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How Dr. Fauci Became the Face of COVID Conspiracy Theories

The pandemic transformed Fauci into an omnipresent media figure and he very quickly found himself in the crosshairs of conspiracy theorists

During a congressional hearing, Anthony Fauci forcefully rejected allegations that he tried to "cover up" the possibility that Covid-19 originated in a lab (screenshot Fox News, June 3, 2024).

For most of his nearly four-decade career as Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci quietly went about the task of leading the US effort to treat pandemics and outbreaks. Fauci wasn’t well known among the general public, and if he had any real public imprint, it was due to his early leadership in the federal government’s response to HIV/AIDS. Later, he would play a similar role in the response to the swine flu and Ebola outbreaks.

Dr. Fauci was considered so niche that despite having been an advisor to every president since Ronald Reagan in the early 1980’s, he had never met President Donald Trump until the outbreak of COVID-19. The pandemic transformed Fauci into omnipresent figure on America’s TVs, and he very quicky found himself in the crosshairs of conspiracy theorists. For many Americans, Fauci became the face of COVID. As the scientific and medical establishment struggled to provide Americans with guidance as to what to do about the rapidly spreading disease, Fauci became the scapegoat for unhinged anger over changing guidelines, lockdown, social distancing, and even the origins of the pandemic itself.

Over four years since Fauci first joined Trump’s ad hoc COVID-19 White House Coronavirus Task Force, he continues to shoulder a massive share of myths, conspiracy theories, and angry tirades. All of these were on full display during a June 2024 House of Representatives hearing that devolved into a deluge of questions about how much money Fauci has made off the COVID vaccine (none, he claims), and calls for him to be put in prison.

Why did this one person become the face of COVID conspiracism? How did he become the focal point for a vast movement of mythmaking and fearmongering? And why do the attacks continue long after the end of the worst of the pandemic and of Fauci’s time in government?

The answers are a microcosm of how COVID-19 conspiracy theories spread so quickly and why they took such easy root during the earliest days of the pandemic – driven by fear, anger, scientific ignorance, and the need for someone to know what was happening during a time when few seemed to.

A Good Relationship Gone Unspeakably Bad

That someone, at least at the beginning, was Dr. Fauci. When coronavirus first emerged in the US in January 2020, he was front and center in the media, appearing almost constantly on TV, radio, and in White House press conferences going through everything we knew about the virus, which wasn’t all that much. At that point, it was still very much a question mark how COVID spread, what the danger to the US was, and how quickly the pandemic would burn out.

Given the lack of understanding about the virus in general, Fauci claimed early on that at that point that COVID “was not something to worry about” and “not a major threat.” He was clear that he was speaking only of the present moment, and that the course of the disease could easily change. And of course, it did, and Fauci became the leading advocate for treating the pandemic like the “major threat” it was.

But those statements were taken out of context by major supporters of President Trump and weaponized early on that Fauci had no idea what he was doing, and was at best incompetent, and at worst a genocidal maniac. As Trump’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread” plan failed and lockdown ground on for month after month, Fauci became the most visible person to take out months of pent-up anger on. Whatever issue was driving traffic in the far-right media that day, Fauci made for an ideal scapegoat – often based on many of these early incorrect quotes, usually paired with other “failures” of early scientific understanding of the virus, such as the need for masking.

Every single COVID-related issue would be run through a mill of conspiracy theories, almost always pushed by far-right media figures, influencers, and politicians. From masking to social distancing to lockdown in general to the origins of the outbreak to the safety of vaccination, if someone could blame it on Fauci, they did. Many of the worst conspiracy theories were pushed by the president himself, who openly scorned masking and social distancing – even as Dr. Fauci would speak of their virtues minutes before or after Trump did.

At first, Fauci was well-regarded by the conservative media and the president. But Fauci’s narrative and the one favored by the former president varied too much to reconcile. To Fauci, COVID was an existential threat that if uncontrolled, could cause untold death and calamity. To Trump and the media machine backing him, COVID was simply a worse than normal cold that only imperiled the very sick and elderly – and possibly Trump’s chances in the upcoming election.

By June, as lockdown had ended a school year and was demolishing the economy, Fauci became its chief villain, blamed for everything from children losing social and emotional intelligence in isolation to actually creating the virus as part of a grand depopulation conspiracy. Every day on podcasts, social media, live streams, and anti-lockdown materials; Fauci was held up as the face of COVID – a dark, ugly, even demonic one.

By then, the relationship between Trump and Fauci had curdled into a public spat being played out over the backdrop of a massive global outbreak. The doctor would take shots at the Trump administration not putting more effort into early mitigation, while Trump would proclaim that the worst was over and America was getting back to normal as Fauci openly disagreed with him. Republicans in Congress held the first of numerous hearings meant to publicly air grievances with Fauci, and Trump hinted he would fire Fauci at some point either before or after the 2020 election.

In an event that sparked almost as many conspiracy theories as the pandemic, Trump lost the election and never got to fire Fauci. But rather than put an end to the conspiracy making Fauci public enemy #1, Trump’s loss poured gasoline on it.

Fauci and Biden

The entire anti-science response to the pandemic was one of contradiction and cognitive dissonance. Many influencers earnestly believed COVID was just a minor bug no worse than the sniffles – while also being a Chinese-created bioweapon. They took it seriously at first, but then as the vaccine become more widely used and many aspects of society began opening up, they demanded a return to the status quo with no COVID measures – while also claiming the vaccine that many any reopening possible was a genocidal took of genetic modification and transhumanism.

The response to Fauci during the Trump years was much the same. They loathed and distrusted Fauci, but Trump kept him on, and they loved Trump, so he couldn’t be that bad. All of that changed in 2021 when Joe Biden took office and kept Fauci on as his chief pandemic advisor.

With Trump gone, there was nothing holding back the flood of Fauci hate, conspiracy theories, and derangement. It had simply become too lucrative and too popular on social media to stop centering him in an endless series of increasingly convoluted and hyperbolic theories – which were having drastic consequences for Fauci and his family.

In June 2021, with many businesses and schools still not having fully reopened, many of Fauci’s emails were released to media outlets after Freedom of Information Act requests. The “FauciGate” frenzy saw anti-lockdown activists and Trump die-hards pounce, convinced that Fauci’s pandemic mitigation had forced the mail-in voting that made Biden the president. They found, unsurprisingly, that the emails said whatever they wanted them to say. Anti-maskers found evidence that masks didn’t work. Proponents of the “lab leak” theory claiming COVID had been manufactured and released from a biolab in Wuhan found proof they were right. Whatever the myth was, there were emails that proved it.

More hearings followed later in 2021, with more members of Congress piling more accusations on Fauci in a cycle that would repeat over and over. A raft of books attacking Fauci were published, including presidential candidate and ardent antivaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s The Real Anthony Fauci later that year. By 2022, GOP members of Congress were openly signing pledges to defund Fauci and spouting a conspiracy theory that he had been engaged in illegal “gain of function” research trying to weaponize existing coronavirus into a mass murder weapon – though again, these same people also believed COVID was merely a cold.

A few months later, the “Fire Fauci” calls went silent for good, but only because Fauci resigned from government at the end of 2022.

Fauci leaving the Biden administration did absolutely nothing to abate the conspiracy theories. He was now firmly entrenched in conservative politics and culture as the reason why America went to hell in 2020, was stuck with Joe Biden, and is enduring massive inflation and millions of deaths from the vaccine – none of which are true. The Fauci frenzy goes on, and likely will as long as he’s alive. And even that has been threatened by conspiracy theories - one man was sent to prison for multiple emailed death threats made against Fauci and his family, while the White House had to markedly increase his security during the worst of lockdown.

So why him? Because the explosion of COVID conspiracy theories was the culmination of decades of distrust of experts, “unelected bureaucrats,” and doctors. And Fauci was all three – not to mention being the most public face of both the pandemic and the US government’s response to it. As such, he was the perfect person to blame for the changes of the COVID years, the mistakes made, and our shifting understanding of the pandemic. No matter what happened to you personally during the COVID years, there was a way to pin it on Fauci. And millions of people did. Many continue to do so.

Fauci became the inescapable, omnipresent face of the terrible early months of COVID – and many people blamed him rather than Trump. Given that many of the most ardent Fauci haters are also the most ardent Trump acolytes, this is not a surprise. They simply can’t bring themselves to question Trump, despite the president declaring his support for quack cures and wishful thinking over hard science and patience.

For sixteen years, Conspiracy Watch has been diligently spreading awareness about the perils of conspiracy theories through real-time monitoring and insightful analyses. To keep our mission alive, we rely on the critical support of our readers.

Mike Rothschild
Mike Rothschild
Journalist and expert focused on the rise and spread of conspiracy theories, he is the author of the first complete book on the QAnon conspiracy movement, "The Storm is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything", and his newest book is "Jewish Space Lasers: The Rothschilds and 200 Years of Conspiracy Theories". In addition to his writing and interviews, Mike has worked as an expert witness in cases related to QAnon and the 2020 Election, testified to  U.S. Congress on the danger of election fraud disinformation, and submitted written testimony to the January 6th Select Committee on the role of QAnon in the Capitol attack.
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