The purported effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19 has by now become a regular pitch in Trump’s daily press briefings on the pandemic. The Chief Executive has focused precious energy on the antimalarial drug despite no real research to support its use and plenty of evidence of its potential harm. It has even prompted Trump to threaten his fellow authoritarian and ally Narendra Modi to get access to India’s large supply of the drug.
Trump is deeply influenced, as always, by the right-wing media sphere, particularly Fox News, where it is hailed as a miracle cure by Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and other Fox hosts, who have zealously pushed the drug for the last three weeks. But why does hydroxychloroquine have the right so utterly transfixed?
It may be partly true, as Amanda Marcotte suggests in Salon, that belief in the drug reflects the individualistic and consumerist orientation of conservatism, and betrays a commitment to solutions based on elite, class and race hierarchies. Yet both individualism and consumerism run far deeper in American political culture than the current left-right political chasm. And commitment to class and race stratifications are, in any case, hardly confined to elites on the Republican side.
Part of the allure of hydroxychloroquine comes out of the folk culture of the far right, which has always been drawn to answers that defy that the pronouncements and cautions of bureaucrats and scientific experts. The dark side of this is expressed in conspiracy theories that these days are too numerous to mention, but it has also always been mixed in with a kind of snake-oil hucksterism.
Andy Griffith’s character Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s 1957 A Face in the Crowd most succinctly sums up this potent combination. A backwoods, southern entertainer who becomes a national media sensation and reactionary demagogue, Rhodes also demonstrates his great powers of popular persuasion by pitching a product called Vitajex (a combination aspirin, caffeine and dextrose) as a pill that can provide an almost superhuman boost to male vigor.
But right-wing adherence to a wonder drug in this moment goes far beyond excitement for an energy pill, and obviously with much greater consequences, both for the lives of individuals and for public policy. We might better think of it as a kind of dangerous wish fulfillment.
The intense pushing of hydroxchloroquine on Fox News coincided with the coming inevitability of suppression measures in mid March. At just the moment the neoliberal right was pushing the line that suppression measures were an overreaction, and others were calling for national sacrifice of the lives of the vulnerable in defense of the nation, Fox News seized on another approach.
Two weeks prior, French biologist and professor of microbiology, Didier Raoult (himself a climate-change denier and skeptic of Darwinian theories of evolution), began promoting his success in treating COVID-19. Over the course of just three days, beginning on March 18, Fox News hosts mentioned the drug more than 100 times, according to Media Matters. This intensive saturation set the terms for a popular right orientation to the pandemic.
For Trump and close advisors like trade secretary Peter Navarro, this elixir was the fantasy solution to the Solomonic choice between lives and livelihoods. What’s more, the promotion of hydroxychloroquine suits Trump’s authoritarian populist style of rebuking expert knowledge, while offering false hope to counter the very real American carnage he so recently denied. No matter that Anthony Fauci consistently cautions that this remedy had no scientific backing. What better way to showcase Trump’s appeal to his base than to be able to contrast sour-faced purveyors of medical statistics to his own “common sense” wisdom and optimism.
To be fair, hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 is no more of flight from reality than the ghoulish insistence that business as usual must be allowed to proceed even at great human cost. Indeed, it is the optimistic flip side of that insistence – a desperate hope in the face of all unpleasant evidence to the contrary – which is of course the essential selling point of all snake oil.
What makes belief in hydroxychloroquine even more durable is that, in the right-wing imaginary, the effectiveness of such as potion is far easier to imagine than a collective response that redistributes resources, re-organizes institutional imperatives, and focuses the economy on public goods instead of private gain. That pill is still too hard to swallow.