Donald Trump the president last Saturday became Donald Trump the pitchman. He didn’t pitch any policy. He pitched instead what some are calling a “game changer” in the war against coronavirus, an 85-year-old anti-malaria medicine known as hydroxychloroquine.
Exhorted Trump at his April 4 daily Covid-19 briefing: “What do you have to lose? Take it.”
On Sunday, the next day, Trump asked that same question — “What do you have to lose?” — five more times.
President Trump, this barrage of pitches had skeptical Americans wondering, what do you have to gain?
Turns out that the president and various players in his entourage have plenty to gain should hydroxychloroquine become the global go-to cure for coronavirus. The president himself, the New York Times reports, has “a small personal financial interest” in one brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine.
Major investors in the company that makes that version of the drug include an investment management company formerly run by Wilbur Ross, the Trump administration’s billionaire commerce secretary. Among other investors with a big-money stake in hydroxychloroquine: the billionaire money manager Ken Fisher, a prime-time contributor to Republican campaigns.
Another fanboy of hydroxychloroquine, Amneal Pharmaceuticals co-founder Chirag Patel, belongs to the Trump National Golf Course Bedminster in New Jersey and has golfed with Trump, news reports indicate, “at least twice since he became president.”
Salon reporter Bob Cesca helpfully points out that the top corporate manufacturer of hydroxychloroquine, Novartis, spent about a year funneling $100,000 per month into “a reputed slush fund for Trump” managed by his personal lawyer Michael Cohen. That arrangement delivered $1 million worth of slush.
The investigative website Sludge, meanwhile, is reporting that a dark-money group co-founded by a billionaire Trump donor and bankrolled by Big Pharma’s trade association has been conducting a massive public outreach campaign pushing for hydroxychloroquine’s immediate counter-corona use.
Given this complex web of personal financial interests that tie the Trump set to hydroxychloroquine, can we trust that the president has our best interests in mind when he plugs the drug so relentlessly?
Individual Americans will, of course, have their own answer to that question. But for many Americans the question of whether we can trust Trump and his circle only begs another: Can we trust any politician?
How Americans feel about this broader question has been fascinating political scientists for several decades now. These analysts have been carefully tracking the polling data that show a plummeting level of trust in American life. In 1968, notes the University of Maryland’s Eric Uslaner, 56 percent of Americans believed that “most people can be trusted.” By 2006, only 34 percent of Americans felt that way.
What explains this sinking faith in others?
“Declines in trust stem from economic inequality,” Uslaner and his colleague Mitchell Brown have concluded from their research. “As economic inequality increases, people feel that they have less in common with others, and therefore trust less.”
These findings, Uslaner goes on, “also hold for institutional trust, notably trust in government, whether officials care about people, and whether government policy benefits everyone.”
The wider the economic divide, the veteran political scientist sums up, the more difficult establishing bonds “between those at the top and those at the bottom” becomes. More specifically, he adds, “it is rising income at the very top that leads to less trust.”
So do people simply sense, somewhere deep down, that those who become fantastically richer than most everyone else must be pulling a fast one?
Donald Trump may be pulling just such a fast one with hydroxychloroquine. Or he may be clutching at any straw he can grab, hoping for a miracle cure that makes him a political hero. Or hydroxychloroquine may actually be worth fast-tracking over other potential coronavirus cures. We just don’t know.
What we do know: In deeply unequal societies, trust breaks down. And that makes every challenge we face ever harder to overcome.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His recent books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.