They hate Anthony Fauci because they hate the American state

Vitriol for Washington's most prominent doctor goes beyond political opportunism

An anti-vaccine mandate rally on the National Mall in Washington, on January 23. Bloomberg

A striking feature of the coronavirus pandemic as a political phenomenon in the US is a pair of strange cults centred on Dr Anthony Fauci, the unassuming 81-year-old director, since 1984, of America's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Liberal celebration of him is often exaggerated, and even neurotic. Is there really the need for such an idol? But right-wing loathing often borders on the psychotic.

There are rational explanations for why virulent hatred of Dr Fauci has become a major hallmark of right-wing discourse. But there are also deep-seated ideological and emotional aspects that, while explicable, remain deeply disturbing.

Demonstrators hold signs during an anti-vaccine mandate rally in Washington, on January 23. Bloomberg

The accusations are absolutely flabbergasting. Tucker Carlson, a host on Fox News, insists Dr Fauci was responsible for "creating" the coronavirus and he was also somehow at fault for the Aids epidemic in the 1980s, according to some leading Republican politicians.

Dr Fauci stands preposterously accused of running a campaign to torture and murder puppies. Fox News host Lara Logan compared him with vicious Nazi concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele who conducted infamous human experiments.

Her colleague Jesse Waters urged activists to “ambush” him with questions culminating in one that was called the “kill shot”, after which "Boom! He is dead!” Both Waters and the network dismissed the obvious violence of this rhetoric as purely metaphorical.

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It is not a hostility to expertise so much as to Dr Fauci's version of expertise

Wyoming Senator Anthony Bouchard went all the way, bluntly saying Dr Fauci should be killed and that only the method remained in question. “After prosecution, the chair, the gallows, or lethal injection?” he asked on Facebook.

Unsurprisingly after all that, Dr Fauci and his family have been subjected to death threats and require constant protection.

But why? Let's start with the obvious. The pandemic has been a defining feature of the past two years. It is therefore either going to be a political benefit or cost to different factions.

Unless one has an effective solution – and with this unpredictable pandemic that's not easy, as US President Joe Biden has discovered to his political cost – the simplest way of politically exploiting a crisis is to pin all blame on a villain supposedly from the other side.

Had the pandemic begun under a Democratic president, that would have been an automatic solution. Many liberals treated the previous administration, under Donald Trump, as morally culpable rather than confused, inept and completely out of its depth.

But that wouldn't work for the right because it would involve blaming Mr Trump. So, another figure was necessary and Dr Fauci was quickly identified. That was intensified as he was perceived as challenging Mr Trump's more bizarre comments, and cast as a political enemy of the beloved leader.

A demonstrator holds a sign during an anti-vaccine mandate rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, US, on January 23. Bloomberg

Since Dr Fauci is so enthusiastically embraced by most liberals, during both the Trump and Biden presidencies, it's almost axiomatic from a right-wing perspective that there's something deeply wrong with him.

But that doesn't explain the depth and violence of the hatred towards him on the far right – traditional conservative Republican senators, by contrast, generally say they like and admire Dr Fauci and don't understand the uproar.

For the first year of these attacks, Dr Fauci basically kept a low profile. But increasingly over the past 12 months, he has angrily countered condemnations of him by right-wing politicians and some media pundits.

He has proffered two main theories for why he is so viciously besieged. First, as he said explicitly to Senator Rand Paul, there is a clear fundraising element to attacks on him. Apparently shamelessly defaming him is indeed good business.

The second argument he makes is that when right-wing ideologues denounce him, “they’re really criticising science, because I represent science". This drew howls of protest from the ideological right as the height of bureaucratic arrogance, but there is plenty of truth to it.

For some on the religiously inflected right, science and fact are indeed mistrusted because they challenge the primacy of faith. But, although many liberals might think so, that is not a crucial part of the anti-Fauci cult.

Instead, most who despise him are happy to embrace other self-appointed "experts", some of whom may even have a science background, but who crucially make alternative and, for their purposes, politically useful claims. It is not a hostility to purported expertise so much as a hostility to Dr Fauci's version of expertise.

At the heart of this resentment lies not the image of a “man of science", which few can genuinely judge, but an embodiment of the state and the institutions through which it promotes shared social interests like public health.

In these pages, I recently wrote that the January 6 attack on Congress was fundamentally part of a broader assault on the American state. So is the campaign of vitriol against Dr Fauci.

Mistrust of the state and state institutions was hardwired into 20th-century western conservatism and persists. Bureaucracies run by experts were systematically painted as dystopian nightmares by conservatives, and associated with communism and all centralised adminstration.

Former communist apostates who shaped modern American conservatism such as James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers viewed the empowerment of experts such as Dr Fauci as the most frightening aspect of modern governance. In the early 1940s, Burnham wrote two remarkably silly books, The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians, about the supposed rise of a "managerial elite" dominating all modern societies, capitalist and communist alike, by controlling state and even corporate bureaucracies.

It was and remains a downright weird and paranoid fantasy in which Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and the US are merely three variations of this intolerable disaster.

So, the attacks on Dr Fauci are not simply grotesque political opportunism. They also reflect a deeply rooted, albeit often cynically feigned, terror of what – in vowing to destroy it, Mr Trump's former campaign manager Steve Bannon calls – "the administrative state".

Every momentous crisis needs a monstrous villain if it is not to be wasted. And obviously the hard right believes there are political and financial profits, as Dr Fauci accurately told Senator Paul he was cynically seeking, from vilifying him.

But at a deeper ideological level, many Americans are being convinced that they would somehow be better off without the administrative functions of the contemporary state, without health agencies and similar public services.

They may think they hate Dr Fauci and everything he stands for. But how many of his passionate detractors have ever seriously tried to imagine what modern life, completely stripped of government administration to promote the public welfare, would possibly be like?

Published: January 26, 2022, 4:00 AM