It isn’t Fauci’s fault, but he’s part of the problem

By RAMESH PONNURU | Bloomberg Opinion | Published: October 22, 2020

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The dysfunction in President Donald Trump’s relationship with Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is largely Trump’s fault. But Trump’s reckless and counterproductive behavior is not the only reason for tension between the two officials. There’s an inbuilt tension between our form of government and expertise, one that has been inflamed not only by Trump but by our society’s confusion about science.

Trump’s tirades against underlings have always been more comprehensible as expressions of frustration and rage than of political strategy, and so it is in the case of Fauci. Trump is in the closing weeks of an election that the polls have him losing to Joe Biden.

It can’t make sense for Trump to attack someone who is more popular than either of the candidates, and who remains a top adviser to the White House. Every bit of voter attention Trump directs toward his battle with Fauci is a bit that is not going to help his case against Biden.

If the attack on Fauci did make any political sense, it would be undercut by Trump’s own unwillingness to commit to it. On Monday, Trump called Fauci “a disaster” and “idiot,” views his press aide Hogan Gidley went on TV to defend.

The next morning, the president backed off, calling Fauci a “terrific guy” and denying that the two are “at odds” while still criticizing him. As is often the case, Trump gives the impression that he is lashing out rather than advancing an objective.

Fauci is serving three roles: director of his agency, adviser to the administration and commentator in the media. The first role is essentially absent from the public discussion of Fauci’s merits and demerits, even though it is the most important one he plays.

The last one is the polarizing one. The president’s critics have made him their latest saintly governmental rival to Trump; previous holders of the title include James Comey and Robert Mueller.

Trump, who dislikes being criticized or contradicted even more than most politicians do, surely resents the way his opponents have idolized Fauci. Alexander Hamilton cautioned against a president’s filling his Cabinet with “candidates … possessing the necessary insignificance and pliancy to render them the obsequious instruments of his pleasure.” That sometimes seems like the description of Trump’s ideal aide. Even under a thick-skinned president, though, there would be a conflict between Fauci’s second and third roles: between, that is, being a trusted internal adviser to an administration and an impartial external commentator on it. No president would speak as freely or listen as closely to an aide who doubles as a talking head as he would to an expert who stays behind the scenes.

It would have been better if Trump, Fauci and the press alike had recognized the conflict and realized that Fauci’s public-facing role is his least important one. Nearly everything he has said on television, from discouraging mask wearing early in the pandemic to encouraging it later, could be and has been said by dozens of other Zooming public-health experts.

One reason we listen to Fauci is that he seems to fill a vacuum. The administration hasn’t articulated a sustained strategy against COVID-19, so he’s the closest thing there is to a credible spokesman for one. This too helps explain the pettiness of many of Trump’s criticisms: It’s not as though we are watching the advocates of two different approaches to the pandemic battle it out. For the most part, Fauci and Trump are now just trash-talking each other.

Ari Schulman, the editor the New Atlantis, a journal of science and society, thinks there’s a deep issue underlying the fight over Fauci. Our culture tends to think of science, and the scientific community, in terms of “deference” or “defiance.”

Biden opts to defer. In August he told ABC that he would shut down the country if scientists recommended it. Never mind that the president lacks the power to shut down the country. Scientists may well disagree among themselves about whether a shutdown is warranted, in part because science isn’t capable of evaluating all the trade-offs involved in such a momentous decision. That’s the job of informed citizens, including those they have selected for public authority.

And while some want to “follow the science,” others are rightly made uneasy by the undemocratic and paternalistic implications of that attitude. Too often they react by going to the opposite extreme — as Schulman puts it in an interview, by “saying the experts are all corrupt so let’s throw them out.” Trump sometimes reflects, and caters to, this sentiment. Fauci thus becomes either a “pop-culture hero or a corrupt technocrat.”

It’s too great a burden for any individual official, no matter how thoughtful and accomplished he may be. Trump should talk less about Fauci. But it would be good if the rest of us could, too.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.