Philipp Oehmke

A Land in Decay Where Did America Go Wrong?

Despite Donald Trump's defeat, the United States still appears to be in a state of moral decay. A DER SPIEGEL correspondent reflects on his five years in America.
Joe Biden supporters in New York celebrate his election victory.

Joe Biden supporters in New York celebrate his election victory.

Foto: Stephanie Keith / GETTY IMAGES

During the opening of the recent "Saturday Night Live” he hosted, comedian Dave Chappelle, asked if anyone could still remember what life was like before COVID-19. Joe Biden had addressed the nation two hours earlier for the first time as president-elect. People were celebrating in the streets of cities and Biden wanted to spread a sense of optimism.

Then came Chappelle.

It probably says something about the country that the most important political commentators at the moment are late-night presenters and stand-up comedians. In Germany, comedians tend to occupy a niche, but in the United States, they are among the most important voices in society – and Dave Chappelle has been one of the biggest, loudest and and most acerbic of them for years running.

In his opening monologue, Chappelle recalled life back in pre-COVID-19 times. "You guys remember what life was like before COVID? I do,” he said. "There was a mass shooting every week. Anyone remember that? Thank God for COVID. Someone had to lock these murderous whites up and keep them in the house.”

America has survived Donald Trump for now. And it will also likely survive the pandemic. Once it does, though, it will be time for a reckoning: The country will again find itself facing the problems that have clouded the "American experience” for quite some time.

Trump and COVID-19 – especially the toxic combination of the two – have only made these problems more visible. Biden's optimism, his emphasis on community, are important. But words alone won’t be enough to save the nation.

Biden says that among the four main problems he intends to address first is systemic racism. No newly elected president has ever said such a thing. The economy, health insurance, jobs, taxes: Those are the kinds of things political leaders speak about in the moment of victory. But systemic racism?


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 47/2020 (November 14, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

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America knows it is sick. It is showing all the symptoms. There are doubts about the legitimacy of elections, and confidence in political institutions has crumbled. The media have abandoned or lost their role as impartial observers. The country's predominantly white police force continues to deploy misguided violence against a disillusioned and outraged Black population. There are armed militias on the streets and it's become almost impossible to voice an opinion without getting overwhelmed by hateful comments on social media. To top it all off is a president who refuses to concede defeat, a society that has been battered by a pandemic that can only be contained by way of solidarity.

It will all still be there after Donald Trump leaves office – even Donald Trump himself will remain. And the next authoritarian-minded leader to come along is almost certain to be less dim-witted, less childish and less incompetent - in the best-case scenario.

Comedian Chappelle: Late-night presenters and stand-up comedians are among the most important voices in American society.

Comedian Chappelle: Late-night presenters and stand-up comedians are among the most important voices in American society.

Foto: Danny Clinch

David Brooks, the moderate conservative commentator, recently asked in an essay  in The Atlantic whether these symptoms of the disease really do mean the end of a historical era. Whether America has experienced the kind of critical convulsion in the past six years that will trigger a kind of molting and herald a new morality.

In the essay, Brooks cites Samuel P. Huntington, one of the great political thinkers of the late 20th century, who concluded that such "moral convulsions” happen every 60 years in American history. And that they are always accompanied by the same symptoms: a loss of trust in institutions; widespread moral indignation; contempt for the elite; a moralistic young generation with new means of communication dominating the debate; and marginalized groups that had previously been excluded taking control.

Huntington wrote that at the end of the last century, but it reads like a description of the current state of America.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so stunned by the mysterious decline of this cultural space - one that has been so vital for Germans over the past several decades. Perhaps we should have seen it coming. But the catalysts weren't easy to identify because they weren’t of a pragmatic, political nature. It was an internal state of mind that shifted. Or, as Brooks describes it, social trust.

This, Brooks writes, "is a measure of the moral quality of a society – of whether the people and institutions in it are trustworthy, whether they keep their promises and work for the common good. When people in a church lose faith or trust in God, the church collapses. When people in a society lose faith or their trust in their institutions and in each other, the nation collapses.”

Evan Osnos, who has just published a biography of Joe Biden, wrote recently  in the New Yorker about the Fund for Peace, which analyzes "cohesion indicators” inside many countries. The factors studied include the level of popular discontent, trust in the security apparatus and the entrenchment of political factions. The United States recorded the largest drop in cohesion of all the countries surveyed and came in last place, behind Bahrain, Mali and even Libya.

What triggered this crisis of confidence? Where did society, politics and culture take a turn so wrong that it ultimately wound up with Trump, 20,000 lies and street battles in a pandemic?

Author Vance: A Trump in almost every family

Author Vance: A Trump in almost every family

Foto: Andrew Spear

The first time I moved to the U.S., Bill Clinton, a member of Baby Boomer generation, was president. The most visible representatives of the Baby Boomers were white males who had been politically and culturally influenced by the emancipation movements of the late 1960s. Upward mobility was a fact of life for them. Everything seemed to be within reach, prosperity was seen as a given and it was accepted as fact that their children would automatically be better off than their parents.

They didn’t need security, which gave them time to pursue greater freedoms. They wore jeans to the office, cheated on their wives relatively brazenly and continued listening to rock music, even as they grew older. Their rise culminated in the late 1990s, when I arrived in New York. The size of their generation meant that by then, they had taken over the leading roles in society, with Bill Clinton at the helm.

Their boundless optimism seems almost naive today. Clinton’s campaign slogan in 1992 was, "It’s the economy, stupid,” if the economy would just continue to grow, things would continue to get better for everyone. The markets regulated themselves, and it seemed inconceivable that the Dow Jones or the Nasdaq could ever fall.

Although he is, unlike Clinton, a rather atypical Boomer, this is also the climate that molded Donald Trump. It wasn’t just about economic freedom, but also societal morals. It was a matter of faith that the sum of all self-fulfilling individuals would amount to a happy society.

Today's generation of young Americans is perplexed by that worldview, if not contemptuous of it. They grew up in a world in which "institutions failed, financial systems collapsed, and families were fragile,” Brooks writes. He believes the values of the Millennial and Gen-Z generations that will dominate in the years ahead are the opposite of Boomer values: "Not liberation, but security; not freedom, but equality; not individualism, but the safety of the collective; not sink-or-swim meritocracy, but promotion on the basis of social justice.”

It should be noted that Baby Boomer Clinton actually exacerbated some of what Biden is referring to when he speaks of systemic racism. To keep the Republicans quiet, Clinton - with considerable support from a senator by the name of Joe Biden - passed tougher laws for fighting crime. In retrospect, today's overcrowded prisons can be traced back to that bill - as well as a prison population that is disproportionately black.

Still, when Clinton inaugurated his new office in Harlem in 2001 right after his tenure in the White House came to an end, the streets were still lined with cheering African American fans. "You will always be our president!" they shouted. The devastating effects of Clinton’s law, which was already seven years old at the time, obviously wasn’t yet clear to them.

Protesters in New York: a disillusioned and irritable Black population

Protesters in New York: a disillusioned and irritable Black population

Foto: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The first, broadly perceived wake-up call regarding the decay of the U.S. came a year later, in 2002, when former police reporter David Simon wrote and produced a television series about his hometown of Baltimore. Simon’s series ran on the pay-TV channel HBO, the station that seemed to broadcast all the shows the cultural elite were talking about at the time, including "The Sopranos” and "Sex in the City.”

Simon's series was called "The Wire,” and over the course of five seasons, it showed how and why a city like Baltimore could have sunk to "failed state” status by the early 2000s. There was the city’s uncontrollable drug trade, which seeped into both business and politics. There were the streets full of boarded-up houses and controlled by Black gangs. There was the port where white workers were losing their jobs. Schools in the bad neighborhoods were so overcrowded that even the children who did want to learn eventually chose to join a drug gang instead. There were also disillusioned cops and corrupt, attention-seeking politicians. In brief: Any of the trust that Brooks is now writing about had already long since been exhausted.

When I walked through Baltimore with Simon a few years after the series’ release, I asked him about the reasons for the collapse of public life. By then, the shocking reality of the series had entered the collective consciousness and had become a much discussed issue. "People no longer believe they can make a difference," Simon said at the time - which essentially is just another way of expressing the loss of trust.

Simon’s series primarily shed light almost 20 years ago on a Black underclass in the big cities that had become isolated and abandoned. In rural areas, meanwhile, in states like Ohio and West Virginia, a white underclass was emerging - relatively unnoticed at the time - that felt just as emotionally excluded as parts of the Black population, although for different reasons.

In his recent monologue on "Saturday Night Live,” comedian Chappelle suggested that the white, Trump underclass could learn from the Black population (though he used the N-word to refer to them). "The rest of the country is trying to move forward,” he told the whites, but you keep holding us back with your "stimulus checks, the heroin.” But now "you need us. You need our eyes to save you from yourselves.” Chappelle was alluding to traits – unemployment and drug addiction – frequently associated with Black people in America.

In 2012, three years before Trump began trying his hand at politics, political scientist Charles Murray became the first to write about this social class for a wider public. Interestingly, their distinguishing characteristics weren’t economic, but had more to do with psychology, morals and habit. The problem of underclasses in the past was primarily a lack of wealth – a difficulty that could be alleviated relatively easily. The government could fill their bank accounts, but getting into their heads was a different matter altogether.

In his book "Coming Apart,” Murray describes a fictional place he calls Fishtown, a post-industrial city where morale sank as unemployment rose. He assembles Fishtown from statistical data and draws a vivid picture.

There is less political cohesion in the United States than in Mali or Libya.

Increasingly, the men of Fishtown began reporting that they were unfit for work, while only about a quarter to a third of the children grew up with both parents. Plus, people stopped going to church, which had previously served as an important stabilizer of the community.

Author J.D. Vance didn’t need Murray’s statistics to have a clear understanding of the problem. He grew up in a real-life Fishtown, a place called Middletown, Ohio. His father had abandoned the family and his mother was a junkie. He grew up with his grandparents and made it out of Middletown to the East Coast by joining the Marines. He ultimately graduated with a law degree from Yale University. At one of his first dinners there, he was asked whether he wanted still or sparkling water. Vance laughed nervously. He had never before heard of water with bubbles. He thought the question was a joke.

"Hillbilly Elegy,” Vance’s memoir about the conditions and people he grew up with, came out in the U.S. in the summer of 2016, a few months before Donald Trump was elected president.

In New York, we all rushed out to get the book for the background it provided on these backwaters. According to those who read the book, Trump could only have been elected because he attracted millions of voters who hadn’t even been identified as a voting block previously. The book shined a spotlight on a white middle and lower class in the Rust Belt states that, in addition to having lost all trust over the last 20 years, had also grown incredibly angry.

I traveled to West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky to take a look for myself. It was quite some time before it became widely known, but these areas have been steadily destroyed since the 2000s by opioids - painkillers in pill form that have a heroin-like effect. The pharmaceutical manufacturer Purdue had flooded the market with the drug 15 years earlier. There are doctor’s offices in small towns in the region whose business model consisted exclusively of selling prescriptions for Oxycontin, the most famous opioid, for $250 each to millions of new, white junkies.

Whereas crack was still the drug of choice for Blacks in the big cities in the 1990s, "Oxys” had become the drug that whites in rural areas had become addicted to. The victims were fathers and housewives, like Vance’s mother. Entire families, including grandparents, parents and children, grew addicted to opioids. When the authorities moved in to close the pill clinics, as they were called, and the pills became more difficult to find, most people just switched to cheap heroin. In Huntington, West Virginia, I visited a slum full of white, drugged-out zombies. In Ashland, Kentucky, I went on a ride-along with paramedics whose work consisted almost entirely of helping addicts who had overdosed.

I met with J.D. Vance in Ohio, and he explained to me why members of his family and his friends had become so culturally disconnected. How, over the years, they had developed their own behavior, their own view of the world, of truth and morality, and how they had grown alienated from the rest of the country. The people Vance wrote about almost all voted for Trump. In Trump - in his aggressive, predatory behavior and his constant focus on personal gain - they recognized what they were used to at home. Everybody, says Vance, had someone like that in their family.

Oddly, he said, his old friends back in Middletown consistently claimed that they worked hard, even though most of them didn’t have jobs. They believed the world was against them, that someone was trying to trick them. It was, essentially, the same feeling espoused by their president, who insists the election was stolen from him.

Is the system working? Nope.

In recent years, these tensions could also be felt in New York in those situations when strata of the population that had been separated for decades somehow collided. At the checkout counter of the organic supermarket Whole Foods, absurd psychological battles would break out pitting well-off customers against the almost exclusively Black cashiers with face tattoos. The more the mostly enlightened, liberal customers tried to treat the cashiers with excessive politeness, the more the workers would frequently see this as an incentive to be even more contemptuous of the obviously privileged. As if a little feigned kindness could make up for hundreds of years of oppression.

That, at least, is how Ta-Nehisi Coates explained it to me when we met at New York University in the spring. It was shortly before the pandemic struck and three months before the police murder of George Floyd that triggered racial unrest across the country. All that checkout-counter friendliness at the supermarket proved to be of little help - friendliness, by the way, that was partly due to Coates himself. Five years earlier, in his book "Between the World and Me,” he explained to white elites in shocking detail just how it feels to be a Black man in the second decade of 21st-century America. Not great, he wrote, because you have to fear for your physical safety every single day. You're not worth as much as the others, he wrote.

Weeks after the election, Trump has allowed the transition to the Biden presidency to begin, but he still hasn’t conceded defeat and continues to challenge the election results. A large part of the Republican Party, a centuries-old institution at the heart of American society, has supported him in his effort. And more than 71 million Americans voted for Trump. A majority of them likely believe Trump’s lies about election fraud. Trust? Faith in the system? That others are doing the right thing, as David Brooks has called for? Nope. At best, there is hope.

As I leave this country, I am at a loss. 

Philipp Oehmke was DER SPIEGEL's New York correspondent from 2015 to 2020.

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