How the right turned on Dr. Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official and a public health adviser to seven presidents, announced on Monday that he plans to retire in December after more than 50 years of public service. President Joe Biden toasted Fauci as “a steady hand with wisdom and insight honed over decades” and praised his “unparalleled spirit, energy, and scientific integrity,” while top scientists touted his record of “sav[ing] countless lives.”
While Fauci once earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President George W. Bush, his impending retirement was not greeted with plaudits from the right. On Fox News that night, Tucker Carlson’s opening monologue described him as “a dangerous fraud, a man who has done things that in most countries, at most times in history, would be understood perfectly clearly to be very serious crimes.” The New York Post headlined its editorial the next day “Good riddance to dangerous Dr. Fauci,” while The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board concluded that “his legacy will be that millions of Americans will never trust government health experts in the same way again.”
Fauci, like everyone else involved in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 1 million Americans, does not have a perfect record. But he spent his career trying to remain impartial, avoid partisanship, and offer the best advice he could, and for decades, he was respected on both sides of the political aisle. That reputation ultimately could not survive the relentless propaganda of the right-wing press, which needed a coronavirus scapegoat and found one in the octogenarian scientist.
Right-wing propagandists began turning Fauci into their latest hate object in March 2020. At the time, states had imposed stay-at-home orders and other social distancing measures that were recommended by the Trump administration to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Fox and other pro-Trump outlets consistently downplayed the threat posed by the virus and promoted a minimalistic response that dismissed such efforts in favor of snake oil miracle cures.
Trump’s media supporters could not or would not try to directly challenge the president, and settled instead on targeting Fauci, who was a face of the administration’s response. He initially drew their ire as a critic of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, the malaria drugs that Fox hosts and then the president had recommended as a coronavirus treatment (numerous studies have found the drugs ineffective) and as part of the supposed “ruling class” that could weather a long-term economic shutdown.
At the time, even right-wing pugilists like Fox’s Tucker Carlson were still pulling their punches. “Imagine another year of this,” he said on his April 3, 2020, show. “That would be national suicide, and yet, that is what Anthony Fauci is suggesting, at least.” But Carlson went on to acknowledge that Fauci wasn’t trying to “hurt America,” saying that he “seems like a very decent man” who was simply misguided.
That gentility would not last. The pro-Trump media — and Carlson in particular — became increasingly unhinged and vituperative toward Fauci as the pandemic wore on. Ultimately, the right-wing attacks on Fauci had dramatic impacts for the country.
By mid-May of 2020, Fox’s prime-time stars had decided that the crisis was over. When Fauci said in congressional testimony that it was not, and that the virus was likely to recur in the fall and winter, they began pushing for Trump to fire him. On programs that the Fox-obsessed president watched religiously, they portrayed Fauci as power-mad and using his influence to “favor what the Democrats want.” Those attacks continued over the following weeks and months.
In July, Trump began publicly echoing the right-wing media’s concerns about Fauci. The following month, the president appointed Scott Atlas, a radiologist and right-wing think tanker who caught his attention through frequent Fox appearances, to the White House coronavirus task force.
Atlas effectively displaced Fauci as Trump’s top coronavirus adviser, and used that position to promote a “herd immunity” strategy for coping with the virus. His actions ultimately helped bring about the very wave of hospitalizations and deaths Fauci had earned the opprobrium of the right for warning about months earlier.
But the right’s attacks on Fauci continued over the months and years to come.
Carlson was the scientist’s most implacable media foe. He described Fauci as an “elderly power-drunk epidemiologist”; “capricious and transparently political”; a “hypocritical buffoon”; an “oily politician on an ego trip”; and an “even shorter version of Benito Mussolini.” He denounced the scientist’s recommendations as “authoritarian,” falsely claimed that Fauci “helped to create” the coronavirus, and called for him to “never work in public policy again.”
Other right-wing pundits demonized Fauci as “one of the great criminals of our civilization” and a member of the “medical deep state” who was “on a jihad” against Trump and behaves “more like a monarch.” They called for an investigation into his purported crimes and fantasized about him being put in “leg irons” or even beheaded. They even accused him — falsely — of killing puppies, with one describing him as “the dog-murdering and orphan-killing doctor, Anthony Benito Fauci.”
Fox’s attacks on Fauci have become so habitual that they often seemed to serve as background noise on the right-wing channel. But at times, the network’s talking heads have issued comments so abhorrent that they trigger widespread public outrage and even a response from the network brass. Fox sidelined Lara Logan, a host on the network’s streaming service, after she compared Fauci to the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele during a November 2021 appearance. The following month, the network publicly defended host Jesse Watters after he drew controversy for exhorting an audience of young right-wing activists to “ambush” Fauci with a rhetorical “deadly” “kill shot.”
Amid the flurry of often violent public criticism, Fauci divulged that he regularly received threats. Earlier this month, a man was sentenced to more than three years in prison for sending Fauci emails with comments like “You and your entire family will be dragged into the street, beaten to death, and set on fire.”
Fauci’s retirement announcement has opened a debate about who might succeed him. But senior members of the U.S. medical establishment are warning that the right’s attacks on Fauci may limit the pool of applicants willing to try to fill his shoes.
“What keeps the former surgeon general [Jerome Adams] up at night is his fear that talented candidates won’t want these jobs after what Fauci and other public health officials have faced over the last few years,” Politico reported on Monday. “Fauci has received death threats, and his daughters have been harassed — and Adams worries that this vitriol is a big part of why Fauci is stepping down.”
When the next pandemic hits, the U.S. response might thus be hobbled, thanks to the right-wing media’s impulse to destroy a vital public servant for political gain.