This is a strange moment for Dr. Anthony Fauci to reemerge as the right’s public enemy number one. The United States is only averaging about 15,000 new cases of Covid-19 a day, even as the country’s reopening has dramatically accelerated. Last week, The New York Times ended its series of obituaries for people who died during the pandemic, noting that “the need to chronicle the toll has grown less urgent as the numbers have declined in much of the world, as vaccination rates have risen, and as large numbers of people have returned to a more normal life.” From a public health perspective, the news of late has been optimistic.
Yet over the last several days Fauci has faced a concerted effort to villainize him anew. After The Washington Post and BuzzFeed published a tranche of unremarkable emails obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, the right jumped. Tucker Carlson accused Fauci of working to “cover up” the possibility that the virus had come from a laboratory in China in a desperate attempt to hide the fact that the government had “used American tax dollars to fund reckless experiments in China that in the end likely created Covid-19.” Several Republican members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, and Matt Gaetz, called on Fauci to resign or be fired, citing U.S. funding of the virology lab in Wuhan, China, the province where the virus originated, as well as Fauci’s earlier dismissal of the theory that Covid-19 emerged from a Chinese laboratory. Speaking at a rally over the weekend, Donald Trump called him “not a great doctor but a great promoter” and suggested, “He’s been wrong on almost every issue, and he was wrong on Wuhan and the lab also.” Trump’s dumbest son, meanwhile, joked he thought that Fauci would be murdered over the anodyne contents of his emails.
The emails show nothing like this story being spun. They instead show that Fauci is, more or less, the same in private as he is in public: a devoted public servant who answered thousands of emails from government officials and civilians about the virus. If there is a scandal in the emails, as Bloomberg’s Faye Flam wrote on Tuesday, it’s that they show that “scientists were wildly clueless at the start of the pandemic” about the virus, its origins, and how best to combat it. But even that’s not particularly surprising given that the scientific community was plunged, in those early weeks, into the fog of war with a once-in-a-century pandemic.
But the right is in need of a scapegoat—and not just for Covid-19. Thus far, Republicans and their media allies have struggled to find a consistently potent line of attack against President Joe Biden. One moment, they’re casting him as a Stalinesque puppetmaster; the next he is a senile, powerless figurehead being manipulated by others behind the scenes. Fauci has, in recent days, arrived as a stand-in: a convenient means of savaging the Biden administration without having to attack Biden himself.
It’s also best viewed as a flimsy effort to try to rewrite Trump’s own incompetent handling of the public health crisis. Selective emails about the effectiveness of masks and the lab leak theory—in this case, the “evidence” of a cover-up is a single email from a researcher who suggested the virus looked “engineered” in January 2020—are being held up to suggest that Trump was failed by public health officials, instead of being the failure himself. In this version, efforts to dismiss the lab leak theory prematurely are touted as proof of the pro-China bias of “experts” like Fauci and the Democratic Party, who are more interested in kowtowing to Beijing than they are in pursuing the truth. (This version of events neglects Trump’s extensive praise of the Chinese response to Covid-19 during the early months of the pandemic.)
The right’s larger ideological priors are laced throughout their attacks on Fauci: Experts and bureaucrats cannot be trusted; they’re elitists who serve other (often foreign and nonwhite) leaders. The specific allegation made by the GOP and media figures like Carlson is that Fauci is corrupt; that his reluctance to acknowledge the lab leak theory amounts to naked self-interest; and he’s covering up his own involvement in the origin of a global pandemic. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest any of this, but it has nevertheless been spun into the latest shadowy, sinister conspiracy: The doctor tasked with fighting the pandemic was, in fact, working to obscure his own role in creating it. As Carlson said on Monday, “It’s now clear in the earliest days of the pandemic public health officials in Washington were panicked. Officials in Washington were terrified for themselves. They were afraid of being exposed.” As a result, they chose to instill “medical martial law” to ensure that questions were suppressed.
This is also an attempt to undermine the Biden administration’s success in curbing the pandemic itself by inverting the narrative: If the failures of America’s response to the virus in 2020 do not belong to Donald Trump but to Fauci, then the successes do not belong to Biden.
Ultimately, the right’s obsession with Fauci only points to a larger weakness. The lack of a consistent anti-Biden narrative has left Republicans capriciously bouncing between trumped-up scandals involving culture war bric-a-brac and attempts to rewrite their history of failure. Anthony Fauci is thus transformed into a kind of master villain, but his alleged villainy has no salience to normal American life. The Biden administration is having a largely successful rollout of vaccines; the country is reopening, life seems to be headed back to something resembling “normal” for the summer. It’s a pretty tricky environment in which to ask people to relitigate the last 18 months based on some emails, but it’s the one play the GOP knows how to run.