Ben Rhodes was Barack Obama’s speechwriter and became one of the former president’s closest aides, a constant presence at his shoulder as he toured the world and sat down with the powerful and famous. Three years ago, soon after leaving the White House, Rhodes wrote a compelling insider account of that era called The World As It Is. He has now written the sequel, and has opted for the apocalyptic title After the Fall. It is the story of an aftermath, of the acolyte still travelling the globe with the greying former president as he garners awards, mobbed by adoring fans. A rueful Obama muses about his transition from political force to celebrity, adored but virtually powerless.
After the Fall is a cleverly chosen title. It is about the ending of an administration and the aspirations of those who served in it, who look on aghast at the reign of Donald Trump. But it also has the suggestion of original sin – in this case, the US’s. The subtitle is Being American in the World We’ve Made, and the central theme of the book is a contemplation of the seeds of the country’s fall from grace in the world. Trump’s crassness is not the cause of the descent, but a symptom.
Rhodes traces much of the decline to the 9/11 attacks and the George W Bush administration’s reaction to them, which sought to “reorient America’s entire national purpose to the task of fighting terrorism”. The Iraq invasion, in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, “cracked open the facade that elites in the United States knew what they were doing” and called into question “why Americans were the stewards of world order”. Then came the largely made-in-America financial crash of 2008, destabilising politics-as-usual around the world. At home, a pivotal 5-4 vote by the US supreme court in 2010 opened the floodgates to unaccountable “dark money” saturating politics. Meanwhile ever more extreme politics were facilitated by Facebook, Twitter and the like.
“Profit-driven social media algorithms, like unchecked political contributions, were treated as free speech beyond the reach of government regulations,” Rhodes writes. He travels around the world observing the plight of other frail societies, such as Myanmar, Hungary, Russia and Hong Kong, where democracy is in retreat or has been routed altogether. He talks to dissidents trying to push back against the tide, and finds common strands in the American malaise and the rest of the world’s. Little of the analysis is new or original, but it is certainly elegantly expressed. This is the man, after all, with a degree in creative writing, who wrote so many of Obama’s soaring speeches.
And Rhodes does have an interesting personal tale to tell. He found out from reporting by the Observer in May 2018 that a shady firm of Israeli ex-spooks-for-hire called Black Cube was sniffing around him and another Obama staffer, Colin Kahl. The firm had been hired by the Trump camp to discredit the top officials involved in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The abortive smear effort involved sending creepy fake emails to Rhodes’s wife. She did not fall for it but the experience so unnerved her that she insisted on moving their young family out of the political crosshairs to Los Angeles. Rhodes cannot help wondering if the family’s decision to flee politics is what his persecutors wanted all along. To kill off political engagement and drive an activist generation towards apathy and cynicism. He comes to the realisation that he is “a casualty of a war over identity – who defines it and who doesn’t, what is true and what isn’t, what happened and what didn’t, who you are and who you aren’t.”
There is a very personal element to After the Fall in which Rhodes admits to disorientation and a desire for purpose in the long spiralling descent from the Oval Office. “I was a thirty-nine-year-old with as little idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life as I’d had as a twenty-three-year-old,” he reflects. “History was no longer something that took place in rooms where I sat.” The introspection, coupled with an itinerary of venerable European destinations, such as Paris, Budapest and Baden-Baden, sometimes gives the book the feel of a melancholy Chekhovian tale: the young courtier in the retinue of a revered, recently ousted monarch, touring old watering holes. He meets like-minded contemporaries, including Hungarian, Russian and Hong Kong dissidents, and they try to come to terms with the implosion of the world they had once hoped for.
Throughout, Rhodes struggles with a certain ennui. On a trip to Yangon, he wanders into a pagoda and “sat staring at a Buddha, waiting to feel something”. Some of the best passages arise when he is back together with his old boss, and we are given an insight into what Obama thinks of it all, including the acerbic and memorable observation that “Trump is for a lot of white people what OJ’s acquittal was to a lot of black folks – you know it’s wrong, but it feels good.”
We can also sit in while Obama considers the leadership challenge facing the progressive democratic cause in the US and further afield. Surveying the candidates in the 2020 Democratic primaries, the former president says he agrees with Bernie Sanders in his diagnosis of America’s malaise, a system chronically rigged to benefit the very rich. “But there’s something missing when Bernie talks about it,” Obama adds. “A spiritual component, a national identity that’s not nationalist.” Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg are better at invoking national unity but don’t have Sanders’s and Elizabeth Warren’s fire in the belly, their outrage. Searching for a historical precedent of a progressive leader who could offer both, Obama has to go all the way back to Bobby Kennedy.
It illustrates a certain nostalgia pervading the book, looking back at the times before the fall, and the allure of the apparent certainties of Rhodes’s youth, when America seemed to have all the answers. They still exert their pull on him, even though he now knows them to be hollow.
• After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer order a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.