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33 MIN READ TIME

The Supremacy of Toughness

AT THE HEART of Donna Murch’s analysis is a warning: the drug war is not dead. For Donald Trump, after all, getting tough is the answer to most problems, from trade deficits and violent crime to protesting football players. Even in the midst of an opioid crisis that has been characterized as a “gentler drug war”, Trump has explicitly placed toughness at the center of his response. At a speech in New Hampshire in March 2018, for example, he invoked the death penalty as a way to contain the opioid crisis. “We have to get tough on those people”, he said. “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we’re wasting our time.”

The president’s invocation of a hyper-masculinized vision of political authority is no historical aberration. While Trump takes this performance to a cartoonish extreme (stating, for example, that he would beat Joe Biden in a fist fight), toughness has long shaped—and corrupted—our political discourse, posing the foil of softness as a potentially fatal liability. It was the drive to appear tough on crime that has helped fuel the mass incarceration targeting low-income African American and Latino communities since the 1970s. Legislators and prosecutors engaged in punitive bidding wars, ratcheting up the intensity and duration of punishment for street crime. Many politicians used votes for harsh punishment to showcase their own resolute, muscular political authority or to shield against charges of softness. For decades there appeared to be no upper limit on toughness, despite the fact that harsher sentences were shown to be ineffective deterrents of crime. Throughout the period, the same gendered and racialized logics that privileged prisons and policing were used to defund the welfare state. Opponents of social programs disparaged them as feminine: overly permissive, coddling, and ultimately pathologizing.

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