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2nd Mar 2024

Column

Beware of Trump's tricks in Europe

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In September 2019, when the news broke that president Donald Trump would suspend financial support to Ukraine unless president Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to dig up dirt about Joe Biden and his son, Trump's Russia and Europe adviser Fiona Hill happened to be in the UK, visiting her mother.

Washington was in shock. Many people tried to reach Hill: a president abusing his office to get at his rival, how could that happen? Did she know more?

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  • For decades, the US and the UK have starved education, health care and other public services that gave disadvantaged people the chance of a better life

But Hill was virtually unreachable. Her mother lived in Bishop Auckland, a former mining town in the forgotten northeast of the UK.

In her recent book, There is Nothing for You Here; Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century, she writes: "You couldn't easily telework from a place like Bishop Auckland. None of the infrastructure was there, unless you could afford to install it yourself. My mother certainly couldn't, and her wifi – if you could even call it that - was barely functional.

"At her house, if I wanted to make a cell-phone call, I had to walk to the back of the garden and stand on top of the compost heap. I could never download all my email messages. As a result, I missed the drama back in the United States (including the release of the transcript of President Trump's call with Ukrainian President Zelensky) that would lead me to testify before Congress."

Some people in Washington are furious with Fiona Hill, the little known civil servant who became world-famous overnight with her cool testimony during the hearings for Trump's impeachment in late 2019.

No one questions her competence. But her assertion that she was merely a neutral civil servant rings shallow.

She was a political appointee who worked in the White House for a year-and-a-half with Trump loyalists John Kelly and John Bolton without complaining, even though Trump completely ignored her - only to spill the beans when she was called to testify at the 11h hour.

Still, her book is interesting.

It describes how, as an underprivileged coal miner's daughter, she made her way up all the way "from the coal house to the White House". Her background provides the lens through which she looks at Trump, at president Vladimir Putin, and at the Brexiteers in her country of birth.

She does not care much for them, but she instinctively understands people who voted for Trump or for the UK to leave the European Union. Her own father, an unskilled miner, lost his job, his dignity and his entire social support system in the 1970s, when many pits closed in the UK.

In Russia, many of those who suffered most from the transition in the 1990s continue to support the Putin system. The same can be said of steel workers in Ohio who voted for Trump in 2016.

Marginalise, then scapegoat

After being marginalised by de-industrialisation, they wanted to believe a politician who identified scapegoats and promised to make the country as "great" and "prosperous" as before.

Putin uses aggressive nationalism as a glue when the social fabric of Russia is torn open by corruption and social regression.

People in Bishop Auckland who voted for Brexit are like the French who idolise Éric Zemmour because he blames all of France's misfortunes on Muslims, or like the Dutch who support Thierry Baudet, whose far-right party organises paramilitary training in plain view. Hill does not mention these examples in her book, but they come to mind automatically, which is probably what she intended.

Hill emphasies that she has been very lucky. Granted, she could not go to a good school because uniforms, books and bus tickets were too expensive for her parents. An interview at Oxford went badly because everything about her was somehow wrong: her clothes, her vocabulary, her factual knowledge.

Later she managed to get fully-funded scholarships, first to St Andrews in Scotland, then a Moscow university and, finally, Harvard, the first place where she was treated without disdain. As one of the few of her social class in the UK, Hill, born in 1965, benefited from some small openings. She is currently a Russia specialist at the prestigious Brookings Institution in Washington.

Now, those openings that helped her climb the social ladder are disappearing.

For decades, the US and the UK have starved education, health care and other public services that gave disadvantaged people the chance of a better life. Social class and race have, once again, become greater obstacles than they were 30 years ago. With social mobility at dismally low levels, the legend of the American Dream is little more than that: a legend.

Hill ends her book by calling on governments and entrepreneurs to start investing again in public transport, the internet, refresher courses and internships. Otherwise, she writes, many people will turn away from a political system that does nothing for them, and allow themselves to be intoxicated by strongmen who want to destroy democracy by instinct or interest. When those strongmen destroy democracy, Hill writes, we should not blame them but ourselves: we all allowed this to happen.

In continental Europe, there obviously is much less social despair than in Russia, the UK or the US. But anyone who has seen extremist politicians like Zemmour in France or Baudet in the Netherlands fumbling in Trump's bag of tricks knows that in Europe, too, we must be careful.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This column is an edited version of an earlier piece in NRC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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