Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) would like to be elected to the Senate in his increasingly red home state. That means that Ryan has consistently tried to stake out positions that (he hopes) sit somewhere between those of his opponent, venture capitalist and author J.D. Vance, and his party’s mainstream.
So, during a debate with Vance on Monday night, Ryan criticized President Biden and Vice President Harris, particularly on the subject of immigration. He declared, for example, that the border was not secure, contradicting Harris.
But since this is October 2022, that conversation about the border became intermingled with one about fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that makes up a disproportionately large percentage of drug overdose deaths in the United States, particularly in Midwestern states including Ohio.
“Tim Ryan has done nothing to stop the flow of fentanyl,” Vance said during the debate. “He talks about wanting to support a stronger border. … Tim, you’ve been in Congress for 20 years and the border problem has gotten worse.”
“We do have more work to do,” Ryan replied, “which is why I have a resolution to designate fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction, which is why I vote for more border patrol, why I vote for a barrier, why I vote for technology.”
That exchange is telling. Fentanyl is mostly imported and often transported into the United States across the border with Mexico, primarily by being smuggled through existing ports of entry. That means that criticism of Biden administration border policies can be elevated as a life-or-death concern — and yield proportionately elevated proposals as solutions.
But if we extract the debate from the political moment (and the looming midterm elections), the situation and context change.
One of the strange aspects of how fentanyl has been covered over the past year is how the immediate danger it presents appears to be situational. In August 2021, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department released a video purporting to show an officer passing out after coming into indirect contact with fentanyl. It was a warning, offered to colleagues about the danger of the drug.
It was also quickly debunked. There’s no robust evidence that someone brushing against fentanyl can suddenly overdose from it. It’s just as unlikely for that officer as it was for the woman who claimed that she picked up a dollar bill coated with fentanyl at a McDonald’s and subsequently collapsed.
That latter story, though, ended up on Fox News in July, thanks to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). His argument was that fentanyl was terrifyingly deadly — and, therefore, that the administration’s border policies were deadly themselves.
And yet, at the same time, Republicans are amplifying the idea that fentanyl dealers are trying to get children hooked on fentanyl by passing around rainbow-colored versions of the substance. These children, impervious to the immediate physical threat that law enforcement faces, are being given drugs that … look like candy … so they, I guess, become addicted? And start paying for it? But not overdose?
It doesn’t really make sense, but the United States has a long history of worrying about what nefarious things might be slipped into children’s Halloween bags. And here’s Republican Party Chair Ronna McDaniel magnifying the purported danger.
“As Halloween approaches, mothers like me are terrified,” she wrote for FoxNews.com — “thanks to reckless open-border policies that create perfect conditions for ruthless drug cartels, our children are now on the front line of a drug crisis.”
See that? Your children are imperiled because of the border — again, ignoring that the conduit for bringing fentanyl into the country is smuggling it through checkpoints, and ignoring that the idea that drug dealers will hand out fentanyl to kids makes no sense.
The war on fentanyl provides an elegant vehicle for elected officials to demonstrate their toughness. The war on terror is over; the war on drugs is back. So we get allies of former president Donald Trump announcing that they’d like to pull a “Clear and Present Danger” on Mexico, declaring literal war on drug cartels in Mexico. We get Ryan’s analogizing to weapons of mass destruction, which 20 years ago meant nukes.
None of this is to diminish overdose deaths caused by fentanyl. The most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that a little over 69,000 people died of overdoses of synthetic opioids (excluding methadone) in the 12 months before April. That’s more than 1,300 people a week, on average. It’s also down a bit from the 12-month period ending in January.
There’s another danger to which we can compare this: the coronavirus. In the same 12-month period that nearly 70,000 people died of synthetic opioids, over 417,000 died of covid-19 — 8,000 a week. The number of covid-19 deaths is dropping, happily; in the past three months, the country has averaged far fewer deaths. But it’s still more than 3,400 deaths per week, on average.
There are obvious differences between an infectious disease and an addictive drug. Each involves different decisions, different levels of personal responsibility, different external pressures and triggers. But each, as we’ve seen repeatedly over the past two years, does include elements of those things. How we consider the politics of covid-19 or of fentanyl is often intertwined with how we present the level of victimhood of those who’ve succumbed.
It’s interesting to note an additional measure of how politics overlaps here. In general, the three major cable-news networks covered covid-19 far more than fentanyl. There are two big differences, though. Fox News, where both McCarthy and McDaniel opined on the dangers of fentanyl, was about as likely to mention the coronavirus on air at the outset of the pandemic, but less likely to do so over the rest of 2020 — as Trump was seeking reelection in part by putting the pandemic behind him.
Then, beginning in 2021, Fox News began mentioning fentanyl far more than its competitors, and now, after accelerating its coverage over the past few months, the network mentions it about as much as it does the virus — even as the virus continues to claim nearly three times as many lives.
We’ve seen Fox News’s coverage of controversial issues gear up before past midterm elections, of course: Ebola before the 2014 midterms; migrant “caravans” before 2018. In each case, coverage evaporated once the elections were over.
For candidates like Ryan, though, fentanyl is not something he can ignore. It’s a real danger in Ohio, unlike Ebola or those purported caravans, and has been for some time. His opponents have done a good job of centering the debate about the drug on immigration policies. So he reacts: Fentanyl is a WMD, something he proposed legislatively back in June.
Shortly after the November general election matchup was set in place.