From the start of the covid-19 pandemic, President Trump has taken the Pollyannaish view that the crisis would end quickly. In February, he suggested that the coronavirus might “miraculously” disappear with springtime’s higher temperatures, and he promised that the approximately 15 identified cases would soon be “down to close to zero.” More recently, as covid-19 has spread to all 50 states and led to more than 50,000 confirmed cases and 600 deaths, Trump has promoted hydroxychloroquine (a medication used to treat malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus) as a potentially successful treatment.

Optimism about this drug has been based largely on anecdotal reports and a small study of its efficacy. On top of this scant evidence, Trump has added the simple assertion: “I feel good about it. That’s all it is, just a feeling.” In his response, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made it clear that claims about hydroxychloroquine’s efficacy could not be made with any certainty, for lack of clinical trials.

Yet Fauci, who has served as one of the nation’s leading infectious disease experts through six administrations, has also defended the president — or at least tried to diminish the gap between their two views. He characterized their respective positions as, “It’s the hope that it will work, versus proving that it will work.” The next day, he added: “The president is talking about hope for people. And it’s not an unreasonable thing to hope for people.”

Fauci is correct: Hope for a cure — whether for AIDS, cancer or covid-19 — is not unreasonable. It’s even beneficial. Hope can help patients to continue with medical treatment in the face of a grim prognosis; it also has been found to have therapeutic value, making it more likely that people take steps to bring about their hoped-for result, by, for example, regularly taking their medications. And when political leaders express hope, it can create the vision of an ideal outcome for the public to strive toward.

But this is not the kind of hope that Trump is offering. The hope he has expressed for the effects of warm weather, travel bans (“The virus will not have a chance against us,” he vowed), and now, hydroxychloroquine, is best-described as unsubstantiatedfalse hope.” Quackishly touting an unproven covid-19 treatment continues Trump’s long-standing record of salesmanship without substance. Even more perniciously, this particular hydro oil builds — and then exploits the public’s hope for a quick end to the pandemic.

Of course, outsize confidence has always been one of Trump’s trademark personality traits. It’s typical for his remarks to be blustery and error-prone. But the pandemic has caused it to take a new shape: that of affected medical authority. After failing to respond to the outbreak in its earlier stages, Trump is now attempting to appear in control of the crisis by affecting medical authority. Earlier this month, he wondered aloud if “a solid flu vaccine” might “have an impact” on the coronavirus’s spread. Undeterred by pharmaceutical executives’ briefings, he repeatedly promised that a vaccine would be available “soon” — including at a North Carolina campaign rally.

As the crisis has deepened, he is now fixating on the idea that the disease may have some readily available cure, and has fashioned himself into an early proponent of a promising treatment despite the naysayers. Since his first describing hydroxychloroquine as a “game changer” on March 19, Trump has hyped its potential on a daily basis. The next day he called its results “impressive” and stated that he was a “probably more of a fan of [hydroxychloroquine] than — maybe than anybody.” On March 21 he noted that he felt “very confident” about it as a covid-19 treatment, followed the next day by a statement that if the drug works as he thinks it will (“based on very strong evidence”), then “much of what we’re talking about with ships and hospitals and all of the things that we’re doing and all of these masks and everything that we’re ordering — ventilators” won’t be necessary. Most recently, Trump described a story about a man claiming hydroxychloroquine had saved him from covid-19 as a “great early result,” despite there being no evidence that it saved the man’s life.

Already, this misinformation has had immediate, harmful consequences, diverting limited supplies of hydroxychloroquine from people with conditions for which it’s proven to be effective to people who are self-administering or even hoarding this medication. The overexcited run on the medication has also already led to poisonings and deaths in Arizona and Nigeria.

Encouraging the fantasy of a quick medical fix also has further-reaching ripple effects. It detracts from the effort to persuade Americans to make the dramatic changes in their everyday lives that are necessary to slow the pandemic’s spread. The economic and social costs of these actions — escalating beyond requests for voluntary physical distancing, to government-mandated shutdowns of nonessential businesses and crowded public spaces — are enormous. But instead of preparing the public for a period of extended difficulty, Trump is now signaling his wish to put an early end to these measures, tweeting that, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”

This is hardly the first time that the president, rather than take the time to learn about complex policy issues, has simply laid claim to results for which he was not responsible or that simply don’t exist. In the arena of health care, he regularly claims credit for the Veterans Choice health-care program (passed and signed into law in 2014) and maintains, without evidence, that the Right to Try law that he signed has saved large numbers of lives. Such boasts buff up his image as outsider and miracle worker — as the only one who can Make American Great Again, restoring the country’s life and vitality.

The president’s promises of a cure are not a case of “trying to bring hope to the people,” but of exploiting the hope of the people. Lies and misinformation should be condemned, in themselves. But so too should taking advantage of the public’s fear and vulnerability in order paint a picture of a happy future in which covid-19 is eradicated, and warnings about inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment and the need to physically distance from one another were baseless. The end of this pandemic will come, and we should hope that it will come soon, with as few lives lost as possible. But the president’s self-servingly sunny optimism makes this less likely.

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