Alternative medicine

Want to understand die-hard Trump fans? Turn to alternative medicine.

How is that possible, asks the weary majority of Americans accepting Joe Biden’s victory? Despite one Conservative election official’s disavowals of fraud after another? Despite a total lack of evidence?

To understand them, it helps to turn to an unlikely parallel: the world of wellness, natural health, and alternative medicine. It’s a world of unresolved medical conditions, chronic illnesses, suffering for which the establishment has no answers. Often this suffering is looked down upon or dismissed, leaving patients alienated and ripe for exploitation. Uncertain and angry, they need a new system to make sense of their situation and give them hope.

Where Trump’s favorite enemy is the mainstream media, alternative health gurus are speaking out against mainstream medicine. Both describe their opponents as deeply evil propagandists who destroy the truth by censoring it. All standard sources of evidence become suspect. Strangely, this widespread evil is a source of clarity and hope. Your suffering has an easy resolution, if only “they” would allow it.

The parallels are unmistakable. Consider these lines from a 2020 Trump speech:

“The radical left demands absolute conformity from every professor, researcher, journalist. … Anyone who opposes their orthodoxy must be punished, canceled or banished.

“Modern ‘science’ demands absolute obedience and conformity to the claims of industry; all dissenters must be silenced and punished.

In either case, the basic consensus of facts is evidence of grim conformity. By this logic, losing credibility or position for insisting on lies is evidence of heterodox heroism.

With the authorities discredited, Trump and the gurus are encouraging their followers to feel like they’ve figured things out for themselves instead of submitting to the decrees of mainstream experts. This allows them to provide the same existential prescription: emancipation and freedom. Those who take traditional medicine are “sheep”, and so do those who believe in mainstream media. “The sheep have to be driven”, explains a trump supporter. “If you go out and look for alternative media sources, you get the truth.” (All cults harness the empowering thrill of discovering occult knowledge: “Do your own research” is a mantra on the fringes of alternative health and QAnon conspiracy theory – a common ground that debunks the seemingly bizarre overlap between the two communities.)

Like Trump, alternative medicine gurus are often inconsistent. They will expose mainstream institutions and elites as hopelessly corrupt, then they will triumphantly cite a Harvard University study or an article from that journal as evidence. But fans don’t care about consistency. What matters instead is the rush to empowerment that turns the passive patient into a powerful actor. “Take control of your health,” promises Joseph Mercola, the owner of an influential natural medicine website. (Each article on the site comes with its own “Fact Checked” certification.) “Own Your Body, Free Your Mind,” says Kelly Brogan, a popular “holistic psychiatrist”.

The ideological overlap of alternative medicine and Trump philosophy explains why the following lyrics, rapped by two Trump supporters at the “March Million MAGA”, include a reference to vaccines alongside the standard political plot:

“This is for free thinkers only / You are not a member / […] I looked deep and did the math/ Why did Obama send money to that lab in Wuhan?/ What is George Soros doing with all his money?/ Why did China she took this guy from Harvard and did she drop a bag on him?/ Why is there so much propaganda? / It’s funny you ask / How about that Bill Gates vaccine / No, sorry, I’ll pass. »

Here, the sequence of questions invites the listener to imagine that they are thinking and learning on their own — “doing their own research”, so to speak. In reality, of course, such free thought does not exist. Mainstream authority has simply been replaced by guru authority. After looking “in-depth”, everyone arrives at precisely the same alternative conclusions, which are effectively set up by the very format of the questions. Like ventriloquist mannequins, their mouths speak the words of their emancipators. Freedom is an illusion achieved by seeing themselves as avatars of their rulers.

“Hey, you go to the best schools. You are doing a terrific job. You own businesses. You work for huge wages. You do all the things you do. You are talented. With your hands, with your mind. And then you hear, ‘The elite just said.’ The elite? They are more elitist than me. I have everything better than them, including that. [Points at head.] And I became president and they didn’t, which means you became president. And it drives them crazy.

The illusion of power demands that supporters identify with the leader, and Trump invites such identification by implying that his problems are theirs. In an analysis of Trump’s speeches, political rhetorician Roderick Hart describes the president as an “ersatz doctor who is good at diagnosing why people feel beleaguered”. The same characterization applies to medical charlatans, who may not know what physically afflicts followers, but they understand precisely how their patients feel helpless, ignored by elitist doctors and abandoned by the system. All this supposed expertise and no solution?

“You’ve been kicking us, pushing us for way too long,” shouted another man at the rally, his voice hoarse. “Forcing us to bow to your mask-wearing, trying to shame the American people.”

To this existential crisis, the gurus offer an existential answer. The truth is not in their but with me, and believing in me will be your revenge. The whole mindset was perfectly captured in a 2017 CNN interview of Trump voters. “For years they just pushed us aside,” Mark Lee explained. “And here is the president. I will – let me tell you. If Jesus Christ came down from the cross and told me that Trump was with Russia, I would tell him, wait a second, I have to check with the president if that’s true. That’s how confident I am…I believe in him.

So how do true believers react when the mainstream media reports that they have lost? Just like the patients of alternative health gurus usually do when, say, their cancer comes back. They blame the system and support their rescuers. Everything their savior says must be true, for if it is not true, believers must admit their own helplessness. His success is their success, therefore his failure is their failure. “Trump is the only one we have been able to trust for the past four years,” said one of the president’s staunch supporters after his defeat.

The failed saviors themselves respond to their detractors with the same voice, using the same rhetoric. Meet Stanislaw Burzynski, the ‘pioneer’ of alternative cancer medicine“We see patients from different backgrounds. You see great people. We see crooks. We have prostitutes. We have thieves. We have mafia bosses. We have Secret Service agents. A lot of people come to see us, okay? Not all of them are the greatest people in the world. And many of them would like to get money from us. They claim they got sick and they want to extort money from us. Similarly, Trump attributes his perceived failures to a parade of wrongdoers: cheaters, losers, and criminals. The members of his administration who later criticize him are only in it for the money and the fame.

The lesson from these parallels is simple: For a significant number of his supporters, Trump’s appeal transcends typical ideological factors. Economic anxiety, religious nationalism, racism, sexism – it all matters. But to refuse to look beyond that is to ignore the underlying dynamic of empowerment through rejection of established authority. It is the same dynamic that drives the reluctance to vaccinate and the rejection of masks. It is the result of a real feeling of powerlessness, both in medicine and in politics. And if we are to avoid another Trump, another round of mask resistance, another baseless accusation that an election is “fraudulent,” we must take this loss of power seriously. Otherwise, as always, the next group of gurus will be happy to step in and do it themselves.