July 29, 2021 -- A 56-year-old man was arrested Tuesday and charged with threatening Anthony Fauci, MD, the United States' top infectious disease doctor and chief medical advisor on COVID-19 to President Joe Biden.
In one of the threats reportedly made, a man threatened to drag Fauci and his family into the street, beat them to death, and set them on fire.
It's far from the only example of an ongoing trend to attack Fauci.
- On April 1, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), introduced H.R. 2316, the Fire Fauci Act. It proposes reducing Fauci's salary to zero. As of July 29, 15 Republican lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors.
- "Freedom over Faucism" has become an ongoing rallying cry in Florida by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who opposes mask mandates, lockdowns, and other restrictions.
- Rep. 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 CDC guidance and on saving lives.
- Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Fauci had a heated exchange July 20, with Rand accusing Fauci of lying to Congress, claiming that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Fauci heads, funded ''gain of function" research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The research involves modifying organisms so they gain new abilities or functions, such as making organisms more infectious. Fauci says the NIH provided funding to an alliance that did collaborate with the Wuhan lab, but denied that NIH or the alliance conducted ''gain of function" research.
- On Twitter, attacks against Fauci are numerous, with hashtags such as #FireFauci and #IndictFauci proliferating. One of Jordan's recent ones is "More Freedom. Less Fauci."
While many public health officials are involved in COVID-19 recommendations and guidance, Fauci is front-and-center. Some people, especially those frustrated, scared, or both, 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 the bearer of bad news.
Explaining the Attacks
Fauci is ''the face of the restrictions," says A.G. Gancarski, a reporter at FloridaPolitics.com, a site that covers politics in the state. "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 says. "He has become the lightning rod for some conservatives' displeasure."
Fauci isn't the first public figure to experience the ebb-and-flow of praise and criticism, Gancarski said.
He cites the case of former president George W. Bush. At one point, some historians termed him the ''worst president" ever, Gancarski says. But more recently, polls show his popularity and reputation have improved, with an approval rating in 2018 nearly double 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 he is opposite their position]," Gancarski says.
The Psychology Behind the Attacks
Fauci's emphasis on the seriousness of the pandemic is understandably frightening to some people, 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."
"When you fight Fauci, you preserve a very particular sense of reality that denies tangible scientific facts," Rubin saysd.
But 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 says. "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 says, 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 says.
"Central to our human identity is our sense of reality. When someone threatens that, people hang on for dear life." And for some people, Fauci is a threat to their reality, Rubin says.
Shooting the Messenger: What Research Has Found
Since the pandemic began, Fauci has constantly been in the hot seat, the official to deliver news that's often bad -- about rising case counts and deaths, overflowing hospitals, burned out health care providers, 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 who conducted 11 experiments with two colleagues on this topic.
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."
When the bad news is not expected, the dislike of the messenger is even greater, the team found.
However, that dislike decreases if the recipients of the bad news are made aware of the good motives of the messenger, the researchers found.
"Fauci didn't cause the pandemic we're in," John says 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."