At Tuesday night’s presidential debate (the first of three scheduled before the election on November 3), President Donald Trump declared, without evidence, that Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, had been “dishonorably discharged” from the military for “cocaine use.” This is a lie. The reality is more complicated: Hunter Biden was administratively discharged in 2014 after failing a drug test while commissioned into the Navy Reserve, reports USA Today. The distinction is important because it reveals what Trump failed to understand in last night’s debate: Addiction isn’t shameful—and it should never be weaponized for the sake of political gain.
“My son, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” replied Biden when Trump spoke against his only living son, Hunter (his other son, Beau Biden, died of brain cancer at the age of 46 in 2015). “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it, and I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
When he acknowledged “people you know at home,” Biden is likely referring to the estimated 19.7 million Americans over the age of 12 who struggle with a substance use disorder (SUD) and the millions of family members who are directly involved with helping them recognize, make peace with, and recover from their disease.
As of 2017, about one in eight adults had both an alcohol use disorder and an illicit drug use disorder in the past year—as was the case with Hunter Biden. “Look, everybody faces pain,” he said of his addiction in an interview with The New Yorker after his father announced intentions to run for president in 2020. “Everybody has trauma. There’s addiction in every family. I was in that darkness. I was in that tunnel—it’s a never-ending tunnel. You don’t get rid of it. You figure out how to deal with it.”
The title of the article in The New Yorker posed a question: “Will Hunter Biden Jeopardize His Father’s Campaign?” And last night, it was finally answered: Trump will most certainly try to use Hunter’s addiction against the Biden campaign. For Biden, the vital strategy will be to remind Americans, repeatedly, that his son’s battle with addiction makes him more—not less—equipped to represent the interests of a population that’s facing an opioid epidemic exacerbated by a global pandemic, an increased amount of alcohol-related deaths, and other SUDs. Many Americans admit to not even knowing what an opioid is, so educational moments like the one on Tuesday night are also vital to destigmatize such issues.
Many folks on Twitter have since spoken out against Trump for attempting to use Hunter’s addiction to discredit Biden. Their messages are clear: They want more transparency and compassion surrounding the state of addiction in this country. “That attack on Hunter Biden was beyond pale and another lie,” wrote Fred Wellman, senior advisor for veterans affairs at The Lincoln Project. “We have an opioid crisis and the President is smearing a recovering addict for political points.” Jessica Schleider, PhD, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University, shared similar sentiments: “My cognitive and emotional bandwidths are broken after yesterday night, but please, everyone, follow Joe Biden’s lead: If someone you love is in recovery from addiction or substance use disorder, remind them—in no uncertain terms—that you are proud of them,” she wrote.
The millions of people struggling with addiction should remind us to become more educated and empathetic; their struggle should not be branded as a moral failure in order to win an election.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, please call 1-800-662-4357 to reach the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for confidential and free treatment referral information.