One of the stranger things the Trump White House and certain of its media allies have been doing lately is a campaign against Dr. Anthony Fauci, complete with a Peter Navarro op-ed so reckless that Trump himself had to publicly disavow it.
What’s going on? If you were trying to get Donald Trump reelected, this would make no sense. Fauci is popular, and — fairly or not — is widely seen as something of a stand-in for sober-minded scientific judgment. He has not always been on the same page with the president, and that alone can be a problem in this ego-driven White House. But he has also repeatedly shown his willingness to play ball with Trump and continue working within the system rather than histrionically resigning in search of a book deal or trying to launch an investigative probe that would cripple the pandemic response team. Fauci has served under three prior Republican presidents, and two Democrats; he’s obviously not primarily a partisan, and not the type to abandon his post in pique in the midst of a pandemic. Even his public response has been the sort of more-in-sorrow-than-anger thing you say when you are trying to avoid a public fight that politically damages the president:
[I]f you talk to reasonable people in the White House, they realize that was a major mistake on their part, because it doesn’t do anything but reflect poorly on them. And I don’t think that that was their intention. I cannot figure out in my wildest dreams why they would want to do that….Ultimately, it hurts the president to do that. When the staff lets out something like that and the entire scientific and press community push back on it, it ultimately hurts the president. And I don’t really want to hurt the president…I just want to do my job. I’m really good at it. I think I can contribute. And I’m going to keep doing it.
Even leaving governance for its own sake aside, a rational supporter of Trump’s political prospects would want to maximize the public image of Trump working with Fauci and, when they disagree, doing so respectfully in light of the president’s prerogative to take a broader view of economic and social factors than the narrow view of a scientist will allow. And Fauci is still trying to help with that! In his interview with The Atlantic, he went out of his way to stress that his working relationship with Mike Pence remains solid: “My input to the president goes through the vice president. But clearly, the vice president — literally every day — is listening to what we have to say, there’s no doubt about that.”
So, why is Team MAGA — inside and outside the White House — so determined to attack Fauci and denigrate his credibility? Partly, of course, it is reflex: Fauci is an unelected expert who disagrees at times with the president, so he fits neatly into the “Deep State” framework. But what is implied and sometimes stated aloud is more nefarious: the idea that scientists and Democratic officials are engaged in some sort of conspiracy to bring down Trump by keeping the economy suppressed through the election. This makes sense as a public argument only if you already expect Trump to lose, and are trying to build a narrative of excuse and alibi for his defeat that knits everything into a shady cabal. After all, if Trump is simply tied in knots by a hostile conspiracy, that makes him look weak, and it undermines any claim that things will go better under more Trump than under Biden, whose election would presumably end the need for any such conspiracy.
Framed in those terms, this is nuts. It is of course true that politicians and other political actors and commentators on both sides are apt to view everything — including the economic effects of lockdowns and closings — through the lens of how it affects presidential politics. Political animals are political animals. Naturally, that biases Republicans in favor of wanting things open and prosperous; just as naturally, it biases Democrats in favor of wanting the economy hobbled and sputtering until November 3. It is impossible to read or listen to a lot of commentators on both sides and not catch a strong whiff of this. Undoubtedly, that bias colors the lenses that people use to evaluate the scientific and economic cases for reopening.
The problem comes when you move from “the other guy is rooting for me to fail” to “the other guys are actively engaged in a nationwide conspiracy to spike the economy.” The bias of many Democrats towards wanting things to stay difficult through the elections is one that they would angrily deny (while of course projecting the opposite on their opponents). Yes, people in politics have been known to do exactly what they deny doing, but the leap from a quietly bad motive to saying it out loud to your friends can be a hard one. And in the case of scientific professionals such as Dr. Fauci, the far simpler answer is that he has the biases of his profession towards caution. As Ramesh Ponnuru notes, both Fauci’s fans and his critics have been apt to overstate the kind of certainty that science can offer in the first place:
Science hasn’t been able to tell us to what extent and for how long to suspend normal life, or where the next viral hot spots will be — or even..how effective masks are….The backlash to Fauci, which in its wilder manifestations assumes that he is conspiring to wreck our economy, partakes of…outsized expectations of what science can tell us: If listening to him isn’t solving our problems, there must be some sinister explanation.
The conspiratorial mindset also assumes that more broadly reopening the economy would be an uncomplicated and uncontroversial task without the existence of anti-Trump animus. The problem with this theory is that it ignores similar debates roiling much of the rest of the world, from Israel to Australia, France to India, Canada to Sweden. Different countries and different localities have taken different paths. Nations with leaders of the center-left or Left have hardly followed a uniform open-it-all-up strategy, as would be the case if the only reason not to follow one was hostility to a right-populist leader.
In any event, even if you truly believe in a conspiracy that is all but certain to be impossible to prove, the rational move in the heat of a national campaign would be to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, and avoid a public rupture with Dr. Fauci. The people laying down fire against him are telling you that they think the election is lost already, and they’re more interested in giving Trump — and themselves — an alibi than in winning.