Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is on the outs with the president. Fauci has said that he hasn’t seen Donald Trump since the first week of June; people in the White House are reportedly circulating material aimed at puncturing his public profile. “In a remarkable broadside by the Trump administration against one of its own, a White House official said Sunday that ‘several White House officials are concerned about the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things,’” NBC’s Josh Lederman and Kelly O’Donnell wrote Sunday. “The official gave NBC News a list of nearly a dozen past comments by Fauci that the official said had ultimately proven erroneous.” In an appearance on Meet the Press, the White House’s testing czar, Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir, said that Fauci “doesn’t necessarily—and he admits that—have the whole national interest in mind.” On Wednesday, Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro went further in a USA Today op-ed, writing that Fauci “has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on.”
The White House has insisted that Navarro went “rogue” and his op-ed was not sanctioned by the administration. But Trump himself has been dismissing or contradicting Fauci’s more pessimistic remarks since the pandemic began. Last week, Trump’s critiques in interviews with Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren were pointed. Fauci, he told Hannity, “is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes.” It’s true that Fauci, like many, initially underestimated the severity and contagiousness of the virus, but it goes without saying that Trump isn’t losing sleep over the accuracy of the White House’s messaging here. “Several White House aides view Fauci’s interviews as unhelpful,” The Washington Post reported Saturday, “and say they’re frustrated he has expressed interest in appearing on programs such as MSNBC’s ‘Rachel Maddow Show,’ which are hostile to the administration.”
It’s plain why Trump and his loyalists are losing their patience: The American people are far more interested in hearing from Fauci, wherever he appears, than they are in hearing the administration’s line on how the pandemic is going. A June poll from The New York Times showed that 67 percent of American voters, including 51 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of independents, trusted Fauci on the coronavirus, while only 26 percent trusted Trump. The president would much rather have his officials sounding like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who’s backed his push to fully reopen schools. This is the kind of unyielding support he believes might make our mounting death toll go down more smoothly with voters.
A remarkable fandom has sprung up around Fauci over the last several months. A petition to make him People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” garnered 15,000 signatures in April; his face graces both bobbleheads and devotional candles. It’s highly reminiscent of the hullabaloo surrounding Robert Mueller before the release of his report last year—“Mueller Time” caps and patches are still widely available—as well as the praise heaped upon the parade of civil service and military witnesses who testified against Trump during his impeachment hearings. Sally Yates and James Comey each had their season; since the pandemic began, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been Fauci’s formidable rival for the affections of the press.
Under Trump, a general respect for good, competent people just doing their jobs has been distended into a vague faith that competence itself might symbolically or literally represent the administration’s undoing and a return to reason—all the more so when the people in question emerge as dissenters from the administration itself. But in Fauci’s case, the numbers on trust suggest there are many Americans who take Fauci seriously and support Trump anyway; in general, almost a quarter of voters who intend to vote for Trump do not consider the president particularly honest.
Given this, Trump’s growing concern about Fauci seems strange. He’s heretofore understood quite well that the truthful pronouncements of experts can only go so far and that they never in themselves shape political outcomes. As awkward as it might be to contend with a competing message coming from his own administration, the fundamental challenge now facing him isn’t a communicative one. The problem is that the pandemic, as a lived reality—as opposed to what is being said about it in the press, in Trump’s tweets, and in the White House’s communiqués—is spiraling out of control in ways that even constituencies once friendly to the president are finding difficult to ignore. Well over three million people have been infected and well over 100,000 are dead; 100,000 small businesses are gone; over 20 million people might be evicted from their homes between now and September. Trump has yet to demonstrate that he might bluster and misdirect his way through this; if Fauci simply vanished tomorrow, he wouldn’t be standing on any firmer ground.
In a column Tuesday, The Washington Post’s Daniel Drezner argued that Fauci has offered an example of “how technocrats can also use candor as a way to preserve credibility,” that might be more broadly useful as right-wing populism spreads around the globe. “It is telling that even as voter trust in Trump’s handling of the pandemic has dropped like a stone, Fauci is trusted enough to have Americans listen to him,” he wrote. “Trump’s more loyal subordinates have hardly inspired confidence. Candor is hardly the preserve of the populist. Consider this a sign that even in Trump’s America, well-executed technocratic leadership is both better and better-liked by the populace.”
But “Trump’s America” has never actually contained a majority of Americans who support Trump, his policies, or his approach to politics. The country’s Faucis have long been more popular than its right-wing demagogues. We should see this as emblematic not of how facts and reason might ultimately prevail but of how little they can functionally matter when pitted against a minority disproportionately empowered by our political system and by material and social forces more central to politics than the opinions of experts ever will be. Trump is losing ground, and voters may well hand the presidency to a Democratic nominee chosen partially because he projects sensibility and stability. But Joe Biden owes his position in the polls largely to a real collapse in the country’s material situation; the race between projected competence and wild ignorance was a tighter one mere months ago, and ignorance may well win the day even if Biden takes the White House. We’re headed for dark times, and it seems unlikely that Fauci candles will light the way ahead.