How comforting it must be to see the world as does Ben Rhodes: Everyone who disagrees with him is either a fascist, an idiot, or both. According to Barack Obama’s deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications, the presidency of Donald Trump amounted to “an American experiment with fascism.” Contemplating a life beyond the maddening vicissitudes of politics, Rhodes abandons such an irresponsible notion when he realizes that, but for him, the deluge: “Perhaps this was how fascists got away with it through history.” The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, along with Republican congressional redistricting efforts and schemes “requiring certain forms of identification to register” to vote, come straight from Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban’s nationalist playbook of “Us versus Them politics.” As for the unfortunate souls who find themselves opposing Rhodes in various legislative battles or ideological debates, he describes dealing with such people as akin to debating those who insist that “two plus two equals five” or, to cite a parable offered by a Chinese dissident regarding that country’s ruling Communist Party, who point at a deer and tell you it’s a horse.
If you experienced the world like this, if you had convinced yourself that every single person who questioned your perspective on a wide variety of highly contentious issues was either arguing in bad faith or willfully malign, it would take a superhuman capacity not to be consumed by the “visceral, dumfounded anger” that appears to be the overriding factor in Rhodes’s life. “Rage” is the word Rhodes uses most often to describe his feelings. It was “rage” that inspired Rhodes to get involved in politics, and rage that “kept me going day after day when all my other sources of motivation had dissipated or run up against the limits of an uncooperative world.” Rage in response to “the daily realities of Trump’s America” has “eaten away” at Rhodes over the past four years. In the early weeks of the pandemic, Rhodes felt an “unutterable rage”—though not so unutterable as to prevent him from describing it, incessantly, in his new book, After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made.
Five years ago, in a widely-read profile of Rhodes written by David Samuels for the New York Times Magazine, Obama’s United Nations ambassador Samantha Power remarked that the character from literature Rhodes most reminded her of was Holden Caulfield. In After the Fall, Rhodes makes every effort to live up to that reputation as an angry young man, petulantly scorning his many critics as phonies. And he adds a geopolitical dimension to the composite, writing with the self-righteousness of a college freshman heavily under the influence of Edward Said. Dumbstruck by Trump’s election, our narrator traipses around the world in an effort to find himself as much as the answers to how such a travesty could have happened. In Myanmar, Rhodes stares at a giant Buddha statue, while in Cuba, he reflects before the future gravesite of Raul Castro. He floats from airport business lounge to airport business lounge, addressing hedge-fund managers and investment bankers like a younger, angrier Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. What really interests Rhodes, however, are the insights he gathers from democratic activists in Hungary, Russia, and China, three former Communist countries facing the same toxic blend of nationalism and authoritarianism that Rhodes claims America confronted under the reign of Donald J. Trump.
If Rhodes encountered a single individual during these travels who disagreed with him, he leaves no record of it. The same goes for criticism from his interlocutors about the policies of the administration he served. In his chapters on Russia, for instance, Rhodes manages to avoid any mention of the “reset” policy that was prelude to President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Conspicuously absent from the “international community of underdogs” Rhodes interviews are any Syrians, whom Obama abandoned to the tender mercies of Bashar al-Assad after refusing to enforce his own red line against the dictator’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. Rhodes makes up for this elision with a chapter that essentially argues the case for the Middle East’s “axis of Resistance” (comprising Iran and its proxies) and bashes America’s traditional Sunni Arab allies, who along with Israel opposed the administration’s ill-fated nuclear deal with Tehran.
The most unintentionally valuable parts of After the Fall are its anecdotes. Less than a year after Obama accepted a humiliating Russian offer to “remove” Syria’s chemical weapons, the president attended a summit of world leaders in France commemorating the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Following the awkward performance of an interpretative dance routine reenacting the Second World War, Obama marvels to Rhodes at what Putin must have thought: “Man, the West has gotten soft.” The 44th president’s remarkable lack of self-awareness is matched only by that of his amanuensis, who apparently thinks it boosts his standing as a wordsmith to let the world know that he is the man responsible for coining the phrase, uttered by Obama during the 2008 election, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Elsewhere, Rhodes informs us that, on the night of Trump’s shock victory, he wrote an email to his boss stating that “history doesn’t move in a straight line, it zigs and zags,” which Obama, according to Rhodes, repeatedly told people reminded him of Ralph Ellison. (Presumably this insight struck our usually voluble narrator after the moment during Election Night when being asked for his reaction rendered him speechless for a full 30 seconds, a scene captured in the 2017 documentary The Final Year.)
Oddly for a man who prides himself on being such a nuanced thinker, Rhodes is thoroughly Manichean in his outlook. “From Trianon to the Tea Party” is the subtitle he chooses for a chapter likening Hungary’s ethnic nationalists (still obsessed with a century-old treaty dismembering the Hungarian empire) to the American anti-tax movement. The 2019 British general election, Rhodes writes, “swept the pro-Brexit conservatives into power, amplifying the nationalist trend that Orban represented,” a statement that manages to a) conflate two very different phenomena, b) omit the role played by the abominable Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and c) misconstrue the fact that the UK Conservatives have been in power since 2010. While characterizing Republicans as “fascists,” Rhodes takes umbrage at their labeling Democrats “socialists.” One of the only times Rhodes attempts to empathize with a political adversary is in a brief disquisition on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Herewith, Rhodes attempting to be charitable, “try[ing] to see it from Netanyahu’s perspective”:
Given the way the Jews have been treated over the years, if Israel doesn’t act like all the other bad actors around the world, the Jews will be screwed again. So, the thinking goes, we have to be corrupt, be nationalist, make deals with unpleasant people, take the Palestinians’ land, attack and discredit opponents with lies or exaggerations, because that’s what’s required to defend a people who have suffered.
This, from a man who constantly ridicules the political tactics of other people as nothing more than a cynical game of “Us versus Them.”
“War,” a 13-year-old Rhodes wrote portentously in his diary on the eve of Operation Desert Storm, “War is upon us.” The prose in After the Fall is all downhill from that bar mitzvah year. Like his former boss, Rhodes fancies himself a writer, an aspiration in the pursuit of which he obtained an MFA in creative writing. After the Fall is peppered with the unimaginative flourishes and pseudo-sophisticated musings of a failed novelist. Obsessively tracking his social-media feed, he is “like an addict being given tiny doses of an opioid by some giant unseen beast,” which might qualify as the most overused simile of the past decade. A dingy Dupont Circle bar represents to Rhodes “a grand experiment in self-determination still unfolding.” Moving to Los Angeles after the conclusion of the Obama administration “was a disorienting transition—sitting in cars, doing away with seasons, living in a place where the conversation rarely revolves around what’s happening in the world and you’ve removed yourself from Washington’s revolving door waiting room for future government service.” Disorienting, perhaps, but not nearly so much as reading that sentence.
THE SUBTITLE of After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made is surely an implicit rebuke to Robert Kagan’s 2012 The World America Made. Precisely when the Obama administration was retreating abroad, that slim volume offered a timely reminder of how America created the postwar liberal international order and made a vigorous case for the country to sustain it. According to Rhodes, however, the “world we’ve made” is not the one of unprecedented peace and prosperity depicted by Kagan, but rather a hellscape tarnished by environmental degradation, Orwellian tech companies, maimed and murdered civilians, a Middle East in flames, and triple-amputee veterans returning home from pointless wars.
“We are a country that killed hundreds of thousands of people through our own unique blend of incompetence and irrationality,” Rhodes writes, and that’s just his description of America’s response to the coronavirus. In his embittered recitation of the standard left-wing litany of American crimes and transgressions, Rhodes sounds an awful lot like Bernie Sanders, with whose fundamental appraisal, Rhodes reveals, Obama essentially agreed. “The occasional hawkish language on terrorism” that appeared in the speeches Rhodes wrote for Obama, along with “the critiques of capitalism that had to be carefully worded to avoid charges of socialism,” were “compromises to political reality.” Rhodes echoes Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry in his stupefaction at Putin’s “nineteenth-century style of annexation of a neighbor’s territory,” a strange observation considering how much territory had been annexed in the 20th. China’s gulag archipelago for Uighur Muslims, Rhodes writes, is simply a turbo-charged version of Guantanamo Bay. Reflecting on the presidential statement he wrote condemning the murder of another Russian liberal, Boris Nemtsov, Rhodes gets misty-eyed thinking about “the idea that if the world’s most powerful government sounds the same notes again and again, year after year, the continuous melody would let people struggling for their rights feel less alone, so that the arc of history might bend in a different direction.” He asks, “Wasn’t that, in a way, how the Cold War had reached its peaceful end?”
Not really, no.
If Rhodes is befuddled as to how America won the first Cold War, he is much more clear-eyed about the imperatives of the next one. “The Cold War that needs to be won now is at home, a battle between people who live in the reality of the world as it is,” the supercilious title of his White House memoir, “and people who are choosing to live in a false reality comprised of their basest grievances—and seeking to impose it on the rest of us.” This contemptuous (and clunky) declaration on behalf of the reality-based community precedes a final chapter on the tumultuous events of 2020, in which Rhodes finds himself at a loss when his daughter asks why the National Guard has been deployed a block from their house in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. That would indeed be a difficult question to answer for a partisan of the side whose spokespeople insist that they inhabit “objective reality” while simultaneously asserting that the riots that erupted across the country last summer were a right-wing fiction, Donald Trump was a Russian agent, and the possible genesis of COVID-19 in a Chinese laboratory was a racist lie. The sheer hypocrisy of Them is more than sufficient to elicit a very utterable rage within Us.
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