You don’t hear much about “economic anxiety” these days. Most observers agree that the rise of the trumpist right was propelled by racial and social antagonisms rather than economic populism.
And yet there is an economic element to political extremism, even if it’s not what most people would expect. Right-wing extremists, and to some extent even some of the mainstream conservative media, depend on financial support from companies that sell nutritional supplements and miracle cures — and that financial support can be considered a significant factor in driving the right to more extreme positions. .
Indeed, right-wing extremism is not just an ideological movement that happens to receive a lot of money from snake oil sellers; some of his extremism can be seen not as a reflection of deep conviction but as a way to promote snake oil sales.
Consider the situation we are in right now in the fight against Covid-19. A few months ago, it seemed likely that the development of effective vaccines would soon bring the pandemic to an end. Instead, she continues, with hospitalizations nearing the peak they reached earlier this year. This is partly due to the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant, but also, crucially, it reflects the refusal of many Americans to receive vaccines.
And much of this refusal is political. It is true that many of the people who refuse to receive vaccines are not trumpists, but there is a strong negative correlation between Donald Trump’s share of the vote and the vaccination rate in different regions of the United States. As of July, 86% of people who identify themselves as Democrats said they had received at least one dose of vaccine, compared to 54% of those who call themselves Republicans.
But those who refuse the vaccine are not just rejecting an inoculation that could save them; they are also turning to alternatives that put their lives at risk. We see a surge in sales of — and poisoning — ivermectin, a product commonly used to eliminate worms in cattle but recently touted on social media and the Fox News news network as a cure for Covid.
OK, I didn’t imagine that would happen. But I should have guessed. As historian Rick Perlstein has pointed out, there is a long-established association between charlatans who sell fake drugs and right-wing extremists. They serve more or less the same audiences.
That is, Americans willing to believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and that Italian satellites were used to shift votes in favor of Joe Biden are also the kind of people willing to believe that the medical elite is lying to them, and that it’s possible solve your health problems by ignoring the advice of professionals and buying over-the-counter medications.
As soon as you become aware of the connection between snake oil and right-wing politics, you realize that it is ubiquitous.
This is clearly true in the feverish swamps on the right. Infowars’ Alex Jones has gained a following by championing conspiracy theories, but makes money by selling nutritional supplements.
And the same can be said about more established and conventional parts of the right. For example, Ben Shapiro regarded as a right-wing intellectual, touts supplements. See who advertises on the Tucker Carlson show on Fox News. Below Fox’s own ads comes My Pillow and three companies that sell supplements.
Snake oil sellers clearly view consumers of right-wing news and analysis as a valuable market for their wares. And so it should come as no surprise that many right-leaning Americans see vaccination as a liberal plot and turn to dubious alternatives — although, once again, I would never have imagined that this would result in the consumption of dewormers for livestock.
The interesting question, however, is to what extent the connection between right-wing politics and snake oil marketing helped shape the political landscape.
We can put it this way: there are big financial rewards for extremism, because extreme policies help promote over-the-counter drugs, and these are highly profitable. (In 2014, Alex Jones’ operations were worth more than $20 million in revenue to him, mostly from the sale of supplies.) Do these financial rewards encourage right-wing know-it-alls to be more extreme? It would be surprising if they didn’t — as conservative economists say, incentives matter.
The extremism of media figures radicalizes their audiences, and provides an incentive for politicians to become more extreme.
And in that way it is possible to understand how vaccination became such a strong point of conflict. Getting people vaccinated is a top priority for a Democratic president, which automatically generates immense hostility among people who want to see Joe Biden fail. And these people were already predisposed to reject specialized medical knowledge and accept cures proposed by quacks.
Surely everyone on the right realized that even Donald Trump was recently booed when he told rally attendees that they should get vaccinated. He’s unlikely to say it again, and future Trump hopefuls certainly won’t.
None of this would be happening were there not a climate of mistrust and anger that unscrupulous commentators and political leaders can exploit. But the fact that extremism helps market over-the-counter medicines creates a financial incentive for extremism to grow.
One could say that if American democracy is in jeopardy, it’s partly because sellers of snake oil — and not figuratively, but literally, bad medicine — have been resorting to this strange trick.
Translation by Paulo Migliacci
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