How is this possible, asks the weary majority of Americans who accept Joe Biden’s win? Despite disavowals of fraud from one conservative election official after another? Despite a complete lack of evidence?
To understand them, it’s helpful to turn to an unlikely parallel: the world of wellness, natural health and alternative medicine. It’s a world of unsolved medical conditions, chronic illness, suffering for which the establishment has no answers. Often that 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 favored enemy is mainstream media, alternative-health gurus rail against mainstream medicine. Both paint their opponents as deeply evil propagandists who quash 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, reporter. … Anyone who dissents from their orthodoxy must be punished, canceled, or banished.”
“Modern-day ‘science’ demands absolute obedience and conformity to industry claims; all dissenters must be silenced and punished.”
In both, basic consensus on facts is evidence of sinister conformity. According to this logic, losing one’s credibility or position for insisting on falsehoods is evidence of heterodox heroism.
With authorities discredited, Trump and the gurus encourage their followers to feel as if they have figured things out for themselves instead of submitting to the decrees of mainstream experts. This allows them to provide the same existential prescription: empowerment and freedom. Those who take mainstream medicine are “sheeple,” and so are those who believe in mainstream media. “The sheeple have got to be led,” explains one Trump supporter. “If you go out and look for alternative media sources, you get the truth.” (All cults exploit the empowering thrill of discovering occult knowledge: “Do your own research” is a mantra in the fringes of alternative health and within the QAnon conspiracy theory — a shared foundation that demystifies the seemingly bizarre overlap between the two communities.)
Like Trump, alternative-medicine gurus are frequently inconsistent. They will decry mainstream institutions and elites as hopelessly corrupt, and then they triumphantly cite a study from Harvard University or an article from this newspaper as their evidence. But supporters do not care about consistency. What matters instead is the rush of empowerment that makes the passive patient 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’s philosophy explains why the following lyrics, rapped by two Trump supporters at the “Million MAGA March,” include a reference to vaccines alongside standard political conspiracism: