patriots and who were pretty principled people, as well as people who were detailed from across the government, people who had been in previous administrations, and they were all doing their jobs. Now, some people have very strong agendas. I think people are very familiar with Ambassador Bolton and many of his views—but the man is a patriot and was dedicated to upholding the Constitution and principles. I was pretty sure that I could speak freely, but of course, I was under political assault from within the domestic environment the entire time I was there. And that was surreal.
But I have to say that I was prepared for it, partly because of my studies of the Soviet Union in Russia. It was like being in the middle of Stalin purge at different points—but I wasn't being sent to the Gulag; I wasn't being drawn up in front of a firing squad. And I also was able to dig deep into my own childhood, and the resilience that I built up there in very harsh and difficult circumstances. I wasn't in there for perks and privileges, and I wasn't there for any political purpose. I did not expect the domestic politics to go off in the direction that they did. I had, let's just say, a real shock to the system by how dirty American politics is. There is so much corruption and so much private gain uppermost in our politics at this particular juncture that we are really repeating many of the things that we've seen in many different settings. And it's going to take people standing up for the principles of democracy to push back against this.
Mounk: You spoke to the fact that it's been your mission from the beginning to think how we can manage our relationship with Russia. Today, America continues to have very adversarial relations with Russia, and of course, we have what some people are calling a new cold war with China.
Should we resign ourselves to the idea that the basic outlines of international relations for the next decades are going to consist of great power rivalry, and what do you think American foreign policy can do?
Hill: We're gonna have to be very much focused on crisis management, as we were during the Cold War, sadly. There's the emergence of new forms of great power competition and rivalry. Now, I do think that there are some things that we can do. First of all, we've always succeeded in the past, not just by the force of our arms, but the force and the power of our example. And our example hasn't been great—not just the United States, but the West, Europe, more broadly.
But the other issue is trying to find a new framing: we are actually all in a state of common existential threat, we just don't seem to have got it through to everybody. The pandemic ought to have concentrated things. It hasn't yet, but these successive waves of variants may do that—the emergence and fear of new infectious diseases, the next pandemic. We've got to do better than this as an international community to respond to it.
Also climate change. We are starting to now see that it's highly unlikely that we are going to reach any of the climate targets that we set up. We are not going to stem the temperature increases, so we're going to have to mitigate. And we're going to have to adapt, and we're going to have to build up resilience. It's going to be global, because we're all in this together. And everywhere is going to have refugees and climate migrants and climate disasters—we see this. And so I'm hoping that we can start to at least take some small steps to work together. I mean, who cares about your great power competition, if you’re all laid to waste by some climate disaster?
And we're about to have another major economic dislocation of the kind that I experienced as a kid in the 70s and 80s. We're moving towards artificial intelligence, a different kind of economy. We're moving towards new green technologies. China is in the forefront of this. We're all going to have to catch up. People are going to be experiencing a very different world from the one we're in now. It's not very satisfying, but it's a combination of crisis management and trying to reframe the global debate.
Mounk: I want to circle back to the beginning of our conversation, and your thoughts on opportunity—the way in which a lack of opportunity has led to many of our problems in politics today.
How can we make sure that the forgotten people, regions, and groups feel that they have enough opportunity and respect—enough of a stake in society that we can turn the page from very dangerous populist politics?
Hill: This is also multi-dimensional. It's not just in the realm of public policy or the role of government, and breaking down barriers or coming up with legislation for new infrastructure of opportunity, through education and public health. There are also things that you and I and others can do. I think universities can play an awfully important role. And think tanks—new ideas, new approaches to education. Philanthropy has an important role to play. We've seen this: some of the major donors like MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, giving literally billions of dollars away to higher education institutions that particularly cater to people from underprivileged backgrounds, historically black universities and colleges in the United States, for example—those for the first generation going to college, but also for people who want to reskill and retrain.
A lot of it is an investment in early childhood education. We have all these debates about child tax credits or direct payments. I am the beneficiary of direct child benefits. When I was growing up in the UK, it helped keep my family out of abject poverty. My family were well beneath the poverty line, but these payments made a difference. Thinking about how we can help people get out, and have education and training without going into massive debt: corporations working with universities for retraining and rescaling, for example. More grants and subsidization for people who are first generation or from marginalized communities or communities historically discriminated against. There's so many different ways in which you can approach that.
But I think the question is: how do we put it together in a comprehensive way? I suggest various things in the book that other people have come up with. Domestic development agencies, for example. There's all kinds of discussions about this, like the one we're having, and the way that you frame all of your debates is by engaging with people. We can better inform people about the complexities of these issues, and have a rational civil debate about things so that people can make up their own minds.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover design by Joe O’Shea.
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