Scapegoating Mexico Has a New Look for the 2024 Republican Field

Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges
Officials from Mexico’s attorney general’s office unloaded hundreds of pounds of fentanyl and methamphetamine seized near Ensenada in October 2022 at their headquarters in Tijuana, Mexico.

Donald Trump owes his political career to Mexico.

When he announced his initial bid for the presidency eight years ago this month, he immediately elevated immigration as a central component of his candidacy. His excoriations of immigrants as criminals pushed north by a devious Mexican government spurred a backlash from his business partners – and sparked national attention for rhetoric that resonated with Republican primary voters. In short order, he led the field.

As the 2024 Republican nominating contest slowly nears, Trump retains an even more comfortable lead over his opponents. His rhetoric on Mexico and the border is generally the same, that nefarious actors are sending criminals and people with mental problems north. But he’s also embraced a new line of argument that’s come up regularly on the right: As president, he would deploy military strikes against criminal drug cartels within Mexico’s borders.

Trump’s campaign very quickly reiterated that position Monday after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced his own border proposals.

“DeSantis will authorize appropriate rules of engagement at the border so that those trying to smuggle drugs into the United States are met with the use of force,” DeSantis’s plan says. “Right now, cartel operatives cut through portions of the border wall with impunity and poison our communities with dangerous drugs; that ends on January 20, 2025. And if the Mexican government drags its feet, DeSantis reserves the right to operate across the border to secure our territory from Mexican cartel activities. “

Trump’s is more explicit: His “plan to secure the border includes a commitment to declare war and defeat the cartels, just as President Trump did with” the Islamic State.

DeSantis’s suggestion that the U.S. could impose a naval blockade to halt the import of products used to manufacture the drug fentanyl – “DeSantis will surge resources to the Navy and the Coast Guard and block precursor chemicals from entering Mexican ports” – mirrors Trump’s earlier claim that he would be willing to use “the U.S. Navy to impose a full naval embargo on the cartels.”

Fentanyl is, in fact, the central issue here. The number of American drug overdose deaths has surged in recent years, largely thanks to an increase in deaths from this synthetic opioid. But it is also a useful political foil because it involves two things that are potent motivators for Republican voters: the border and China.

As the 2022 midterm elections approached, GOP politicians focused heavily on fentanyl as a way of attacking President Biden’s immigration policies and to leverage anti-Chinese and anti-communist sentiment on the right given China’s role as a common source of those “precursor chemicals.” The overlap with politics here is measurable. Over the past three years, CNN has mentioned fentanyl about 2,300 times. Fox News has mentioned it well over 12,000 times.

Again, there has been a surge in overdose deaths. In January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that about 110,000 Americans had died of drug overdoses over the preceding 12 months. There is a real need to combat overdose deaths.

But there is also obviously political opportunism at play. Trump is escalating the rhetoric that made him the Republican front-runner in 2016. DeSantis is deploying his strategy of running to Trump’s right, trying to prove himself more loyal to the right’s policy preferences than the former president who has often defined them.

The embrace of combating fentanyl through military deployment depends on a few factors beyond the number of overdose deaths. One is that “criminal drug cartels” offer an uncomplicated moral foil that just happens to also appeal to some latent xenophobia. Another is that the rhetoric around fentanyl has at times been wildly overheated, with baseless stories about people – including law enforcement – coming into physical contact with fentanyl and nearly dying. Thanks to outlets such as Fox News, fentanyl is presented as unusually dangerous and foisted on America by heartless, amoral criminals.

This framing, though, ignores a number of salient issues. The most important is that the drug is brought into the U.S. to meet existing demand. The idea (popular last Halloween) that traffickers were making their product look like candy to get kids hooked never made much sense. Instead, fentanyl’s rise is in part due to the evolution away from the abuse of prescription medications such as oxycontin.

Interestingly, Trump himself predicted the increase of drug overdoses that began during his presidency. Worried about his reelection after the covid-19 pandemic emerged, Trump called for economic restrictions to be lifted, warning that people would abuse alcohol and drugs. While overdose deaths were already rising before pandemic-related restrictions began, it was really in the covid-19 era that they surged, just as fentanyl was becoming available.

Notice, though, that the number of overdose deaths has been flat over the past 12 months. 2022 saw a record number, but the figure has stopped rising. In the most recent data, the predicted number of overdose deaths is actually down slightly. It’s possible that the surge in overdose deaths might mirror the surge in murders, rising in the pandemic era before receding again.

Even if that doesn’t happen, the ideas presented by DeSantis and Trump have obvious gaps. The Florida governor’s argument that traffickers “cut through portions of the border wall with impunity and poison our communities with dangerous drugs” obscures the fact that most of the fentanyl seized at the border is seized at existing checkpoints – and is often transported by U.S. citizens. This makes sense; it’s much easier to hide small pills in your car than, say, large bundles of marijuana. The idea that deploying troops along the border will prevent fentanyl from entering the U.S. is misguided.

There’s another factor to the violence, too: Most of the firearms used by criminals in Mexico are sourced back to the U.S. An October report from the Trace indicated that more than half a million guns are smuggled into Mexico each year, with some 90 percent of firearms recovered in that country having come from this country. Neither Trump’s nor DeSantis’s plans mention curtailing gun trafficking to those cartels.

The point of these policy proposals, of course, isn’t really to offer up effective solutions for stemming the tide of fentanyl deaths. Instead, it’s to appeal to Republican primary voters with hard-line rhetoric tackling drug dealers, criminals and nefarious Chinese drug facilitators.

As both men know, a similar strategy worked in 2016.