Fiona Hill was introduced to most Americans through her testimony in President Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings in late 2019. A former National Security Council official, that day she delivered a personal story of growing up in a working-class mining town in northeastern England and emigrating to the United States, all delivered in an accent that many Americans couldn’t quite place but would have marked her for class discrimination in her native country.
Her new book, There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century, only briefly touches on her White House experience and mostly focuses on the personal story that so many found compelling in her testimony. (Representative Jackie Speier asked Hill to confirm a story from her childhood during the question-and-answer portion: that a classmate had set her pigtails on fire when she was 11 during school, and Hill had extinguished the blaze and completed a test. It was true.) Still, there is enough space for a few revealing West Wing anecdotes, such as when the former president mistook her for a secretary and then-chief of staff Reince Priebus referred to her as “the Russia bitch.” In response to the book, Trump emailed an angry statement to supporters this week calling her “a Deep State stiff with a nice accent.”
Ultimately, the book goes beyond a memoir. Hill uses the story of her hometown and her journey to the White House to show not just that success was difficult for her, but that it should have been impossible. The more she describes her native mining town, the more it looks like deindustrialized centers in the American Midwest and coal towns in Appalachia. That’s the point: Hill is particularly interested in how a lack of opportunity, not just in the UK but also in the U.S. and Russia, creates the ideal circumstances for a dangerous brand of populist politics to thrive.
While some parts of the book sound like a policy paper, there are also parts that sound like snippets from a frank conversation between two very close friends, such as when she writes about her struggles with wage discrimination in Washington or stuffing her bra with tissue and pantyhose at one of her first jobs at a medieval-themed banquet hall. I called to ask her what she’s most worried about when it comes to Trump’s next act, and if even now, even after everyone in Washington knows her name, she thinks she could play salary hardball like some of her male colleagues.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Katelyn Fossett: What do you make of Trump’s recent comments about the Jan. 6 rioters? He said in a statement in September they were being unfairly persecuted by the Biden administration.
Fiona Hill: Well, this is also part of this myth-making, as we’re well aware: the perpetration of the Big Lie, and the turning of the people of Jan. 6 into martyrs and also trying to rewrite the historical record in real time. He is mulling again a return to what he sees more as a crown than the presidency in 2024.
I feel like we’re at a really critical and very dangerous inflection point in our society, and if Trump — this is not on an ideological basis, this is just purely on an observational basis based on the larger international historical context — if he makes a successful return to the presidency in 2024, democracy’s done. Because it will be on the back of a lie. A fiction. And I think we have to bear that in mind. And I was hoping that with the book, I might be able to reach out, because I’m not a partisan person, to people who care very much about the United States and about its democracy to really think about this long and hard.
I find it deeply disturbing that the number one identity that people put forward in polls now is whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican rather than an American or someone from a particular region. Even religious or ethnic/racial identifiers seem to be subsumed in this in some of the polling. And so, you know, those of us who are independent in mind and practice but politically engaged, where do we fit into all of this? We used to fit into America. I have a lot of friends who are immigrants like myself who have been here for a long time, who come from many, many different places — not all from Europe. And they say, “This is not the America I came to. This is not the America we chose to come to.” And they were deeply disturbed by this. But many people fled these kinds of authoritarian or autocratic regimes, which are highly personalized, deny social mobility and where you have kleptocratic cliques of cronies who are really trying to take charge of policy, and that’s what this [deep polarization] is about. This is not about ideology. It is a manipulation of particular social issues — abortion, immigration, all kinds of issues.
This America is looking dangerously like Russia — based on the divisions of Russia in the 1990s and then the Putin system that came out of that. China, Hungary, Venezuela — many of the countries that are expelling immigrants from the region. This is what we’re dealing with. In all of these places, all of these issues are being manipulated and people’s grievances are being whipped up.
Fossett: Given your past concerns about the Trump administration’s friendly posture toward Russia, do you think that the Biden administration has been an improvement in that respect?
Hill: Well, you know, there’s a similar kind of problem. With both Trump and Biden, the first thing is that they both wanted to get rid of Russia as a problem. Trump obviously wanted to win over Putin. He had this kind of strongman envy; he thought Putin was the ultimate badass. But really, Trump himself wanted to focus on other things. China, Iran and other issues were much more pertinent to his goals, and he was trying to sort of win Russia over through Putin to just get them on our side, as he saw it. Biden similarly wants to focus on China — not Iran, obviously — but he wants to park Russia somewhere, as a colleague has described it. But the Russians really don’t like us. And so the more that you try to marginalize them, or deprioritize them, the more likely they are to fight back, or drive out of that parking lot.
Russia is confounding for most people. Why are we still in a Cold War situation with Russia? When the National Security Strategy came out under Trump — obviously Trump didn’t really like it — when Russia was given more prominence along with China, there was a lot of head-scratching. But it’s of course because of the election subversion and the actions Russia has taken to influence our elections, all of these operations to hack into all of our systems, ransomware … I mean, Russia is a massive problem. But we’re not in the kind of confrontation that we were with Russia in the Cold War. This is really kind of more Russia’s confrontation of choice than it is ours.
We have a really hard time getting the Russians off our back. So just like Trump thought that he could woo Putin, Biden would just like to say, “Yeah, please go away,” so he can move on with everything else.
But we need to always keep coming to Russia in our sights. And we’ve got to be a bit more sophisticated and nuanced in managing that relationship.
Fossett: What do you think more sophistication and nuance would look like?
Hill: Well, first of all, we know that they’ve been interfering in our political systems and they continue to do so. They’ve been doing it across the board with our European allies as well. We do need to work with [those allies] on this and get back to a concerted action. Domestic renewal is a critical part of this as well because the Russians are exploiting all of our internal divisions. Russian operatives masquerade on the internet, pressing issues on abortion, race, religion and partisan divisions. The more that we can do to overcome those and have a sensible national conversation about them, give more empathy and remember we’re Americans, the better off we will be.
We also have to keep on with education efforts to make sure that people are more aware of posting personal and political information online. They might also be dealing with someone in their social media circles who might be working for the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, as opposed to St. Petersburg, Florida.
And we also have to recognize that some of our politicians behave in the same way. I probably shouldn’t say this, but some of our members of Congress look more like some of the crazy members of the Russian Duma [parliament], like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who were influence operations for Russian domestic purposes. They’re out there being agent-provocateurs and stirring things up for domestic purposes, but they’re exactly the kinds of people that can be pointed to and manipulated by Russians on the outside. So when people say, for example, that Trump was a Russian asset, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he was on the books, or that we’ll find some file. Is just means that his actions, and his embrace of the Big Lie, and all of his vulnerabilities could be unbelievably easily exploited. Some of our members of Congress and senators are exactly the same.
But the problem for us is that we’re doing that domestically. Our political system has changed since Citizens United, with the creation of Super PACs and political action committees. I would hope that the Supreme Court would start thinking about reversing that. It’s a bit pie in the sky, but we need to ask how we can take all of this money out of our politics. Because that’s how the Russians can create shells, and they can influence other people with lots of money who can play in our system.
Fossett: I thought your book was similar to J.D. Vance’s book. Both are personal stories about people who made it out of socioeconomic disadvantage against all odds, and what those stories explain about people who feel resentful or dispossessed. Have you read that book?
Hill: I did, and, actually in a way, my book’s a little bit of a reaction to his. I thought his book was so grim, and he seems to sort of blame, in some respects, his family and people from his background for their predicament. And I thought, “Well, that’s not fair,” because in my experience, all of it has to do with circumstances. And I didn’t grow up in a family with substance abuse problems and other issues but certainly in the community there was plenty of that.
Fossett: Now he’s running for Senate in the mold of a Trump populist. And I want to ask about that transformation, because it seems so relevant to your arguments about how these populist-nationalist ideas take root in areas that are dealing with the kinds of problems both you and he discuss.
Hill: He should be running as his own person, not trying to emulate someone else. He’s the real deal. I mean, Trump was never the real deal. There are sections in Hillbilly Elegy about how celebrities like Trump can talk the talk and they never walk the walk.
There ought to be more empathy for the people and place where he came from, not trying to use them as a kind of slogan or a kind of a banner. Because the big problem of populism is people can’t see themselves reflected in the people at the top, and so they become prey to the celebrity-politicians and others who say, “I will be your champion; just give me your vote.” And those politicians don’t care that much about them.
Vance’s book along with many of the other, more conventional sociological books of the period — like The Unwinding, Strangers in Their Own Land, We’re Still Here, Janesville — these are the books that should be helping us to understand how we got to all of this. And these books should be coming up with some concrete solutions, not just serving as a kind of platform and springboard for exploitation, for a certain small number of people to get into political office.
I’m not saying that every politician seeks office for personal gain or professional advancement, but certainly a lot of people do. I mean, Trump thinks of himself as a king and wants to create a new dynasty. I saw that firsthand.
Fossett: I really thought the gender component was interesting to include in the book, because it’s essentially about lack of opportunity, and there are specific hurdles for women.
Hill: At one point my editor was a bit leery about me weaving the gender issue into it because I started off writing the book thematically. I wasn’t really going to do the whole biography in the way that it is in there now. Once we started to do it, when I started to write and draft it, it was a little overwhelming for the uninitiated reader. So we decided to do the biographical through-line.
And that’s when the women’s issues component seemed to become a question mark for the editor. But I did a little bit of focus grouping with my colleagues, and they said I should really insist on trying to keep this in. Some of them said, “Well, maybe this isn’t completely related to the theme of opportunity or some of the national security themes that you’re mentioning,” and I said, “But it is!” I mean, as any woman will tell you, this is very important. It does feed into social grievance and helps to explain why many women are also attracted to populism.
Fossett: It’s so important because we rarely discuss gender in the context of economic mobility. A lot of the gender issues we talk about are either issues for women at the top of the income distribution or the bottom. But women face unique issues moving from one end of the spectrum to the other.
Hill: Yes, because you get Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book about not having it all, which is very much for an elite audience. And then you got the less well-off women at the very bottom, for instance the single mothers who are looking for jobs and opportunities. You don’t see it the whole way through.
Fossett: So often when you hear about the narrative of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps or the self-made person, that narrative often sounds designed around a man.
Hill: Even the word bootstraps, right?
Fossett: What do you think our conversation about economic mobility misses when it comes to women in particular?
Hill: Well, I do think gender is an obstacle to getting ahead at different phases of one’s career.
But many of the barriers are subtle. I mean, the #MeToo movement brought those out in a very unsubtle way — the barriers that are posed by sexual harassment and rape. But it’s also that kind of constant feeling that you are not the same as everyone else. I was told throughout my career that I was a risk because of being a woman. I’ve had all of these questions asked — when I was planning on having children — all of these things that are completely inappropriate.
But women are also often divided against each other. People never really know about salaries, because people don’t want to talk about it. I wanted to use a few more stories that people told me for the book and they didn’t want to let me use them because they were embarrassed. Older women in particular didn’t want people to know that they were underpaid vis-a-vis their male colleagues in these senior positions, because it was them somehow saying, “Well, I’m second class. I’m not worthy of this.” Because money is the marker.
Then there are physical security issues that are tied to opportunity. If you’re a girl considering job opportunities, you do have to think about going home on a bus or metro late at night. Some of the stories that got taken out were about attacks on the metro and getting stalked in the streets. My teenage years were when the Yorkshire Ripper was at large in the UK. It was a huge constraint on my teens and late teens because girls from all kinds of backgrounds were being killed. They weren’t all prostitutes, and a lot of the people who were had been driven into prostitution because of the extreme economic circumstances. And in the whole of the north of England, we were having all kinds of Take-Back-the-Night demonstrations because women couldn’t go to work and come back for fear of being brutally murdered. I was flashed at probably 100,000 bloody times from being a small child all the way through to an adult woman. And it would make me think twice about walking on my own or going anywhere on my own. So opportunities were constrained. These are not fully understood, but they do become constraints on economic mobility because women don’t have the same choices as men or boys do in terms of being able to take advantage of job offers or internships or other things as well.
And then the big issue is of single women with children, and their constraints on earning power get passed on to their children.
Fossett: The other thing I noticed in your book was how frankly you talked about what might be called wage discrimination. You describe two instances, at the Brookings Institution and in the White House, where the person who was in your position before you made a lot more money. In both cases, your predecessor was a man. They got more money because they had threatened to leave if they didn’t. And I have to ask, even in your position, as someone who is very well respected in her field and who has worked directly with the president, do you think that if you had tried to play hardball in the same way, it would have worked?
Hill: I almost think that it wouldn’t. It would be a backfire. And there was one incident where my husband had actually coached me beforehand. He said, “Men do this all the time, and you need to ask for this. And here, this is how to do it.” The hiring manager pretty much laughed at me when I tried it. And this is the kind of thing that a guy does all the time. And then I just thought, “Wow.” I remember hearing about successful women who had taken a lawyer to their salary negotiation, and I was like, “What?” And then I thought, “Well, yeah, I see why.” Because they’re going to get ripped off just as a matter of course.
But there is always this pervasive sense that I’ve experienced myself all the time that if you push too much, they’ll say, “Well, we won’t hire you. Because you are a risk and we’re taking a risk on you.” And then your salary history from these early jobs … The places I’ve worked, like Brookings and Harvard, have really worked on this, particularly in the last 10 years since the Lilly Ledbetter Act, and more women have moved up and started to push for wage equality.
But you can’t reverse 20-odd years of wage inequality. I tallied up at one point $500,000 of pay that I will never have. And I’m not going to complain from my vantage point, because I’m married to somebody who works in the private sector. But, yeah, it just annoys me that I’m paid and have been successively paid a hell of a lot less than men. So it’s like … so what am I? I’ve worked incredibly hard. I’ve been working since I was 11. And I’ll never make the same as a man from my kind of cohort.
And so what about the single mother? The younger person who is looking across at the guy next to her and thinks, “They’re making more than me here.” And then the hiring managers, will literally say, “Well, what’s your husband making?” or “Well good for you that you made that in your last job but you’re not going to get that here because we’re taking a risk on you in this promotion.” I spoke to a lot of women — around my age and in the media — who had exactly these discussions, and I want them to come out and talk about them. Because I want to make sure that young women don’t have to do that. People think you are the B-word when you start to push. Or they think you’re greedy and grasping. Women aren’t allowed to be angry, and women aren’t allowed to ask for the same things that men are allowed to ask for.