Dr. Anthony Fauci's emails, released through a Freedom of Information Act request, are a Rorschach test. To Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), they revealed the nation's top infectious expert — and his frequent sparring partner — to be a liar. "Told you," Paul said. "Can't wait to see the media try to spin the Fauci FOIA emails."
On cue, CNN tweeted, "Thousands of emails from and to Dr. Fauci reveal the weight that came from his role as a rare source of frank honesty within the Trump administration's COVID-19 task force." That's not how most conservatives view the email exchanges about masks or theories about the virus' origins. Where liberals see a beleaguered official, conservatives see in the emails private counsel that is more equivocal than Fauci's public pronouncements, when not diametrically opposed.
How did Fauci go from being one of the few unifying figures of the past year to just another political punching bag? Some of it wasn't his fault. The polarization predated him. The mandatory masking and forced business closures were always going to be controversial policies. And it was precisely the people who were most skeptical of Donald Trump who were going to look to Fauci, venerating him as a secular saint until he was a devil to the other side.
But Fauci did seem to enjoy his fame, however much the pandemic weighed on him, and over time embraced his role as long-suffering straight man to Trump's bleach-drinking routine. Trump couldn't have been easy to work for and was clearly chafing under the restrictions that ruined the economic boom that gave him the best chance of being re-elected. Yet Fauci's media approach was inevitably going to alienate millions of Trump supporters, whose cooperation on things like the vaccine was necessary.
Fauci also dispensed advice like a parent who doesn't tell a child the whole story but rather a simplified version to motivate correct behavior — a strategy that is effective until the holes in the story become apparent. Information changes, but Fauci relied on people seeing science as wisdom passed on from authority figures rather than a discovery process. "The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus," he privately wrote in February 2020. Months later he would attribute his public insistence early in the pandemic of the same idea to worrisome PPE shortages, not his own changing mind.
To many conservatives, America's doctor quickly became just another bureaucrat who couldn't shoot — or talk — straight.