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The far right depends on peddling snake oil. That's why Trump taking hydroxychloroquine is no surprise

Jordan Peterson's all-meat diet. Alex Jones' diet supplements. Ben Carson's product plugs during the 2015 presidential debates. All of these have one thing in common

Noah Berlatsky
New York
Tuesday 19 May 2020 15:57 BST
Fox News host warns Donald Trump about taking hydroxychloroquine: 'This will kill you'_1.mp4

Yesterday President Trump told White House reporters that he is taking the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, as well as zinc and the antibiotic azithromycin to protect against Covid-19. Trump, along with many on the Fox News network have been pushing hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure for coronavirus, even though there is no evidence it is effective. On the contrary, multiple studies have so far found no benefit from the drug, and the FDA has cautioned that its use is associated with heart rhythm irregularities.

This is hardly the first time Trump has promoted unproven, or even downright bizarre, cures. In April he suggested that people could fight the virus by injecting bleach. (Health note: Do not inject bleach for any reason. For pity's sake.) His enthusiasm for snake oil has (rightly) provoked much mockery. But it's not exactly funny. On the contrary, Trump's public health disinformation is of a piece with the ugliest aspects of his ideology: the conspiracy theories, the racism, the hatred of the press. Quack cures are lies— and lies are the fuel that powers the right in the United States.

There are people selling fake cures on the left too, of course. But the influence of those on the right has been growing over the last decade. Alex Jones, right-wing radio broadcaster and conspiracy theorist, has since 2013 made a substantial portion of his income from selling his own diet supplements to his credulous audience. The current secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, shamelessly plugged dietary supplement firm Mannatech during the 2015 presidential debates. Self-help guru and conservative public intellectual Jordan Peterson pushed an all-meat diet before traveling to Russia to be placed in a medically induced coma to supposedly cure his addiction to sleeping pills.

Trump himself is no stranger to this type of accusation. His infamous Trump University promised students real estate success through paid seminars. In the end, the President forked over a $25 million settlement to embittered students who claimed he had duped them with a worthless education.

Trump University is of a piece with Trump's political career, which has been built on conspiracy theories, bluster, and flim-flam. Trump first came to political prominence by insisting, with no evidence, on the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama had not been born in the US. As president he's lied continually, most recently insisting — contrary to his own intelligence agencies — that China manufactured Covid-19 in a lab.

Selling snake oil and selling bigotry are not that different. They both rely on a contempt for one's audience and a contempt for the truth. Peddling hatred requires a near-constant stream of untruths and conspiracy theories, big and small: black people aren't intelligent; Jews are plotting to undermine the white race; trans women lurk in bathrooms to assault cis women. To get people to buy prejudice and quack cures alike, you have to pry your marks away from the solid land of fact and set them loose on a sea of bilge and nonsense.

Fascists and snake oil salesman are not just peddling lies, though. They're peddling secret knowledge, and entry into a club, or an inner circle. The appeal of the supplement you can purchase exclusively is much the same as the appeal of the conspiracy theory that lets you know that George Soros, or Barack Obama, or the Jews, or the Chinese, are the true enemy. To believe in hydroxychloroquine or white supremacy is to believe that you are among the elect. The appeal of believing a lie is that you end up certain of a truth that belongs to a besieged epistemological minority.

It's characteristic of Trump that we don't actually have any idea of whether or not he is taking hydroxychloroquine. He no doubt would like to believe that it works and will end the coronavirus outbreak he clearly has no idea how to confront. And he has the gift, like his followers, of believing whatever he wants to believe.

That could mean that he's taking the drug. It could mean he's convinced himself he's taking it even though it isn't. It could mean that he's thinking about perhaps taking it sometime in the future and simply back-dated his intention because he felt like it would make a better story. Trump and his partisans float in a fog of falsehood. That makes them ridiculous. It also means that they can be persuaded to do virtually anything, even when it means abusing their own bodies.

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