Commentary: How Fauci, even when wrong, built public’s trust

He changed his earlier position on masks but, unlike Trump, was candid and explained his reasoning.

By Daniel W. Drezner / The Washington Post

It is probably not a coincidence that the countries coping the worst with the coronavirus are led by illiberal populists. Whether one looks at Boris Johnson’s United Kingdom or Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines or Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil or Donald Trump’s United States, it seems like the combination of bad governance and a frustrated and confused populace has made a tough situation worse.

At the same time, it would be dangerous to assume that these countries are static monoliths. In the United States, Massachusetts was initially hit hard by the coronavirus, but according to the Boston Globe’s Felice Freyer, hospitals were never overrun. In part, that was because residents of the commonwealth rapidly altered their behavior. According to Freyer, hospitals planned for the worst-case scenario, but disease transmission was checked because residents stayed home as advised, flattening the curve.

By staying home, residents of Massachusetts also reduced other risky behavior. Freyer writes: “Lowell General Hospital typically sees four to five cases a week of injuries from severe motor vehicle crashes, gunshot wounds, falls from heights, and the like. During the pandemic surge … the hospital went 54 days without seeing even one severe trauma case.”

The better news is that the emergency preparations have left Massachusetts better equipped should there be a surge of new cases in the fall. Field hospitals that did not need to be used have basically been shrink-wrapped, ready to be brought out in case of emergency.

Massachusetts is known as a land of technocrats, so this would seem to be yet another example of state residents taking things more seriously than, say, the Trump administration. But this is also true on the national stage.

On Saturday, The Washington Post’s Yasmeen Abutaleb, Josh Dawsey and Laurie McGinley reported on the widening gulf between Trump and Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Among other reasons: “Trump is also galled by Fauci’s approval ratings. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll showed that 67 percent of voters trusted Fauci for information on the coronavirus, compared with 26 percent who trusted Trump.”

Within the story is a White House response that is honestly flabbergasting:

“A White House official released a statement saying that ‘several White House officials are concerned about the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things’ and included a lengthy list of the scientist’s comments from early in the outbreak. Those included his early doubt that people with no symptoms could play a significant role in spreading the virus; a notion based on earlier outbreaks that the novel coronavirus would turn on its head. They also point to public reassurances Fauci made in late February, around the time of the first U.S. case of community transmission, that ‘at this moment, there is no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day-by-day basis.’”

Maggie Haberman of the New York Times described this as “an oppo dump,” and she is not wrong. It is frankly bizarre for the White House to rag all over an expert with much higher trust ratings than the president in an effort to level the playing field. According to NBC News’s Josh Lederman and Kelly O’Donnell, “The White House salvo appeared aimed at undermining the public’s trust in the renowned immunologist in hope that Americans will be more inclined to believe Trump’s far more optimistic version of events as the November election marches closer.”

Will it work? The oppo dump is not entirely wrong. Fauci, like other experts, got aspects of the novel coronavirus wrong in the early stages.

It is worth noting Fauci’s comparative advantage, however: He has been remarkably upfront about changes in his position as the pandemic has worsened.

Consider, for example, Fauci’s position on wearing masks in public. It is common for critics to blast Fauci and other public health experts for not urging the wearing of masks at the start of the outbreak. But if you look at his early statements on this, he was quite candid about the need to prioritize masks for the very sick and for front-line medical personnel.

His message on this has not changed much since March. What has changed has been the availability of masks. In mid-June, Fauci said in an interview, “We wanted to make sure that the people, namely the health-care workers, who were brave enough to put themselves in harm’s way” had as many masks as possible.

This is consistent with The Post’s reporting: “Fauci has said he was worried early in the outbreak about a shortage of masks and wanted to reserve them for health-care workers.”

If Fauci has modulated his position on this, it has mostly been by acknowledging that what he said in March sent conflicting signals to the American public: “We have to admit it, that that mixed message in the beginning, even though it was well meant to allow masks to be available for health workers, that was detrimental in getting the message across.”

Compared with other public health leaders, however, Fauci has been much clearer than, say, Surgeon General Jerome Adams.

If populists have an advantage in public discourse, it is often by presenting themselves as blunt truth-tellers (even when they are lying) in a world infused with nonsense. Fauci, however, shows how technocrats can also use candor as a way to preserve credibility.

There are costs to being a technocrat in a populist government. Fauci confirmed in a Financial Times interview that he has not seen Trump in person at the White House for close to six weeks and has not personally briefed the president “for at least two months.” Other health advisers, such as physician Deborah Birx, have adopted an approach that could best be described as appeasing Trump’s hubris.

Still, it is telling that even as voter trust in Trump’s handling of the pandemic has dropped like a stone, Fauci is trusted enough to have Americans listen to him. Trump’s more loyal subordinates have hardly inspired confidence.

Candor is hardly the preserve of the populist. Consider this a sign that even in Trump’s America, well-executed technocratic leadership is both better and better-liked by the populace.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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