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Trump Should Say ‘Yes’ to ‘Just Say No’

The once and perhaps future president can be a temperance leader for our time.

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Among all the sayings, mantras, witticisms, digressions, and occasional song lyrics that Donald Trump has recited at rallies, press conferences, and media appearances over the last eight years, there’s one that he ought to use more often: “No drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes.”

This sharp, stern warning against the use and abuse of mind-altering (and health-diminishing) substances never exactly became part of the Trump hit parade, but, during the 2016 presidential campaign, the then-candidate trotted it out fairly regularly.

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It may be hard to picture today, but back then, Trump did not feel the need to project the outlaw persona that he has been forced to adopt amid the countless court battles of recent years. Instead, Trump seemed comfortable dispensing parental advice, since, as even Hillary Clinton had to admit during one of her debates with the eventual president, Trump and his assorted spouses had raised an upstanding brood. 

In late 2015, at a campaign event in Waterville Valley, N.H., that opened to the sounds of Twisted Sister rather than the now-ubiquitous Lee Greenwood, Trump framed his opposition to drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes chiefly in fatherly terms. “Since when they were little—since they could barely speak—I’d say, ‘No drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes,’” Trump said, referring to his kids. “If you don’t drink and if you don’t take drugs, your children . . . are going to have a tremendously enhanced chance of really being successful and having a good life and having a happy life.” 

Here, the future president sounded like he was channeling Dr. Benjamin Spock more than Al Capone.

In fact, one senses that Trump’s personal abstinence from drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes—and his counsel to his children, and the children of America, to refrain from partaking in the same—is one of a fairly limited suite of positions in which he genuinely, completely, and unwaveringly believes. (His commitment to tariffs, opposition to unwinnable foreign wars, and tough border policy may be lumped in the same category.)

As far back as December 2014, more than six months before he even announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination, Trump managed to get on the topic while being interviewed at the Economic Club of Washington DC. Interestingly, he characterized his opposition to vices like alcohol as a form of self-knowledge and self-protection: If we are aware of just how weak we really are, we ought to avoid those things that prey on our weaknesses. 

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“I went to the Wharton School,” Trump said in a characteristic blend of bragging, reminiscing, and advice-giving. “I had a friend who hated the taste of scotch—hated it—but he tried to develop a taste for scotch. And I saw him recently—he’s a total alcoholic. He developed a taste for scotch. And all he had to do was stay away from it.”

Trump also often referenced the sad example of his late elder brother Fred, whom, he said, was laid low and brought to an early grave by a love for drink.

Sometimes Trump’s evangelism against alcohol could pop up at surprising moments. Although then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was subjected to shameful, disgracefully unfair Senate confirmation hearings, Trump’s bafflement at someone who made beer a centerpiece of his existence had a certain undeniable integrity. “I can honestly say I’ve never had a beer in my life,” Trump said during the Kavanaugh firestorm. “It’s one of my only good traits.”

The former president can still drift into this topic, but at least during his first administration, his strongly held convictions never cohered into a program with the consistent messaging and visibility of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. This was a missed opportunity. Never before in modern American history has there been a greater need for a high-profile public figure to push back against our seemingly society-wide acceptance of casual alcohol consumption and recreational drug use. 

We see anecdotal evidence for this ho-hum acceptance all around us. Witness the huge increase in the popularity and numbers of microbreweries, brewpubs, and taprooms, or the conspicuous placement of the accouterments of a bar on the set of Bill Maher’s popular Club Random podcast. Marijuana legalization and commercialization is no longer restricted to bastions of hippie culture but has spread, like an uncontrolled garden weed (so to speak), to seemingly middle-of-the-road states like Ohio. From The Big Lebowski up to and including this year’s Bob Marley biopic, Hollywood has rendered marijuana use normal, amusing, and even salutary. 

A disturbing assumption is implicit in our casual consent to this state of affairs: that it is perfectly OK for wide swaths of humanity to become prisoner to substances that exist only as tonics from reality. Even if the abuse of alcohol and use of marijuana was not dangerous, what good can ever come of a society that encourages people to become, at minimum, mildly drunk or slightly high? 

“One of the things that’s turned me against LSD is that all the people I know who use it have a peculiar inability to distinguish between things that are really interesting and stimulating and things that appear so in the state of universal bliss the drug induces on a ‘good’ trip,” Stanley Kubrick, whose film 2001: A Space Odyssey had been unfairly adopted by drug users, once said in a clear-headed interview with Playboy. “Perhaps when everything is beautiful, nothing is beautiful.”

Even tobacco use—perhaps the least compelling of Trump’s proposed triad of bad behavior—involves an unacceptable diminution of autonomy and increase in gluttony within the smoker: The nicotine in the cigarette will forever chip away at the smoker’s willpower and demand its continued use. 
Our leaders can either celebrate indulgence or promote restraint. Trump is better positioned than many to do the latter. Remember: “No drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes.”