Obama aide Ben Rhodes on the global crisis of democracy: It's real, and we have to fight back

Obama's former deputy national security adviser has been traveling the globe — and Donald Trump isn't the problem

Published July 5, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

After The Fall by Ben Rhodes (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/SAUL LOEB/Random House)
After The Fall by Ben Rhodes (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/SAUL LOEB/Random House)

An MSNBC anchor, who will remain nameless, recently called the new book by Ben Rhodes, who served as Barack Obama's deputy national security adviser, "dark" in its description of where our nation's democracy finds itself today. Rhodes's book, "After the Fall: Being American in the World We've Made," is actually not dark. It's just a brutally honest look at where our nation is heading. Everything Rhodes writes, and everything he shared in our Salon Talks conversation, should be seen both a warning and a clarion call to action for those who believe in our republic.

In defense of that MSNBC anchor, many people still don't fully grasp the nature of the threat democracy faces today. Not just from Donald Trump, but more broadly from today's Republican Party, which, as Rhodes and other experts have documented, have been embracing the autocratic playbook long before Trump slithered down that famous golden escalator to launch his 2016 campaign. It's just that Trump made it impossible to ignore, especially given the Jan 6 act of "domestic terrorism," as the FBI has defined it, and which himself Trump incited.

As experts on democracy noted in the fall of 2020, the GOP now less resembled an American political party than it does the authoritarian ruling party in Hungary headed by Viktor Orbán. Indeed, in his book, Rhodes lays out how Orbán's right-wing party and today's Republicans utilize similar methods to attract support, from culture wars to the rejection of political correctness to an overt embrace of a right-wing interpretation of Christianity. As Rhodes explains, "None of this happened because of Donald Trump."

Rhodes also detailed how other authoritarian regimes, such as Russia and China, mandate teaching students not the accurate history of their nation but a mythology that helps them remain in power. This should sound familiar, since Republicans have recently been enacting laws to ban "critical race theory," but what they're truly doing is copying the Chinese Communist Party tactic of only allowing the teaching of "history" that helps them politically.

Rhodes said something that has stayed with me since our talk: For the first time in his life he had "to consider what it meant to be an American while living in a country that no longer made sense to me." I share that sentiment. Neither of us is being "dark." We are simply being direct about where our nation finds itself.

Watch my Salon Talks episode with Ben Rhodes here, or read a transcript of our conversation below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

"After the Fall." It's intense. You went to several continents to write this, and it was written over four years, up until the pandemic. Share a little bit about that.

Yeah. Well, it's not enjoyable. The subject matter is why things are moving in the wrong direction in the world. But I hope what's enjoyable is it's told through the stories of other people. It's not just analysis. And the root of it for me essentially was, I was kind of knocked on my back after the 2016 election. I wanted to make sense of what's happening in America, what's happening around the world. And I started to travel and meet people. I ended up going to Hong Kong and immersing myself with the Hong Kong protest movement there, talking to Alexei Navalny and opponents of Putin in Russia, talking to democracy activists in places like Hungary. And through their stories, trying to understand: Why is the world all moving in this direction, and how is America connected to it?

The jumping off point for me was when I was meeting with a young anti-corruption activist from Hungary. Hungary has gone from being a democracy to a single-party autocracy in a decade. And I said, "Hey, how did this happen? How did Viktor Orbán, your prime minister, do this in 10 years?" And he said, "Well, it's simple. He got elected on a right-wing populist backlash to the financial crisis. He redrew the parliamentary districts to entrench his party in power. He changed the voting laws to make it easier for his supporters to vote. He packed the court with far-right judges. He enriched some cronies who then bought up the media and turned it into a right wing propaganda machine. And he wrapped it up in a national us vs. them message. Us, the real Hungarians, against them — Muslims, immigrants, liberal leaders, George Soros."

And I'm listening and I'm thinking, "Well, he's describing America." So what I realized is, by traveling to all these places and kind of inhabiting all these stories, I can understand not just why democracy is threatened globally, but why it's threatened in the United States, what we may have done to contribute to that, and what people are doing to fight back?

You have a great line, "In 2017, I was forced for the first time to consider what it meant to be an American while living in a country that no longer made sense to me." From your point of view, why didn't America make sense to you at that moment?

It's interesting because I mean, for me, that line also speaks to the fact that I've known people who live in countries where they're repulsed by their own government. They don't see themselves in the power that represents them. But even though I didn't agree with the Bush administration, it wasn't the same kind of visceral reaction that you have to someone like Trump, where you're like, "This person stands for the opposite of everything I believe in, and he's in the highest office." A part of what I had to realize in writing this book is that I came of age around the end of the Cold War. That's where my first political consciousness happened. And the narrative was that everything was moving in one direction. The history was settled that freedom and democracy and open markets were going to kind of continue to spread.

What we've experienced since then is the recognition that, "Well, no. History never ends." And the same conflicts over nationalism versus democracy, authoritarianism versus the capacity of people to have individual rights, those things are constantly playing themselves out through history. We're fighting those battles today, just like people have had to do in the past. While America doesn't offer the promise that that's all settled, it at least gives us the opportunity to have the fight. But it speaks to why we can't be complacent, given the threats to our democracy around us.

Your former boss and your good friend Barack Obama was on CNN talking about how democracy is not self-executing, and informing us you can't take things for granted. Oddly enough, that conjured up Ronald Reagan's famous line, "Freedom is just one generation away." The idea we'll be telling our children one day what freedom was like. 

And if Ronald Reagan were alive today, might say the same things, if he was not part of TrumpWorld. Freedom House says Hungary is no longer a democracy. At one point it was. Where do you think we're sliding, objectively as a nation and in terms of our government now? Not so much under Biden, but when you look at the Republican states and their continuing effort to make it harder to vote, to suppress peaceful protests, to ban what kids can learn in school unless it fits their mythology, which I can't believe. If you read about it in another country, you'd go, "That's not a democracy. That's some kind of authoritarian and fascist state." What is going on?

One of the things I did was to trace how the Chinese government has gotten even more authoritarian over the last several decades. And one of the principal ways was beginning to control the curriculum in the schools. We have to recognize these kind of common tactics of authoritarianism in different places. You mentioned Obama. He's kind of a character in this book. He comes in and out of these conversations we've been having. And I relayed the eerie timing. He gave a speech to the Democratic convention, as people may remember, where he said, "Don't let them take your power away. Democracy is on the line here." I describe watching that speech and then I'm looking at my phone and getting the news that Alexei Navalny, the opponent to Putin in Russia, has been poisoned. And in a way, that kind of drove home the stakes, that the extreme darkness where this strain can lead was evident in what happened to Navalny.

I think the takeaway from this book is, you've got people like Orbán, who kind of represent how nationalism has gotten a foothold again all over the world. People like Putin, who represent the lengths that autocrats are going to in the world today, the kind of steadily escalating behavior that we see on a regular basis from authoritarians. And then you look at China, and they have an alternative way of organizing society. That's kind of where the future is going, where you blend together capitalism and technology with this really totalitarian and intrusive government. America was the one force that was supposed to figure this out, to set an example of multiracial, multiethnic democracy.

And when you talk to people in all these other places and ask, "What do you need from America?" It's less our foreign policy and more like, what are we modeling at home? What are we doing? When you see people methodically passing laws, trying to prevent people from voting, when you see people methodically trying to set the premise that elected officials could actually overturn a democratic election.

If America can't get it right, then I don't think anybody else can. Not because we're perfect, not because we're so much better than everybody, but because we're supposed to be the place that, again, figured out how to do this. And we're the country made up of people from everywhere. So I think the stakes are incredibly high and they're going to stay high. Joe Biden's election obviously didn't end this. The stakes are going to stay high for a few years here.

Florida just banned critical race theory, even though they don't use that term. We've seen more than 20 Republican states introduce legislation to ban a topic because they don't like it. You touched briefly on China and authoritarianism and education. How was that intertwined? Why should people be concerned this is not just culture-war stuff, where you can roll your eyes at it? 

Here's why, Dean. I wrote about Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and his efforts to control the past. I mean, autocrats always want to determine how people understand the past to suit their politics and the present. And what Orbán did, on everything from statues to curriculum — Hungary in the 20th century had a bad right-wing history and a left-wing history. On the left, we had the excesses of the communist regime after World War II. But you also had Nazi collaborators. You had a far-right movement in Hungary. They collaborated with the Holocaust. Orbán has slowly been whitewashing that history and he's been elevating the nationalist history of Hungary. And what does that do? It whitewashes understanding where certain kinds of politics go.

The kind of far-right turn Orbán's taken, history should teach us that leads to bad places. That leads to repression, that leads to conflict. Here in the United States, it's so important to understand the full dimensions of our history. In part, so that you understand just how dark a place white supremacy can lead, or an us vs, them xenophobic politics can lead. If you're whitewashing that stuff, then the expressions of white nationalism we see around us, people have not had the context for why that's so damaging and so dangerous. Obviously, it shouldn't happen anyway, but part of this is the guardrails. So what do you learn from history about what not to do? Part of that is learning the history of how people overcome those things and how you better a society.

And where I end this book is saying that American identity is supposed to be, not that we were born perfect, but that in America we do the work. It's about trying to live up to the story that we tell about ourselves. So in every way, shape or form, banning critical race theory and trying to look away from the darkest parts of our past, that makes it more likely to happen again in the future. And it actually negates what I think is the better American story, which is that those things happened and people tried to make it better.

I find it alarming that we're seeing the people who claim they want academic freedom, who say they despise "cancel culture," have no problem literally defunding school. The Idaho law is to defund schools if they teach you about systemic racism. I find this deeply distressing.

I mean, this is why I ended up having the subtitle of this book "Being American in the World We've Made." What the "Being American" refers to is that we have to figure out what our national identity is. That's not settled. I think the reason why you see such intensity in our politics right now is that people can sense that's kind of what's being debated right now. And by the way, this too is something that's happening everywhere. It's a common political trend. But the reality is, when you hear, "Make America Great Again" — when only certain people were in certain rooms and had certain amounts of power — and then they're looking at a future where this is going to be a majority nonwhite nation, unless they arrest immigration entirely.

Which is part of what Donald Trump was trying to do, in the relatively near future. Is it a coincidence that the Republican Party is trying to entrench itself through minority rule, essentially leveraging the courts and the Senate and voting laws and other things, right when that demographic shift is taking place? I'm not sure that's a coincidence. One of the points I make in the book is that, in a way, we've always lived this competition. And Trump and Obama kind of represent them perfectly in opposition to one another. Is America's story of progress and greater inclusivity and extension more rights to more people? Or is it "We want to wind back the clock," and this is an exclusively white Christian nation that is only for some?

We've been living these two lives throughout our history. I mean, the Declaration of Independence says that "All men are created equal," bit it was written by a guy who owned slaves. At every step of progress, there's been a reaction. So I think that is happening right now, and that speaks to one reason why the political debate is so intense right now. 

Initially, President Biden kept talking about, "America's always been a push and pull between these two forces." He's right. We're seeing it now. Maybe it's not that new, what's going on, it just seems more intense because I'm living through it as an adult who follows politics closely.

Yeah, I think the stakes are higher right now. Again, part of why I wrote this book is because one reason why the stakes are higher is that this is happening all around the world right now, and things are moving in the wrong direction. I mean, while I'm writing this book, the Hong Kong protest movement that I was kind of profiling, gets swallowed up essentially by the Chinese Communist Party. Alexei Navalny gets poisoned and put in prison. America has Jan. 6. This is happening and it's not a coincidence. It's happening because there is this kind of drift towards nationalism and authoritarianism, for a lot of reasons that I described in the book. 

I focus on the 30-year period after the Cold War. I feel like the Cold War was one particular period where America wasn't perfect, but we were for freedom and the Soviets were for the other thing, for communism and dictatorship. Then you have this 30-year period of American dominance. Trump clearly was a bit of a pivot point. Now we have to decide who we're going to be next. I think that's a very hotly contested question right now.

You write about the way the GOP became the one we see today, and you say, "None of this happened because of Donald Trump." Share a little bit more about that idea.

Well, it's kind of the mirror image of that story I told about Hungary. I know people can go back and look at Newt Gingrich and look at the things that Bush did. But this particular virulent strain of the Republican Party, I'd have the starting point be the Tea Party. And if you make it the mirror image of what happened in Hungary, the collapse of the financial system in 2008 generated a lot of anger and a sense of grievance, like, "Hey, this whole system is just kind of rigged." People, I think, were open to different kinds of appeals than they might've listened to in the past. You get all this anger and then you compound thap with the fact that there's a Black President, and there's clearly a racialized component.

The Tea Party demonstrations, they're chanting, "Take our country back," and we're being told that it's about deficit spending. I'm not sure you "take your country back" because you're concerned about the deficit. But it breeds this kind of new and much more belligerent Republican Party, the people who got elected there. And at the same time, you have Citizens United, which takes away any guardrails on dark money in politics. So this kind of bottom-up anger is being fueled by a lot of top-down money from people like the Koch brothers, who are just dumping money into politics, at the same time that you have Republicans getting much more aggressive in passing voter suppression laws. I talk about this in the book, there were like 25 passed at the state level while Barack Obama was president. The Supreme Court that the Republicans had designed guts the voting rights legislation, which allows those sorts of suppression laws to go forward and have a greater impact.

At every turn, the Republicans are busting norms and not even confirming a Supreme Court justice if they're nominated by a Democrat. And by the time Trump rides down the escalator at Trump tower, he was the logical nominee. Of course he was the nominee. He was the frontrunner from the time he came down. Because the other thing that happened in this period was that with the collapse of traditional media, you have not just Fox News but the explosion of Facebook and people getting fed, just on talk radio and  online, more and more conspiracy theory-based garbage about what's happening in the world, about Barack Obama, about Democrats.

So by the time Trump comes down the escalator, he's like the product of that. It's like suddenly the Fox News viewer is the head of the party. And ever since then, at every turn, people are surprised when the Republicans take the dark path. "Oh, my gosh, I can't believe that they still believe the Big Lie. They won't even have a commission." Well, of course. Who do you think these people are? They've been telling you who they are for the last decade.

What do we do? Near the end of your book, you write, "We live in a time when the world is emerging into a single history, and we can feel the currents of that history moving in the wrong direction." So how do we move this in the right direction?

I have lessons that I took away from all these people I talked to around the world. What are people doing that is working in different places? One thing for instance, in Hungary, is for the first time there's an election next year. They do have elections. Orbán dominates the media. It makes it hard for people but the opposition has their first real chance of beating him. And one of the reasons why is they've completely united. They've said, "Look, we have differences, but everything is on the line here. We're just going to put a big tent over all of our differences and we have to win this election." And I profile a young person who started a political party, but it's a very strange kind of polyglot coalition. But that's one lesson for us too, because part of what autocrats need to do is keep the opposition divided, apathetic or cynical.

I think we have to stay, despite all our differences, from the center to the left in our country. On the core things, particularly when it comes time to vote, people need to be absolutely united because there are more of us than them. If we vote and don't give up and don't get apathetic and stay with this, we will win. So one of those things is unity. Another is, if you look at even failed movements, like the Hong Kong protest movement, movements fail and fail and fail until they succeed. And they usually succeed in a big way when they do. They create a kind of culture around democratic participation and a culture around standing up for your rights. This can't be left just to politicians. Joe Biden alone can't fix this.

I think we need that kind of whole-of-society commitment to democracy as well. If you look at Navalny, the reason he was such a sore spot for Putin, the reason he's in prison, is that he'd found this huge vulnerability in exposing Putin's corruption. I think corruption is a common thread between all these autocratic movements, including the Republican Party. Because a lot of those voters that supported Trump are angry at a corrupt system. This is why Trump always talks about the "deep state."

Trump always talks about the system being rigged, but he is the ultimate beneficiary of the system. He's a white guy, a fake billionaire who can do whatever he wants, who's fabulously corrupt. We need to continue to drive home the message to some of those Obama-Trump voters about the absolute corruption of a political party that speaks one language and then just shovels tax cuts to corporations and breaks the rules themselves all the time. I think that's the most potent argument we have to make. The last thing I'd say, though, is that the bigger structural problem is that the reason people are having an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the reason people believe in QAnon, is because of the radicalization that's happening online. We have to get our arms around that in this country, social media and disinformation. I'd like to see the Biden team take that on more. Because so long as our entire media is structured to mainline rage and conspiracy theories to people, we're going to be in this spot.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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