Donald Trump has finally encountered someone he can’t use his famous “you’re fired” line on. The man who’s immune is Dr. Anthony Fauci, the mild-mannered epidemiologist who knows more about pandemics than just about anyone in the world except, of course, Trump, the only person in the world who could spend four days in intensive care on oxygen, pumped with experimental drugs, and not get the point that COVID-19 isn’t the flu.
“Guy’s a disaster” and an “idiot,” a miffed Trump whined on a call with campaign aides and a few reporters the morning after Fauci appeared on CBS where he dropped any pretense that Trump can be trusted to control the virus. Trump noticed. “Every time he goes on television,” Trump complained about Fauci’s interview on 60 Minutes—”there’s always a bomb, but there’s a bigger bomb if you fire him.”
For once Trump is telling the truth, about the firing part that is, and there’s a sheaf of polls in which Fauci’s approval swamps Trump’s to prove it. This flash of reality may mean Trump’s coming down from the steroids and won’t be arm-dancing to YMCA again, or maybe he just saw a clip of himself. It definitely means that Trump still reveres old media like Bob Woodward, CBS (he gave his inaugural interview to Lesley Stahl), and Time magazine, whose inside pieces he framed as if he were on the cover. Not so Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, a rag he can get ink in anytime he wants—witness the scurrilous piece, complete with a planted hard drive, on Hunter Biden that no other legitimate news organization would touch.
Among his other 60 Minutes hits, Fauci said he absolutely wasn’t surprised Trump got the virus after his superspreader events, including the Rose Garden one for Amy Coney Barrett. He advised against rallies with the capacity to turn swing-state cities into killing fields, and suggested earlier that we might be eating alone this Thanksgiving. He explained that Trump’s continued refusal to wear a mask arises from his fear of looking weak. No one hates being seen as weak more than a man who is.
On top of that, Fauci got star treatment, a real man cooking an Italian meal for his wife, head of a bioethics institution, and looking like he does it all the time, and taking a walk near their house which they now do with armed guards since they and their children have received death threats of the sort Gov. Gretchen Whitmer received after Trump told militias to Liberate Michigan!
Fauci has served six presidents with high honors, happily, until he met his seventh, which at best is a forced marriage. Trump doesn’t know what to make of a man like Fauci, happy with one wife, the hair God gave him, and a house without a hint of gold in a leafy, middle-class neighborhood. For decades he did an admirable job building an institution that’s the envy of the world. But Trump likes people who don’t get stuck in a government job for 50 years, turning down Cabinet-level jobs to stay where he could do the most good, declining offers from the private sector for a seven-figure salary. To Trump, those who give their lives to public service are chumps. Those who die doing it are suckers.
The wonder is that Trump thinks he got in a good one at Fauci when most of his punches now land on himself. For a long time, Fauci’s respect for the office, his mild-mannered temperament, and fear of losing any influence over the president kept him from calling out Trump’s egregious behavior. It didn’t work, as Mad Dog Jim Mattis and General John Kelly, who only now tells us Trump is the most incompetent person he’s ever met, could have told him. “He’s a Democrat and Cuomo’s friend, and I inherited him,” Trump complains, but he knows Fauci, twice as popular as he is, has to stay for now.
On Monday The Washington Post reported crippling “discord, infighting and lethargy” at the coronavirus task force after Trump sidelined Fauci in favor of an unknown radiologist, late of Fox, operating outside his narrow field, who believes in herd immunity and in lodging in Trump’s airy head baseless claims like 85 percent of people who wear masks get infected anyway. He’s helping Trump deliver us to days darker than those in the spring, when we at least had the hope that hunkering down would make it safe to go out later. Back then, as Fauci was explaining his three-phased reopening to keep Trump from rashly reopening for Easter church services, Trump was telling friendly governors to ignore the doctor, and they did. If only Fauci had revolted then.
It’s hard for a traditionalist like Fauci to know what to do with an unprepared, unsophisticated, and corrupt authoritarian like Trump who arrived in government from The Apprentice, a show that made him famous enough in a peculiar, singular moment to get to the White House, but looks at the moment insufficient to keep him there. By the time he got to his next superspreader rally in Arizona, Trump accused Fauci of making “a lot of bad calls during the pandemic,” decidedly false, and that he’s “a nice guy,” both true but fake, an empty compliment to keep other Fauci bombs from detonating while multiple ones threaten him at this week’s last debate Thursday.
Trump is reportedly practicing for it by squelching his desire to interrupt Joe Biden loudly and incessantly and leaving enough room for Biden to commit one of the gaffes Trump keeps promising his cognitively impaired opponent is prone to. Just because no one’s tried silence as a debate strategy before doesn’t mean there isn’t a first time for everything.
Fauci, apolitical though he be, will surely be watching. He must know the awful truth that all the mask-wearing and hand-washing in all the world by people of goodwill who follow the rules can’t defeat the virus alone. That can only happen if Trump is defeated first.