Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet biologist who gained the favor of Joseph Stalin by promoting pseudoscientific theories that purported to apply Marxist-Leninist theory to biology. Lysenko’s insight was to dismiss the burgeoning field of genetics as a capitalist lie, and to posit a socialist alternative theory of biology that refused to accept that plants were bound by any such thing as “genes.” Orange trees would flourish in Siberia, he promised Stalin. Catering both to the regime’s state ideology and its yearning for prosperity — he promised his methods would yield orange trees in Siberia — Lysenko established his crackpot theories as official Soviet science, and purged scientists who refused to endorse them. Stalin directed Soviet farmers to follow Lysenko’s bizarre theories, contributing to mass starvation.
There are eerie echoes of Lysenkoism in President Trump’s obsession with promoting hydroxychloroquine, a medication used to treat malaria, as a cure for the coronavirus. The parallel is not exact: Hydroxychloroquine has shown some anecdotal promise as a coronavirus therapy. It might emerge as a treatment, and conceivably even the major treatment, for the coronavirus. What gives Trump’s hydroxychloroquine obsessions its creepy Lysenkoist tinge is that the fervor is altogether disconnected from science.
Trump has repeatedly touted the medication, at times with a fervency that makes him sound like a marketer hired to promote the drug. “Hydroxychloroquine. Try it. If you like,” he suggested from the podium Saturday. In perhaps the most surreal moment of his pitch, he announced that he might personally try the medication, even though he does not have the coronavirus: “I think people should — if it were me — in fact, I might do it anyway. I may take it. Okay? I may take it. And I’ll have to ask my doctors about that, but I may take it.”
Public-health officials are far more skeptical. Evidence to date can be summarized as “limited and inconclusive.” Trump’s former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote a Wall Street Journal column urging the rapid development of coronavirus treatments, citing several promising examples, but conspicuously omitting the president’s favorite example. On Twitter, Gottlieb cautioned that hydroxychloroquine is not the wonder treatment Trump believes it to be: “If the [hydroxychloroquine] drug combo is working its effect is probably subtle enough that only rigorous and large scale trials will tease it out.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s top scientist, has sounded cautionary notes. “The data are really just at best suggestive,” he says. “There have been cases that show there may be an effect and there are others to show there’s no effect.”
The skeptics’ argument is not that hydroxychloroquine is certain to fail, but that clinical tests, not presidential hunches, will be needed to determine the most effective treatments. Trump appears to lack the patience to wait for this process, even one hurried along by the universal rush to treat the global pandemic.
But against the scientists stand a collection of pseudoscientists who have gained the president’s ear. “Dr. Oz,” a celebrity doctor whose views have been denounced by medical authorities, has gained Trump’s attention with a flurry of Fox News appearances touting hydroxychloroquine. Trump “made a point of telling aides that he was interested in what Oz had to say and that he wished to speak to the much-maligned television personality,” reports the Daily Beast.
Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has repeatedly lobbied Trump to adopt hydroxychloroquine, which he has falsely described as “100 percent effective.” Giuliani told the Washington Post that he hasn’t discussed his views with Fauci, “I’m sure he thinks I am an ignoramus,” he concedes. Upon realizing that one of the country’s most prestigious scientists considers them an ignoramus, most laypeople would begin to question their own views, but Giuliani operates at a level of self-confidence that few people can fathom. Trump’s trade adviser, Peter Navarro, has enlisted in the cause. In a bizarre episode, he confronted Fauci at a Saturday White House meeting, denouncing his caution.
Whether Giuliani and Navarro are even qualified to advise the president in their stated areas of expertise — law and economics, respectively — is a matter of serious dispute. For both to emerge as self-styled medical authorities during a pandemic is beyond unnerving.
Lysenko was able to manipulate communist ideology to discredit mainstream science on ideological grounds. Trump’s hydroxychloroquine claims have done something similar with conservative populism, tapping into the right’s mistrust of bureaucrats and educated elitists. Hydroxychloroquine has become yet another venue for Trump to demonstrate his mastery over the credentialed snobs. “Dr. Fauci remains steadfast in his bureaucracy. Dr. Fauci’s a conformist,” declares Rush Limbaugh. “Here’s the difference between a health professional bureaucrat expert and Donald Trump.” The drama has played out in conservative media, which has enthralled its audience with headlines like “Florida Man With Coronavirus Credits Drug Touted by Trump for Saving His Life” and “After Mocking Trump for Promoting Hydroxychloroquine, Journalists Acknowledge It Might Treat Coronavirus.”
The Trump personality cult serves as a substitute for Marxist-Leninist dogma. The president can overpower the sniveling bureaucrats through sheer gusto. “I’m a smart guy. I feel good about it,” Trump has announced. “Let’s see what happens. We have nothing to lose.” (That his campaign to boost hydroxychloroquine has repurposed the slogan he devised to persuade African-Americans to vote for him may not have the universally calming effect he imagines.)
Reporters have found evidence that Trump’s infatuation with hydroxychloroquine has already inhibited the government’s ability to handle the crisis. Last month, Politico reported that Trump had enlisted agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to import, promote, and pay for his favorite medicine. Officials described it as “mindshare, time and energy being soaked up by a potential wild-goose chase.”
This weekend, Reuters reported that Trump successfully pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change its guidelines for prescribing the medicine. The president also “personally instructed top officials at the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health to focus on the two drugs as potential therapies.”
As Gottlieb argues, developing effective treatments may be the most important determinant of how quickly American life can regain some semblance of normal functioning. Deploying a vaccine will take at least a year — until then, only treatment can permit people to reenter public spaces without overcrowding intensive care units. That race to produce such vital medicine is being diverted by the president’s insistence on disregarding the scientific method for his own hunches.
What it augurs more broadly about Trump’s disdain for public-health expertise is even darker. Over the last two days, Trump has visibly balked at social-distancing guidelines and renewed his impatience to reopen the economy soon. His demand to produce a silver-bullet wonder drug right away seems both to grow out of his dissatisfaction with public-health authorities and is feeding into his skepticism of them. Lysenko’s pseudoscience killed millions of people. How many Americans will perish from Trump’s?