Donald Trump won* the election because he told people what they wanted to hear.
Alternative medicine is growing in popularity because it tells people what they want to hear.
Of course, there’s a big difference between telling people what they want to hear and actually delivering on those promises.
He can say it as often as he likes but Donald Trump is not going to make America great again. It’s a meaningless slogan. And Trump is not going to reverse the laws of economics and bring manufacturing back to the rust belt and he’s not going to defeat ISIS because he’s smarter than all the generals and spies who have spent their lives trying to understand our complex world. I could go on, endlessly. The point is that just about anything Trump says has far more to do with what people want to hear than with what might have any basis in reality.
What Trump does for the body politic Alt-Med (which includes complementary, integrative, holistic, natural, unorthodox, fringe, unconventional, and new age medicines) does for the body itself. Alt-Med makes it seem simple but in fact you can’t “cleanse” your body of “toxins.” Unless you have a rare medical condition going gluten-free won’t help you. Again, I could go on, endlessly.
The point here is that, like Trump, Alt-Med promises something to people that they really want and that they can’t find via conventional politics or medicine. Just as the world seems to threaten us from the outside, our own bodies represent an internal and equally terrifying threat. (The paradox is that we are living longer than ever and, as Steven Pinker has shown, the world is actually a far safer place than it’s ever been before. But in both cases this is not a reflection of what we feel.)
I’m not trying to yoke Trump and Alt-Med together simply to take advantage of all the interest in Trump. (Medical journalists have been feeling a bit marginalized lately.) The key point here is that the two phenomena have important similarities and are both symptoms of broader political, cultural, and economic trends.
Trump and Alt-Med offer false comfort and the illusion of control that relieves, immediately and at least temporarily, the rampant fear and anxiety that is a hallmark of our time. People don’t understand and are afraid of the world and their own bodies and they want simple solutions that deliver the illusion of control. Fact-based reality is less important than the immediate reduction in anxiety. They embrace the comfort of doing something, anything about the feared problem. The self-confidence and aura of the charlatan— whether Trump or a Alt-Med practitioner— plays a key role in delivering this comfort, irrespective of any actual facts or content.
It is this sense of comfort that our traditional politicians and our traditional medicine are completely incapable of delivering. Because they are (more or less, or at least ostensibly) fact based, they reflect the inevitable uncertainty and complexity of our world. Liberal democracy and evidence-based medicine are better suited to incremental improvements and gradual reform. Of course there was an enthusiasm gap in the election. Hillary’s supporters didn’t imagine that she would make America great again. At best they hoped she would do a much better job than Trump and bring about a few modest improvements. Similarly, evidence-based doctors can’t promise miraculous cures. At best they can offer the benefits of our imperfect medical knowledge, and if they are honest they will acknowledge its limitations.
It is also important to acknowledge that our mainstream politicians and mainstream medicine are far from flawless or beyond criticism. Far from it. In fact, the rise of Trump and the success of Alt-Med has been fueled by the flaws of mainstream politicians and doctors, including their arrogance, their selfishness, their inability to change, their lack of sympathy for those outside their circles, their self-dealing, and much more. By contrast, Trump and Alt-Med practitioners sell themselves as a pure embodiment of the people and their desires. (It is only one of the many astonishing paradoxes of the election that so many dispossessed and marginalized people view Donald Trump as their spokesman and representative.)
* He won the electoral college but lost the popular vote, and no one knows for sure the effect of Russia, Wikileaks, James Comey, social media, false news, or voter suppression. But even if you think Donald Trump could not have won without some or all of this help, it is undeniably true that a great many people have responded to what he has had to offer.