Farewell Dr. Fauci: How the right turned a national hero into a villain in service of Donald Trump

The right's attack on science is the most dangerous of its cynical power plays. Fauci is just collateral damage

By Heather Digby Parton


Published August 31, 2022 9:41AM (EDT)

Dr. Anthony Fauci (Getty Images)
Dr. Anthony Fauci (Getty Images)

Last week Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health announced that he would be retiring at the end of the year after a long and storied career. Leading Republicans predictably responded by promising to "hold him accountable" for the pandemic. They threatened to send him to prison for "his Frankenstein experiments. " The ensuing character assassination against this long-time government scientist is something to behold and it's worth taking a look at how it happened.

I imagine that most people had never heard of Fauci before the COVID pandemic hit but it was not surprising that the Trump administration brought him forward to speak to the public as one of the nation's top scientific experts on viral epidemics. Fauci guided the research on HIV/AIDS and helped create the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which has helped save millions of lives throughout the developing world. His pioneering work in the field of human immunoregulation has been key to our understanding of the human immune response.

Seven presidents, of both parties, relied on Fauci's advice on domestic and global health, with Barack Obama giving him the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the list of Fauci's other awards and honorary doctoral degrees a mile long. His resume could not be more impressive.

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Throughout his career in government, Fauci was studiously apolitical and it was not surprising that Trump invited Fauci to share the stage with him in the early days of the pandemic. His presence signaled that the government was going to take this threat seriously. There was simply no one seen as more trustworthy among scientists and political leaders alike. So how did it come to pass that Republicans now see him as some kind of James Bond villain? Nothing could be more unlikely.

It started when conservatives became unhappy with the "lockdowns" (which were not actually lockdowns) and mask mandates. For some reason, Fauci was blamed for this despite the fact that they were all state and local initiatives operating on the advice of the CDC and their own public health officials. The CDC at the time was run by a Trump sycophant named Robert Redfield and Fauci's only participation was as a member of the President's COVID task force. When asked his opinion, Fauci said that people should follow the CDC guidelines. (In fact, if there is any valid criticism of Fauci on that subject it's that early on he went along with the advice that people shouldn't wear masks because they were needed for medical personnel, not that he was mandating them for the public.) Likewise, he didn't close the schools or demand that businesses require vaccines or any other kind of mandate because he had no power to do any such thing.

Nevertheless, as soon as it became clear that Trump's leadership on the pandemic was going to be as bad as his leadership on everything else, the right turned on Fauci. They certainly couldn't blame their Dear Leader.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is just one of many Republicans now demanding that Fauci be held accountable for the pandemic and everything Republicans hated about the government response. Perhaps the most notorious of Fauci's congressional critics is Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, an unaccredited ophthalmologist, who repeatedly challenged Fauci in Senate hearings about the pandemic, accusing him of covering up a personal involvement in the origins of the virus in Wuhan China. Although questions remain about how the virus came to be, this accusation is ridiculous and has been thoroughly debunked.

Even snake oil salesman and TV personality Dr. Oz, the Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, had the nerve to say that Fauci doesn't see patients so he doesn't understand disease from a "patient care perspective" — which isn't true. Fauci does see patients at the NIH Clinical Center. (Oz is no doubt upset with Fauci for refusing to endorse one of his own favorite quack remedies, Hydroxychloroquine.) looked at all of the right-wing claims against Fauci and found them to be false, even including the inane conspiracy theories such as the one claiming that Fauci's wife is the sister of Ghislaine Maxwell, the procurer for the late sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein. Nonetheless, the Republicans are determined to roast Fauci over the coals if they win the House in November, putting him up for a show trial to entertain the folks, in between their planned Hunter Biden hearings and Joe Biden's impeachment.

Of course, the professional character assassins aren't the elected GOP officials, it's the right-wing media. It's being led by Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who is certifiable on this subject. Last week, when Fauci announced his retirement Carlson went into an extended fantasy segment saying that Fauci had "apparently engineered the single most devastating event in modern American history," and declaring:

"He might want to get out of town now and move to, say, Cambridge, find a safe place to hide before the reckoning. Just a thought because honestly, there's a lot to answer for. In just the last 2 years, Fauci's recommended treatments and preventative measures for COVID that not only didn't work, but that he knew didn't work. He admitted to The New York Times [NYT] that he lied about herd immunity in order to sell more vaccines, which also didn't work, which weren't even actually vaccines, but they did hurt a lot of people, tens of thousands."

Everything about that is wrong, as this dense Science Magazine fact-check on Carlson's entire segment shows. Unfortunately, Carlson's audience won't see it and most of them wouldn't believe it anyway. And many more of them will die because of it. There is little mention of Trump in all of that. He is the man, of course, who spent the first year of the pandemic alternately making a fool of himself and making the crisis worse with his ineptitude and chaotic governing style so he could win the election. Fauci is Trump's scapegoat for all of that bumbling and the favorite punching bag of arrogant 5'9" Trump wannabes because it thrills the MAGA supporters:

More importantly, this assault on the reputation of one of the nation's top medical experts represents yet another battle in the culture war, and perhaps the most important one of all: the right's war on science. From its refusal to admit climate change is real to a rejection of vaccines and beyond, the right's attack on science is the most dangerous of all of its cynical power plays. Sadly, Fauci is just collateral damage --- and so are the rest of us. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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