Being American In the World We’ve Made, By Ben Rhodes
So we’re back for another review! Coincidentally, After the Fall was an excellent book to listen to right after Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. Like Caste, After the Fall explores the United States as exists today through the lens of history and offers some excellent insights about how and why the human condition exists as is does today. The two books dovetail nicely with one another by providing a sort of micro and macro exploration of authoritarianism. While Caste focuses on the US racial caste system since its origin, After the Fall focusses on authoritarianism and identity more broadly via the US’s post Cold War actions and consequences.
I admit again that while I have purchased a hard copy of the book from a LOCAL BOOK STORE, I ended up listening to the audiobook again due to my intermittent elbows. This time it was a bonus, because unlike his actual memoir, Ben Rhodes actually reads his own book this time. Given that my other interaction with him is through podcasts, it felt much more natural to hear the author’s own voice this go around. Ben’s performance is excellent and you can tell that he cares about his material. So don’t avoid the audiobook.
As for After the Fall itself. The book is written sort of as a continuation of Rhodes’ earlier memoir of his time in the Obama Administration, The World As It Is. Aside from inexplicably being read aloud by someone other than the author, that memoir is excellent and you should go listen to… errr… read it. That said, The World As It Is begins with Ben’s birth and ends right as he is saying goodbye to Obama while he exits what used to be Air Force One.
After the Fall seemingly picks right up as Ben is trying to figure out what the hell to do with all the time on his hands and a need to deescalate from being in the inner sanctum of US government. What he chooses to do is travel the world to interview people and report upon the state of authoritarianism in the United States and the World today. Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, and China are big stops in the book, and while there he gives us interviews of various journalists and activists as well as personal anecdotes and insight from his time in government.
A big theme of the book is that much of the rise of authoritarianism today can be traced to the end of the Cold War and how the US squandered its newfound global hegemony. Split into several parts, the book travels the world exploring the actions of authoritarian leaders and the aspirations of underdogs. My favorite insight from the book was when Rhodes labels Putin’s raison d’etre as counter revolution in response to the fall of the Soviet Union. I’d always seen the connection, but calling it counter revolutionary really added some important context into my understanding of post Cold-War History.
After the Fall also spends a lot of time analyzing China and how it’s rise is directly connected to the post Cold War boom years and the United State’s insatiable desire for cheap goods. It is rather alarming to see any logical connections made between my having too many t-shirts in the 90’s and Hong Kong protesters getting swept aside in 2019. As Caste illustrates how the Nazi’s took notes from the US racial apartheid and economic exploitation playbook, After the Fall shows how China has learned to use capitalism itself as a method of exploiting the US both morally and economically.
If I had to nitpick one criticism, it’s that the tone of the books sometimes feels a bit uneven. At times the book flows neatly as a continuation of the memoir, while at other times the book is much more direct journalism and analysis. This does not diminish the strength of the author’s augments, and there are plenty of relevant anecdotes. I just found that the sudden bouts of personal whimsy were out of place in some spaces. It wasn’t bad. It just felt odd.
Aside from that, I fully enjoyed my experience with this book. There are plenty of unique characters to keep you engaged and illustrate worlds and worldviews that are both different from our own, yet strangely familiar. I learned much about US and world history while also getting the view of a world that looks like it could, at any moment, spin off its axis. There is a vision of hope and beauty in struggle, but also a warning that without vigilance comes a rising darkness and uncertain future. It is an indictment of US complacency and hubris, but also a tome that can spark hope by highlighting the better path.