interesting times

Fiona Hill: The Antidote to Trump

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

I’ve been in Britain, so it was tough to give this week’s impeachment hearings the attention they deserve. But one obvious theme has emerged: the imperturbability, professionalism, and courage of the women who have testified. When I sat down last night and watched some of the footage of Fiona Hill online, I was gobsmacked.

As soon as I heard her voice, I thought she was a “Geordie” — her accent has obviously softened but those flat vowels and clipped consonants are unmistakable to an English ear. I was wrong, in fact. Geordies are from Newcastle, strictly speaking, and Hill is from Durham. They’re both cities in the Northeast of England and have similar accents, but Durham is a truly ancient town, its Cathedral a monument to medieval Christianity, its university renowned. And Hill, it also turns out, is the real deal, from a mining family. Her local paper, the Northern Echo, celebrated a local girl yesterday:

Born in Bishop Auckland in October 1965, she is the daughter of a coalminer and a midwife. Dad Alfred followed the men of his family down the pits, aged 14, and when the last collieries closed in the 1960s he wanted to emigrate to America to work in the coal mines in West Virginia or Pennsylvania but stayed to be with his mother, who had been crippled from hard labour. He died in the North-East in 2012 and Ms Hill’s mother still lives in her hometown.

From these modest origins, as she acknowledged in her opening statement, Hill became what we saw yesterday. One of the wretched things about the last few years has been following and staying sane in the blizzard of bluster, misinformation, gaslighting, conspiracy theories, and the actual empirical, complex reality we have been confronted with. To keep one’s focus while enduring this torrent of deliberate confusion and competing narratives has been extremely hard.

But not for Hill.

Watching her listen carefully to Castor and Nunes’s questions and arguments, and then just as carefully, methodically dismantle them was a kind of cleansing shower in an impossibly humid summer. Her clear distinction between national security and a “domestic errand” is at the heart of the profound corruption in this presidency, and I have simply never seen it expressed so coherently and plainly.

This is why we needed impeachment hearings. We can see this “deep state” for the patriotic professionals so many of them are. We can pierce through the propaganda and see the Washington that many of us who live there have always seen: countless quiet, principled public servants, usually genuinely seeking the public good. Yes, there are many, many cronies and lobbyists and swamp-dwellers as well. But they are outnumbered.

And to see how these people have had to endure a president this deranged, this indifferent to the truth, this craven toward the enemies of the United States because they can be assets for his domestic political purposes is to experience the appropriate amount of anger toward the damage he has done. It feels like a moment to me.

And it is right and just that it has been women who have faced down this belligerent, blustering tyrant. And not just women but immigrant women, whose commitment to this country and its ideals can often be more intense than those of the native born.

Hearing Hill’s still voice of calm in this storm moved me deeply, and not just because she comes from the country of my birth too, but because her immigrant, accented voice revealed an understanding of America in a way this president simply doesn’t understand. She knows what’s at stake. And she has done her part. It gives me hope, I guess. Hope that we can, in fact, expose and defeat this malignancy at the heart of our democracy.

If we see Trump as the poison he truly is, we have now also seen something else. We have seen the antidote.

It’s All Coming Up Boris

I’m over in Blighty right now to get a closer look at the general election due December 12. Manifestos are being launched; leaflets keep coming through the door of the friend I’m staying with; we just had the first-ever debate between the leaders of the two major parties, and the excitement is building.

Just kidding on the latter, of course. The mood here is one of gritty resignation to what most seem to believe is a truly terrible, awful choice. The atmosphere isn’t helped by the fact that it’s late November. British elections are usually held in the spring or early autumn: The weather tends to be better and the days are long. Right now? Dusk comes at 4 o’clock, it’s chilly out, and canvassing voters door-to-door is a challenge. There’s a reason the British invented our hideous, endless Christmas season. It’s to ward off the deadly depression always nipping at the edge of their consciousness.

I watched the first debate in the conference room of the Spectator, whose editors I had been grilling about Boris. It reminded me of the glory days of the old New Republic: young interns and staffers milling around, a television that threatened not to work, inside jokes, back issues on the wall, bound volumes stacked in rows, and newly distributed pages of the next issue. I sat toward the back of the room and watched.

There were the usual winces and silences and guffaws. The TV set of the debate looked like a game show, and some of the questions — “What would you give each other as a Christmas present?” — were so cheesy that at one point one of the younger staffers literally hugged himself in agony, got up and walked toward the window, wailing: “I’m sorry, I just can’t take this anymore.” This was the first-ever U.S.-style, two-person presidential debate format and the young Tories around me writhed in fogy agony.

Most observers judged the debate a draw. I didn’t see it that way, although I could certainly see the rival appeal of Jezza’s leftist utopia after a decade of austere Toryism, and the strategic genius of BoJo running on a simple platform of “for fuck’s sake, let’s get Brexit over with.” No, I thought it wasn’t a draw — because of the visuals. I know this is utterly superficial and journalists shouldn’t focus on it and all that, but everyone knows in these circuses that appearances matter. I remember the first Bush-Gore debate, when Gore’s makeup, for some reason, was the color of a decaying orange, and he kept huffing and sighing. I turned to my bestie after a bit and said: “Well, that’s it then.” And I wasn’t entirely wrong.

On the screen this time I saw a somewhat plausible, blustery prime minister standing next to someone who looked like a former adjunct professor who had just settled into his favorite chair at the local Starbucks. And his glasses! They were skewiff, as the British say, perched on his face diagonally so you wanted just to reach in and adjust them. In one of the lenses, there was also some kind of special plastic or glass that gave him the appearance of having a slight black eye. There was something gloriously authentic about this, of course, which is why Corbyn once had some genuine appeal. But it also gave the simple and rather damning impression that he just didn’t seem to belong there.

Sticking entirely to the superficial, there was another moment when we all went: “Wha?” In a discussion about Prince Andrew, the name Jeffrey Epstein came up, as it might, and Corbyn pronounced it “Epshtine.” Maybe an honest mistake if you were reading the name for the first time, but this is a name that’s been repeated so often everywhere with the same pronunciation, “Epsteen,” that Corbyn’s version was just plain weird. And I couldn’t help but feel that this was a giveaway: Corbyn made a Jewish name seem alien and foreign. I genuinely suspect he is so steeped in far-left anti-Semitic othering he just blurted it out.

The last couple of years should have been a golden moment for the left in Britain. Socialism is not taboo here, and inequality is intense. The Tories have been in power for almost a decade and they are obviously a shambles. Any Labour Party leader should be miles ahead in the polls by now and a shoo-in. If they lose, it will be because of Corbyn.

Britain is a parliamentary democracy; the profiles of the party leaders should not really be dispositive as they are in a presidential system. And yet since 1983, only one election has seen the less-popular individual leader win: in 2005, when Tony Blair was regarded as a foul, war-criminal sellout, and still beat the Tory Michael Howard. Every other time, regardless of the party vote share, the person with the best personal rating has won. The biggest gap before now was Blair-Major in 1997, when Blair was a young phenomenon, had a near 50-point advantage over Major, and won in a landslide. Last time, May and Corbyn were quite close in personal terms: May was -8 net unfavorable and Corbyn was -11. This time, Boris is hardly beloved, with a +1 favorable. But Corbyn’s rating is -60. That’s not a typo.

People keep saying this election is highly unpredictable. But maybe it isn’t.

A Royal Fuckup

So it turns out you can fire a prince.

The other gruesome television spectacle of the week was Prince Andrew’s interview about his cavorting cohabitation with Jeffrey Epstein. I can’t imagine Americans watched the whole bloody thing, but it was arguably the most excruciating, toe-curling royal confessional since Diana poured her heart out in public. As a PR move, it will surely go down in history as a case study in all kinds of wrongness. In September, we’re told, a media adviser had been brought in to limit the damage from Andrew’s proximity to Epstein and quit a couple of weeks ago because the prince decided to tell all to a somewhat incredulous (and clearly appalled) BBC interviewer, Emily Maitlis. Watching this grotesque pile of priapic privilege actually express self-pity for his nauseating choice of friends helped me understand why Charles I got his head chopped off.

In some ways, Maitlis professionally guided the prince all the way to the guillotine and he stuck his own head in it. Here’s his explanation of why he invited Epstein to his daughter’s 18th birthday party after an arrest warrant had been issued: “Because I was asking Ghislaine [Maxwell, Epstein’s girlfriend and alleged pimp].” One simply cannot adjust the etiquette of the “plus one” even for a man charged with sexually abusing a minor. Then asked why he actually chose to stay at Epstein’s New York apartment within months of Epstein being released from jail, he said:

“I went there with the sole purpose of saying to him that because he had been convicted, it was inappropriate for us to be seen together. I felt that doing it over the telephone was the chicken’s way of doing it. I had to go and see him and talk to him … I admit fully that my judgment was probably colored by my tendency to be too honorable but that’s just the way it is.”

It was his sense of honor that he stayed with a convicted sex offender. Yes, stayed for a few days. To truly explain why he could no longer be associated with a molester of minors, he couldn’t have paid for a hotel room in Manhattan. Oh, and yes, there was a party for Epstein’s release and Andrew was the guest of honor, but “I don’t think it was quite as you might put it but yeah, okay, I was there for … I was there at a dinner, yeah.”

Perhaps one should explain to some misguided souls: This is what “privilege” actually means. It means being so sealed off from any normal human criticism or scrutiny that your world becomes a surreal fantasy in which it is actually deemed a virtue to stay loyal to a monster who abused countless underage women. And then, when faced with the allegation of a woman who says she had sex with Andrew, via Epstein, as a minor in 2001, he gives us the full Trump: “I have no recollection of ever meeting this lady, none whatsoever.”

He is legally innocent until proven guilty. But I don’t believe him, and neither, it appears, does Prince Charles. The queen would have given approval for this interview; it was Charles, we’re told, who insisted on the sacking of his brother. By “sacking” one means that there will likely be no “role for the Queen’s son at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday; at the annual Trooping the Colour; or when the royals gather on the Buckingham Palace balcony during significant state and royal occasions.” Even in the modern monarchy, it seems, you can now be canceled.

See you the first Friday in December.

Andrew Sullivan: Fiona Hill Is the Antidote to Trump