Cultures have long understood man’s very real capacity for taking pleasure in another’s misfortune. The Greeks described epichairekakia (epi, over, chairo, rejoice, kakia, disgrace). The Romans spoke of malevolentia. In Mandarin there is xìng‑zāi‑lè‑huò. But the most vivid and visceral term is German’s schadenfreude, from Schaden ‘harm’ + Freude ‘joy’. The English language has tried (and failed) to create such a complete expression. Schadenfreude speaks to the secret, even wicked pleasure people draw from watching catastrophes. Like the seemingly insurmountable COVID-19 pandemic ravaging America largely because a political grifter convinced enough people that staying home and wearing a mask in public is akin to life in a Soviet gulag.
Bad leadership, inept policies, and populist divisiveness have created a Molotov cocktail that continues to burn across the country. Failures of such magnitude are almost always the result of broken government. There is no doubt America is broken. And broken societies don’t mend easily.
The decline of the United States has been predicted since the nation’s inception. Never bet against the United States, the saying goes, because you’ll lose. But in this Trumpian Age of American Carnage and COVID-19, the odds seem to have shifted. The country’s inability to slow the exploding upward trend of cases, and the downward trend of shared sacrifice, isn’t only the result of political disfunction in Washington. As reckless and intellectually illiterate as Trump is, the speed and scale of such a massive systems collapse is the result of a decades long, quasi-pathological strategy by powerful neoliberal forces. Pretorian protectors of a system designed to maintain their status quo, and profit from craven bread and circuses and dismantling of social programs, no matter the cost to e pluribus unum. So long as the country remained the capital of capitalism.
Which explains why the world now looks at the United States less with envy, hatred, or love, but with pity and yes, schadenfreude.
From Antibes to Athens, Brussels to Berlin, my conversations with friends and family have degraded from collective concern about the pandemic to an acerbic attitude that the US is collapsing. That the country looks less like the leader of the democratic world and more like a Balkan backwater, desperate for Jack Ma’s airlift of 500,000 N95 masks.
The rising schadenfreude from Europe should be of great concern. For now, the US has indeed lost the support of our oldest allies, rightfully barring US citizens from entering the continent. I’ll say that again. The EU has barred US citizens from entry. The US has become a pariah state. Or more accurately, the world’s Florida. Even the 2020 Henley Passport Index which measures the world’s most travel-friendly passports, shows the US continuing to slide down the rankings, holding joint eighth place with, you guessed it, the UK. Another populist paragon.
The federal government’s response under Trump has been – in technical terms – an absolute disaster. The world watches with horror, and derision, as the American president openly riffs about the benefits of injecting disinfectant into human beings as if he’s on to something. Holds indoor election rallies in Tulsa and Phoenix with no social distancing or mandatory masks. Delivers an Independence Day address at Mt. Rushmore to incite more racial and ethnic hatred. Worries only about his political and financial fortunes, and enriching himself and his family like a Mafia Don. Jimmy Carter had to sell his Plains, Georgia peanut farm before taking the oath of office and Donald Trump continues hustling foreign diplomats to stay at his hotels. While his daughter still brokers private Chinese trade deals and shows us all how easy it is to DIY facemasks her father won’t wear because they’ll ruin his makeup.
An April poll in France found Angela Merkel to be the most trusted world leader. Just 2% had confidence Trump was leading the world in the right direction. As Germany’s Der Spiegel argued, Manchurian Candidate Trump single-handedly spared Beijing the worst of the pandemic consequences by turning the US response into a chapter from Lord of the Flies. White House post-truth and propaganda do not work against COVID-19.
The US may indeed be collapsing under the weight of its own hubris, but a post-American world may also signal the end of the world order as we know it. So much of the world has fashioned itself to the American model. If a post-American Europe is to collectively rise to the challenges of the new geopolitical realities, it will need to be unified by something stronger than ridicule for the American president. Whether or not Joe Biden wins in November, the stakes haven’t been this high since WWII, as authoritarian presidents-for-life Putin and Xi quickly consolidate power, assuring many more years of “payback” to the US and the West. The Thucydides Trap seems to be growing another Gorgon tentacle. Consider what Beijing achieved almost overnight in Hong Kong. Or Putin’s so-called referendum. American soft power, as well as its political and economic fortunes may be waning. But taking joy in that decline – what Greeks colloquially express as – Καλά να Πάθουν – exposes our pettiness, envy, and inadequacies, both as individuals, and as a society.
Many will continue speculating about the imminent collapse of the US and how long the US dollar survives as the world’s reserve currency. Replace it with what? The Swiss Franc is too small of a currency. The Japanese Yen? Not enough is transacted. The Chinese Yuan? Crypto? Doubtful. Replace English as the lingua franca of business? Not likely. The Covid-19 pandemic has quickened the emergence of a new world order, which is likely to be a new era of great power competition. But it will take time to wipe away all the US influence of the post-war world order. And a better alternative. Whether you lean to the political left or right, you have to admit that Lenin was right about one thing. We are living decades of change in weeks.
Vaclav Smil reminds us, “no matter how complex or affluent, societies are nothing but subsystems of the biosphere, the Earth’s thin veneer of life, which is ultimately run by bacteria, fungi, and green plants.” We’ll all end up as shadows and dust. Perhaps this global history is an opportunity to consider what we value, what we fight for, what we choose to defend. As a united species on a planet desperately crying out for a reboot. The US may indeed be in decline, or it could lead in building a twenty-first century definition of liberal democracy here and abroad.
*This opinion piece is written by Eve Geroulis, the director of MSM program and a Senior Lecturer at Loyola University Chicago Quinlan School of Business.