This has gotten buried under the pile of horrific news about both the coronavirus pandemic and Donald Trump’s multiple failures to handle the crisis, but there was a moment during Trump’s daily propaganda dump on Sunday that was even more disturbing than usual. It came while Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was speaking, which usually means a respite from Trump’s firehose of misinformation and self-aggrandizement and an opportunity to get real information from an actual expert who is not a sociopath.
A reporter started to ask Fauci about the use of hydroxychloroquine, the now-legendary anti-malarial drug, to treat COVID-19. Fauci was almost certainly about to say, as he does every time he’s out of reach of Trump, that there’s no real evidence that the drug works, much less that it’s the “game-changer” that Trump desperately wants it to be.
But Fauci wasn’t able to answer the question, because Trump stopped him. “You don’t have to ask the question,” the president said, stepping in front of the podium, waving his hand in the air and using his girth as a physical barricade between Fauci and the reporter.
Earlier in the press conference, Trump had offered yet another glowing recommendation of hydroxychloroquine, which has no substantive evidence to recommend it. He literally cited “rumor” as a reason to give it a spin and said, “What do you have to lose?”
People actually have a lot to lose, as the drug has been known to damage the nervous system, cause psychological trauma and lead to heart attacks.
During this exchange, there was a hint of one reason Trump is championing this drug as a of miracle cure, despite the lack of evidence: He’s starting to workshop the excuses he will use and the scapegoats he will sacrifice in order to escape the blame — which he richly deserves — for how badly this crisis spun out of control. And the person most in danger of becoming the primary scapegoat for Trump and his minions is Fauci himself.
“If it does work, it would be a shame we did not do it early,” Trump said about hydroxychloroquine during the press conference Sunday.
At that point, it became clear to me what Trump hopes to get out of this endless hype about an unproven and dangerous drug: A QAnon-style conspiracy theory he can roll out, after the worst of the crisis has passed, about his heroic efforts to save everyone with a miracle drug, which were thwarted by shady “deep state” forces who denied the public this lifesaving drug as part of a plot to make him look bad.
Unfortunately for Fauci, he’s the most obvious candidate to become the villain in this conspiracy theory, in much the same way former FBI director James Comey and special counsel Robert Mueller were framed as part of a sinister anti-Trump conspiracy during the investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election.
Tucker Carlson of Fox News has been leading the pack in the effort to cast Fauci as the villain in the right-wing conspiracy theories that will pour from the spigots as soon as the spread of the coronavirus and the associated death rate start to ebb.
Dr. Fauci is prescribing “national suicide,” Carlson claimed on his show last week, declaring that the economic collapse caused by social distancing protocols is “a far bigger disaster than the virus itself, by any measure” and declaring that our “response to coronavirus could turn this into a far poorer nation.”
There are plenty of people who must share the blame for this national disaster. Trump, for one, is to blame because he twiddled his thumbs and denied the virus was serious until it had exploded across the country. If he’d actually taken this seriously and contained the disease, it’s likely none of this would be necessary. Carlson, of course, isn’t blaming Republicans, who seem determined to stop the kind of New Deal-level federal investment in our workers that is needed not just to keep people from falling into dire poverty, but to get the economy back on the road to recovery.
But instead Carlson is blaming Fauci, saying that the doctor “has bulletproof job security,” with the clear implication that he doesn’t care about people who are losing their jobs.
To make matters worse, there are reports that Fauci is conflicting with White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, a major booster of hydroxychloroquine. This isn’t surprising, since Trump’s right-wing economics advisers are eager to grasp at any thin straw to suggest that the economy can be “reopened” without causing mass loss of life from COVID-19. It just happens that this fantasy is not scientifically feasible.
It’s easy to see where all this is going. If the social distancing works to contain the virus, conservative pundits will point to the lower-than-feared death toll as evidence that the virus was never that serious — but not, of course, that the severe restrictions on daily life actually worked. They’ll claim that quarantine measures were never necessary, and suggest that hydroxychloroquine was a real solution that was available the whole time but got left on the table thanks of the “deep state” conspiracy against Trump. (Rather than because there’s no evidence this often-dangerous drug is actually a cure for COVID-19.) And Fauci will be held up as the straw-man villain in this conspiracy because he supported social distancing and was skeptical of Dr. Trump’s miracle drug.
Will this conspiracy theory work? In the sense of shoring up Trump’s support with his loyal base, there’s no doubt about it. There’s been a run on hydroxychloroquine from Trump supporters, who trust their president’s ill-founded rumor-mongering over any and all medical evidence. These are folks who feel justified in voting for a racist reality TV star and will cling to whatever nonsense Trump and Fox News dish up as a rationalization.
It’s unclear, however, how much traction this nonsense will have outside of that Trumpian bubble. There is definitely room for concern, since conspiracy theories about “secret” cures that regular doctors are holding back for mysterious reasons never seem to go out of style. But as Rutgers professor David Greenberg argued in Politico this weekend, “Politicians may be able in the short term to cover up their failed programs or weak leadership with clever messaging and images,” but in the end, with the economy down the toilet, the public is more likely to blame Trump than whatever scapegoat he and his propaganda team at Fox News serve up.
Still, this “deep state” theory seems close to inevitable, and the attacks on Fauci have already started. Trump’s opponents need to anticipate the twists and turns ahead and have a strategy to counter them. In an election that’s already being compromised by the pandemic itself, the prospect of widespread voter suppression and Trump’s apparently immovable popularity with his base, every weird Trumpian dirty trick could turn the tide.