Ben Rhodes tries to be optimistic about the future of American democracy.
But it’s difficult. Five years ago he was the deputy national security adviser to former President Barack Obama. Now he’s just another American trying to understand what went wrong in the Trump years, and how the world’s beacon of democracy turned toward authoritarianism.
We spoke recently about the launch of his second book: “After The Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made,” for a video event on Monday sponsored by the St. Louis County Library and HEC Media. Rhodes’ book is a challenging and important read for those of us struggling with the current state of the Republican Party, and how it has changed the dynamics of what it means to be an American.
As it happens, our discussion came the day before Republicans in the Senate blocked the formation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, an unprecedented insurrection against the very seat of U.S. government, based on the Big Lie that the election had been stolen from Trump.
In the bill that was before the Senate, Republicans got virtually everything they wanted from Democrats to make sure the power on the commission was equally shared. And despite 35 Republicans in the House voting for the measure, the GOP declined to give the bill the votes it needed to overcome a filibuster.
It was a further sign of the broken democracy that some days has Rhodes feeling like “an exile in my own country.” It’s a personal struggle that Rhodes shares with his readers in a palpable way, talking about his inner rage through the Trump years, manifesting itself mostly through the decisions that tried to undo everything Obama accomplished, and continued after the election of President Joe Biden with a GOP fealty to everything Trump says and does, even if it means backing wacky conspiracy theories.
“If you look at the Republican Party and the direction it’s going, it feels divorced from even objective reality itself,” Rhodes says. Indeed, the party jettisons Rep. Liz Cheney from its leadership ranks because she calls out Trump’s Big Lie, and yet gives a wide berth to Rep. Matt Gaetz while he’s being investigated for possible sex trafficking and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who hasn’t found a conspiracy theory yet that she can’t find a way to embrace if she believes it will ingratiate her in Trumpland.
What scared Rhodes as he traveled the world in the past few years is how similar what has happened in the U.S. in the recent past is to authoritarian movements in other countries, including Hungary, Russia and China. What scared me more as a reader was that the path forward that Rhodes sees — America regaining its place as the world’s most functioning Democracy — seems out of reach at the moment.
“The best thing America can do for the world is be a healthy democracy,” Rhodes told me, a day before the GOP blocked the bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection supported by some members of its party.
The vote sparked anger among Democrats in the Senate, who were witnesses to the insurrection along with their friends from the other side of the aisle, and couldn’t believe that Republicans wouldn’t find common ground on this one issue of shared patriotism.
“We’ve got to get to the bottom of this …,” Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a conservative Democrat, told Politico in an angry rant, adding a bit more colorful language. “It’s a nonpartisan investigation of what happened. And if it’s because they’re afraid of Trump then they need to get out of office.”
Anger isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Rhodes writes in his book. It drives some of the dissident movements in other countries facing the sort of cults of personality that have now taken root in America.
“I had lots of feelings, complicated feelings, of being angry at my own country,” as he was writing the book, Rhodes told me. “I still love this country, and love what it’s supposed to be … I can see what’s wrong and be angry about it, but I can’t let that stop me from loving the good … America has been able to figure stuff out before, but only because people didn’t give up.”