President Trump’s championing of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a potential miracle cure for Covid-19—despite a lack of clinical trials and a lengthy list of side effects, such as cardiac arrest—has become one of the most controversial aspects of his administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. “What do you have to lose?” he said at his Saturday press briefing. “Take it.” It has led to shortages, hospitalizations, and at least one accidental death. And his position is being repeated all over conservative news.
After downplaying the coronavirus as a hoax engineered by mainstream media and Democrats, Fox News host Sean Hannity has recently cast himself as a medical expert, referring to himself as “Dr. Hannity.” By limiting New Yorkers’ ability to access hydroxychloroquine, Hannity wrote on Fox News’s website, Governor Andrew Cuomo “is creating a much bigger crisis in his state’s hospital system by denying New Yorkers THE CHOICE (in consultation with their doctors) to take this potentially life-saving medication.”
Hannity is just one of many figures on the right to aggressively advocate for hydroxychloroquine. The media watchdog Media Matters found that Fox News has been breathlessly evangelizing the drug to its elderly audience: 109 times over a three-day period in late March. The network also has the ear of the president, literally, creating a dangerous feedback loop. The Washington Post reported on Monday that “Fox host Laura Ingraham and two doctors who are regular on-air guests in what she dubs her ‘medicine cabinet’ visited the White House last Friday for a private meeting with Trump to talk up the drug.”
Trump’s position on hydroxychloroquine has divided his administration. A number of his advisers, most notably Rudy Giuliani, are cheerleaders for it. But others have urged caution. Over the weekend, economic adviser Peter Navarro and Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, squabbled over its efficacy during a meeting of the administration’s coronavirus task force, per an Axios report. After Fauci told Navarro that there was only “anecdotal” evidence that the drug was effective in treating the coronavirus, Navarro exploded. Pointing to a series of studies—none of which, it should be noted, were double-blinded, the “gold standard” for accuracy—Navarro said, “That’s science, not anecdote.”
The right’s embrace of hydroxychloroquine points to a larger distrust of elite expertise, even in the midst of a crisis. The president, desperate to stem the damage of an outbreak that he personally exacerbated through negligence and denial, is consulting Fox News hosts and hucksters alongside the country’s top experts. Conservative media is following his lead, while also assembling a narrative that can be used to defend the president down the line: that the president’s opponents are suppressing a miracle drug in order to damage the country economically and the president politically.
The drug’s rapid rise, The Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong wrote, is “a distinctly modern tale of misinformation within a global information ecosystem beset by widespread uncertainty, fear, media fragmentation, and hyper-partisanship.” Citing a tiny, flawed study in France, the right has touted hydroxychloroquine as a silver bullet. Fox News has claimed that it has a “100 percent cure rate,” even though four of the 42 people treated with the drug in France died.
The hydroxychloroquine phenomenon is the result of a perfect symbiosis between the president and his backers in the media. Trump himself is addicted to magical thinking and quick fixes, such as a wall to stop illegal immigration. The right wing, in turn, has long embraced quack medicine. In 2012, historian Rick Perlstein documented a “strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers” that stretches back decades. The mailing lists that kicked off the country’s postwar turn to the right were a mix of strident conservatism and direct-marketing schemes. In recent years, Ben Carson has hawked “glyconutrients” while Ben Shapiro talks up brain pills that help you focus for 10 hours “with no jitters or crash.” The right-wing media is funded by sketchy cures being touted by sketchy merchants and is thus hard-wired to push dubious medical advice.
The right also has a grudge against the scientific experts in academia and government, who are depicted as being part of a liberal ploy. Anything pushed by experts like Fauci must be cover for some sinister progressive effort to remake society.
The fact that many of these figures—Trump, Hannity, and Ingraham foremost among them—spent months downplaying the virus is also driving them to push this unproven drug. The president’s repeated claims that the virus was a “hoax” will be a feature of campaign ads all the way to November. By embracing a fringe “cure,” conservatives are trying to outflank their critics and depict themselves as being more serious about treating the coronavirus than people who are urging restraint.
Conservatives reacted with outrage when Twitter deleted tweets from Ingraham, Giuliani, and Charlie Kirk advocating for the use of the drug. Hannity and others on the right have tried to make Cuomo and Fauci into villains for withholding a potential lifesaver. For the president and his allies, the coronavirus is akin to a false flag, a deliberate effort by the left to destroy the economy and sink the president’s reelection chances. The country could open for business if only the pesky experts and liberals could stop hating the president for one second.
If hydroxychloroquine does end up being a miracle drug—and it is already being used at the front lines of the fight against Covid-19, in emergency situations where desperate measures make sense—figures like Hannity will claim that the president’s critics have blood on their hands. That wouldn’t be the case, of course—like most people, they’re following medical advice in an ever-shifting crisis, while Fox News is recklessly pushing a drug whose effects aren’t known. Hannity and Ingraham have already spent most of the year lying about the coronavirus. There’s no reason to think they’ll stop now.