The president is ignoring the best advice of experts in his own government. He’s heeding talking heads instead of trained medical practitioners. He’s taking steps that are potentially hazardous to health and trusting his gut. His recklessness may lead to people dying.
Oh, and he’s taking the drug hydroxychloroquine too.
It’s easy to make jokes—Donald Trump is finally getting a taste of his own medicine—but the president’s bizarre announcement yesterday that he’s been taking hydroxychloroquine is an excellent microcosm of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump ignores doctors and scientists. He grabs onto quackish ideas he hears on TV and won’t let go of them. He emphasizes grand symbolic gestures, while declining to take less splashy ones that could be more effective. His statements are a Rorschach test: Some people believe him instantly; others are sure he’s lying. The main question is whether his medication regimen will prove as disastrous as his national coronavirus approach has been.
For several weeks earlier in the pandemic, Trump boosted hydroxychloroquine, which is used as a treatment for several illnesses, including malaria and lupus. A few doctors argued that it was effective against the coronavirus, though Trump’s own COVID-19 task force urged caution. It became a rallying cry in conservative media, part of a feedback loop: Trump would hear a Fox News host such as Laura Ingraham talk about hydroxychloroquine, so he’d talk about it, so Fox hosts would talk about it some more.
But clinical evidence began to accumulate suggesting not only that hydroxychloroquine wasn’t particularly effective against the coronavirus, but also that employing it might be doing more harm than good, owing to its side effects. The Food and Drug Administration, led by a Trump appointee, urged doctors and patients not to use it for COVID-19. Hydroxychloroquine disappeared from Trump’s spiel practically overnight—until yesterday, when, in the middle of a meandering riff about the whistleblower Rick Bright, the president came back to it.
“And a lot of good things have come out about the hydroxy. A lot of good things have come out,” he said. “You’d be surprised at how many people are taking it, especially the frontline workers—before you catch it. The frontline workers—many, many are taking it. I happen to be taking it. I happen to be taking it.”
Trump didn’t specify which good things have come out (there aren’t any, really), or how many frontline workers are taking it, nor did he note that his own government has urged people not to take it as a treatment for COVID-19—much less as a precautionary measure for someone who hasn’t tested positive for the disease. He said he’d been taking it for roughly two weeks.
For anyone who treats medical evidence seriously, assesses risk, and acts prudently, Trump’s decision to take a potentially hazardous drug prophylactically is crazy. But it fits with the conservative-media ecosystem that launched Trump’s political career, and in which he continues to marinate, preferring it to hard data and unpleasant truths. Right-wing outlets are full of advertising in which program hosts tout the benefits of this or that snake-oil supplement: mysterious pills with magical oils, or supercharged-vitamin regimes. Trump, who contemplated launching a talk-radio show this spring, is emulating this. He has often treated the presidency as more like a media platform than a leadership position, and now he has the dubious product endorsements to match. (Last week, the FDA also issued a warning about an instant COVID-19 test that Trump has energetically touted.)
Trump said a White House doctor had prescribed the medicine. “A White House doctor—didn’t recommend—no, I asked him, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘Well, if you’d like it.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’d like it. I’d like to take it.’” A little later, the White House issued a statement in which Sean Conley, the Navy officer who serves as the president’s physician, confirmed that Trump was taking the drug and explained, through what seemed like gritted teeth, the process: “After numerous discussions he and I had regarding the evidence for and against the use of hydroxychloroquine, we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks.”
It’s absurd that Trump would take the drug despite the many risks when he has also declined to take more commonsense measures such as wearing a mask and gloves, as Olivia Nuzzi has noted. Part of that is selfishness: Trump is terrified about getting the disease himself, but is cavalier about other people getting it, and masks are mostly useful for protecting other people from getting infected.
But a large chunk is also symbolism. Trump reportedly believes that wearing a mask is a sign of weakness and is unpresidential; Trump allies such as the writer R. R. Reno have been more explicit in claiming that it is unmasculine and cowardly. Wearing a mask is certainly passive, and Trump likes to be seen as active and bold, even if that means taking an unproven putative miracle drug.
This echoes the broader government response to the coronavirus, in which Trump has emphasized gestures and symbolic steps—from immigration decrees to displays of equipment at the White House—while eschewing or downplaying less splashy but more effective tools. He was slow to call for social distancing and quick to call for states to open back up. He undermined mask guidance. And while he demonstrated his ability to twist his doctor’s arm into prescribing hydroxychloroquine, he has largely opted against flexing the federal government’s real and immense powers to fight the pandemic.
Although Trump’s choice to take the medicine, however foolhardy, is completely in keeping with everything we know about his character and handling of the pandemic, his claim was immediately met with skepticism. Truthers argued that Trump wasn’t really taking the drug and was just talking nonsense, even after the White House physician’s statement. Some assume that, given that Trump seldom does anything that won’t make him a buck, he must have some financial ulterior motive; others took it as evidence that Trump has actually tested positive for the coronavirus, though the White House says he has not.
These truthers weren’t just random Twitter users or the usual suspects accused of “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” They included, for example, the authors of Politico’s popular morning tip sheet. And who can blame the skeptics? Trump says things that aren’t true all the time, and has repeatedly made claims about what his government is doing about the coronavirus that were provably false even at the time he said them.
Whether Trump is actually taking hydroxychloroquine is less interesting and relevant—except perhaps to the president and his medical team—than the existence of an active debate about it. In a months-long crisis that has already claimed 90,000 American lives, when the government’s ability to speak credibly is crucial to maintaining health and order, many people reflexively assume that the president is lying—and they might be right.
Hydroxychloroquine thus becomes a special dog whistle, in which one hears very different but specific messages depending on one’s priors. One chunk of the country sees Trump claim to be taking the medication and assumes he’s just talking nonsense. Another chunk hears him make the claim and assumes it’s so crazy and foolish, it must be true. And a third chunk will see the claim and take it as a signal that, despite what the FDA and other medical experts think, hydroxychloroquine must be not only a good treatment for the coronavirus, but also a good preventive medicine. After all, if it wasn’t, why would the president take it? As Philip Bump notes, there could be a negative cascade of effects, as people decide to self-medicate despite the dangers.
If Trump wishes to put dangerous medicines into his body, that is of course his prerogative. It’s a free country. But with his hydroxychloroquine two-step, he risks encouraging other Americans to put it into their body too. In that way, Trump’s announcement that he’s taking hydroxychloroquine echoes his handling of the pandemic: poisoning the entire body politic with chaos, misinformation, and distrust.