Behind the right's obsession with a miracle cure for coronavirus: It's not just about Trump

The conservative run on antimalarial drugs, sparked by Trump, is also about deep-rooted hostility to public health

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published April 3, 2020 1:11PM (EDT)

Sean Hannity, Donald Trump and Laura Ingraham | A box of Plaquenil (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)
Sean Hannity, Donald Trump and Laura Ingraham | A box of Plaquenil (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)

In one of the oddest developments of the coronavirus crisis, there's been a run on a pair of antimalarial drugs, hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, which are used primarily in the U.S. to treat arthritis and to prevent organ damage from lupus. The drugs are being sucked out of pharmacies at an alarming rate, thanks to Americans who have convinced themselves these drugs will save them if the develop COVID-19, and thereby leaving patients who actually need these medications in danger.

This is happening in the face of only thin evidence that these drugs work against the novel coronavirus, and plenty of evidence that they don't work. At one Paris hospital that used the drug heavily — on the recommendation of Didier Raoult, a climate change-denying French doctor with a shady reputation — the results suggest these drugs are not effective at all. Chinese doctors also concluded they were useless. These drugs are known to have some scary side effects, including sudden cardiac death in some patients. They are also notorious for psychological side effects, such as paranoia and nightmares. At least one person in the U.S. has died from swallowing aquarium cleaner that contains a similar chemical compound. 

So why are so many people so eager to get their hands on drugs that are clearly dangerous and may do no good? 

The most immediate reason is simple: The people rushing the pharmacies are Republicans, and both Donald Trump and numerous Fox News personalities have told them these drugs are a "game-changer" that can save them from the coronavirus. 

But there's a reason these false or unproven claims are resonating with the ordinary citizens of Trumpistan. The hope that there's a hard-to-get miracle cure that will save them speaks directly to the poisonous social Darwinism that guides modern conservatism. It reflects deep hostility to the very concept of a shared public good and a fierce attachment to a racialized ideology of individualism that treats public goods such as health care as things to be hoarded by those with the privilege, money and status to do so. 

Conservative ideology simply doesn't allow for the possibility that anything, including pandemic management, is best managed with a "we're all in this together" mentality. Instead they're drawn to this fantasy that there's a Platinum Member COVID-19 status that can be purchased, which will allow them to opt out of the suffering of the plebeian class that has to quarantine or risk sickness and death. 

There's no question that Trump and other right-wing figures are pushing this hydroxychloroquine angle hard. Trump has talked about these drugs several times during his daily propaganda-dump "press briefings," as well as on Twitter. 

Laura Ingraham of Fox News has been hyping this stuff heavily, hosting a doctor who misleadingly argued that "this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic" Wednesday night. She's also had tweets removed by Twitter for promoting medical disinformation. 

Sean Hannity of Fox News has been urging his millions of viewers to grab this stuff up as well, saying "I love the idea of off label use" and arguing that even if it doesn't work, people have "right to try" — completely ignoring that these drugs are dangerous. 

There are many other examples, carefully collected here by Media Matters. This kind of repetition works, and goes a long way towards explaining how enthusiastically right-wing audiences have latched onto these drugs as a possible miracle cure. 

But hydroxychloroquine mania also flows from the rigidly hierarchical view conservatives hold of society, one where even basic necessities like health care should be differentiated along class and race lines. Public health measures like quarantine and vaccine are viewed suspiciously precisely because they involve everyone on an approximately equal basis. They long for a special kind of medical care, one that's just for the people they see as better than everyone else. 

This attitude has manifested in many ways before this crisis, most notably around the debate over health care policy. For progressives, the conservative resistance to a single-payer health care system is baffling, even viewed from the perspective of pure self-interest. Private insurance is expensive and unreliable, and since your plan is constantly changing, it can makes basic things like keeping a steady relationship with a doctor nearly impossible. A single plan for all Americans that covers us all in the same way would be cheaper and more efficient and take a lot of pain out of seeking medical care when you need it. That seems obvious. 

But that's just what conservatives don't like about it: They don't want a single plan for all Americans. The very idea of having the exact same health care plan as people they see as beneath them, especially lower-income people of color, causes an angry reaction. That's what all the right-wing hysteria over "rationing," in response to both Obamacare and the possibility of Medicare for All, is ultimately about. It's not that you might have to wait in line for something like knee surgery, because that's already happening under our patchwork private-insurance system. It's that people you deem unworthy, due to skin color or class status, also get to wait in line and — heaven forbid — might be ahead of you. 

(This attitude also explains the longstanding right-wing desire to police the food purchases of people on food stamps, to make sure they are sticking with "their" food and not buying conservatives feel are reserved for true and upstanding Americans. It also explains the often-hysterical levels of right-wing hostility to public transportation, which can be traced back to the end of the practice of sending black people to the back of the bus.)

In this worldview, certain kinds of health care are for grubby commoners, while the well-off white homeowner class should have its own elite status. This is also part of the reason that the anti-vaccination movement has taken off in this country. Vaccinations, after all, are an unpleasant reminder that disease has no respect class or race, but sees all humans as basically equal, which very much does not fit with conservative ideology. 

Unsurprisingly, then, anti-vaxxer attitudes have taken hold on the right, especially in the religious right, which has long been tightly intertwined with a hostility to the government defining and controlling public goods, and has favored widespread privatization of everything from education to welfare. 

A lot of people believe that anti-vaccination attitudes are most common among New Age-style leftists, but in reality, Republicans are more likely to oppose mandatory vaccinations than Democrats. It's largely Republican elected officials who are trying to roll back laws requiring vaccinations, and the religious right has increasingly promoted the idea that it's better for kids to simply get diseases like the chicken pox than to vaccinate them. 

It's true that anti-vaccination ideology started off in lefty circles, but that happened largely among well-off white people who may vote Democratic but tend to live in highly segregated communities and tend to embrace reactionary ideologies like "attachment parenting" that prevent women from having employment outside of the home. Ultimately, the logic of anti-vaccination comes down to a belief that an elite lifestyle of organic foods and helicopter mothering precludes the need for sharing the same health care common people use, including universal vaccination. That this mentality would leap to Republicans, who would lean into it even harder, isn't really a surprise.

The irony of the anti-vaccination movement is that the "elite" form of health care — organic food, a mother's unwavering attention, chicken pox parties — is less effective than the universal policy that's under disdain, which is vaccination. But that kind of logic, where reactionaries turn up their noses at the common good since it also benefits the proletariat, is hardly limited to health care. It's also evident in everything from rejecting the local taco stand to thinking that hip-hop isn't "real" music. 

That tormented way of thinking is what's driving the conservative enthusiasm for hydroxychloroquine. The drug probably doesn't work, and the side effects are scary. But getting a prescription for it helps set one apart from ordinary working people who are doing the stuff public health officials prescribe, such as washing their hands a lot and staying home (even though, for many, it's meant the loss of jobs and steady income).

Even if a coronavirus vaccine is developed relatively quickly, don't be surprised if many conservatives prefer the fantasy of hydroxychloroquine over having to submit themselves to the same jab that janitors and hamburger flippers will line up for. Most working-class people can't afford to turn their backs on effective, preventative health care when they can get it. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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