President Trump wants to execute drug dealers.
It’s not a new idea. He’s been floating it for a few weeks now, crediting it as a big idea he got from the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. (As we have already learned, President Trump holds autocrats in high esteem.) But the notion landed as one of Trump’s more popular lines at a March rally in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, an almost entirely white region in the shadow of the increasingly vibrant metro area around Pittsburgh.
Pennsylvania ranked fourth in the nation last year for drug overdoses. Moon Township is nestled within the corner of the state that borders West Virginia and Ohio, which ranked first and second, respectively. No surprise, then, that talk of zero tolerance resonates strongly here. “Do you think the drug dealers who kill thousands of people during their lifetime, do you think they care who’s on a blue-ribbon committee?” the president asked, to applause.
I was outside the rally before it began, searching, among the hundreds of people lined up in the parking lot of a local airfield, for voters in the upcoming special election. That was the nominal reason for Trump’s visit: A conservative, anti-choice, pro-gun Democrat was threatening to upset a conservative, anti-choice, pro-gun Republican to take over a seat vacated by a conservative, anti-choice, pro-gun congressman who got caught pressuring his mistress to have an abortion. This uninspiring shift was taken by both parties as a profound political upheaval. So the president came to add his voice to the nearly $10 million that the GOP and its allied political-action committees had spent to keep the seat. Which is to say, this wasn’t a setting in which to expect fresh thinking about how we can face our demons together.
Still, the suggestion of imposing a death sentence for selling drugs produced a lot of shocked headlines, perhaps because the subtext was hard to miss. I spent more than an hour talking to the Trump faithful in that parking lot, and the only other people of color I saw the whole time were the black men hawking knockoff MAGA merchandise. (Hey, everybody’s got their hustle.) And Trump has been clear from the start about the people he means when he says “drug dealer”: Mexicans. “We have to build a wall,” he reminded his audience in Pennsylvania. “For people, for gangs, for drugs. The drugs have never been a problem like we have right now.”