Trump's obsession with hydroxychloroquine is an encapsulation of his presidency

Scientists disagree with Trump's assessment of the drug — which is part of why he’ll keep pushing it

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

What began primarily as a series of tirades against the media and other perceived enemies in President Trump's daily press briefings about the coronavirus has in recent days devolved into a bizarre and brazen infomercial for hydroxychloroquine, something Trump has touted as a potential miracle cure for COVID-19. "What do you have to lose? Take it," the president said last weekend as he hyped the drug, an anti-malarial medication that lupus patients have long relied on for its anti-inflammatory benefits.

Health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director and sometime guest expert at Trump's daily pressers, have consistently pointed out that hydroxychloroquine has not been proven to be safe or effective against COVID-19. But that's not stopping Trump — or the conservative media universe that props up his presidency — from continuing to push the drug. And while reports this week showed the president has a small financial interest in the medicine, Trump has something even more precious to gain than money by promoting hydroxychloroquine: the puffing up of his power and authority through the continued undermining of expert knowledge and dissenting voices.

No doubt, Trump's financial stake in hydroxychloroquine, however small, has surely played some part in his actions. This is a man, after all, who once stole $7 from his charity to pay for his son's Boy Scouts fee.

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In plain daylight, Trump has funneled millions of public dollars to his coffers while president, an ongoing violation of the Constitution and a direct assault on the public trust. As both candidate and president, Trump has regularly used the public limelight to shill everything from his line of steaks and winery to his golf resorts and properties. Rather than a national security hawk who has kept America safe, Trump is a smarmy hawker of shoddy products, some of which may threaten the safety of Americans. From the start, Trump understood that the presidency could be a cash cow for himself, and he'll never let the Constitution — or American lives — stand in the way of raking in millions.

Yet Trump also covets power and has an insatiable need for public adoration that has been curtailed by the momentary pause on his public rallies. Clearly out of his depth when it comes to understanding the virus, Trump has latched onto hydroxychloroquine as a way of keeping himself at the center of the story. Like an ignored child who settles for his parents' negative attention by acting out, Trump knows he can keep the spotlight on him by continuing to recklessly promote hydroxychloroquine, something reporters are right to press him on. And all of it has the added benefit of undercutting the actual experts in the room, a move essential to Trump's constant pitch that his gut instinct is superior to expert knowledge.

That's why Trump didn't allow Fauci to answer a question about hydroxychloroquine earlier this week. Fauci's cautious skepticism of the medicine's usefulness for treating COVID-19 importantly demonstrates that experts always make the limits of their knowledge clear, a galling affront to a president who has never let his ignorance keep him from spouting off. Fauci's steady presence also threatens Trump's sense of himself as the final word on all matters, an authoritarian impulse that animates his presidency, especially now.

If hydroxychloroquine turns out to work, Trump can extravagantly boast he had been right all along, the singular genius who "alone could fix" what all those egghead scientists couldn't figure out. That outcome doesn't look likely, as research on hydroxychloroquine's effectiveness for COVID-19 continues to show. But for the meantime, Trump can continue to position himself as the unconventional thinker boldly leading the nation to a solution against all those slow-moving intellectuals who just mess everything up and want to wreck the economy. Such fantasies propelled candidate Trump to the White House; those delusions now keep his base fanatically attached to him, no matter how deadly the consequences.

In the end, Trump's obsession with hydroxychloroquine is an encapsulation of his presidency: a mixture of sham and scam fueled by questionable ideas pushed by fringe outlets, all working to undermine scientific expertise and sow chaos. "So what do I know?" Trump shrugged to reporters last Sunday after he was pressed about hydroxychloroquine's potential harm to patients, especially those with heart issues.

Those five words represent the Trump presidency— and Trump himself— in a nutshell. But rather than a gracious expression of intellectual humility, they are a careless admission of the callousness and indifference at the heart of everything this president says. Nothing matters to Donald Trump but himself. And he'll sacrifice truth, expertise, and even the lives of his own people to satisfy his ego. That's a drug Trump will never put down.

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Neil J. Young

Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He writes frequently on American politics, culture, and religion for publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, HuffPost, Vox, and Politico. He co-hosts the history podcast Past Present.