About a year into his presidency, Donald Trump reportedly told his team that he admired foreign governments that execute drug dealers. As an Axios report explained in 2018, the Republican “doesn’t just joke about it.” According to multiple sources, the then-president had a habit of leaping into passionate speeches “about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and should all get the death penalty. … Trump has said he would love to have a law to execute all drug dealers here in America.”
Soon after, Trump effectively confirmed the reporting, publicly suggesting that the United States could help solve the opioid crisis by executing drug dealers.
The idea didn’t go anywhere, though the Republican remains undeterred. In his 2024 campaign announcement, for example, Trump said, “We’re going to be asking everyone who sells drugs, gets caught selling drugs, to receive the death penalty for their heinous acts. Because it’s the only way.”
This week, during an interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier, he kept going. Asked if he intends to impose the death penalty on drug dealers, Trump replied, “That’s the only way you’re going to stop it.” He added that he admired authoritarian models abroad, where governments impose “a quick trial and a death penalty to drug dealers.”
The former president concluded that he doesn’t know whether the United States is “ready for” his preferred approach, but he supports it anyway.
Soon after, in the same interview, the Fox host reminded Trump that he granted clemency to Alice Johnson, who was a drug dealer. “She’d be killed under your plan,” Baier reminded his guest.
My MSNBC colleague Jordan Rubin summarized what happened next:
That prompted an incredible moment, where we can see the wheels in Trump’s “beautiful mind” turning. You have to see it for yourself, but Trump initially seemed bewildered by the interviewer’s point; then realized Baier was correct; and then, after his brain freeze thawed (“Uhhhhhhhh”) pivoted to the more moderate view that “it would depend on the severity.” What Trump meant by that exactly is unclear; he might not know himself.
It was quite an exchange. On the one hand, Trump was certain that executing drug dealers was “the only way” to address the national scourge. On the other hand, Trump was asked about his clemency for a former drug dealer, which he also supports.
Asked to reconcile the contradiction, the former president appeared completely lost — as if he’d never given this a moment’s thought, because he almost certainly hadn’t.
It was, to be sure, amusing to see Trump try to think through the real-world implications of a policy he’s supported enthusiastically for the last half-decade. But there’s a larger significance to the exchange: This is how he approaches practically every substantive challenge that crosses his desk.
As I argued in my book, Trump genuinely seems to believe that every challenge can and should be addressed through unexamined, overly simplified answers that appeal to his version of common sense.
The immigration system is broken? Build an ineffective wall. Hurricanes are approaching American soil? Hit them with nuclear weapons. There are too many shooters killing children in schools? Put more guns in the hands of school officials who might shoot back. A virus is killing hundreds of thousands of Americans? Try injecting people with disinfectants.
Russia is waging a brutal and unnecessary war in Ukraine? Slap some Chinese flags on U.S. fighter jets and point them in Moscow’s direction. There are social-justice protesters outside the White House? Shoot them in the legs. There are drug cartels in Mexico? Launch missiles into our allied neighbor. There was a terrorist attack on U.S. soil? Impose “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
Drugs are ravaging communities? If we simply executed drug dealers, the problem would go away.
In Trump’s mind, there’s no such thing as a complex challenge requiring a complex solution. Everything is easy. Every question has a simple answer, and every problem can be solved with a simple fix.
It’s post-policy politics at its most obvious: Trump doesn’t want to be bothered with analyses and relevant details, which only leave him confused. He wants to bark out bumper-sticker-style “proposals” that generate applause at rallies.
In theory, Republican voters would show at least some interest in governing and feel uncomfortable about the former president’s inability to take the substance of policymaking seriously. In practice, these same GOP voters have never cared about Trump’s post-policy attitudes before, and that appears unlikely to change anytime soon, his embarrassing display on Fox News notwithstanding.
Steve Benen is a producer for “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the editor of MaddowBlog and an MSNBC political contributor. He’s also the bestselling author of “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics.”