President Trump has been talking up a new strategy in the nation’s struggle against the opioid epidemic: imposing the death penalty on drug dealers, just as they do in Singapore and Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines. “You have to have strength, and you have to have toughness — the drug dealers, the drug pushers are, they’re really doing damage, they’re really doing damage,” Trump said Thursday. “Some countries have a very, very tough penalty — the ultimate penalty — and by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do.” Axios, which reported last weekend that Trump was interested in the idea, said he is given to “passionate” speeches in private on the subject, saying that “he would love to have a law to execute all drug dealers here in America, though . . . it would probably be impossible to get a law this harsh passed under the American system.”
Even if he does realize that it’s an idle authoritarian daydream, Trump’s fascination with this brutal tactic is meaningful. What’s more, his casual musings on the issue are part of larger pattern in which the administration uses crises to threaten the rest of us.
There’s no real need to explain why the execution of drug dealers is a bad idea, though it is a very, very bad idea. The country has already tried an aggressive enforcement approach to drug crimes — the four-decade-plus war on drugs — and among experts and law enforcement officers , it is almost universally acknowledged as a massive failure in economic and practical terms. (Trump’s Justice Department is a notable outlier in that assessment.) Even more concerning, the war on drugs has been disproportionately waged against black and brown people . Escalating the possible sentence for drug crimes to death would just amplify the many injustices already present in a broken system. (This is also the argumentmany civil liberties advocates make against charging drug dealers with murder.)
Trump doesn’t recognize any of this, of course. His pronouncements about drug policy come in two flavors, both of which suggest smugly unplumbed depths of ignorance: vague promises to keep drugs out of our country by building “the wall” and sternly huffing about the need to “teach young people not to take drugs.” He doesn’t recognize that most of our opioid deaths result from drugs that are made in the United States or shipped in from China . He doesn’t recognize that “just saying no” has been proved ineffective by study after study.
But even more than that: He doesn’t appear to have a coherent strategy for dealing with the opioid epidemic; he doesn’t recognize the racist history of the criminalization of drugs in America; he is just barely enough acquainted with our criminal justice system to surmise that his favored approach would “probably” be impossible to put into place. If he realizes that it raises civil liberties issues as well as more mundane political obstacles, I will eat a copy of the Federalist Papers on the steps of the University of Chicago Law School.
Yes, Trump does understand that a lot of Americans (including the sons and daughters of Trump voters) are dying from opioid overdoses — even in “beautiful ” New Hampshire, as he marveled in 2016, for once keeping his dog whistle silent. He rather famously knows that alcoholism killed his brother; for survivors, such an experience often engenders empathy for addicts, but in Trump’s case it has resulted in an equally common reaction: certainty that no such fate will ever befall him.
And that self-centered self-assuredness is the slender framework supporting his enthusiasm for adopting the bloodthirsty edicts of a genuine despot and a notoriously repressive quasi-police state. Faced with a problem, Trump’s instinct is to leap from a thin slice of unexamined personal experience or knowledge to whatever solution entails the maximal amount of conflict and/or violence, secure in his faith that he will be insulated from whatever downsides arise.
He does not bother to learn more. He does not seek middle ground. He does not consider unintended consequences. Consequences are for losers.
This tempestuous blundering is occasionally tempered by his desire to be liked by whomever he happens to be in a room with, but it’s the general logic of his approach to North Korea and White House staffing, as well as immigration and trade. It’s recently visible in his recommendations about arming teachers to prevent school shootings, or his sudden embrace on live TV Wednesday of seizing guns without due process.
That his ideas often seem unmoored from legislative reality is beside the point: He is setting the parameters for what he thinks is possible, and he’s creating a moral landscape for the subset of Americans whose belief in his righteousness only hardens as his popularity wanes. These policy proposals (such as they are) are terrible ideas considered on their own. But it’s something of an accomplishment to have them combine quite as gruesomely as “more firearms in schools” and “shoot all drug dealers” might — at least Singapore’s tougher gun-control laws prevent the kind of “good guy with a gun” vigilantism that Trump regularly invokes. Maybe our schools will soon look more like the Philippines, where Duterte has made it clear that individualized justice is encouraged.
Trump critics and supporters alike mine his theatricality for proof that he doesn’t mean what he says. And certainly, he is both fickle and prone to assertions that may feel right but aren’t factual. But don’t listen to what he prescribes; focus on the ruthless fantasy world he’s describing. “Highly trained teachers,” he tweeted recently, would be “far more assets at much less cost than guards,” and, of course, “ATTACKS WOULD END!”
As Axios put it, Trump tells confidants that the solution to the opioid problem is that “the government has got to teach children that they’ll die if they take drugs and they’ve got to make drug dealers fear for their lives.”
None of that is true, but he means every word — and that’s exactly the problem.