Book ‘After the Fall’ by Ben Rhodes

Read an excerpt from After the Fall, Being American in the World We've Made – Ben Rhodes
Being American in the World We’ve Made
Why is democracy so threatened in America and around the world? And what can we do about it? A former White House aide and close confidant to President Barack Obama—and the New York Times bestselling author of The World as It Is—travels the globe in a deeply personal, beautifully observed quest for answers. In 2017, as Ben Rhodes was helping Barack Obama begin his next chapter, the legacy they had worked to build for eight years was being taken apart. To understand what was happening in America, Rhodes decided to look outward. Over the next three years, he traveled to dozens of countries, meeting with politicians, activists, and dissidents confronting the same nationalism and authoritarianism that was tearing America apart...
Publisher: Random House (June 1, 2021)  Hardcover: 384 pages  ISBN-10: 1984856057  ISBN-13: 978-1984856050  Item Weight: 1.4 pounds  Dimensions: 6.43 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches

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Book excerpt

For my family, and for people battling authoritarianism everywhere

The final takeover does not happen with one spectacular Reichstag conflagration, but is instead an excruciating, years-long process of many scattered, seemingly insignificant little fires that smolder without flames.

— Ece Temelkuran

Prologue

Once there was a nation that ascended to a position of preeminence unparalleled in history. This nation held within its hands the capacity to destroy, shape, and enlighten all human life on earth. Its position of preeminence was reached after what seemed like an inexorable rise: born in revolution, built in part by the toil of those who suffered the lash of the whip, preserved through the crucible of Civil War, populated by immigrants from everywhere, enlarged through the brutal conquest of a continental frontier, enhanced by great feats of engineering and ingenuity, validated by the defeat of fascist ideologies that subjugated people half a world away and the extension of civil rights at home.

The expansion of this nation’s influence was for a time contained by the barrier of an alternative form of human organization: communism. When the wall that symbolized this barrier came down, it was as if a dam had broken, allowing a great flood to water the soil on the other side. New markets would create wealth that people had been denied. Unmatched military strength would maintain peace among nations. Technological innovation would raise standards of living and make all human knowledge accessible to people everywhere. The people themselves would live in the freedom guaranteed by democracy, the uncorrupted government of, by, and for the people: the inevitable endpoint of history.

To be born American in the late twentieth century was to take the fact of a particular kind of American exceptionalism as granted—a state of nature arrived at after all else had failed.

In the span of just thirty years, this assumption would come crashing down. Ironically, once they were unbridled, the very forces that enabled this nation’s rise would accelerate its descent. The globalized spread of profit-seeking capitalism accelerated inequality, assaulted people’s sense of traditional identity, and seeded a corruption that allowed those with power to consolidate control. After the at tacks of September 11, 2001, this nation’s sense of purpose was channeled into a forever war that hemorrhaged resources, propagated a politics of Us versus Them, and offered a template and justification for autocratic leaders who represented an older form of nationalism. This nation’s new technologies proliferated like an uncontrolled virus before we understood their impact, transforming the way that human beings consume information; at first hopeful, the unifying allure of the Internet and social media segmented people back into lonely tribes where they could be more easily manipulated by propaganda, disinformation, and conspiracy theory. Somehow, after three decades of unchecked American capitalism, military power, and technological innovation, the currents of history had turned against democracy itself, bringing back those older forms of nationalism and social control in new packaging.

To be American in 2020 was to live in a country diminished in the world, unwilling to control the spread of disease or face up to our racism, and looking over the precipice of abandoning the very democracy that was supposed to be the solid core of our national identity.

Understanding how that happened is the starting point to figuring out how to move forward. America itself is a nation that encompasses the multitudes of humanity, a country populated with all of humanity’s contradictions, hypocrisies, and opposing impulses. Having been humbled by our own excesses and salvaged by the narrow escape of the 2020 election, America has an opportunity to step back into history as a nation with a new understanding of how to improve upon the world we made. To do so, we have to re-create an identity that draws on our better history as a nation of outsiders, reflexively distrustful of power, joined together to do big things, united by a set of principles that allows each of us to be whoever we want to be regardless of tribe. That is what we owe the world, and ourselves. After the fall, we must determine what it means to be American again.

I set out to write this book in the wake of the Obama presidency so that I could understand what happened to the world, my country, and myself. After working for eight years at the height of American political power, I felt like an exile in my own country. It was a newly disorienting reality, and one that lent itself to questioning every assumption I had as an American.

Travel was the most comforting and illuminating escape I could make from the political chaos back home. I took every opportunity I could to go overseas, and 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. What an opportunity—to learn the stories of individuals who lived the political trends that I had watched from the exalted distance of the White House. Unburdened by being American themselves, they experienced no difficulty of politeness or discomfort that prevented them from seeing the Trump years for what they were: an American experiment with fascism, albeit of a particularly incompetent and corrupt kind. But there was also a similarly obvious reality: The forces that produced a Trump presidency long predated it and would still be there after it was over. Indeed, a new model of nationalist authoritarian politics is a defining reality of our world today.

The more I investigated this phenomenon, trying to work it out for myself, the more I saw the fingerprints of the era of American hegemony on what was shaping the lives of people all around me. How the 2008 financial crisis had collapsed not only the global economy, but also confidence in the very fact of American-led globalization, opening the door to deeply familiar nationalist appeals. How the post-9/11 wars had also discredited American leadership while opening the door to a hypersecuritized politics of Us versus Them, one that could easily be repurposed to target an available Other in country after country. How the spread of social media had unleashed a flood of disinformation that undermined democracy while offering autocrats ever more powerful tools of social and political control.

I saw this most clearly in three countries that were Communist throughout the Cold War and are at the center of the political forces remaking the world today. In Hungary, where the anticommunist liberal turned reactionary nationalist Viktor Orban took advantage of the 2008 financial crisis to create a model of authoritarian politics that is strikingly similar to the playbook that the Republican Party has run in America. In Russia, where Vladimir Putin capitalized upon the humiliations of the end of the Cold War to build a cabal anchored in corruption and nationalism and then set out to turn the United States into a mirror image with American social media as his most potent offensive weapon. And in China, where Xi Jinping is building the model for a new world order on the pillars of state controlled capitalism, national sovereignty, and totalitarian technology. Remove any democratic values, and you get the shift from the recent American model to the emerging Chinese one.

This is a book of stories, based on the instinct that it is best to see global events through the perspective of individual lives. The Hungarian opposition searching for a democratic identity capable of overcoming the blood- and- soil nationalism of the past and the failure of globalization to deliver on its promise. The Russians who have been victimized by violence and are still insisting on a politics cleansed of corruption, anchored in the truth. The Hong Kong pro testers who saw a freedomless capitalist techno-totalitarian future encroaching upon their city and launched a movement that should be heard as a cry of warning. Collectively, their stories allowed me to see more clearly what had happened in their countries and why, as well as to see the myriad ways that the era of American hegemony had contributed to it. That, in turn, allowed me to see America more clearly—through the eyes of outsiders in other countries, and through my own experience of being an outsider at home.

Ultimately, this book is my story. My journey from the wake of a historic presidency to a world that looked at America and saw that presidency’s opposite. My effort to relearn what it means to be an American in a world gone wrong. While I was writing this book, a Russian who is a leading character in it was poisoned and nearly killed, the Hong Kong protests I immersed myself in were snuffed out, the world went on lockdown in the face of a pandemic, and an American autocrat was voted out of office and sought to overturn the result. Through these dramatic developments, the currents of history that I was feeling around me remained constant; if anything, the picture became clearer and clearer, like a landscape from which fog is lifting.

Because this book represents my own experience of these things, it is inevitably incomplete. We are all inherently limited in our perspective, shaped by our own history. But by recognizing ourselves in others, we can expand our own lens of vision. Perhaps we can also see our own shortcomings more clearly. For me, the experience of looking into the eye of where America has gone wrong has only made me love more fiercely what America is supposed to be.

That is the starting point of my present journey.


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