Fighting Fauci: From Ridicule to Death Threats, Attacks Continue

Kathleen Doheny

July 29, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

On Tuesday, a 56-year-old man was arrested and charged with threatening Anthony Fauci, MD, the United States' top infectious disease doctor and chief medical advisor on COVID to President Joe Biden.

In one of the reported threats, the man threatened to drag Fauci and his family into the street, beat them to death, and set them on fire.

It's one of the latest threats but far from the only example of an ongoing trend to attack Fauci.

Among others:

  • On April 1, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), introduced HR 2316, the Fire Fauci Act. It proposes reducing Fauci's salary to zero. As of July 29, 15 representatives had signed on as co-sponsors.

  • "Freedom Over Faucism" has become an ongoing rallying cry in Florida by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who opposes mask mandates, lockdowns, and other restrictions.

  • Jim Jordan (R-OH) took Fauci to task in mid April, asking him: "When do Americans get their freedom back?" He was objecting to lockdown measures and what he termed an assault on people's liberties. Fauci said his recommendations are based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and on saving lives.

  • Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Fauci had a heated exchange July 20. Paul accused Fauci of lying to Congress, claiming that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Fauci heads, funded so-called gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The research involves modifying organisms so that they gain new abilities or functions, such as making organisms more infectious. Fauci said the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provided funding to an alliance that did collaborate with the Wuhan lab, but he denied that NIH or the alliance conducted gain-of-function research.

  • On Twitter, attacks against Fauci are numerous, and hashtags such as #FireFauci and #IndictFauci are proliferating. One of Jordan's recent ones is, "More Freedom. Less Fauci."

Although many public health officials are involved in COVID-19 recommendations and guidance, Fauci is front and center. People, especially those frustrated, scared, or both, do tend to react to his advice and recommendations personally, according to political experts, a psychotherapist, and Harvard researchers who have studied how people react to bearers of bad news.

Explaining the Attacks

Fauci is ''the face of the restrictions," says A. G. Gancarski, a political reporter at Florida Politics.com, a site that covers politics in the state without expressing any particular ideology. "To me this seems to be a backlash that was a while in the making. I don't think it's particular to Fauci, I think Fauci just happens to be there. He has become the lightning rod for some conservatives' displeasure."

During the pandemic, Fauci was sometimes praised by then-president Donald Trump. But then there was that #FireFauci re-tweet. Fauci isn't the first public figure to experience the ebb and flow of praise and criticism, Gancarski said.

He cited the case of former President George W. Bush. At one point, some historians termed him the ''worst president ever," Gancarski said. More recently, polls have shown that Bush's popularity and reputation have improved. In 2018, his approval rating was nearly twice what it was when he left the White House in 2009.

As for Fauci? "I think he is going to be remembered for attempting to be a voice of reason for the pandemic by people who take this advice seriously, and others will demonize him [because his position is opposite their own]," Gancarski said.

The Psychology Behind the Attacks

Fauci's emphasis on the seriousness of the pandemic is understandably frightening, says Jeffrey B. Rubin, PhD, a New York psychotherapist and book author. "I think Fauci is a huge threat to their sense of the world. Fauci is perceived as a danger because a key part of fighting him is warding off realities," Rubin said.

"When you fight Fauci, you preserve a very particular sense of reality that denies tangible scientific facts," he said. And that particular sense of reality that ignores science is much less scary, of course.

As for the slogans that have picked up steam and are often repeated — Freedom Over Faucism and Fire Fauci — ''it's the kind of slogan that cuts off a person's ability to think," Rubin said. "They get mesmerized by the false framing. You begin to believe the delusion because it's too scary to believe the facts."

Whether consciously or not, he said, people ''are preserving their sense of the universe that is threatened if they let in the facts." Demonizing Fauci preserves their sense of the world, Rubin added.

"Central to our human identity is our sense of reality. When someone threatens that, people hang on for dear life." For some people, Fauci is a threat to their reality, Rubin said.

Shooting the Messenger: What Research Has Found

Since the pandemic began, Fauci has constantly been in the hot seat, the official who delivers news that's often bad ― about rising case counts and deaths, overflowing hospitals, burned out healthcare professionals, the arrival of new variants, and the recommendations to stay home, mask up, and forget about travel.

Research from Harvard published in 2019 found that bearers of bad news often trigger a bad reaction from those who have to listen to that unwelcome news.

"Our research suggests that people are prone to distrust and dislike bearers of bad news — even when those bearers had no role in causing that bad thing to happen," says Leslie K. John, PhD, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. John conducted 11 experiments with two colleagues on this topic.

Fauci didn't cause the pandemic we're in. But our research suggests that nonetheless, we may, if only implicitly, blame him for it. Dr Leslie John

In one experiment, participants rated messengers who delivered bad news as ''relatively unlikeable." The reaction is distinct from receiving information that one simply disagrees with, John found. She suggests that people's tendency to term bearers of bad news unlikeable "stems in part from their desire to make sense of chance processes."

The investigators found that when the bad news is not expected, the dislike of the messenger is even greater.

That dislike decreases, the researchers found, if the recipients of the bad news are made aware of the good motives of the messenger.

"Fauci didn't cause the pandemic we're in," John said in an email interview. "But our research suggests that nonetheless, we may, if only implicitly, blame him for it. As a result, unfortunately, people are prone to derogating Fauci and to viewing him with contempt."

Sources

The Hill: "Man charged with threatening Fauci, NIH director."

Journal of Experimental Psychology: "Shooting the messenger."

Yahoo News: "Florida governor Ron DeSantis mocks new mask guidance and vows no more lockdowns."

A.G. Gancarski, political reporter, FloridaPolitics.com

Jeffrey B. Rubin, PhD, New York psychotherapist and author.

Leslie K. John, PhD, professor of business administration, Harvard Business School, Boston.

Congress.gov: "H.R. 2316 ― Fire Fauci Act."

PBS Newshour: "Man charged with threatening Fauci, Collins and their families."

Youtube.com

Politico:"Trump's #FireFauci retweet spurs a cycle of outrage and a White House denial."

CNN.com: "George W. Bush's favorable rating has pulled a complete 180."

Twitter.

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