Late Monday night, President Trump and his son Donald Jr. retweeted video testimonials about the alleged effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine. The next day, the Daily Beast reported that one of the doctors in the video, Stella Immanuel, has several other rather unusual medical beliefs: that alien DNA is used in medical treatments, that scientists are trying to create a vaccine to make people secular, and that demons are responsible for a wide array of sexual and psychological ailments.
Of course none of those facts would be necessary to see that Immanuel is a quack. The claim that Trump circulated — that Immanuel has successfully treated hundreds of patients with hydroxychloroquine, despite overwhelming evidence that it is ineffective — is farcical on its face. Asked at a press conference yesterday about Immanuel’s bizarre demon-related claims, Trump insisted that he was only endorsing her allegedly successful treatments with hydroxychloroquine.
“I thought she was very impressive,” Trump said. “She said that she’s had tremendous success with hundreds of different patients.” That perhaps her beliefs about aliens and demons discredit her claims about hydroxychloroquine did not seem to occur to him.
Trump was not alone in this response. Rush Limbaugh angrily denounced the Daily Beast for reporting on Immanuel’s beliefs. “Oh, everybody is trying to destroy this woman: ‘Do you know that she believes that alien DNA was implanted in the human race thousands of years ago, and there’s a secret in that DNA that could unlock things and we could cure many diseases?’” he complained. “They’re trying to portray her as some wacko, unbelievable kook out there.”
Limbaugh did not address the alien-demon sperm issue. His sole focus was on Immanuel’s belief in hydroxychloroquine. “She has her own track record of using it and prescribing it,” he enthused. “She says she’s not lost a single patient. She says that in the past few months she has cured over 350 patients and not lost one.” Like Trump, Limbaugh seems not to have considered the possibility that Immanuel’s self-reported success with a medication that medical scientists have studied extensively might not be true. At no time in his lengthy monologue does he even raise the possibility that Immanuel’s bizarre alien- and demon-related beliefs have any bearing on her credibility.
Without quite saying so, both Trump and Limbaugh are observing an invisible line, between politically acceptable kookery and politically unacceptable kookery. Among influential members of their party, it is perfectly fine to insist that the entire worldwide medical Establishment has conspired to suppress an effective treatment for COVID-19. It is not acceptable to blame demons for most medical problems and claim the medical Establishment is controlled by aliens.
The problem is that the line keeps moving.
Every political party has a rough borderline separating tolerable and intolerable views. The party’s mainstream beliefs are defined in relation to these contours. The Democratic Party is not socialist, but the relation of socialists to the Democratic Party — hovering around its margins, with some working within the party and others refusing to support it — gives some sense of the belief system that prevails within the party. The fringe beliefs are adjacent to the dominant ones. One way to tell that the Democratic Party’s center has moved left is through the movements of its borders.
The point is not to equate what passes for an acceptable belief in the Democratic Party with what passes for acceptable belief in the GOP. Quite the opposite, in fact. While the fringe segments of the party might support some unrealistic or unworkable programs or goals — a jobs guarantee, a complete carbon phaseout within a decade, and so on — it contains nothing resembling the rampant nuttery in the Republican Party. As the boundary demarcating the Republican fringe has advanced further right over the decades, the definition of what passes as unremarkable has moved with it.
The president himself is obviously the most famous example of this. As recently as five years ago, leading Republicans put Trump himself outside that border. He was a huckster who had peddled a conspiracy theory about President Obama’s birth certificate. “I think he’s a kook,” said Lindsey Graham in February, 2016. Now the kook is president, and the unacceptable public position within the party is to call him one.
Just as revealing is the growing collection of nuts and extremists Trump has dragged into the party’s tent. Before Trump, explicit white-nationalist groups tended to keep their distance from the party. But in Trump, they found enough common ground to rally to his side. Trump does not endorse white supremacists, but white supremacists endorse Trump.
The QAnon conspiracy theory is formed specifically around Trump, though it will probably outlive him. Its tenets are too wild for Republican leaders, or even Trump himself, to openly endorse. Still, it has gained a large and growing foothold within the party. Eleven Republican congressional candidates openly endorse the theory. Its followers have crowded his rallies, and Trump has (perhaps unknowingly) shared their slogans. His aide, Dan Scavino, has tweeted QAnon memes. Fox News host Jesse Watters said the cult had “uncovered a lot of great stuff” in an interview with Eric Trump, who heartily agreed. Its imprint is large enough that a Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy would not dare deliver a speech denouncing it.
The party’s rightward lurch can also be measured in a series of extremists nominated or appointed to posts within the administration. Merritt Corrigan, the deputy White House liaison at the U.S. Agency for International Development, has written, “Liberal democracy is little more than a front for the war being waged against us by those who fundamentally despise not only our way of life, but life itself,” and complained, “Our homo-empire couldn’t tolerate even one commercial enterprise not in full submission to the tyrannical LGBT agenda.” John Gibbs, Trump’s nominee to run the Office of Personnel Management (and a current official at HUD) has claimed that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were Satanists.
Rich Higgins, whom Trump nominated for a Pentagon job, has called former President Obama a “communist” and Black Lives Matter “an agent of communist China.” Higgins would be chief of staff to Anthony Tata, who has described Obama as Muslim and a “terrorist leader,” and suggested that former CIA Director John Brennan sent a coded tweet ordering Trump to be assassinated.
The significance of these appointments is not just that they legitimize beliefs that Republicans previously considered too embarrassing to associate with openly — they change the definition of what constitutes “fringe.” Beliefs like “Climate scientists have conspired to falsely create a consensus for anthropogenic global warming,” or “Democrats routinely engage in massive undetected vote fraud” no longer even register as controversial. The “fringe” ideas that do attract attention are by this point nearly indistinguishable from simple mental illness. The border keeps moving further into delusional territory, and will probably keep moving after Trump is gone.