Histories, Quacks, and Thieves

The Quacks in Trump’s Armory


I guess it’s nothing new for Papa to be doing whatever he could, preaching some gospel, and even selling a few bottles of Dr. Good.

I find myself thinking about the chorus lines from Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.” Especially as I see reports of preachers, associated with President Trump, seeking to profit from the pandemic.

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But it’s not just profit-seeking preachers who remind me of that song. It’s also when I read articles decrying measures to slow the spread of the virus as “hysteria” or articles that take the opportunity of this crisis to air other preposterous arguments. While some of these responses seem to be quite literally attempts to sell people unproven cures for profit, your basic faux-prophet for-profit quackery, others try to pass themselves off as merely objective political opinions. And yet, their indignant self-serving sputtering bears echoes of previous regressive, ignorance-lauding, public-endangering quackery. They’ve merely set it to political purpose, using it to rally around a populist of such suspect moral character, and staggering incompetence, as to be disgracefully unfit for office … and even in that they can’t be original.

“They’ve [used] it to rally around a populist of such suspect moral character, and staggering incompetence, as to be disgracefully unfit for office … and even in that they can’t be original.”

In the early nineteenth century, Andrew Jackson was at the head of an increasingly populist movement. One that elevated the wisdom of the common man over the “corrupt aristocratic” ideas of the elite. This kind of thinking became a plank in his reelection platform, and eventually resulted in a dramatic repeal of medical licensing laws in the US. And so a golden age of quackery was borne. People look upon depictions of the stereotypical snake-oil salesman as a symptom of a bygone society, one that simply didn’t know better. But they could have known better, and instead chose not to. They chose to descend into willful ignorance. It was a deliberate act by a society that decided to devalue education and expertise, and allow unqualified individuals the liberty to cheat, and effectively kill, each other for profit. It was the ultimate form of free-market unregulated medicine, and people paid for it with needless suffering and death.

Columbia protecting a man from a lynch mob

The parallels to today do not end with a commander in chief who, along with his supporters, promotes suspicion of competence and expertise, and who is surrounded by enablers who seek to profit from this revelry in ignorance. “Princess Lotus Blossom” was described as the premiere female pitch doctor on the medical show circuit in the early twentieth century [1]. It may seem odd today that a Minnesota farm girl, called Violet McNeal, could make a living passing herself off as an oriental princess selling remedies made from nonexistent animal glands. But there were enough Americans who simply had no clue that her appearance was not consistent with her story. The Chinese exclusion act helped make this possible. Trump and his enablers are far from original in their xenophobia. Pandering to racists with ineffective walls, and promoting Sinophobia, helped keep Americans gullible and sick back then too [2].

The age of the quack brought needless suffering to a society that should have known better at the time. Xenophobia and hate were transparently used to cover and abet deadly incompetence. Society should have known better then. We should know even better now.


[1] Bringardner, Chase. “Greasing the Global: Princess Lotus Blossom and the Fabrication of the “Orient” to Pitch Products in the American Medicine Show.” Theatre Symposium, vol. 25, 2017, p. 49-63. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tsy.2017.0004.

[2] Subramanian, Courtney, Nicholas Wu, and David Jackson. “Trump uses China as a foil when talking coronavirus, distancing himself from criticism” USA Today, March 20, 2020.