Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID): "I became the enemy of the far right, which is still true to this day.”

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID): "I became the enemy of the far right, which is still true to this day.”

Foto:

Shayan Asgharnia / DER SPIEGEL

"The Evil in the World" Anthony Fauci's Life as a Right Wing Target

He has been an adviser to seven presidents, and he played a major role in protecting millions of people from AIDS. Now, pandemic expert Anthony Fauci is stepping down – as one of the most loved, and most hated, medical professionals of all time.

It was shortly before Christmas when the man from California set off on his deadly mission. He loaded his AR-15 assault rifle into his car, along with ammunition and a grappling hook. Then he hit the gas, heading for Washington, D.C., on the other side of the country. His hitlist included U.S. President Joe Biden – and his chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci.

Police ended up pulling over the 25-year-old in Iowa for reckless driving and discovered his crazy plan.

That incident took place almost a year ago, but the most famous medical professional in the United States still isn’t completely safe. On the contrary, he is facing just as much hostility as ever. His life is in danger, as is that of his wife and daughters – and he can’t make a single move without his security detail.

DER SPIEGEL 46/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 46/2022 (November 12th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

This despite the fact that the 81-year-old Fauci is really just a doctor and medical researcher, a man who describes himself as being "completely apolitical." He has served as an adviser to seven presidents, beginning with Ronald Reagan, and has been part of the fight against such diseases as AIDS and Ebola. During his lifetime, it seems fair to say that Fauci has saved the lives of more than 20 million people, primarily through his groundbreaking research on HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Under his leadership, the basis for the coronavirus vaccine from Moderna was developed. He has been showered with awards. And almost every medical student in the world knows his name, because for 40 years, he has been one of the editors of "Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine," the most important textbook for doctors in training. Biden appointed him as his chief medical adviser.

For almost four decades, Tony Fauci – very few people call him Anthony – has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). He will go down in history as the most famous immunologist in the world – and as a scientist who has been both venerated and loathed to a degree never seen before.

Fauci, though, had the misfortune of becoming the face of the U.S. medical community during the coronavirus pandemic. And that put him at odds with then-President Donald Trump, for whom, in the election year of 2020, the pandemic was an extremely unwelcome intrusion. It did not disappear "like a miracle," as Trump promised his followers that it would in late February 2020. Fauci immediately made his disagreement with that prediction clear. "In no way was it going to disappear like magic," says Fauci today. "I had to say that publicly."

It didn’t take long for Trump to turn on his senior pandemic adviser, calling Fauci a "disaster," among many other insults – and Trump began hinting that he was going to fire Fauci. "All of the president’s people started to attack me," Fauci recalls. "I became the enemy of the far right, which is still true to this day." Particularly since Trump went on to lose the election. A scapegoat was needed.

"I told Reagan things that he didn’t like," Fauci says, "But he was OK. He respected me for it." Fauci says he also told the two Bushes and other presidents things they didn’t want to hear. "As the years went by, they gained a lot of respect for me because they knew I would always tell them the truth."

Anthony Fauci receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2008: "As the years went by, they gained a lot of respect for me because they knew I would always tell them the truth.”

Anthony Fauci receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2008: "As the years went by, they gained a lot of respect for me because they knew I would always tell them the truth.”

Foto: IMAGO

People who are consistently forthright, though, don’t fit well into the Trumpian world. The president essentially declared open season on Fauci, and the senior medical professional quickly became a favored target of Republican politicians. The unhinged party began seeing him as the source of all pandemic-related suffering, including the struggling economy and mental health afflictions. He was even blamed by some for having developed SARS-CoV-2 in a laboratory as part of an unholy alliance with China, an allegation that produced the nickname "FauXi.”

And the Republicans haven’t backed down, with many showing a predilection for Fauci-bashing in the recently ended midterm election campaign. Novelist J.D. Vance, for example, referred to Fauci during his campaign as a "tyrant," and voters in Ohio rewarded him with a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Lauren Boebert, a Republican Representative from Colorado who sympathizes with the QAnon conspiracy theory and identifies as a born-again Christian, a woman who posed as a gun-toting mommy during the campaign, said that "the world came to a screeching halt because of the Fauci-funded China virus." She wants to see Fauci dragged into court and prosecuted.

"In Florida, we are going to tell Fauci to go to hell!"

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis: "Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis: "Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac.”

Foto: Octavio Jones / Getty Images

Nebraska’s newly elected governor, Jim Pillen, isn’t particularly interested in a drawn-out trial. In one campaign ad, he goes after Biden before then saying: "And Fauci, don’t get me started." He then lifts his shotgun and chambers a round.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told supporters during the campaign that "in Florida, we are going to tell Fauci to go to hell!” He, too, has said he would like to see the medical doctor locked up – part of a Republican right wing that vociferously denounces what it terms "Faucism." DeSantis easily won his re-election battle.

How has all this hatred affected Fauci? Sitting in his office at NIAID, a wiry man with carefully parted white hair and a discerning suit, he says: "I wouldn’t say that it hurts." He adheres to the maxim from the mafia book "The Godfather," in which a mafioso advises the hot-headed Sonny Corleone not to take things personally. It’s all just part of business. It’s the same with DeSantis and the rest, says Fauci, just political campaigning. Nothing personal.

A relaxed Fauci leans back in his chair. He is still in the same office he moved into back in 1984 as director of the institute – and in which he has worked for six-and-a-half days a week since then, up to 18 hours at a stretch. Photos cover the walls: Fauci with Ronald Reagan, Fauci with Barbara Streisand, Fauci at the UN General Assembly with George W. Bush, with AIDS activists, with Bill Clinton in Aspen, with Magic Johnson, in the Situation Room with Barack Obama, the list goes on and on. Meetings, honors: a gallery of a life full of triumphs.


"They Harass My Daughters"

Does Fauci see varying levels of depravity when it comes to the attacks lobbed against him? What about the following sentence, also from Ron DeSantis: "Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac."

"I think it’s kind of silly to make fun of somebody’s height. That’s juvenile," says Fauci. He laughs. "My wife loves my height. That’s the only one I care about." He met his wife, Christine Grady, back in the 1980s when she was working as a nurse and he was a doctor in the same clinic. But that’s where the cliché comes to an end: Grady, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, leads the bioethical department of the NIH Clinical Center.

To understand Fauci’s serenity, it is helpful to remember that he is a marathon runner with a notoriously low resting pulse rate of 52. Even as a child, Tony, the son of a Brooklyn pharmacist with Italian roots, played baseball in the summers and basketball in the winter. Once he started his career, he would use his lunch breaks for a quick five-mile run. It was a ritual that he only brought to an end shortly before the coronavirus pandemic due to backpain. Now, he goes for a three or four-mile powerwalk.

“They harass my daughters. They know their addresses, they know where they work.”

Anthony Fauci

Fauci says that he was unprepared for the magnitude and vehemence of the wave of hatred he has faced since the Trump presidency.

Fauci says that he was unprepared for the magnitude and vehemence of the wave of hatred he has faced since the Trump presidency.

Foto:

Shayan Asgharnia / DER SPIEGEL

While Fauci doesn’t take the insults from his opponents personally, he is less sanguine about the consequences of these verbal onslaughts, saying they pave the way for violent acts against him and his family. "They harass my daughters. They know their addresses, they know where they work." And, he says, they send menacing messages: "sexually explicit stuff, threats, you know 'we’re going to kill you.'" One of the perpetrators was sentenced to 37 months in prison, says Fauci. The guy wrote to Fauci and his wife that their family would be "dragged into the street, beaten to death and set on fire." Fauci’s take? "That to me is just the evil in the world."

Does that mean that he is constantly living in fear for his life? "You know," Fauci says, "for some strange reason, I don’t fear for my own life."

On Christmas Eve, Fauci will be turning 82 years old. And shortly after that, as 2022 draws to a close, he will be leaving his position at the NIAID. After 38 years. In disbelief, Fauci looks up into the green leaves of his Yucca palm. The plant, he says as he leans forward to hold his hand knee-high off the ground, was "this small" when his wife gave it to him when he moved into the office. Now, it has expanded to take over pretty much the entire office, like a kraken, wherever it wants: reaching out toward the desk, towards the corner seating, into the middle of the room. A dozen bungee cords are holding it back from completely taking over the office.

"I don’t know how we’re going to get it out of here in one piece," Fauci says. He means at the end of the year, when everything must go.

Him too.


Virus Models and Bobblehead Dolls

Has nostalgia already set in as he glances around his office? The tall shelves are crammed with decades-worth of textbook editions. Next to virus models made of bright plush or plastic, there are Fauci bobblehead dolls. More than 60 medals are lined up on the windowsill, while a conglomeration of colorful ID tags for visits to conferences threatens to cripple his desk lamp.

Really, all the immunologist has to do when he steps down at the end of December is just grab his bag and head out. What remains behind would make for a perfect Fauci museum.

Fauci can look back on a tremendously successful career, one-of-a-kind in today’s world. But the last few years have produced a bitter aftertaste. The coronavirus transformed the medical professional into a target. He became the focus of an enmity that he didn’t earn.

It wasn’t of course, the first time that Fauci had come under attack. Back in the 1980s, he was the focus of hostility from AIDS activists who felt he wasn’t doing enough to investigate the deadly epidemic and find treatments. But nothing prepared him for the sheer magnitude and vehemence of the wave of hatred he has been faced with since Trump’s presidency.

“Before he died, Kramer told me that he loved me and I’m the biggest hero that he’s met.”

Anthony Fauci, speaking about the playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer

And the events surrounding the AIDS pandemic aren’t really comparable anyway, he says. Fauci says that the activists had good reasons for going after him back then. At the time, the approval of new medications was strictly regulated and could take several years. But infected young men were dying within just a few months.

The activists chose Fauci as the focus of their ire with the medical establishment. They adopted insults ("Murderer! Incompetent idiot!") and held protests in an attempt to get his attention. In response, Fauci invited them to a meeting and listened to their complaints – "one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life."

Despite significant opposition, he changed the way clinical research was done in the U.S., and AIDS patients were given the opportunity to benefit from experimental medications more quickly. Today, leaders of the campaigns back then are full of praise for Fauci. And many of them, in part thanks to him, managed to survive the disease for many years – like the playwright Larry Kramer. "Before he died," says Fauci, Kramer told him "that he loved me and I’m the biggest hero that he’s met."

Fauci at an AIDS conference in San Francisco in 1989: "One of the best things I've ever done in my life."

Fauci at an AIDS conference in San Francisco in 1989: "One of the best things I've ever done in my life."

Foto:

Deanne Fitzmaurice / Hearst Newspapers / Getty Images

The dynamic during the corona crisis, however, has been rather different, with the Republicans turning every mistake – and mistakes happen during pandemics – into a gigantic scandal. Such as "Maskgate." Fauci initially recommended against masks for the population at large since there was hardly any scientific evidence for their effectivity at the time – but significant concerns that widespread use of masks would create shortages for medical professionals.

When it became clear that masks worked, Fauci quickly changed his recommendation. And the Republicans immediately went after him as a flip-flopper. Which then led Governor DeSantis to sell flipflops on his campaign website with the slogan: "Freedom over Fauci."

In the world of science, of course, correcting one’s positions is seen as a sign of integrity. In politics, by contrast, it is a sign of weakness. "I probably should have tried a bit harder to get the public to understand that science is not a static, exact thing. That it’s dynamic and it’s self-correcting," says Fauci. In mathematics, he says, two plus two is four, no matter whether it is January, February or July. "When you’re dealing with an evolving outbreak, things change over time."

"What could I have done? Turn around and say, you’re a jerk?"

Anthony Fauci

Former U.S. President Donald Trump standing next to Fauci during a press conference in the White House in April 2020. "And I came back the next day and did it again.”

Former U.S. President Donald Trump standing next to Fauci during a press conference in the White House in April 2020. "And I came back the next day and did it again.”

Foto: Doug Mills / The New York Times / Redux / laif

Fauci admits that he also should have been clearer about the uncertainties facing the scientific community – situations in which scientists had no idea whether something would work or not. Otherwise, he says, he wouldn’t do anything substantially differently.

Yet in no other industrialized country have more people died of SARS-CoV-2 than in the United States. The total is over a million. Shouldn’t the government’s top pandemic official have done more to explain the dangers of the disease to Trump? "I don’t think I could have been any more blunt," Fauci says in response. The president "is standing there saying hydroxychloroquine is a great drug. I go up to the podium and I say: 'No, it’s not.’ I couldn’t possibly be more explicit. How could I? What could I have done? Turn around and say, you’re a jerk?" Fauci notes that he was "the first person ever to directly contradict the president in front of a television camera" while holding an official position. "And I came back the next day and did it again."

Fauci insists that he never even considered throwing in the towel. Particularly given that most Americans had a positive view of him. And yes, there were exaggerations on the other side as well. There are prayer candles showing him with a halo in heaven ("St. Fauci"), there are socks, mugs and stickers printed with his likeness ("In Fauci we trust"), and there was an online petition seeking to convince People Magazine to name him the "sexiest man alive."

One could perhaps see the fawning attention as a delayed recognition of his charisma, an appeal that led a Washington author in the 1990s, after meeting him at a dinner party, to use him as a model for a character in one of her novels: Dr. Michael Lanzer, a square-jawed researcher who was carrying on a secret affair with the first lady. Fauci received marriage propositions and songs about him went viral on YouTube, such as one ditty to the tune of "Mr. Sandman” with the lyric: "Dr. Fauci, please shut up Trump!”

Fauci saw his role in the Trump team as a "skunk at the picnic," as he told the New York Times in early 2021. Somebody had to stick around to tell him the truth about the pandemic, he says, no matter how much they might disagree with the president.

The scientist uses a pseudo-Latin aphorism to protect himself against politicians who would wish ill upon him: "illegitimi non carborundum," or "don’t let the bastards grind you down." During the pandemic, Fauci only lost his temper on one occasion. At a Senate hearing, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky sought to insinuate that Fauci was to blame for the COVID deaths of 4 million people, saying that funding from Fauci’s institution for bat virus research conducted in the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China led to the appearance of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. A furious Fauci blasted back at Paul, saying: "If anybody is lying here, senator, it is you."

Paul crossed a line, says Fauci, when he tried to blame him for the deaths of millions of coronavirus victims – "when my entire existence is to protect the health of the American public!" He says his primary identity is as a physician who sees patients. And during the pandemic, he says, all of America was his patient.

U.S. Senator Rand Paul: "If anybody is lying here, senator, it is you."

U.S. Senator Rand Paul: "If anybody is lying here, senator, it is you."

Foto: Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The debate over the source of the virus continues to the present day, and Fauci doesn’t rule out the possibility that the pathogen could have come from a laboratory. But, he says, if you take a look at the "really fine papers" that have been published in Science and peer reviewed by experts, they are "really rather convincing" that SARS-CoV-2 originated naturally. The alleged evidence for a lab leak, by contrast, consists primarily of "10,000 tweets."

Fauci believes that the "degree of divisiveness" in the U.S. is even more pronounced than in most other countries. He says that if people don’t believe him as an individual, it’s no big deal. "But when they mistrust the whole concept of science, that’s really scary." We are, he says, "living in an era of the normalization of untruths."


The Dangers of Attacking Science

If his concerns are correct, then the hostility against him as the face of science is just a symptom of a deeper problem afflicting the patient America: Namely the slow yet steady erosion of the country’s faith in science and knowledge – and ultimately its faith in democracy.

Attacks on science, to be sure, at first appear less dramatic than events like the violent storming of the Capitol. But it is at least as dangerous when lies, opinions and tweets carry the same weight as scientific evidence. In such a reality, whoever shouts the loudest wins. Or whoever has a shotgun.

That is what Fauci is now fighting against. But it’s time for him to rush off to his next appointment. Will he shed tears when he walks down the hallway of the institute to the elevator for the last time? He thinks about it. "I know it’s going to be very poignant."

His opponents, though, will certainly have a reason to shed a tear. Tony Fauci wouldn’t be Tony Fauci if he just hit the golf course next year. Instead, the doctor of the nation is planning on writing his memoirs and getting young men and women excited about going into science and medicine.

After all, someone has to take care of the country, his largest patient. Particularly its sanity.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.