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Former Obama Advisor Explores the Decline of Democracy Across The Globe In New Book

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After eight years working on foreign policy in the Obama administration, Ben Rhodes had the urge to go overseas. He felt like democracy in the U.S. was under assault during the Trump administration, and he wanted to get away. But in one country after another, he saw similar trends.

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BEN RHODES: The Hong Kong young people that I was speaking to who were so inspiring, some of those same people have had to leave the country because they don't see a future for themselves where they can be free in their own city.

SHAPIRO: He found the same thing in Hungary. And when he spoke with Russia's most famous dissident...

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RHODES: You know, I talked to Alexei Navalny. And he said, look; I know the risks. I know that when you enter a prison cell and that door closes behind you and it clangs shut, they can do anything to you.

SHAPIRO: Ben Rhodes joined me to talk about his new book called "After The Fall: Being American In The World We've Made." It looks at the decline of democracy around the world and here at home.

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RHODES: I finished this book right around January 6. And I just wanted to grab my reader and shake them and say, look; it can happen here. Look at what these people are going through in these other places. We cannot take this for granted here in the United States.

SHAPIRO: In the section where you talk to freedom fighters in Hungary and look at Viktor Orban's rule there, you write something that is disturbing. You say that Orban represents the historical norm, that he's not an aberration, that pluralism, democracy and freedom are the exception. Can you tell us more about what you mean by that?

RHODES: Well, you know, it's interesting. The starting point for this book is I talked to one of these Hungarian oppositionists, an anti-corruption activist, and I said, how did your country become, you know, a dictatorship in basically a decade after being a democracy? And he said, well, it's simple. Viktor Orban got elected on right-wing populism as a backlash to the financial crisis. He packed the courts with right-wing judges. He changed the voting laws to make it easier for his supporters to vote and harder for others. He kind of enriched some cronies who then bought up the media, financed Orban's politics and created kind of a right-wing propaganda machine. And he wrapped it up in a nationalist message, a blood-and-soil nationalist message. We are the true Hungarians. It's us versus them. The them can be immigrants. They can be Muslims. They're George Soros.

He's talking, and I'm thinking, well, he could be describing my lived experience of American politics and the Republican Party over the last decade. And the more I explored this and pulled the thread of what happened in Hungary, I came to that realization, Ari, that most of human history is a story of nationalism and nationalism that leads to conflict. It's really only the recent decades, the post-World War II era, where people started to take for granted that somehow we'd put that behind us.

SHAPIRO: So you say the U.S. has a lot of work to do, and clearly looking at the Capitol insurrection on January 6 and other events, there is work to do domestically. When you look globally at the impact the U.S. had on the Middle East in the Iraq War, at the impact the U.S. had on the global economy in the 2008 financial collapse, do you think that mission of we have a lot of work to do to get the world on the right track is a mission that is possibly going to do more harm than good?

RHODES: Well, I think we have to learn the lessons of our own excesses. You know, I think America achieved such a position of power in the world that, you know, power, I think, corrupts. You know, something like the Iraq War is only possible when you're a complete dominant superpower and you can do something that, in retrospect, was so unfathomably wrong, to invade and occupy a country on a false pretense. And we lost a lot of credibility over the last couple decades because of those excesses.

I think there's opportunity in that, though, Ari, right? In some ways, the rest of the world now looks at us and thinks, well, they're just like us. You know, they could elect the corrupt autocrat, you know, with the son-in-law in the office down the hall. But the opportunity in that is, if we can work it out, if we can figure it out, then we can be a recognizable example for them.

How do we make capitalism about something that is bigger than just wealth? How do we make these amazing technological tools that we create in the United States about the enlightenment of human beings and not disinformation and division machines, as they've become? This is the work that we have to do, and I think if we do it, it's going to ripple out around the world, as well as obviously improve our own society.

SHAPIRO: So let me ask why your team, your boss, who had the levers of power for eight years, were not able to do more to shape this. I mean, you write about structural issues that you say the Obama White House could not address during your eight years in power. From the inequality of the U.S. economy to the way the war on terror dominated American foreign policy, to the way social media distorted the information landscape - why couldn't those problems be fixed during the two terms that Barack Obama was president?

RHODES: Yeah. You know, I describe this metaphor that Obama used to tell me, which is that running the American government is like directing an ocean liner. And I do think that over the course of those eight years, we did a lot to point the ocean liner in a different direction. But at the same time, we didn't deal with the wiring of the ocean liner itself - the structure of American capitalism and the inequality it produces, the post 9/11 national security state, which I think helped breed the kind of politics of us versus them.

And I just wanted to take readers into kind of a very honest reckoning that I had with that. But I think it's also a lesson that presidents alone can't fix this. This is about kind of who we decide to be as Americans, Ari. What is our national identity?

SHAPIRO: Can I just end by asking you personally - I mean, this book is also, to some extent, a memoir that describes your coming of age in an era of American power and going to work for the government at the highest levels with a belief that the U.S. is a force for good in the world. How did reporting this book shape or change the way you see yourself, the arc of your life and the country that you've represented?

RHODES: Well, you know, it made me think, Ari. I mean, you and I met probably, you know, around the time of that 2008 campaign. We were much younger then.

SHAPIRO: I was a White House correspondent. You were working for Obama. Yeah.

RHODES: We were kids, right? And - now it appears so. I say that from my middle-aged perch. But what I realized when writing this book is that, as someone who - of our generation, who came of age kind of in that post-Cold War moment of the '90s, I really just fundamentally believed that history was kind of inevitably moving in a positive direction, that things were going to get better in the United States and around the world.

And the shock that the 2016 election gave to me on top of, you know, a lot of difficult things that happened around the world during the Obama administration is, wait a second. This is not inevitable. There's nothing inevitable about it. You know, history is a cycle of the same conflicts playing out again and again. Donald Trump and Barack Obama represent diametrically opposed stories of America that have always been there from the beginning of this country's history, from the time that the Declaration of Independence declared all men were created equal. And that declaration was written by a guy who owned slaves. We're living the latest iteration of this conflict.

But the journey I go on and I try to take people through in this book is letting go of that belief of the inevitability that things are going to get better. But I find a lot of hope at the end because even if I had to look much more squarely at America's flaws, it made me realize how much more important it is to care about and to love what America is supposed to be.

SHAPIRO: Ben Rhodes - his new book is "After The Fall: Being American In The World We've Made."

Thank you for talking with us about it.

RHODES: Thanks so much, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.