The Foxing of Dr. Fauci

Why does Trump attack people with more credibility? Because he has no need to attack those with less.

So let’s talk about this, tweeted in response to the news that Trump’s White House had sent out its own oppo research on their own adviser, Dr. Fauci:

I agree with Jon Favreau in terms of the most likely outcome being that this does not work out well for Trump, but when I say most likely, I think I’d have to say it’s optimistic to put the odds of that much higher than 60 to 66%.

It might seem mystifying that Donald would prefer to attack someone more popular and credible than he is, but a personal and tactical level, that’s exactly why he must do it. His ego demands that he must be the tallest tree in the forest, and if he is not capable of the growth necessary to accomplish that, he will seek to reach that goal by means of the axe.

To understand how deeply rooted this mindset is in his head, just remember his words in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: he bragged about having the tallest building in Manhattan, with the twin towers out of the way. He wasn’t even correct, but just think about what that claim says about his heart and about his mind.

The better move would be to seek to bask in the reflected glow of Fauci’s approval rating, but that would require him to defer to Fauci. And while he doesn’t mind stealing someone else’s spotlight, he can’t stand any situation where it’s clear he’s merely borrowing it; it must become his to keep and to deny to others, not something he relies on the other person to keep lending him.

So he was happy to trot Fauci out while he still thought it was possible that Fauci could be induced to get on board, when he still believed there was a possibility that Fauci was just slow on the uptake regarding the expectaton that he become a reliable parrot for the administration. It’s much the same way he was prepared to keep Comey on the payroll until it became clear that the aid Comey rendered in his election was not attached to a pledge of unconditional loyalty.

So why am I granting this losing strategy as much as a 40% chance of working anyway?

Very simply: because it’s the exact sort of strategy that has tended to work well for Trump and for Republicans in general. They attack people who are more credible and more likable than themselves not because it is easy, but because it’s more worth doing than attacking the credibility of someone who has none. Those attacks, given sufficient time and pressure, will erode the credibility and make people dislike and distrust the subject of it.

We’ve seen, again and again, how easy it is to muddy the waters and create an impression of equivalence between Republicans and Democrats. We’ve seen, again and again, how easily the GOP can zero in on a rising star of the Democratic Party and turn them into a lightning rod for controversy, turning someone from a strong contender into someone seen as a liability because of all the “controversy” and “baggage”.

A lot of people are already confused, upset, or skeptical of the way that guidelines from our medical experts have changed over the course of the pandemic. A lot of people are already dubious of Fauci because of the way he softened his statements out of deference to Trump, and if you think that the force of irony will stop Trump from exploiting that or Trump’s critics from falling for that exploit, you haven’t been paying enough attention.

I hope the prediction in Favreau’s third tweet there holds true. I hope we look back at this some time after November and think, “Gosh, what an unforced error. What an absolute own goal.”

I’m just not convinced that’s going to happen.