The past few years have not been kind to those who believe in human progress, especially of the American sort. During the 1990s, Americans were promised a future of effortless bliss, in which the end of the Cold War had dispatched the blood and mess of history, and markets would soon take care of everything else. Instead, they got the Iraq War, inequality, Trump and a pandemic the likes of which the world had not seen in a century.

Cover courtesy of Random House

Liberals have long dealt with such setbacks by pointing to the American capacity for reinvention, clinging to the idea things can always change for the better. But what if they can’t? What if problems once thought to be dispatched to a benighted past are back with a vengeance? And what if they turn out to be even worse this time around?

Such questions are at the heart of Ben Rhodes’s “After the Fall,” a combination of personal memoir, travel diary and political disquisition. The personal memoir describes Rhodes’s journey from his Upper East Side childhood to Obama’s speechwriting room – not far to go as a general matter, perhaps, but interesting in its specifics. The travel diary takes us to Hungary, Russia and China, where Rhodes interviews dissidents (including the recently jailed Alexei Navalny) in an effort to understand the ever-faster creep of authoritarianism around the world. The political disquisition wrestles with the future of American power around the world but also with what it means to be an American at home: How should liberals understand their country’s history at a time when the left “sees America as doomed to do no good in the world” and the right doubles down on an unthinking patriotism? These three approaches do not always work seamlessly together, but they reflect Rhodes’s varied identities: speechwriter, podcaster, national security expert, everyday dad troubled by the state of the world.

The book begins with the admirably cosmopolitan premise that one might learn something about the United States by asking people elsewhere how things look from their point of view. Its subtitle – “Being American in the World We’ve Made” – suggests that influence only runs one way, that Americans go galumphing about the world while everyone else sits passively awaiting their fate. The book is more subtle than that, a confrontation with how U.S. decision-makers helped to create a world amenable to autocracy but also how autocratic stylings have been imported back into the United States. According to Rhodes, U.S. leaders squandered the global legitimacy of the post-Cold War moment with selfish, shortsighted policies: the Iraq War, the subprime mortgage. Once Americans discredited themselves, autocrats such as Vladimir Putin rushed into the breach, promising forms of stability and national glory that democratic capitalism (less fondly known as neoliberalism) had failed to provide. Back at home, Trump and the Republican Party began imitating what seemed to work overseas, promising to restore national greatness after years of corruption, infiltration and betrayal by a liberal elite. They drew upon an “authoritarian playbook” that worked just as well in one place as in another, Rhodes writes. “In each locale, there was the discovery that the same thing was happening everywhere.”

Over the course of the book, Rhodes speaks with anti-corruption and pro-democracy crusaders around the world in an effort to understand not only where we’ve been under Trump but what might yet happen here.

“I found myself seeking out the kind of people I never really had the opportunity to fully know when I was in government: dissidents, activists, oppositionists – anyone, really, who looked at power from the perspective of an outsider.”

In Hungary, he meets with Sandor Lederer, a young activist organizing “civic circles” to provide a sense of connection and meaning outside of Victor Orban’s nationalist framework. In China, he speaks with Bao Pu, a dissident hoping to find an alternative to both Western capitalism and Chinese communism by looking to Chinese traditions of “personal virtue” and self-criticism. Less inspirationally, he also spends time with American hedge fund managers in Hong Kong, expressing surprise that they mostly voted for Trump despite their open contempt for the candidate’s diplomatic policies and general abilities.

“After the Fall” belongs in conversation with recent works on the specter of American fascism and the failings of American empire, though Rhodes mostly avoids using either term. And while the book is implicitly about Trump, Rhodes broadens the lens both chronologically and geographically. (Perhaps his publisher Random House worried that the threat of nationalist authoritarian politics might seem less than pressing to the reading public after the 2020 election.)

He denounces George W. Bush’s adventurism in Iraq as an exercise in “hubris, brutality, ignorance of local culture, and incapacity to think more than few months ahead.” He also links the surveillance grab of the Patriot Act with increasing government control in China, arguing that the Chinese simply “took the Patriot Act to the next logical step.”

Some of the most interesting chapters of the book explore the U.S. government’s “hypersecuritized” approach to foreign policy, in which the military has become an overused policy tool and every minor regional terrorist organization is spun up into an existential threat. Rhodes describes his own experience as the target of Black Cube private-security operatives, hired by the state of Israel to discredit and entrap him – an ominous story about the 1984-esque future that may be ahead for future public servants. If we are not careful, Rhodes suggests, we will soon be living in a society where the personal risks of entering government work – and of speaking one’s mind – will make politics all but off-limits for the average citizen.

To his credit, Rhodes does not pretend to have all of the answers about how to stop such pernicious trends. If anything, the struggle to find those answers as a newly-middle-aged ex-White House staffer is itself the subject of the book. Born in 1977, Rhodes considers himself a member of the “9/11 generation,” too late to participate fully in the rah-rah ’90s. In his telling, that generation came to politics skeptical but hopeful, only to find themselves confronted with a disastrous war, vicious polarization at home and the end of any hope for benevolent American hegemony.

Obama occupies the brightest spot in Rhodes’s assessment of America’s vices and virtues, the redemptive figure who manages to recognize the nation’s flaws while still seeing its beauty and potential for good. Rhodes wants to emulate this approach, but finds himself wrestling with whether the balance can still hold. Even working under Obama, Rhodes claims to have felt a certain unease about the exercise of American power. On paper, Rhodes looks like an establishmentarian par excellence: prep school, Rice University, presidential speechwriter and deputy national security adviser by his early 30s. But he prefers to think of himself as a spiritual outsider – in but not of the establishment.

During his time at the White House, Rhodes was perhaps most famous for describing his foreign-policy colleagues as “The Blob”: insular, slow-moving, vaguely dangerous. Since leaving Washington, he has struggled with if and how to maintain his insider status in foreign-policy circles by moderating his true opinions.

“If I wanted a future in government,” he was told by countless mentors, “I was better off keeping my head down and going to work for an investment bank or consulting company than having a podcast in which I heaped criticism on the Republican Party.” He went with the podcast anyway, becoming host of the weekly Pod Save the World – and, in a sense, positioning himself of but not in the Biden administration.

Though the book traverses much of the world, its chief subject is how to make sense of America, whether to love it or hate it or find some stance in between. The title “After the Fall” is cagily nonspecific about exactly which “fall” it means: the fall of the Berlin Wall? the end of American empire? the democratic collapse known as the Trump presidency? some fall from grace still to come in our collective authoritarian future?

Rhodes argues that any – indeed, all – of these crises might yet be an “opportunity” for self-improvement, for proving right the old liberal story of progress. He concludes that while “American is no longer a hegemon,” this is probably a good thing, a chance to make a leap of faith into a world – and a country – that might yet be better than the one we already know.

First, though, we have to survive the fall.

 

Beverly Gage is a professor of history at Yale University. She is writing a biography of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.


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