During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump spoke frequently about the drug crisis ravaging rural communities in states like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Trump didn’t have solutions—compared to Hillary Clinton’s $10 billion “Initiative to Combat America’s Deadly Epidemic of Drug and Alcohol Addiction,” Trump’s plan was a hastily scribbled sketch—but he had rhetoric. His message had two prongs. The first was compassion and treatment for the victims. “[T]he people that are in trouble, the people that are addicted, we’re going to work with them and try and make them better,” he said in a Facebook video during the Republican primary. “And we will make them better.” The second was punishment for those responsible, with longer mandatory minimums for drug dealers.
As with all Trump narratives, this one was highly racialized. The victims were his base: white, rural, and blue-collar. The villains were not the usual scourges of the opioid crisis—the major pharmaceutical companies that aggressively marketed these drugs and the doctors who knowingly overprescribed them—but, instead, Hispanic immigrants, whom Trump blamed for bringing drugs into these communities.
One year into his presidency, Trump still has no solutions for the crisis, but he has come up with some new ideas for how to punish the black and brown people he thinks are to blame. In a speech on Monday in New Hampshire, Trump called for more treatment and promised a 21st-century “just say no” campaign. But he was most animated in his call to “get tough” on drug crime, making punishment central to his goal of ending “the scourge of drug addiction in America once and for all.” “[I]f we don’t get tough on drug dealers, we’re wasting our time … and that toughness includes the death penalty,” Trump said. “We have got to get tough … This isn’t about nice anymore.” Included in all of this is his long-promised border wall with Mexico, which he says will stop the flow of drugs into the United States.
The president’s focus on supply stands at the opposite end of informed opinion. In a panel of 30 experts on addiction and opioids, convened by the New York Times, to spend a hypothetical budget of $100 billion, just 11 percent of the proposed spending called for supply-side solutions. Three percent of the total saw a solution in greater police activity. None of the experts suggested a border wall would help the problem. The largest share of proposed spending, 47 percent, called for greater treatment, followed by efforts to reduce demand—none of them punitive—and further efforts to reduce the harms of using drugs.*
Harsh punishment—much less the death penalty—won’t do anything to relieve the opioid crisis. But then this “tough” language has less to do with solutions and more to do with the president’s racist worldview.
During his New Hampshire speech, Trump tied opioid abuse and addiction to “sanctuary cities” in states like California. “Every day, sanctuary cities release illegal immigrants and drug dealers, traffickers, and gang members back into our communities,” he said. “Ending sanctuary cities is crucial to stopping the drug-addiction crisis.” From here, Trump jumped into his usual attacks on unauthorized immigrants, tying all undocumented people to the MS-13 gang, which—as he likes to remind audiences—likes to “use knives because it’s more painful and it takes longer.” The president concluded this riff with a final play on the theme. “Sanctuary cities are hard to understand for people because they don’t get it. They don’t get it. You see what’s going on in California, how terrible it is, how dangerous it is. And they’re all trying to protect sanctuary cities.”
All of this is in line with Donald Trump’s longtime belief that black and brown people are vectors for crime and disorder who should be punished with the harshest tools available, regardless of their actual guilt. The Central Park Five were still just defendants, not convicted offenders, when Trump called for the state of New York to execute them for their alleged crimes. He continued to hold that position, even years after they were exonerated. During the campaign, he compared black communities across the country to literal war zones, essentially amplifying beliefs in black cultural pathology. In his attacks on sanctuary cities and his constant invocations of MS-13, Trump is tying all undocumented immigrants to any criminal activity that may occur in their general vicinity.
Part of Trump’s enthusiasm for death as a punishment for dealing drugs comes from his general admiration for authoritarian rulers like Rodrigo Duterte, who, as president of the Philippines, has embarked on a murderous assault on drug users in his country. President Trump even alluded to this in his speech. “If you look at—if you look at other countries—I’ve gotten to know the leaders of many countries. And I won’t mention names, but you know the countries I’m talking about,” he said.
The other part of Trump’s enthusiasm has to be understood in the context of President Trump’s worldview, which puts black and brown people outside any zone of dignity and respect. In his story of the opioid addiction, they are villains—never victims—and deserve nothing less than the harshest punishment he can offer.
Correction, June 19, 2018: This story originally misstated the responses to a New York Times survey of opioids experts. The survey reflected ways to spend a hypothetical budget, not individual support for particular programs.