The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fauci becomes the political scapegoat Trump always wanted him to be

Anthony S. Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease expert, responds to a question from Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) during a House select subcommittee hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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There’s an unavoidable element of politics that involves making dramatic speeches and ginning up demonstrative outrage at opponents, real and perceived.

Some politicians are good at this, ably weaving emotion into their rhetoric. Then there is the one who represents Ohio’s 4th Congressional District.

That would be Rep. Jim Jordan (R), who has made often-clunky outrage a standard part of his politicking in recent years. The Ohio congressman’s national profile has risen as his performative condemnations of former president Donald Trump’s enemies have earned him media attention and Trump’s vocal support. In 2016, Jordan appeared on Fox News for 83 minutes according to the Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer. In 2017, he was up to 413 minutes. In 2018, 925 minutes. By 2019, Jordan spent 961 minutes on Fox News, either being interviewed or appearing in news coverage: two-and-a-half minutes a day.

In a hearing focused on ending the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, Jordan directed his well-practiced ire at the country’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci.

“Dr. Fauci, when is the time?” Jordan began. “In your written statement you say now is not the time to pull back on masking, physical distancing and avoiding congregate settings. When is the time? When do Americans get their freedom back?”

Ignoring the way in which the question was loaded, Fauci explained that he would not advocate scaling back mask-wearing or distancing with infections at their current level.

“What is low enough? Give me a number,” Jordan replied. “I mean, we had 15 days of ‘slow the spread’ turn into one year of lost liberty. What metrics, what measures, what has to happen before Americans get more freedom?”

Jordan was referring to the Trump administration’s brief embrace of distancing efforts last March, something Trump quickly set aside in his eagerness to get the country’s economy back at full strength before the 2020 election. His framing — containing the virus vs. freedom — is a not-uncommon one on the right, however false the choice it offers.

“My message, Congressman Jordan, is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can to get the level of infection in this country low, that it is no longer a threat,” Fauci replied. “That is when.”

On April 15, Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, claimed Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) was using coronavirus pandemic as a personal attack. (Video: The Washington Post)

The subtext to Fauci’s statement is that it’s Republicans who remain the political group most resistant to being vaccinated. A large percentage of Republicans say they don’t plan to be vaccinated at any point — meaning that efforts to reach a level of immunity where the virus can’t spread easily (and, therefore, containment measures aren’t needed) will be slower to arrive.

But Jordan kept going, telling Fauci that the liberties of Americans have been “assaulted” and asking Fauci if he believed that “the Constitution is suspended during a virus.” There’s an important question buried in Jordan’s performance: When can America expect us to get back to normal? But the answer is an unsatisfying one — soon, hopefully — and the question itself buried under all of Jordan’s fury.

It’s useful to recognize that attacks on Fauci like Jordan’s are directly linked to that Republican rejection of the coronavirus vaccine. Over the first few weeks of the pandemic last year, Trump and Fauci were generally acting in sync. Behind the scenes, we later learned, Fauci was often frustrated by Trump’s approach. And, soon, that latent tension came into the open. By summer, Trump’s team was actively undermining Fauci, presenting him as the face of the government scolds who prioritized containing the virus over a resumption of normal activity.

Trump, reelection looming, wanted to downplay the toll of the virus and shift blame for unpopular restrictions elsewhere. It was an approach that clearly didn’t help his reelection chances.

One result, however, is that Fauci became and remains an unpopular figure among Republicans. Early last spring, Republican confidence in his advice was about even with confidence overall, even as Republicans were much more likely to express confidence in Trump’s own medical advice. By late May, though, Republican confidence in Fauci had plunged. After Trump lost his reelection — and, relatedly, after Republicans had to temper criticism of the sitting administration — Fauci’s position with Republicans sank even further.

That drop in Republican confidence has dragged down the overall confidence in Fauci’s advice. Last April, Republicans were about 1.5 times as likely to express confidence in Trump’s advice over Fauci’s. Now, that gap has doubled: Republicans are three times as likely to express confidence in Trump’s advice.

Fauci has become what Trump always wanted him to be: the scapegoat for unpopular government recommendations. With Trump no longer bearing responsibility for where that particular buck stops, his supporters’ views of Fauci have dropped even further.

So we see incidents like the one on Thursday, where Jordan felt comfortable in using Fauci as a foil for his liberties-vs.-lives crusade. In a very real way, it was simply the House version of Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) repeated clashes with Fauci, public fights that have generated a lot of publicity for the Kentucky senator.

Fauci is in this position largely because he is the best-known, most-senior official in the government who might find himself facing questions from Congress. President Biden isn’t going to roll up to a House hearing for Jordan to yell at. So Jordan and Paul use Fauci as the unpopular-with-their-base face of an unpopular-with-their-base set of recommendations.

One correlated result? Skepticism from that base about Fauci’s recommendations, like getting vaccinated. And, therefore, an inability by Fauci to give a concrete answer to Jordan’s timeline question.