Is Donald Trump on drugs? That's seriously the wrong question

After the Iran speech, another cascade of Adderall rumors — but amphetamines can’t explain Trump, or America

Published January 14, 2020 6:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/Salon)
Donald Trump (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/Salon)

So what do you think: Is Donald Trump on drugs? It's a question that has hovered around this president since well before he took office, and cropped up all over again — at least on the internet — after Trump's address to the nation following the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the subsequent Iranian missile attack on a U.S. base in Iraq. 

Many observers perceived Trump as sniffling extensively and having difficulty articulating words during that speech, and suggested that his pupils appeared to be dilated. This was taken as more evidence that this obese, 73-year-old man does lines of Adderall all day to remain conscious, or is heavily tranquilized by his handlers to manage him, or perhaps both. (Those observations would indeed tend to pull in different directions, drug-speculation-wise, although that's hardly the biggest flaw in this whole zone of online paranoia-slash-overconfidence.) 

Much of this collective wisdom derives from archly worded "news" posts explaining why "Trump" and "Adderall" are trending on social media, or tweets within the self-reinforcing edifice of #Resistance Twitter that presume, as a widely accepted fact, that the president is a patient of Dr. Feelgood who is being kept marginally alive and functional with massive infusions of pharmaceuticals. Those in turn derive from gossipy years-old reports that people who worked on "The Apprentice" with Trump either saw him snorting Adderall — an amphetamine in tablet form that can easily be crushed, although that's not the approved delivery method — or pretending to. All of this is taken to explain something, I guess. But what?

Not everyone agrees that there's anything to see in the first place, I hasten to add. One veteran of the Washington press corps told me he perceives no there there: Trump gets in front of a sensitive microphone and reads nervously off a Teleprompter, with the whole world watching. People who usually avoid his spoken-word performances — which are always bizarre — realize what a weird and debilitated personality he is, and freak the f**k out. No drugs are required, beyond the known and acknowledged massive infusions of junk food and Diet Coke.

Before we wander too much deeper down the rabbit hole — which is definitely what it's like when you Google "trump adderall" — let's jump right to an answer, of sorts: There is no answer, because for all the thinly-sourced rumors about Trump's alleged addiction to amphetamines or other stimulants, there's no real evidence either way. I also think there's no answer because the question isn't a real question — it's a pseudo-question, designed to conceal either a fear or a wish, and to provoke a particular response. 

Maybe we're supposed to think, Oh my God, the president is on drugs! Surely the Cabinet will remove him under the 25th Amendment now! Which no one except an imaginary Democrat grandma in Topeka actually thinks, and is even more small-minded liberal self-trolling than the fantasy about Robert Mueller leading Trump and his entire posse out of the White House in chains, which too many MSNBC viewers swallowed for too long. 

Or maybe we're just supposed to perceive Trump's alleged Adderall-vacuuming as another damning element of his general debauchery and decline, in concert with the popular internet narrative that he suffers from dementia, brain damage, mental illness and a range of undisclosed physical ailments. In that strand of the multiverse, Trump is heading for a catastrophic health crisis or (in the version promulgated by Dr. Bandy Lee) an involuntary psychiatric hospitalization, and we won't have to worry about defeating him in the November election because he'll be dead or on a ventilator or shouting at the walls in a padded room. 

No one can claim those scenarios are flat-out impossible, but they don't seem super likely either. On the long list of things Trump doesn't want people to know about him, the actual state of his physical and mental health is somewhere around the middle. That said, we're not talking about Warren G. Harding or Franklin D. Roosevelt here, both of whom had disabling medical conditions that were concealed from the public. Trump plays golf frequently (and badly), can clearly walk unaided from point to point, and displays a roughly average level of physical vigor — that is, for an overweight senior citizen with an atrocious diet and a sedentary lifestyle. 

Furthermore, I'm not sure whether we're supposed to feel reassured or horrified by the prospect of Trump kicking the bucket while in office, followed by President Mike Pence, somber waves of unctuousness coming off him like the odor of Brylcreem, informing us that our national nightmare is over. Does this fantasy appeal to some tiny slice of middle-ground normies, NeverTrump Republicans and elite journalists? Basically, to David Brooks and Sen. Susan Collins and people who still think they say things worth listening to, gosh darn it? Because the nightmare won't be over, and it won't be a good thing.

Essentially, the question of whether Donald J. Trump is an unregenerate speed freak, or is pounding controlled substances of some other kind, is a plaintive protest against the fact that things are not normal in the United States of America. We once lived in a normal country where the president wasn't a delusional racist or a would-be tyrant who constantly "jokes" about serving more than two terms. Maybe this can be explained away, or mitigated, or made to be less painful, if we conclude that he's wired to the gills on psychiatric amphetamines 24/7.

Is it OK to express the view, amid this atmosphere of mid-level pearl-clutching, that while I have no idea whether Trump uses Adderall or not, it wouldn't be an incredibly huge deal if he did? Adderall and other prescription amphetamines are used by millions of adults and children with ADHD to improve their mental focus and energy — and are used off-label, both legally and otherwise, by millions of other people for similar purposes. (Famously, this includes college students. And, um, journalists.) One psychiatrist I spoke to told me he frequently prescribes such stimulants for Wall Street traders and other financial professionals who have to be intensely focused for extended periods, and that he also recommends it informally as a short-term antidepressant.

Amphetamines can unquestionably be habit-forming, and like most drugs are toxic in large doses. The same psychiatrist also told me that addiction is relatively rare, given how widely these drugs are taken, and that the potential for lethal overdose is orders of magnitude lower than with opioids, which have literally killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Snorting stimulants, as Trump has allegedly done, is viewed as abusive by medical professionals — it leads to a rapid spike of the drug in the bloodstream, followed by a rapid crash — but as a practical matter is widely tolerated and not in itself illegal.

My favorite article about Trump and Adderall, by far, is the one published last year in Medium by John Kruse, a San Francisco psychiatrist and the author of "Recognizing Adult ADHD: What Donald Trump Can Tell Us About Adult ADHD." Kruse argues that what many people perceive as evidence of Trump's drug abuse — "his non-sequiturs, verbal inconsistencies, sniffing, twitching and restlessness" along with the bouncing from topic to topic, the "impulsivity" and the "self contradictions" — might instead represent "a broad array of ADHD symptoms." In other words, if Trump is using Adderall, Kruse suspects the drug is helping him hold it together, and he and we and the entire world would all be in even worse shape if he quit.

Don't imagine for a second that I'm offering excuses for the obviously damaged person in the White House, or suggesting you should feel compassion for him. Kruse makes clear that ADHD is not an adequate explanation for Trump's "many aberrant behaviors," which quite likely include co-occurring mental illness. But trying to categorize Trump as a drug abuser, as if that explained something about why he is the way he is, or why our nation got so sick that we elected him — or offered some meaningful remedy — strikes me as unhelpful. Donald Trump's drug habit, if he has one, isn't the problem. The rest of us might want to take a long, hard look in the mirror and figure out how our national pattern of abusive behavior got us here.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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