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OPINION

The president fights facts with attacks

Truth-telling Anthony Fauci is Trump’s latest target

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photos

It’s America’s Nero versus an American Hero.

Like Nero, who metaphorically fiddled while Rome burned, Donald Trump has literally diddled while the coronavirus churned.

Nero undertook the assassination of his enemies. In our gentler times, Trump’s favored tactic is reputation denigration.

His latest target is Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci is an American hero — not just because of his long, selfless work as a public servant. What makes him so worthy of admiration is his willingness to speak truths Trump hopes to obscure.

Truth, after all, has long been Trump’s enemy — but never more so than now. The Republican incumbent’s steadily waning chances of winning reelection depend on getting America to accept two alternate realities: First, that he has done a good job battling the coronavirus, which has killed more than 220,000 Americans — so far. Second, that we have turned the corner on the pandemic.

Neither is remotely close to reality.

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For the most part, Fauci hasn’t criticized the president’s past performance. But he’s courageous enough that he won’t stay silent as the president systematically spins out misinformation to the American people.

For that, Trump has taken to blasting him as a “disaster” and grouping him with “these idiots who got it wrong.”

A responsible president would tell US citizens grim but important truths.

One is that coronavirus infections are surging again, with two-thirds of US states seeing increases for two weeks in a row. In 17 of those states, infections have hit new peaks. Another is that unless we as a nation become more disciplined about masks and social distancing, things will get significantly worse as the cold weather comes and people move inside — and cluster together for the holidays.

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A third: Masks are vital when social distancing can’t be achieved. Tens of thousands of lives could be saved over the next few months if nearly everyone wore masks.

A responsible president would emphasize rather than undercut those public health cautions. Instead, Trump has told the American people that the worst is behind us. He is once again out holding large rallies, usually without many masks or much social distancing.

Further, as The Washington Post has reported, the president has undercut and muted the coronavirus task force. Gone are the daily televised briefings and the more or less unified message that emerged, at least from the health experts present at them.

Queried during last week’s NBC town hall about whether his own experience contracting COVID-19 had changed his skeptical views on masks, Trump denied there was a consensus on the importance of mask-wearing, citing the opinion of the non-infectious-disease “expert” whose contrarian viewpoint he has come to favor.

Scott Atlas (whom Trump misidentified as “Scott Atkins”) is a neuroradiologist by training, which means he is speaking well beyond his expertise in rejecting the transmission-inhibiting value of masks. When NBC’s Savannah Guthrie noted, “He’s not an infectious disease expert,” Trump replied: “Oh, I don’t know. Look, he’s an expert. He’s one of the great experts of the world.”

Translation: He tells me what I want to hear.

Like Trump, Atlas reportedly is intrigued by herd immunity, which, absent a vaccine, means letting enough people acquire the disease that immunity will grow to the point where it no longer spreads. Problem: We still don’t know whether catching COVID-19 leaves one immune to it thereafter. Secondly, even if it did, reaching that level of infection could overwhelm the health care system and dramatically boost the death total, probably to 1 million or more.

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Yet though both Trump and Atlas deny it, both seem to view that course as preferable to a more rigorous, federally led effort to get the pandemic under control.

Fauci has repeatedly rejected herd immunity as a strategy. And ever since the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus became known, he has stressed the importance of masks and social distancing.

Trump, however, says people are tired of all that, by which he means he’s tired of it. After all, coronavirus caution is incongruent with his the-pandemic-is-all-but-over, let-the-good-times-roll-again message.

Dr. Fauci pops that bizarro-world bubble on a regular basis. He’s not confrontational with Trump, but neither is he cowed by the president or afraid to contradict him by speaking the truth, as he did Sunday on “60 Minutes.”

Our American hero may be slight in height, but he towers over the American Nero.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.