Donald Trump could be remembered one day as the Opioid President. This is so, I think, in multiple senses and for multiple reasons. Some of these are obvious and some are likely less so.
Let’s start with the obvious, just to get them on the record.
To begin with, it is during Mr. Trump’s first year in Washington that the nation’s ‘opioid crisis’ has become an object of widespread attention. The problem has been gathering for years, but only now has it become, to use the current idiom, ‘a thing.’ Mr. Trump himself announced as much last month, in a White House gathering in which he named the epidemic an emergency and vowed that ours would be the generation that will end it.
Mr. Trump of course is to be credited for lending Presidential prestige to those who have sounded the alarm about addiction now for years. Less credit-worthy is the second obvious reason Mr. Trump might be remembered as the Opioid President: his attempt to name the opioid industry’s best friend in Congress as ‘drug czar’ – that is, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. I refer to Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania.
This was a remarkable pick even by the standards of the Trump Administration, which is already notorious for naming as the heads of agencies its cronies who are known to wish to end those agencies. Mr. Marino’s greatest achievement in Congress, after all, is the characteristically Orwellianly named Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which protects opioid manufacturers and distributors against the Drug Enforcement Agency. A Washington Post / 60 Minutes exposé nixed that, but the attempt will no doubt be remembered.
Those are two obvious senses in which Trump can be thought of as the Opioid President. Now let’s turn to several that are subtler till we fix attention on them.
A commonplace among the punditry now diagnosing Mr. Trump’s ascent to office is the observation that Trump voters ‘gave the finger’ to ‘the Washington establishment.’ They don’t care, the thought here runs, whether Mr. Trump delivers on his promises or betters anybody’s lot. The real point of voting for him was to signal anger and despair at our elites’ longstanding failure to address the nation’s economic and political decline.
This interpretation isn’t without plausibility. It coheres with similarly futile, angry gestures being made in other polities these days – notably in Europe and Great Britain. Insofar as this read on the ‘Trump phenomenon’ is apt, one might think of Trump as ‘opiate’ much in the sense meant by philosophers in Germany back in the 19th century.
So-called ‘Young Hegelians’ like Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx memorably described Germany’s state religion in their day as an ‘opiate of the people,’ functioning both as a symptom and as an expression of despair. As Marx memorably put it in a critique of Hegel’s apologetic for the Prussian state, ‘Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’
Perhaps Trumpery is a ‘religion’ in this German philosophic sense. And perhaps Trump is its prophet and profit. If so, this is one sense in which he will be remembered as the Opioid President. But there is another sense, related to this ‘religious’ one yet sufficiently distinct from it as to warrant its own separate treatment. I refer to what I’ll call the Trump-as-opiate-as-fantasy that one not only ‘can have it all,’ but in fact ‘does have it all,’ without so much as having moved a finger to achieve it. This, I think, is the most striking fact of Mr. Trump and his ascent to political prominence – yet the one that has drawn least attention.
Fran Lebowitz has waggishly referred to Donald Trump as ‘a poor person’s idea of a rich person.’ This description is, I think, perhaps more social-psychologically profound than even Lebowitz intended. Trump affords the nation’s struggling ‘precariat’ a sort of fantasy projection of success. His ‘success’ in their eyes is the nation’s success. It is their success provided they ‘partake’ of Trump by voting for and cheering for him. (It is striking just how reminiscent this is of the appeal of past dictators.) ‘He succeeds so you don’t have to,’ one can almost hear a television advert’s voice intoning.
But the key to Mr. Trump’s ‘success’ that makes of it an opiate is not just that it functions as a surrogate for real success among the man’s supporters. It is that ‘success’ in this case is the form of success without any substance of success. It is pure projection – a sort of shimmering screen image with no real object behind it. A man as literally nothing but a pose or posture – a man as symbol, code, or cipher.
Mr. Trump has functioned as an image of American success – as it were success’s symbolic personification – since the 1980s. His (of course ghost-written) Art of the Deal was effectively a self-promotion exercise, flatteringly portraying Mr. Trump as a miracle-making tycoon of the sort that ‘made this country great’ back in the 19th century. His ‘reality’ television career (‘reality’ in this case is delicious irony) projected the same image to a wider audience that didn’t have to read. Here he practiced the ‘art’ of wearing a serious expression on his face, appearing to be in command, and coldly ‘firing’ his underperforming underlings in the name of unsentimental ‘business success.’
Since becoming a political figure, and even since assuming office, Mr. Trump has trafficked in the same symbolics. Every day we see more images of Mr. Trump appearing ‘serious,’ ‘attentive,’ ‘no-nonsense’ in his conduct of the nation’s business. Yet the ‘business,’ what ever it might be, seems to shift from day to day and hour to hour. No ‘position’ other than government-looting and casual bigotry is held for more than two or three Tweets at a time, and nearly nothing from the campaign platform has been done. In this sense, Mr. Trump’s political acumen is on all fours with his putative business acumen – ‘all hat,’ as Texans say, ‘no cattle.’
Lest you think this false of Mr. Trump’s business career, consider the flurry of recent reports that Mr. Trump’s declared net worth is less than, roughly equal to, or only minimally higher than it would have been if he had simply parked his large inheritance in index funds that tracked the market as a whole. If these reports are sound, then Mr. Trump is at best barely above average as a businessman – which presumably would render him, by his own lights, ‘a looza.’ And since he’s long since ceased to share his tax returns and is notorious for oft-resorting to protection from the Bankruptcy Code, it is possible that Trump’s net worth is even negative at this point, with Russian and Mid-Eastern oligarchs keeping him financially afloat.
But what has this to do with opiates?
A staple of the literature of opiate addiction is how protagonists who lack alternatives – those who lack the opportunity to build real lives – drift into opiate abuse. William Burroughs, in his autobiographical novel originally titled Junk, observes that ‘[y]ou become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction. Junk wins by default.’ (An alternative to drift of this sort has, intriguingly, historically been drift to rightwing politics.)
In like vein (pun foreseen but not intended), the narrator of Lou Reed’s Heroin opens his reflections with the observation that he ‘do[esn’t] know just where [he’s] going.’ He then reports that he intends to ‘try for the kingdom if [he] can,’ and that heroin makes him ‘feel like [he’s] a man’ as well as ‘just like Jesus’ son.’ This ‘big decision,’ as he calls it, ‘to nullify [his] life’ stems from wishes he’d been born ‘a thousand years ago,’ when he could ‘sail[ ] the darkened seas’ away from ‘the big city,’ where ‘everybody[‘s] putting everybody else down’ and ‘all the politicians mak[e their] crazy sounds.’ Does this ring familiar?
As thus far described, opiate use is a form of escapism born of futility and despair. It is opiate as sleep and dream combined. In this sense opium is not entirely unlike alcohol. One could well imagine growing numbers of Americans in the present time of opportunity-contraction left to ‘drown in their sorrows’ and daydream even before Trump came along, even if Trumptalk itself is intoxicating. Where Trump becomes starkly appreciable as opiate rather than mere intoxicant, however, is in connection with another recurring motif in the literature of opiate addiction.
This other, complementary staple of the literature I have in mind is the way that opiates can afford the feeling of success without one’s ever having done what would amount to success. Consider Thomas DeQuincey, for example, in his celebrated Confessions of an English Opium Eater: ‘Here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered; happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket.’
Or consider this quote from the same work: ‘The opium-eater loses none of his moral sensibilities or aspirations. He wishes and longs as earnestly as ever to realize what he believes possible, and feels to be exacted by duty; but his intellectual apprehension of what is possible infinitely outruns his power, not of execution only, but even of power to attempt.’
This theme of opiate as substitute for accomplishment – and even for futile attempt to accomplish – recurs insistently in the literature. The pseudonymous ‘M. Ageyev,’ in his autobiographical Novel with Cocaine, (the book’s Russian title could as accurately have been translated ‘Romance with Cocaine’) writes that he ‘came to see that what counts in life is not the events that surround one but the reflection of those events in one’s consciousness.’ ‘Thus,’ he continues, ‘a man basking in the aura of his riches will continue to feel himself a millionaire so long as he is unaware that the bank where he keeps his capital has gone under.’
And so, this narrator concludes, ‘the more time I spent making my way towards [my] cherished goal, the more often I would stretch out on the couch in my dark room and imagine I was what I intended to become.’ Trump might be doing this fellow one better, for he needn’t be unaware that his bank ‘has gone under’ – he may instead be aware that it’s propped up by cronies.
Here is the deepest sense, then, in which Trump is himself an opiate. Just as Trump is 'a poor person's idea of a rich person,' so is he a sort of collective projection of what it would be not to be poor, not to be a failed person or nation, not to be ‘a loser.’ Trump has forever been the image of such things without being the substance of such things - first in the ‘80s celebrity press, then on ‘00s 'reality' television, then as a candidate and now ersatz President - and he knows it. Hence his refusal to reveal the tax returns that would reveal the truth of his financial condition, which would undercut the magic.
This is what’s most striking in the opioid literature – the frequency with which users report feeling as if they can literally do anything, even as if they had already realized every ambition they have hitherto harbored. Indeed the feeling of grandiosity that these writers report when they’re ‘high’ rings quite strikingly reminiscent of Trump's own self-descriptions in speeches, interviews, and the like. Trump is, in this sense, the full public counterpart of that ersatz fulfillment whose private expression is opioid use itself. He is, as sometimes is said of the addict, ‘an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.’
Where does this leave us? Mr. Ageyev has told us. ‘What if,’ he continues in Novel with Cocaine, ‘a tiny speck of cocaine could provide my organism with instantaneous happiness on a scale I had never dreamed of before? Then the need for any event whatever disappeared and, with it, the need for expending great amounts of work, time and energy to bring it about.’ ‘Therein,’ he concludes, ‘lay the power of cocaine… The only way I could have [resisted it] was if the feeling of happiness had come less from bringing about the external event than from the work, the effort, the energy invested in bringing it about. But that was a kind of happiness I had never known.’
Since the time of Aristotle at latest we’ve known that accomplishment itself is more richly satisfying than the mere ‘feeling’ of accomplishment. But that is a happiness, in Ageyev’s words, that Americans now seldom know. For its accomplishment presupposes material prerequisites. It requires real opportunity – an environment in which one can learn, build, work, collaborate, develop and be loved, even when not born to rich parents. What is Trump’s White House offering along these lines? What is it offering at this point but angry and grandiose ‘feelings’?
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