The real reason Republicans are still so obsessed with Dr. Fauci

Since the covid-19 pandemic began, well over 1 million Americans have died from the virus. The country’s mortality during the pandemic far exceeded that of peer nations. Millions more Americans have become sick, leaving many with long-term health problems as a result. And an entire society has become meaner and angrier in ways we still struggle to understand. 

And congressional Republicans know it was all Anthony Fauci’s fault. So on Monday, they brought the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases out of retirement to appear before the House Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic for a vigorous tongue-lashing.

Four and a half years after the pandemic began, the GOP remains obsessed with Fauci, driven by their conspiratorial worldview and need to focus on a villain on whom everything can be blamed. That obsession poisons our ability to confront real public policy challenges, including ones where lives are at stake.

With visions of YouTube clips dancing in their heads, Republican members went hard at Fauci in Monday’s hearing.

Much of Republicans’ focus Monday stemmed from the “lab-leak theory,” the idea that covid-19 originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China, and either escaped from the lab accidentally or was intentionally released by the Chinese government as a bioweapon aimed at America. Most virologists, epidemiologists and other experts believe that the virus more likely began with the transmission from animals to humans. But as Fauci said in his opening statement, it’s possible that the virus emerged out from a lab. We may never know with 100 percent certainty. 

But the GOP lawmakers had no concerns about uncertainty. They accused Fauci, in his role overseeing the National Institutes of Health, of approving NIH funding for virology research in China that created the virus and subsequently trying to cover up both the funding and the possibility of a lab leak.

With visions of YouTube clips dancing in their heads, Republican members went hard at Fauci in Monday’s hearing. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Ga., whose very presence on the committee belies its supposed seriousness, made a show of refusing to call him “Dr.,” saying “Mister Fauci, ‘cause you’re not doctor, you’re Mister Fauci in my few minutes.”

“You know what this committee should be doing?” she continued. “We should be recommending you to be prosecuted. We should be writing a criminal referral because you should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. You belong in prison.”

Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Tex., a prolific conspiracy theorist who in 2021 contended that Democrats had created a new Covid variant to help them in the 2022 midterm elections, insisted Fauci had engineered a “coverup” to conceal the truth of the lab leak theory, and suggested he might be criminally prosecuted. After the hearing ended, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the chair of the oversight committee, said, “Hopefully, we can take his words today and continue to try to gather evidence and take steps to try to hold him in criminal wrongdoing.” 

Republicans have concocted a fantasy version of the pandemic’s history in which Fauci was a dictator forcing all Americans to live by his arbitrary edicts; they even created the term “Faucism” to refer to a public health totalitarian nightmare that never actually occurred. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, the chair of the committee, told Fauci, “You became so powerful that any disagreements the public had with you were forbidden and censored on social and most legacy media.”

Blaming everything on Fauci and the lab-leak theory diverts attention from Donald Trump’s atrocious handling of the pandemic.

That is of course, false; there was never a moment when we lacked for a vigorous, even frenzied, debate about the pandemic. So why are they still so focused on Fauci? Part of the answer is that these days, Republicans — both elected officials and rank-and-file voters — just love conspiracy theories, the more elaborate and threatening the better. Once you’ve convinced yourself that nothing is ever as it seems and there are dark forces behind every major event, you can’t help but view things through that lens. There are no accidents and no coincidences, and the idea that the virus moved from an animal to humans — a random occurrence — is terribly unsatisfying. 

Another reason is that blaming everything on Fauci and the lab-leak theory diverts attention from Donald Trump’s atrocious handling of the pandemic: his attempts to dismiss it entirely, his turning over key pandemic management to his incompetent and unqualified son-in-law and his insane suggestion that people inject themselves with bleach.

By contrast, Fauci became something of a folk hero for those who, at a moment of so much fear and uncertainty, were looking for any voice of reason coming from within the Trump administration. If Trump’s critics loved Fauci, then to conservatives he had to be a villain, someone on whom they could focus all their impotent rage. Pandemic fears may have receded, but many in the GOP are determined to keep the flame of Trump victimhood alive.

Monday’s hearing took place less than a week after a Michigan farmworker became the third human to contract the H5N1 bird flu virus — and the first to show respiratory symptoms suggesting increased risk to humans. In that context, responsible lawmakers holding a hearing about the pandemic would focus on what we learned in the last pandemic. Whether or not you believe the lab-leak theory, for example, we can all agree that we should have maximally robust safety protocols to prevent any dangerous virus from escaping laboratories anywhere in the world. And there are dozens more questions about pandemic preparedness, including current testing capacity, data collection and mitigation measures.

Yet the GOP members were unconcerned with preparation. To watch Republicans whip themselves into a frenzy, it seems they believe that if they can prove that Covid came from a lab, and that Fauci was at the center of a cover-up, then their ideological project would be vindicated and they’d never lose another election. And for them that’s a far greater priority than stopping the next pandemic.

The causation is entirely unclear. Even if they’re right about the lab-leak theory — and personally I have no opinion one way or the other — what would that mean? Would it show that the Republican approach to government is superior? Would it mean that Trump did a great job on the pandemic? And how many lives would it save?

At this point, I doubt even they could tell you. All they know is that there was a conspiracy at work, Anthony Fauci was running it, and we should all be mad. As far as they’re concerned, that’s enough.