Down double digits in some polls with less than four months until the election, President Donald Trump has decided that it's time to launch an attack against … his own adviser. Who's much more popular than he is. Trump has rewritten the political rulebook over the last four years, but this revision seems unlikely to stick.
White House aides have been distributing a memo criticizing Dr. Anthony Fauci, and one went so far as to write an op-ed article slamming him. Trump himself has shared criticisms of Fauci on Twitter and made his own in interviews. But he has also chided the aide who wrote the anti-Fauci op-ed piece, economic adviser Peter Navarro, since this White House is incapable of sticking to one story.
All of this is perverse as a matter of political strategy and government management. Like a lot of what the president does, it seems to be based on paying too much attention to what he sees on television. The best result of this one-sided feud might be for both he, and we, to see less of Fauci.
The doctor has played several distinct roles during the coronavirus pandemic. The debate over him dwells on two of them: adviser to the president and explainer of public-health policies to the public. A third has gotten much less attention. As director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of the National Institutes of Health, Fauci leads and coordinates the development of treatment and vaccine protocols to fight the coronavirus. This role is more important than the other two. The consensus among informed observers is that Fauci has performed it exceptionally well.
Because Fauci has civil service protections, Trump can't keep him from doing this vital work. If he thinks Fauci gives bad advice, he has an easy solution available: He doesn't have to take it. Trump can listen to other people he trusts more. If Trump thinks Fauci has done a poor job as a communicator, he can have his administration authorize fewer interviews.
Fauci's TV appearances have brought him public acclaim. They have done less to advance the public interest. While the criticism leveled at him is frequently overdone — his record of public statements on the pandemic certainly looks a lot better than Trump's — he has made serious missteps. In early March, he told viewers of "60 Minutes" that "there's no reason to be walking around with a mask." Masks, he said, were not "providing the perfect protection that people think" and could backfire by causing wearers to touch their faces more often. He also cited the need to reserve masks for medical providers and sick people.
By June, he was saying that Americans should wear masks and that the earlier advice discouraging it was a response to "short supply." More recently, he has gotten testy when asked about the shift in his message. Fauci was in line with the public-health community generally in downplaying the benefits of masks early in the crisis. But that's the problem. The public-health community, including Fauci, wasn't being candid.
Treating Americans as competent adults would have meant saying something like: "While the precise effectiveness of masks in protecting against the spread of coronavirus in different situations is not known, they are likely to be somewhat useful in many. Since supplies are low at the moment, it would be best if people showed restraint in getting medical-grade masks." The choices Fauci and others actually made, on the other hand, depleted public trust. If many people "just don't believe science and they don't believe authority," as Fauci has lamented, it's in part because they have been given reasons for doubt.
The insistence that citizens and public officials should "believe" or "follow" science during the pandemic has been thoroughly unhelpful. Science hasn't been able to tell us to what extent and for how long to suspend normal life, or where the next viral hot spots will be — or even, as noted, how effective masks are.
That's an indictment of a way of looking at science, not of science itself. Science is not a comprehensive set of answers to our problems, and its practitioners are not a priestly caste with privileged access to those answers. What science is, among other things, is a valuable method of getting answers we don't already have.
The backlash to Fauci, which in its wilder manifestations assumes that he is conspiring to wreck our economy, partakes of these same outsized expectations of what science can tell us: If listening to him isn't solving our problems, there must be some sinister explanation.
The sniping at Fauci from the White House is yet another example of this administration's dysfunction. But it's also a symptom of our political culture's confused relationship with science.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life." Read Ramesh Ponnuru's Reports — More Here.