The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Trump thinks he understands addiction. He’s wrong.

Just saying no doesn't work at all.

President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency on Oct. 26. Here are the highlights from his speech. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

As a recovering addict and alcoholic, I find nothing quite so galling as a lecture about sobriety from a lifelong teetotaler. “Drugs are terrible! Take it from me, a person who has never tried a single one.”

You don’t even have to have struggled with the harrowing push-pull of chemical dependency to instinctively distrust such smug scolding; ask literally any human person. Ignoring overly sanctimonious counsel is, arguably, what makes us human. Pious warnings against pleasurable but illicit behavior are demonstrably, singularly, historically useless. I am pretty sure, for instance, that someone, somewhere once warned Donald Trump not to cheat on his wife.

Yet it was Trump, famously abstinent if not always sober-minded, who on Thursday made self-enforced abstinence from illegal narcotics the central plank of the administration’s belated new anti-opioid epidemic policy. He touted a “massive advertising campaign to get people, especially children, not to want to take drugs in the first place.”

“It’s going to wind up being the most important thing,” he said. “Really tough, really big, really great advertising.”

“This was an idea that I had,” he declared, “where if we can teach young people not to take drugs, just not to take them.”

Well. I see. Yes, that’s probably what we were doing wrong.

I’ve seen the opioid epidemic as a cop. Living it as a patient has been even worse.

One has to wonder sometimes if Trump is truly ignorant of history — in this case, the country’s costly and monumentally ineffective war on drugs — or simply so besotted with his own inner monologue that he rambles from one pat psuedo-revelation to another without bothering to check it against his still-probably-scanty knowledge of what’s come before. Trump’s “idea that I had” does, after all, bear a strong resemblance to the program Attorney General Jeff Sessions has campaigned to resurrect: The Reagan era’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), a rigorously humorless propaganda effort. The lasting contribution to American culture of ‘80s drug abstinence campaigns was the phrase “Just say no” — maybe Trump’s heard that before? The federal government spent $10 million a year on DARE until 2002, when a surgeon general’s report stated that “numerous well-designed evaluations and meta-analyses that consistently show little or no deterrent effects on substance use.”

In any case, Trump’s teetotaler tsking on the solution to the opioid crisis encapsulates what may be his most consistent approach to policy: boastful, brazen ignorance. Ignorance so profound it mistakes itself for genius, incuriosity so complete it cannot be roused into even partial shame.

Yes, Trump also announced a handful of (welcome but probably inadequate) policy tweaks: speedier hiring of specialists on the front lines and expanded use of telemedicine services in rural areas ravaged by the crisis.

But even the casual Trump observer could have marked the portion of the speech that the president thought genuinely important, and it wasn’t the section with specific proposals in it. He read most of the address from a teleprompter, in the now-familiar halting drone punctuated by occasional surprise or excitement at words or ideas he is clearly encountering for the first time. He went off-script to tell the story of his older brother Fred Trump Jr., known as Freddy, an alcoholic who died in 1981 at just 43 years old.

I wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’ with Trump. His self-sabotage is rooted in his past.

“He had a very, very tough life because of alcohol,” Trump said. “He had a problem with alcohol, and he would tell me, ‘Don’t drink. Don’t drink.’ He was substantially older, and I listened to him.”

“When I see friends of mine that are having difficulty with not having that drink at dinner, where it’s literally almost impossible for them to stop, I say to myself, ‘I can’t even understand it — why would that be difficult?’ But we understand why it is difficult.”

Does he?

Some commenters claimed to see a flash of empathy in those remarks. But I’ve been around the anguished and frustrated friends and family of addicts long enough that I saw something else: the sense of relief that only a favorable comparison of fates can offer, along with pitying righteousness. The central quality of Trump’s lament about his brother — indeed, regarding addicts in general — isn’t compassion, it’s the lack of it: “I don’t need to use, why do you?”

As with much of what he has, Trump seems to think that his life of abstinence is the result of some innate merit or skill, rather than a combination of luck and, well, more luck.

When Trump tells his story about Freddy’s “very, very tough life,” he isn’t crediting his brother for having warned him about booze and drugs, he’s patting himself on the back for heeding him. Indeed, Trump can’t have found too much value in his brother’s warnings: After Fred Trump Sr., Donald and Freddy’s father, died in 1999, Freddy’s family sued Donald over being excluded from the elder Trump’s will. Donald withheld medical benefits from Freddy’s sick son as a bargaining chip while the suit was settled.

To his credit, Trump did more Thursday than just talk about how we need to warn young people not to use. He did some warning himself, in almost risibly ham-fisted language. “There is nothing desirable about drugs,” he said. “They are bad.”

But neither statement is true. First of all, drugs are not “bad.” They are also sometimes medicine (indeed, that’s the primary complicating factor in the opioid epidemic!), and not everyone becomes addicted to using them. Second, of course drugs are desirable. If they weren’t desirable, they wouldn’t be much of a problem. The challenge for addicts like myself is to build a life around something more meaningful than mere desire.

You don’t need to have tried drugs to know this. It takes just a small measure of emotional imagination, but Trump has none. He is so grotesquely pampered, he can’t imagine an indulgence becoming a burden. He can’t imagine wanting something you can’t have.

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