America is currently experiencing an explosion of analysis and commentary, trying to make sense of the astonishing events since November 8. I suspect there is no skeleton key that unlocks the secret of the election’s outcome, no single factor to ground some grand unified theory for this act of political self-harm of a great nation.
But having spent the past five years researching and writing on the shadowy and often surprising role that drugs play in human history, I was intrigued when psycho-active substances began to emerge as a factor in this election, too—an elusive counterpoint dancing around more prominent themes of nationalist status anxiety and racial animus. Social scientists pointed out unmistakable correlations. Counties most affected by the opiate epidemic (as measured by drug overdose rates, among other indicators) backed Donald Trump more enthusiastically than they had Mitt Romney four years earlier. And those counties with the highest number of clandestine meth lab busts, which describe a veritable Meth Belt, overwhelmingly chose Trump over Hillary Clinton.
Drugs flourish in these areas as symptoms of deeper troubles, signifying the hollowing-out of communities after factories close and jobs evaporate. Crystal Meth has become the canary in the coal mine, the visible sign of larger macro-economic trends that are having more difficult-to-grasp and intangible effects everywhere in the country. As I found myself wondering whether the U.S. might be just one more example in a long historical pattern of societies looking to addictive drugs when the bottom drops out—either for fuel or as an escape mechanism—I heard echoes of another time, eight decades ago, when the West feverishly looked toward Germany for signs of what its new, unpredictable leader might do. Would he perhaps start a devastating war? Would he make good on his sinister promise to get rid of unwanted minorities?
Anyone who was still skeptical about the danger of the disease that was National Socialism could have focused less on what Hitler said or did during those years preceding the great tragedy of World War II. They could instead have considered a popular product at the time, the Hildebrand boxed chocolates spiked with nothing less than methamphetamine.Ads with a pleased looking German housewife, a meth candy in her manicured fingers, were being exhibited all over Berlin and other German towns. A good 14 milligrams of meth was included in each portion—a large dose, comparable to a line of street meth today. Hildebrand chocolates are always a delight read the slogan of the potent confectionery. The recommendation was to eat between three and nine of those, with the indication that they were, unlike caffeine, perfectly safe. The housework would be done in a trice, and this unusual tidbit would even melt the pounds away, since meth, a slimming agent, also curbed the appetite.
The stuff was not only pleasing to German fräuleins. During the late ’30s, meth became a popular everyday supplement in Nazi Germany, wherever you looked. It was perfectly legal, and cheap, too. Just walk into any chemist’s shop and buy as much as you liked. The successful product had been put on the market by the pharmaceutical company Temmler under the brand name Pervitin.
Whether it was secretaries typing faster, actors refreshing themselves before they went on stage, writers using the stimulation of methamphetamine for all-nighters at the desk, or hopped-up workers on conveyor belts at Volkswagen raising their output—Pervitin spread among all circles. Night watchmen stopped sleeping on the job, and long-distance truck-drivers bombed down freshly constructed Autobahns completing their trips in record time. Doctors treated themselves with it, businessmen who had to rush from meeting to meeting pepped themselves up; Nazi Party members did the same, and so did the SS. Meth eased stress, increased sexual appetite, and artificially enhanced motivation. The powerful pharmaceutical industry, it seemed, had finally found a panacea. People didn’t take meth to cure a specific disease but rather to cope with the spirit, the challenges of modern times. Pervitin became a symptom of the developing performance society. No one outside of Germany noticed this.
National Socialism was toxic, in the truest sense of the word. It gave the world a chemical legacy that still affects us today: a poison that refuses to disappear. In present day America, the wave of de-industrialization leaves a secondary industry in place, fueled by meth. This is not a coincidence.
In Herculaneum, Missouri, the last American lead smelter shut down in 2013, leaving behind a territory and a population poisoned by lead. “Although it would be impossible to prove, it’s tempting to make a correlation,” says Jason Pine, an anthropologist at SUNY Purchase who researched meth production in eastern Missouri for over five years, and is finishing a book on the subject, “between lead exposure and the extraordinarily high incidence of small-scale meth labs in the area. Lead poisoning is linked to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. An approved and widely prescribed medicine for ADHD is Adderall, mixed amphetamine salts, one of the most profitable drugs in Shire Pharmaceuticals’ portfolio. However, many unemployed or underemployed people in de-industrializing areas across the country are not able to acquire controlled substances like Adderall either because they are undiagnosed, lack health insurance or are unable to get a prescription from a doctor. People with ADHD are therefore often drawn to illegal stimulants. In rural Missouri and other places like it, methamphetamine is the most potent and most accessible of these, easily produced with a Shake-and-Bake lab.”
This home-cooking method, which requires nothing more than a 2-liter soda bottle and a few ingredients you can get at any Walmart, is very different from the high tech methods Temmler used in its Berlin lab. Yet the Shake-and-Bake recipe produces Crystal Meth of such quality that even Breaking Bad’s Walter White would give an approving nod.
“The people I got to know were not necessarily getting high to withdraw from the world,” says Pine. “To the contrary: Many took meth in order to work longer hours at their jobs in roofing, cement work, factory work, or trucking so they can make ends meet. Many labor hard but still don’t get paid enough to lead a decent, fearless existence.”
When Pine studied life in an eastern Missouri county that for years was nicknamed the Meth Capital of the World (a label produced by policing, reporting), he encountered people with familiar feelings and desires. “There are not enough new businesses to create decent paying jobs that replace what was lost through deindustrialization. People earn so little that if they make just one mistake, or have one small misfortune, like when their car breaks down or they get sick, they might lose their job. Many of the people I met make and use meth to always stay on track and, tragically, to keep things from falling apart.”
The picture Pine paints is that of individuals craving to keep busy, not disappearing off the grid into the abyss of utter meaninglessness. Meth offers a treacherous shortcut to re-connect to society, and possible success. “It enhances your entrepreneurial spirit,” says Pine. Each use, each click in the synaptic gaps of the frontal lobe creates new excitement: an expectation that something good will come, something rewarding. “Meth offers anticipatory pleasure rather than satiation,” says Pine. “You feel thrilled because you anticipate rewards to come. You look to the future. This perfectly describes hope.”
And hope, of course, is America’s heart juice. The fake hope that meth promises functions as a performance enhancer—but only at first glance. It is experienced not as an escape but rather as a new way of living now that the old one, firmly rooted in the industrial process, has disappeared. The meth users Pine has met do not cocoon, rather they become more active, happy to keep up with the tasks—like the German Fräuleins eating Pervitin chocolate.
“Meth creates a feeling of productivity,” says Pine. “You get busy. You start projects. And you’re alert the entire time, wide awake. It’s a great feeling when you don’t have a job or you’re underemployed. The American dream simply does not come true anymore in large areas of the country. You work hard to make a life, a good life, but it never comes. You stop believing in a better future. When you take meth, you feel good about the future again.”In the absence of real opportunity, meth allows its users to respond to that fundamental American injunction to be productive, useful, and positive—at any cost. But meth never delivers on its promises. Trump voters soon might feel that it shares this quality with their new president, who makes pledges but consistently evades fulfilling them. In this sense, the paradox of Trump will be familiar to any junkie. He betrays his followers’ dreams by vowing that he can realize them.
So what is the cure? Are the drugs that a society chooses merely a sign of that world’s underlying pathology, or can drugs also heal? On a recent visit to New York to see my American publishers, I also met Neal M. Goldsmith, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Psychedelic Healing: The Promise of Entheogens for Psychotherapy and Spiritual Development. He is optimistic: “We are seeing a significant increase in psychedelic research all over the Western world. Let the scientific chips fall where they may. The people running the drug administration have changed in the last decades. Back in the ’70s, those in charge had never taken drugs themselves, and had a clean-cut negative attitude towards them. Nowadays the heads of the DEA or other drug regulating bodies might not have taken drugs themselves, but they certainly know that their former college buddy took them, who is today a successful lawyer, or a rich investment banker.”
Goldsmith’s comments reminded me that the Nazis were war-on-drugs innovators. Hitler’s regime was the first to impose strict anti-drug laws, throwing users into concentration camps. Before, during the Weimar Republic, Germany had been a liberal country, down to the freedom to design one’s own neuronal make-up. But repressed feelings have a way of bursting to the surface. The Nazis’ framework of prohibition produced a glaring hypocrisy, in that an addictive substance, methamphetamine, could become the Volksdroge, the people’s drug.
For Goldsmith, it is important to make a clear distinction between addictive drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, speed, and heroin, and entheogens or empathogens: LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, or MDMA.
“Addictive drugs are impossible to take successfully,” Goldsmith says. “They come with a too high bodily cost. The edge of the cliff is too hard to navigate: the constant battle between not experiencing a strong enough effect and taking too much. It is a battle that our neurotransmitter system has to fight out, and results in a borrowing from the future, and paying back later with painfully high interest. Certainly a draining process. You spike up high, build up tolerance, then you crash. It is a jagged path and constant struggle against withdrawal. The ultimate result is decline. In contrast to these addictive substances with their borrowing-from-tomorrow downward spiral are the non-addictive drugs, in particular psychedelics, which can be beneficially and sustainably integrated into society. Therefore we should label the latter less as drugs but more as medicine.”
Goldsmith hopes that contemporary society will find a different way dealing with drugs. “This is not about being careless,” he says, “but rather about creating clear rules and thoughtful regulations on how to use substances which have cure potential. The War on Drugs, the old school concept, is losing steam, and is basically lost. More and more countries take a different approach. Former U.S. drug war allies are dropping like flies. Some U.S. states have also joined the process by decriminalizing marijuana. Psychedelics are being treated favorable all over the news these days. There has been a shift. Within five to ten years, some of these medicines will be re-classified. We will have physicians trained to use non-addictive drugs with patients.”
In the way that drug abuse points to deeper sicknesses, Trump is not the disease of today, but the symptom. The life-threatening danger is this: he is an addictive leader, promising fake hope like a quick fix. In that specific sense, he is truly comparable to Hitler. Both led people away from healthy democratic process. It lies in the nature of the dictator to make people dependent, resulting in a strenuous borrowing from the future, without the intent to ever pay back. The root cause for this style of conducting politics is fear: Fear of the other, fear of oneself, fear of death, and fear of change. This fear eats away soul, as German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder once put it.
The toxins of National Socialism—both chemical and ideological—are still with us. Time to cleanse. Time to look more closely on how psycho-active substances shape our history. Time to stop making war on drugs but instead make America healthy again.
Norman Ohler is an award-winning German novelist, screenwriter, and journalist. He spent five years researching Blitzed in numerous archives in Germany and the United States, and spoke to eye-witnesses, military historians, and doctors. He is also the author of the novels Die Quotenmaschine (the world’s first hypertext novel), Mitte, and Stadt des Goldes (translated into English as Ponte City). He was co-writer of the script for Wim Wenders’s film Palermo Shooting.