How dare she speak ill of America’s greatest public-health hero.

Actually, I admit to cringing a bit myself at the photo she mentions from his new InStyle interview. Poolside with shades on for a soft-focus Q&A in a fashion magazine shows more interest in cultivating a celebrity image than I’d care to see from a top scientist as we approach 140,000 dead. This bit was cringy too:

NO: And how long do you see yourself at the NIAID?

A F: I don’t see any termination within the near future because I judge [my career] by my energy and my effectiveness. And right now, with all due modesty, I think I’m pretty effective. I certainly am energetic. And I think everybody thinks I’m doing more than an outstanding job. I have a wife with incredibly good judgment, who will probably give me the signal when it’s time to step down. But I don’t think we’re anywhere near that right now.

“Outstanding” is a strong word considering the grand whiff on mask-wearing that he and others, like the Surgeon General, committed at the start of the pandemic. He’s not omniscient; he’s entitled to make mistakes and learn from them. But that particular mistake may have meant the difference between a dangerous but manageable epidemic and whatever the hell it is we’re experiencing right now.

To be fair to Fauci, though, the personality cult around him is more a product of circumstance than something he’s sought out (until the InStyle interview, anyway). Americans are prone to personality cults generally, but in the Trump era the president’s own cult of personality — and the various foils he serially encounters, clashes with, and then moves on from — define national politics. Anti-Trumpers and the media were destined to find a scientific foil for him on COVID-19 once he started going his own way on things like masks, hydroxychloroquine, and so forth. The narrative is too easy: Trump, the brash conspiratorial populist who trusts his own instincts over science, versus some learned expert who’s far more circumspect about the threat from the virus than the president is. Deborah Birx could have been that expert (the appeal of Trump versus a woman scientist would have been irresistible to the press) but Birx has strained to avoid conflict with the president, even scolding the media a few months back for dwelling on Trump’s bizarre comments at a coronavirus briefing about maybe using disinfectant somehow to kill the virus inside the body.

Fauci has been somewhat less conflict-averse, although he’s also been careful not to insult Trump or criticize him directly. And since he’s been the head of NIAID for ages, he’s something of a Washington institution. It was probably inevitable that, as Trumpers yelled “LISTEN TO THE PRESIDENT” on reopening ASAP, anti-Trumpers would end up yelling back, “LISTEN TO FAUCI.” Thus are personality cults born.

The ironic thing about him having a big fan base is that … he never says anything very consequential in public. He’s cautious (as a scientist should be), typically hedging his bets on any advice he gives. For instance, he’s acknowledged repeatedly that we should strive to reopen schools this fall before adding the important caveat “where it’s safe to do so,” which doesn’t help all that much. His advice in interviews and during congressional testimony always boils down to “Go slow. Don’t reopen anything before cases have dropped significantly or you’ll seed another outbreak. And be prudent. Practice social distancing and wear a mask anytime you’re around others.” He’s become a culture-war lightning rod chiefly because so many people, starting with the president, don’t want to go slow or don’t want to be hassled about taking precautions during fun stuff like rallies.

That’s where McCain loses me to some degree. She wants to know why Fauci doesn’t get more blame for the state of the epidemic in the U.S. right now. It’s fair to blame him for not encouraging mask-wearing earlier, as I said up top, but beyond that, what does she want him to do? We have millions of idiots who refuse to follow basic, basic guidelines for prevention months into this nightmare. The president himself routinely ignores them. What’s Fauci supposed to do, light himself on fire in protest?

Some of the public criticism of him treats him as a stand-in for scientific opinion generally instead of engaging with his own opinions. Melissa Francis accused him of “putting our children last” on Fox News this afternoon because, supposedly, he doesn’t realize that keeping schools closed will have bad effects on kids, especially poor kids. But Fauci doesn’t want schools closed. He’s been encouraging officials to look for ways to reopen them since the beginning of June. “We should try as best as possible to keep kids in school,” he said yesterday. But it depends on the state of the pandemic locally. If you think there’s no risk of igniting an outbreak by sending kids back to class, talk to our friends in Israel.

So it’s not really Fauci who’s “putting our children last.” He’s being blamed because, amid the crisis, he’s become the most famous scientist in America. What Francis means to say, I think, is that she’s frustrated with the conventional wisdom among scientists that reopening schools widely poses a risk, especially since we’re nowhere near having the epidemic under control in hot-spot states. And that CW has been persuasive to most of America’s parents, notwithstanding the objections from Trump and Fox News:

Fauci doesn’t have a “cult of personality” because his persona is so magnetic or his health advice so potent. He has a cult of personality because lots of Americans think Trump and the administration are giving short shrift to sound public-health practices in their hurry to get the entire economy reopened in time for the election. Fauci is the most prominent voice in the country pushing back on that ethos (gently) so he becomes the champion of that group by default.

By the way, before McCain speaks in the clip below, you’ll find Sunny Hostin speculating that Trump put Peter Navarro and other aides up to the task of discrediting Fauci in public. I floated that theory myself yesterday in writing about Navarro’s new Fauci-bashing op-ed. The Daily Beast claimed this morning that it’s true:

According to three individuals familiar with the matter, in the past few months Trump has privately encouraged multiple senior officials and allies, including Navarro, to remind journalists and the American public of how Fauci has been “so wrong”—in the president’s phrasing—in some of his predictions about the coronavirus pandemic.

Navarro hadn’t “gone rogue,” as one White House official put it. He’d performed the precise task that many in Trump’s orbit have been given in recent days. He pleased the boss.

Trump won’t take responsibility for it because he understands that Fauci’s “cult of personality” includes swing voters. He needs to stay on their good side to whatever extent he can.