The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How right-wing media and social isolation lead people to eat horse paste

A horse attempts to nuzzle an equine field mate but gets rebuffed in a snowy field near Poolesville, Md., on Jan. 31, 2021. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

“There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher famously said in 1987, insisting that we all had to take responsibility for our own fate. But something tells me that even Thatcher would be alarmed if she saw people so determined to isolate themselves from institutions, mutual responsibility and simple sanity that they wound up eating horse dewormer to cure themselves of a deadly disease for which there was a widely available vaccine.

The story of ivermectin — the horse paste in question — is about the omnipresent grifters who prey on the Republican masses. It’s about the merging of politics and media on the right, and how they can combine to nurture people’s worst instincts. And it’s about the atomization and alienation that conservative ideology can produce when confronted with a pandemic and taken to an absurd degree.

Ivermectin, of course, is the latest supposed miracle cure for covid-19 that people on the right have seized on as an excuse to not get vaccinated. I don’t need some vaccine that probably has a microchip in it so Bill Gates can track me! If I get sick, I’ll just take this stuff!

Last year it was hydroxychloroquine, and a month from now people may be drinking antifreeze. But now feed stores are overrun with people stocking up on horse dewormer, some of whom wind up frantically calling poison control after they overdose.

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One might argue that people are idiots and always will be, so this kind of thing isn’t unexpected. But this is a conservative phenomenon, and one particular to this moment in history.

The first element that drives it forward is the unstoppable right-wing grift machine, which sees the Republican masses as gullible fools just waiting to be separated from their money. Every major development in politics or current events — the rise of Donald Trump, the tea party, the pandemic — produces a wave of opportunists who get rich (or richer) by hitting up those masses for “donations” to scam PACs, support for phony charities, or the sale of cheap memorabilia. GOP elites have long seen average Republicans as suckers and marks just waiting to be exploited.

The second element is the union of media and politics on the right that is now more entrenched than ever. Republican politicians move seamlessly into Fox News gigs, right-wing media personalities are featured performers at political rallies, and no one pretends that conservative media are much more than a propaganda apparatus for the Republican cause.

That union is responsible for an enormous amount of conservative resistance to coronavirus vaccines. Fox News hosts including Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham have acted as a kind of nightly clearinghouse of anti-vaccine propaganda; Republican politicians, knowing their most vocal and passionate constituents are watching those shows, parrot (or pander to) vaccine skepticism, and over time, vaccine resistance becomes a key part of Republican identity, a way to define who you are and, more importantly, whom you hate.

That’s where things really come together. It’s almost as though all the trends in conservative identity politics were built for making people resist vaccines and gravitate to quack cures, no matter how outlandish and distasteful (that’s meant literally; apparently the horse paste tastes absolutely disgusting).

The long-standing conservative inclination toward individualism and independence has in recent years grown into not just a skepticism toward institutions and systems of expertise but a burning hostility toward them. Conservatives have weaved a tale of their own noble martyrdom, in which every element of society is arrayed against them: government, corporations, pop culture, schools, the media, even democracy itself — all are supposedly opposed to their values and out to destroy them.

So the fact that government agencies, the scientific community and the mainstream media are all urging you to (1) take the vaccine, and (2) not eat horse paste only makes the horse paste more compelling.

After all, aren’t those the very people who fought against Trump, stole the 2020 election and want to turn America into a socialist dystopia? And the fact that liberals are gleefully mocking people for eating horse paste further convinces some that that’s exactly what they should do. If I have to poison myself to own the libs, it’s worth it.

All this is wrapped up in a narrative of individual rights (If I have to wear a mask in the supermarket, I’m not free!) and self-reliance, in which one’s disconnection from others becomes a source not of despair but of empowerment.

Conservatives are constantly telling each other to “do your research." That means almost the opposite of what it purports to say: It means ignore those with authority and credentials and instead dive into the sea of social media misinformation until you’ve heard enough lunatic conspiracy theories that you arrive at a whole other kind of “truth.”

The endpoint of “doing your research” isn’t the realization that coronavirus vaccines are a remarkably effective way to avoid dying; the endpoint is an embrace of QAnon-style conspiracy theories and a livestock dewormer appetizer. You’ve found a “truth” that is likely to further isolate you from your existing community — co-workers, friends, family — and substitute for it an online community of like-minded paranoiacs.

But you know who isn’t sucking down horse paste? Tucker Carlson and the rest of the multimillionaire Fox personalities. One local-market anti-vax right-wing radio host after another may be dying from covid, but that’s because they got high on their own supply. The folks running this show never forget that it’s a scam you feed the rubes — and the lonelier and more alienated the masses feel, the better.