When Anthony Fauci steps down from his position as the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in December, he will leave behind a remarkable legacy of five decades in service, having advised seven presidents through AIDS, Ebola, Zika, COVID, and other major public health emergencies. During the darkest days of the pandemic, Fauci became a folk hero, lending his face and name to prayer candles and bobbleheads and magazine covers. He also faced legitimate criticism over his actions through the crisis, including a regrettable early decision to recommend against mask-wearing. But Fauci also became the subject of a number of irrational conspiracy theories held by angry and potentially dangerous segments of the right.
The conspiracy theorists, largely starting on QAnon-type message boards, spread misinformation about Fauci’s supposed role either covering up the origins of or creating (or enhancing or weaponizing) the COVID-19 pandemic. They spun out elaborate theories explaining why the U.S. government or China or other entities would create the virus. Or, alternatively, why Fauci would lead the push to convince the public of the reality of a nonexistent pandemic, in order to justify authoritarian lockdown measures. The theories were contradictory and convoluted, but they all led to Anthony Fauci as a sinister boogeyman.
What will happen to those theories when Fauci steps back from the public eye? Will they persist once he stops making regular media appearances or announcing new mask policies or vaccines?
According to experts, there are a few factors that could make a difference. The answer will depend, in part, on how quickly the government finds a successor for Fauci and whether that replacement is as media-friendly or proactive about containment measures as Fauci. It will make a difference whether conservative or mainstream media continue to circulate stories about him that keep him at the forefront of the conspiracy theorists’ minds. It will depend on whether influencers within the QAnon world decide to amplify Fauci-related theories.
And it will depend on what Republican politicians in office decide to do.
Already, several Republicans have promised that if their party wins control of Congress in November, they will investigate Fauci over his handling of the pandemic, regardless of whether he is in office.
“Retirement can’t shield Dr. Fauci from congressional oversight,” Rep. James Comer of Kentucky tweeted on Monday. “The American people deserve transparency and accountability about how government officials used their taxpayer dollars.”
Unstated but heavily implied in some of the statements is the suggestion that Fauci might have made decisions worse than claiming Americans didn’t need to wear masks—more criminal decisions, such as colluding with authoritarian-minded Democrats to violate Americans’ constitutional rights or even covering up the origin of the pandemic for political reasons.
“Unless Dr. Fauci decides to seek asylum in some foreign country whose Powerball jackpot is 287 chickens and a goat and therefore which won’t enforce a subpoena from the United States Congress, then Dr. Fauci, retirement or not, is going to be spending a lot of time in front of a congressional committee and committees if Republicans take back control,” Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said on Fox News on Monday.
Mia Bloom, a professor at Georgia State University who researches extremism, radicalization, and terrorism, said that such hints matter to people who rebuff contrary information and latch only onto supportive evidence. “It adds some level of corroboration,” she said. “It’s: ‘See? Even those leaders believe he’s complicit.’”
Bloom believes it’s inevitable that Fauci will stick around as a QAnon figure. “They think JFK Jr. is alive,” she said. “Not even death can prevent the conspiracy theorists from pontificating or suggesting malfeasance.” She noted that an earlier theory posited that Fauci had been executed. “Even seeing him on TV at briefings wasn’t enough to convince them he was alive,” she said, noting that some believed the appearances had been deepfakes. “These conspiracy theories are so multilayered and so entrenched within the party, it’ll be hard to dislodge.”
Bloom said she had checked in with QAnon channels after the news of Fauci’s announcement and found the standard talking points: that Fauci had covered up the origins of COVID.
Christopher T. Conner, a sociologist at the University of Missouri who studies QAnon as a subculture, also spent some time looking at the QAnon reaction and said that so far, speculation about the news has appeared fairly unoriginal. It landed on the theory that he resigned to avoid having to testify about his crimes before a Jan. 6-type commission. That’s not very different from public statements by mainstream Republicans.
“Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US’s top infectious disease expert who has seeming been wrong about everything since the AIDS epidemic, says he will retire by the end of the year likely to avoid being questioned by a GOP controlled house on how he got everything so wrong for so long!” Donald Trump Jr. wrote in a tweet on Monday.
According to Conner, the QAnon conspiracy theorists are all too eager to tie a hypothetical grilling of Fauci to other events connected to the coming “storm.” As Connor sees it, Fauci is already deeply enmeshed in a number of conspiracy theories, and it seems unlikely he will simply vanish from the discussions overnight. “Unfortunately I think he’ll be in the pantheon of villains that Q people are going to pull out when they need somebody,” he said. “He’ll probably be the token evil mad scientist who engineered this virus.”
Mike Caulfield, a misinformation researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, agreed that it mattered how much “news pegs” kept him relevant. But even if Republicans and Fox news quiet down, there’s a certain intractability Fauci will have to deal with. “He’ll be a fixture for a while,” Caulfield wrote in an email. “Once someone is at the center of a conspiracy theory, they can’t simply be swapped out. It takes time. Consider how when Hillary Clinton moved out of political life, the conspiracy theories continued to center her until other ‘villains’ like Hunter Biden began to fill some of that space, but really years later.”
But not everyone thinks Fauci will become a fixture. Joseph Uscinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories and misinformation, thinks that the conspiracy theorists will move on. “I think once he’s gone and out of the limelight and COVID is forgotten, at that point, the conspiracy theories around him will become inert,” he said. “People who believe this stuff, this isn’t going to be salient in their minds five, 10 years from now. But they’ll believe in different villains doing different things.”
Uscinski didn’t think Fauci would be able to fully breathe easily; the doctor will likely still get death threats, he said. But for the most part, Uscinski agreed, what matters is relevance. “When COVID happened, we thought all the conspiracy theories were new, but they were the same theories, with different nouns. Before COVID, people said Zika was fake, AIDS was fake. The same people saying the COVID vaccine has hidden side effects were saying the same thing about MMR. Bill Gates, George Soros, the Koch brothers, the Rothschilds, the Kennedys: it’s the same theories, getting washed over to match new circumstances.”
By all accounts, the attention on Fauci in the QAnon world has lessened since mask mandates were lifted. Once Biden took office, Fauci no longer held a directly antagonistic role towards Trump, and anger at COVID restrictions was often more naturally directed at the president.
It may be that Fauci conspiracy theories will simply shift to his successor, should there be any further major health issues. Monkeypox and polio are currently circulating in the country alongside COVID. “Theoretically, if he disappears from the public stage and a different person becomes the face of vaccine policy, the conspiracy theories will shift to the next person,” wrote Susannah Crockford, an anthropologist at the University of Exeter in the U.K. who currently studies vaccine refusal. “It’s relatively hard to predict what will happen next in conspiracy theories because they don’t really follow logical patterns.”