Megalomania & Small-Mindedness How America Lost Its Identity

Reporter Holger Stark spent the past four years as DER SPIEGEL's Washington correspondent during a time in which the country changed radically enough to elect Donald Trump as its president. What led this once mighty nation into decline?
Donald Trump at a rally in North Carolina in October

Donald Trump at a rally in North Carolina in October

Foto: Erik S. Lesser/ dpa

On a frigid January evening one year ago, I was standing in a line of around 1,000 people in Burlington, Vermont, to see Donald Trump. I reported my very first story on the United States in 1991 and had been living in the country since 2013. I thought I knew the country well. But on that evening in January, I realized that I had been mistaken.

Burlington lay under a blanket of snow and next to me in line stood Mary and Tim Loyer, both wrapped in dark-blue parkas. Mary was unemployed and her son Tim had a job at a bar. Both told me they were Bernie Sanders supporters. Tim said he was particularly bothered by the power held by large companies, that the division of wealth was unfair and that people like him no longer had opportunities to improve their lives. It was the anthem of the working class.

When asked what he found attractive about Trump, Tim said: "Bernie and Trump are the only politicians who say what they're thinking and do what they say," as his mother Mary nodded along. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is corrupt, he said. In an election pitting Trump against Clinton, Tim said he would not vote for Clinton. Again, Mary nodded.

At the entrance, security personnel patted us down and asked if we were planning on voting for Trump. Only those who said yes were allowed to proceed.

When Trump began speaking, a demonstrator stood up and yelled that Trump was a racist. The candidate paused, shook his fist and demanded that security throw the protester out. "Keep his coat. Confiscate his coat," Trump said from the stage. It was 21 degrees Fahrenheit (-6 degrees Celsius) outside. Trump snarled as his fans jumped to their feet hooting and jeering. One was reminded of a lynch mob.

I learned three things on that evening in Burlington: In the fatherland of capitalism, anger with the elite is so vast that even leftists would rather vote for a narcissist billionaire than a veteran of the political establishment. In a country that values freedom of opinion higher than almost any other country in the world, there were now attitude tests prior to admission to political rallies. And many Americans, who are otherwise so polite, lose all restraint when confronted by those who think differently.

Everything that I associated with America seemed no longer to apply on that evening in Burlington. What had happened to this once-proud country?

I found answers to this question on a journey through American society -- to places like Vermont, Maryland, Rhode Island and Virginia. Those are just a few of the places I have visited in the last four years -- places where those symptoms could be seen that together add up to the huge crisis that has gripped America. This self-confident country that has spent decades exporting its values with imperialist hubris has lost its identity. Democratic capitalism no longer works well enough to keep together a country of 325 million people and to guarantee domestic peace.

The United States is not alone in having been struck by this identity crisis: It has also hit the United Kingdom, France, Germany and other countries. But America, where capitalism flourishes to a greater degree than anywhere else, has been hit the hardest of all.

The secret to the country's success was not just that societal cohesion was anchored by one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, but also by the promise of advancement inherent in the American Dream. The result was an extremely powerful country that seemed unlimited in its possibilities. It wasn't always attractive, and sometimes it was downright ugly, but the U.S. was always the country that the rest of the world looked to. America proudly led the way.

The America of today has lost faith in its own superiority. It has become a regressive country that is turning its back on the world. If you leave Washington, D.C., behind and travel through the country, from Alabama to Alaska, you will find that the American Dream has been lost. The country is no longer proudly leading the way.

With his diabolical instinct for the country's political mood, Trump captured this shift on campaign evenings like the one in Burlington, distilling it to a single maxim that warmed the hearts of many in the United States: "America First." Trump epitomizes America's desire for a new identity, he has lit a beacon of hope for the white majority that still makes up two-thirds of the country's population. Many of them have come to feel like foreigners in their own country. More than anything, though, he has promised to return greatness and values to this unsettled and adrift slice of society. That he will "Make America Great Again."

Fort Meade: A Visit to the NSA

The beginning of my time in America coincided with Edward Snowden -- the man who unveiled America's spying machinery, thus embarrassing the entire country -- going underground. It began, in other words, with the American figure who, with the exception of Donald Trump, has dominated the public debate over the last several years more than anyone else. In June 2013, just as we at SPIEGEL were working our way through those Snowden documents that had been made available to us, I sent a request to the White House for an off-the-record interview, just as we do in such situations in Berlin, Paris and elsewhere. The email was read by the White House and by the intelligence agencies, but nothing happened. After the SPIEGEL cover story on the National Security Agency (NSA) made waves around the world, a White House spokesperson admonished that the NSA stories amounted to "unauthorized publications" condemned by the administration. One could also call it freedom of the press.

NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland

NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland

Foto: Patrick Semansky/ AP

The game repeated itself the next week. I requested an appointment to discuss the next batch of revelations, but this time, I actually got a response from Caitlin Hayden, who was spokeswoman for the National Security Council at the time: "Our team at the White House does not have time this week to meet on this." SPIEGEL continued publishing stories based on the NSA documents for months, and the rules of the game never changed. It was a demonstration of the arrogance of power.

Several months later, former NSA head Michael Hayden explained to me why I was unable to get an appointment at the White House. Many American journalists can be influenced by applying pressure, he said, but it's more difficult to do so with foreign journalists.

That is how Washington works and that is how Barack Obama and his administration worked. In this city, there is a code of behavior for all involved -- and Washington has become symbolic of an unhealthy, symbiotic intimacy between politics, business and the media.

In the winter of 2013, I finally received an invitation to NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, an hour's drive from the White House. The agency wanted to talk SPIEGEL out of publishing another NSA story. The glass facade of the NSA headquarters is designed to keep out electromagnetic waves and inside, one of the elevators is reserved exclusively for use by the all-powerful director.

The gentlemen who received me introduced themselves by their first names (Mike and Frank), but the conversation wasn't terribly productive because they were unable to answer most of my questions due to secrecy rules. When Mike spoke, Frank looked at him distrustfully. When Frank spoke, Mike looked at him suspiciously.

The NSA affair put both America's strengths and weaknesses on display. It wasn't just about control, but also about the state's loss of control. The most powerful country on Earth was exposed by a young, idealistic employee who brought to light widespread surveillance.

Today, the scandal seems as though it were from a different century -- the pre-Trump era. In response to Snowden, Obama installed limits to what the intelligence community was allowed to do. Trump, by contrast, has announced a merciless assault on all real and imagined terrorists and has promised to release the country's intelligence agents from all restrictions. It is no longer about individual rights, which Snowden had highlighted, but about the strong state, which Trump has promised.

Washington: On America's Streets

Among Trump's most popular tirades is the one about how American airports are "like from a Third World country." And he's right. American streets are full of holes, its airports exude 1970s charm and every couple of weeks, a tree falls onto the overhead power lines resulting in hourslong outages. Today's America is simultaneously the country of the iPhone and the country of potholes; it isn't just coated by the gloss of the future, but also by the musty odor of the past.

In the four years that I lived in Washington, D.C., I had to replace the tires on my car three times. The first occasion was after I drove through a giant pothole that frost had bored into a park road. The second was the result of construction workers leaving nails behind on a thoroughfare they had been working on. The third set was ruined by sharp chunks of metal that had been lying about on a street for several weeks. The situation is so bad that drivers in Washington, D.C., can submit pothole damage claims to get their money back.

In his speeches, Donald Trump addresses this impression of community dysfunction -- and it is one that can be observed everywhere you go. In summer 2013, for example, I went to the DMV in Washington to get my driver's license. The bored official behind the desk flipped disinterestedly through my documents before looking at me and, with an impassive expression on her face, entering "F" for my gender. Ever since then, I have been a woman for American bureaucracy.

People expect a minimum of functionality from a modern state. But over the last 30 years, the conservatives and neoliberals have worked tirelessly to destroy the state, which they see as a form of imposed socialist administration. They have made America weak.

A new understanding of the state is long overdue in America. In a complicated world where everything is connected to everything else, the protective identity of a state must experience a renaissance. A newly sophisticated, resilient state is necessary. Trump is one of the few conservatives to have recognized that fact.

Rhode Island: How Does Trump Think?

To better understand Trump, my SPIEGEL colleague Matthias Gebauer and I drove up the Atlantic coast in June 2016 to Rhode Island, the smallest U.S. state. The summer home of Michael Flynn, 58, is located at the edge of a town called Middletown. At one point, he was the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, but then he had a falling out with Obama and was fired in 2014. During the fall of 2015, Trump invited Flynn to New York and he has since appointed him as national security adviser. Recently, the two have been discussing what might happen if there were a war between the U.S. and China. Listening to the general provides an impression of how the new America thinks.

Supporters of then presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008

Supporters of then presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008


Flynn hosted us on the wooden deck of his summer home, Atlantic breakers crashing into the cliffs along the coast. "We've got to examine the threats that we face in the 21st century," Flynn said. "Threats don't just come in the face of Vladimir Putin and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi out of ISIS, they come in different looks. One of the biggest ones is the economic threat."

Flynn was relaxed that morning, wearing jeans and flip-flops. He had a reputation within the DIA for being particularly tough. He said America was at the breaking point and that everything needed to be called into question -- especially military costs. "How is that cost paid for?"

That question could be the central tenet of the new government. For Trump, everything is business - economics, education and foreign policy. During the hour and a half that we spoke with Flynn, the discussion was not about common Western values and solidarity between states. For Trump and Flynn, foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy - they don't think about Aleppo without having Alabama in the backs of their minds. Their view of the world is comprised of a disconcerting mix of megalomania and small-mindedness. They want to build new nuclear weapons while at the same time leaving the rest of the world to fend for itself. What is certain, though, is that Alabama will take precedence over Aleppo.

Trump's diplomacy, Flynn said, operates according to a simple principle: "You start in any negotiation as high and as hard as you can possibly start, and now you go into a conversation."

The world will have to get used to the fact that the U.S. is now led by a brutal and merciless negotiator -- a man who leaves all his options open and whose values are not entirely clear.

Flynn recently flew to Moscow, where he sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a dinner. Flynn appeared to feel very comfortable. He told us on his deck in Rhode Island that you've got to respect Putin. "He's a world leader," he said. "Putin will be a reliable partner for certain things for the United States."

After we said our goodbyes, he shouted out to us that Trump would enjoy a landslide victory and that they were going to take control of the country.

I must admit, the remark made me chuckle to myself.

Virginia: The Toilet Wars

America added yet another to its long list of wars this past year: the toilet wars. Put simply, it's about who is allowed to pee in which bowl. But as happens so often when people fight in the United States, this actually had to do with a major societal debate: the identity of the individual and who is allowed to define it. No one embodies the problem better than Gavin Grimm, 17.

He's been described as "the new face of the transgender movement." But when, on a sunny Tuesday in June, Grimm shuffled down the stairs in his pajamas to greet me at his family home in Gloucester, Virginia, he looked rather defeated.

Grimm has a chubby face and peach fuzz on his upper lip. His voice is scratchy and sounds like it is changing, the product of the hormones that he's been taking for some time now. Grimm used to be a girl who liked to roughhouse with the boys and wanted to play on the baseball team. Back then, he cried at night because he felt trapped in the wrong body. On the morning of his 15th birthday, he opened up to his mother and said he either wanted to have a sex change or die.

Grimm's school, Gloucester High, is located outside the town. The boulevard leading to it passes cornfields and farm houses. This part of America is rural and conservative, but the principal here was an exception and he allowed Grimm to use the boy's bathroom.

Following a complaint, though, the local school board banned Grimm from using the toilet. Grimm hired a lawyer and sued in response. The case worked its way through the courts and will soon be heard by the Supreme Court. The toilet war is only the latest front in the culture wars over the country's future.

Some 70 percent of Americans still identify themselves as Christian, with around 80 million of them, including Vice President Mike Pence, counting among the fundamentalists who, in some cases, don't believe in the theory of evolution but instead adhere to creationism, the idea that God created the Earth. Radical Christians consider people like Grimm to be sick because they defy their God-given gender. The local Baptist community threatened that Grimm would burn in hell for eternity. "It's not easy resisting the power of the church," Grimm says.

In places like Gloucester, the largely white, pious part of America is wrestling with the secular and cosmopolitan side of the country. In recent decades, Christian influence has steadily eroded and the once-dominant Christian culture has given way to a multicultural social order. Christian America has lost its cultural hegemony to people like Barack Obama and Gavin Grimm. It voted for Trump and Pence in an attempt to reconquer that hegemony.

The Outlook

It's true that things couldn't continue as they were. Of course it was wrong for Hillary Clinton to have accepted $675,000 from Wall Street Bankers in exchange for three speeches at a time when half of all Americans say they wouldn't know what to do if they had to pay an unexpected bill of $400. And surely things are out of balance when the six richest Americans (Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Mike Bloomberg) together have almost as much wealth as the entire poorer half of humanity.

Trump pledged a fascinating experiment to the American people and has secured the world's most important political office as a result. With the authority of a tough negotiator, he is trying to force companies like Ford and BMW to make investments in the United States. He is breaking with the laws of the markets and attempting to defeat capitalism with its own weapons. Can it work?

The markets have cheered his election, at least at the beginning, and Trump can count on the support of many Americans. But other countries will strike back and international partners will be transformed into rivals and major conflict with China is taking shape. However, Trump's battlefields are likely to be trade wars rather than campaigns of conquest.

The incoming president has spoken of uniting society, but his triumph rests on its division. Trump plays societal groups off against each other and the identity he is now prescribing for America is that of the 1950s, a time when white men drove gas guzzlers and women wore petticoats.

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 3/2017 (January 14, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

The atmosphere created by Trump is one that reduces the status of people like Gavin Grimm in order to give people like Mary and Tim Loyer the feeling they can achieve greatness. It feels like the country is going back to the future.

Last week, new polls came out showing that a majority of American were satisfied with what Obama delivered during his tenure in office. At the same time, Americans also made Donald Trump their next president. It's not always easy understanding you, America.

For his part, Grimm wants to flee rural America and fundamentalist Christians in the search for freedom. Tim Loyer hopes that Trump will create a new job for him. And Mike Flynn will now have a say in shaping America's future.

The three live in different worlds and wouldn't have much to say to each other. What began under George W. Bush and continued under Obama also won't stop under Trump - namely the decay of a society that no longer has the strength to agree on the most pressing questions of our time.

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