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First as Farce, Then As Tragedy

In early 2017, when the Trump Administration was new and strange and still funny in an absurdist, comic way and not in the bleak, gallows humor way it is now, we all had a good laugh at the president’s personal physician, Harold Bornstein, a man who looks like this:

Bornstein’s story ended up being sad in the end, when after widely proclaiming the clearly-decaying septuagenarian president the picture of health, he accidentally let slip that he and Trump were both on Propecia, a common drug that treats hair loss. After this embarrassing revelation, Bornstein claimed that Trump’s bodyguard and lawyer raided his office and stole many of his files, an event that he said left him feeling “raped, frightened, and sad.”

But before that happened, it was a huge farce. The late-night shows had a field day, doing all sorts of bits on the weird-looking old dude who was clearly coerced by the president to say that Trump was a huge Chad alpha in real life and not just in horny Ben Garrison cartoons. Conan and Seth Meyers did the exact same bit and it wasn’t all that funny either time, but people laughed and that was what we did, because humor was a way to #resist. This strange racist blob was the president and nobody really knew what that would look like yet, mostly because nobody was paying much attention to the people who would soon be literally staring down the barrel of the Trump administration’s guns, on the border or in their homes or in other countries overseas.

In a press conference and tweets a few days or maybe 10 years ago, Trump repeatedly floated the possibility that a malaria drug called hydroxychloroquine (sold under the brand name Resochin, mostly in Pakistan) could be used to treat coronavirus. His source for this claim was a scholarly paper published by a French virologist named Didier Raoult. Didier Raoult also happens to be a guy who looks like this:

As Tom’s tweet notes, Raoult has a checkered past: He’s a climate change skeptic who’s recently downplayed the pandemic and has a history of playing fast and loose with research data. But sure enough, after the president talked about the drug as a treatment for COVID-19, people started taking his word as scientific gospel.

If you’ve been following the news for the past week or so (who hasn’t?), you probably know what happens next. A man in Arizona died after ingesting a fish antiparasitic called chemical chloroquine phosphate, which he and his wife mistakenly believed was the same as the malaria drug meant for humans. Bottles of the same toxic substance are still flying off the shelves. The president takes no responsibility for any of this. We are no closer than we were to an actual vaccine or treatment for the virus; even if Raoult’s research isn’t complete horseshit, it’s unlikely that hydroxychloroquine will be the miracle drug that halts its spread.

In his book The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, which I have not read but looked up on Wikipedia a minute ago, Karl Marx, paraphrasing Hegel, wrote that historical events and personas often repeat, adding that they do so the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Later on, Slavoj Žižek drew on the phrase for the title of one of his books which I also haven’t read. It’s a witty phrase, and one you can see play out in daily life all the time: Trump could be read as a farcical interpretation of Ronald Reagan’s cult of personality; Joe Biden’s candidacy is the Democratic Party trying to advance everything that Hillary Clinton offered all over again and yet somehow stupider and worse. But in the case of fucked-up-looking guys dispensing medical advice, I’d argue that the phrase should be flipped. The farce came first. Now all that’s left is tragedy.