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:
“This for free thinkers only/ You ain’t got no membership/ […] I looked deep into it and I did the math/ Why did Obama send money to that Wuhan lab?/ What is George Soros doing with all of his cash?/ Why did China take that Harvard guy and drop him a bag?/ Why is there so much propaganda?/ Funny you ask/ How about that Bill Gates vaccine/ Nah, sorry I’ll pass.”
Here the sequence of questions invites the listener to imagine that they’re thinking and learning for themselves — “doing their own research,” as it were. In reality, of course, there is no such free thinking. The authority of the mainstream has simply been swapped out for authority of the guru. After looking “deep into it,” everyone comes to precisely the same alternative conclusions, which are effectively set up by the very format of the questions. Like ventriloquist dummies, their mouths speak the words of their emancipators. The freedom is an illusion achieved by seeing themselves as avatars of their leaders.
“Hey, you go to the best schools. You do a tremendous job. You own companies. You work for tremendous salaries. You do all the things that you do. You’re talented. With your hands, with your mind. And then you hear, ‘The elite has just said.’ The elite? They’re more elite than me. I have better everything than they have, including this. [Points at head.] And I became president and they didn’t, meaning you became president. And it’s driving them crazy.”
The illusion of power requires followers to identify with the leader, and Trump invites such identification by implying that his problems are stand-ins for their own. In an analysis of Trump’s speeches, the scholar of political rhetoric Roderick Hart describes the president as an “ersatz physician good at diagnosing why people feel besieged.” The same characterization applies to medical charlatans, who may not know what ails disciples physically, but they understand precisely how their patients feel disempowered, ignored by elitist physicians and abandoned by the system. All this supposed expertise and no solutions?
“You been kicking us, pushing us for way too long,” shouted another man at the rally, his voice hoarse. “Making us bow down to your mask-wearing, trying to bring shame upon the American people.”
To this existential crisis, the gurus offer an existential answer. The truth lies not with them but with me, and believing in me will be your revenge. The entire mind-set was captured perfectly in a 2017 CNN interview of Trump voters. “For years they’ve just been kicking us to the side,” explained Mark Lee. “And here comes the President. I will — let me tell you. If Jesus Christ gets down off the cross and told me Trump is with Russia, I would tell him, hold on a second, I need to check with the president if it’s true. That’s how confident … I believe in him.”
So how do true believers react when mainstream media reports they have lost? Exactly the way that patients of alternative-health gurus typically do when, say, their cancer recurs. They blame the system and stand by their saviors. Whatever their savior says must be true, because if it isn’t the true, believers have to admit their own powerlessness. His success is their success, so his failure is their failure. “Trump is the only one we’ve been able to trust for the last four years,” said one of the president’s ardent supporters after his defeat.
The failed saviors themselves respond to their critics in the same voice, using the same rhetoric. Here’s alternative-medicine cancer “pioneer” Stanislaw Burzynski: “We see patients from various walks of life. We see great people. We see crooks. We have prostitutes. We have thieves. We have mafia bosses. We have Secret Service agents. Many people are coming to 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 pretend they got sick and they would like to extort money from us.” Likewise, Trump chalks up his perceived failures to a parade of evildoers: cheats, losers and criminals. Members of his administration who later criticize him are just in it for the money and the fame.
The lesson of these parallels is straightforward: For a significant number of his supporters, Trump’s appeal transcends typical ideological factors. Economic anxiety, religious nationalism, racism, sexism — these are all important. But refusing to look beyond them means ignoring the underlying dynamic of empowerment through rejection of established authority. It is the same dynamic that motivates vaccine hesitancy and rejection of masks. It is the result of genuinely felt disempowerment, both in medicine and in politics. And if we want to avoid another Trump, another round of resistance to masks, another baseless charge that an election is “fraudulent,” we need to take that disempowerment seriously. Otherwise, as always, the next set of gurus will be happy to step in and do it themselves.