President Trump has stepped up his war on science, facts and reality. And he’s losing.
His latest disaster is to pick a fight with Dr. Anthony Fauci, his own administration’s leading expert on infectious diseases, blocking him from major TV appearances and issuing a hit piece that documents the times Fauci has underestimated the impact of COVID-19. “Dr. Fauci is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes,” Trump told Sean Hannity on Fox.
The attacks are not working. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found that 67% of Americans trusted the information they received from Fauci about the pandemic, compared with 26% who trusted Trump.
An ABC News/Ipsos poll reports that only 33% approve of the president’s handling of the coronavirus, with 67% disapproving. Strikingly, more than 1 out of 5 Republicans now express disappointment at his performance — more than double the number just a month ago. Three out of 5 Americans say the “push to reopen the economy is moving too quickly,” with only 15% agreeing with Trump that “the country is moving too slowly.”
“It’s shocking,” Janis Orlowski, chief health care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, tells the Washington Post. “When you begin to discredit scientists like Fauci, who are national treasures, you are in serious trouble.”
Here’s why she’s right: A significant slice of Americans who voted for Trump — or at least against Hillary Clinton — are simply tuning him out and turning him off. When the president disputes Fauci’s predictions about the virus, insisting instead that it will “disappear” shortly, they know he’s lying because they see it in their own towns, families and lives.
Trump has always bluffed and blustered his way past reality — exaggerating his intelligence and his wealth, his crowd sizes and vote totals, while demeaning his enemies. He entered politics by promoting a vile untruth that exploited racist and nativist impulses: the “birther” myth that Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya and ineligible to be president.
Since taking office, according to Washington Post fact-checkers, the Lord of the Lies has made more than 20,000 “false and misleading claims,” and “the tsunami of untruths just keeps looming larger and larger.”
But he can’t bluff a virus. He can’t bluster his way past a disease that has infected close to 3.5 million Americans and killed almost 140,000. And he cannot blame Fauci, or anybody else, for his catastrophic failure of leadership. The buck, and the luck, stops with the president, no matter how many times he says, “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
Fauci is hardly the first administration official to trigger a presidential temper tantrum. Trump has regularly trashed many original members of his cabinet — Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and defense chief Jim Mattis — plus Chief of Staff John Kelly and two national security advisers, H.R. McMaster and John Bolton. (Their collective view of their former boss was best summed up by Bolton on ABC: “I don’t think he’s fit for office. I don’t think he has the competence to carry out the job.”)
Tony Fauci is not a czar. His scientific perspective is essential in reacting smartly to the virus, but it’s not the only one. Economies that stay locked down too long shutter businesses, cost jobs and devastate working families. Schools that don’t reopen in the fall will damage students and drive parents crazy.
And Fauci has not always been right. In the early days of the pandemic, he underestimated its power, counseling against wearing masks and telling Americans, “There is no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day-to-day basis.”
Leave aside the obvious irony that if Fauci was making “a lot of mistakes,” Trump was cheering on his overly optimistic predictions. The critical difference is that Fauci is devoted to facts, not fantasies. He changed and evolved his views as new evidence emerged, even when it contradicted the president’s prejudices and political self-interest.
Just one example of Fauci’s truth-telling: “As a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don’t think you can say we’re doing great. I mean, we’re just not,” he told the podcast “FiveThirtyEight.”
Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, described Fauci’s approach to the Post this way: “That’s called science, not a mistake. The real deadly mistake is not listening to science.”
The public clearly agrees with him. As Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser tweeted, “In Fauci we trust.”
(Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.)