It’s hard to believe that sometime before February, when news of the novel coronavirus began to garner public attention in the US, most Americans couldn’t identify Dr. Anthony Fauci from a lineup of austere male physicians. Fast-forward just a month or two and the 79-year-old’s bespectacled face can be found plastered on all sorts of customizable merchandise — T-shirts, mugs, cotton face masks, socks, bobbleheads, prayer candles.
Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has established a near-ubiquitous media presence in no time at all, becoming the subject of glowing magazine profiles (“How Anthony Fauci Became America’s Doctor”), late-night talk show appearances, online thirst (#FauciFanClub), and, of course, kitschy fan-made merchandise. On e-commerce sites like Etsy, Redbubble, and Amazon, the keyword “Fauci” currently displays thousands of results, with all sorts of pro-Fauci slogans (#TeamFauci, Fauci Gang, I Heart Dr. Fauci). Out of the context of this pandemic, you would think the man was running for president.
The cult of Fauci and its corresponding tchotchkes serve a purpose, much in the way that special counsel Robert Mueller (and the “It’s Mueller Time” tees) morphed into a political motif during the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
In the midst of a pandemic with no end in sight, people appear desperate for a figurehead, and believing in the soft-spoken and measured Fauci, it seems, is akin to believing in science. It means recognizing that America’s political leadership has failed to substantially curb the spread of the disease, and that the way forward is to trust the scientists and the experts — even if they don’t yet have the answers to some of our most pressing questions.
“His comforting and intelligent demeanor has helped to lessen our national anxiety,” reads a petition signed by more than 26,000 people to designate Fauci as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2020. “He speaks truth to power, a strength few have at this time.”
In these tumultuous times, Fauci has somehow managed to capture America’s imagination, but his old colleagues say he’s always had a magnetic personality. He was so charismatic that romance novelist Sally Quinn wrote a character inspired by Fauci after meeting him at a dinner party in the ’90s.
When 65 percent of Americans feel that the White House has responded too slowly to the threat of Covid-19, it seems natural, then, to turn to the physician who has been hypervigilant in his public warnings, one who has decades of experience battling epidemics from the HIV/AIDS crisis to the swine flu. And so Fauci, like most political figures aggrandized by the internet, has been meme-ified and elevated into this larger-than-life hero who “speaks truth to power,” when in reality, he’s just doing his job.
There’s a lot of misleading information out there. Thanks to Dr. Fauci and all of the other scientists, medical professionals, and experts educating the public based on facts, science, and truth. We appreciate it! pic.twitter.com/NbpZM6YwfD— Anthony Fauci Fan Club (@FauciFan) May 6, 2020
However, fellow expert Dr. Deborah Birx has hardly received the star treatment Fauci’s been given in the press and on the internet. Despite Birx spending decades researching HIV/AIDS and serving as a US Army physician, her scarves and press briefing outfits, rather than her professional accomplishments, have more frequently been the subject of media coverage.
The pro-Fauci shirts, stickers, and slogans are an all-in-one visual display of performance, politics, and consumerism; Americans have long been obsessed with collecting political paraphernalia and merchandise, but in quarantine, it’s quite clear how these items serve little practical purpose other than self-expression. Plus, the Fauci merch collectors — like Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom in their Fauci Gang hoodies — are probably only able to showcase this gear on social media and Zoom.
Many companies have taken advantage of this proclivity for screen-printed apparel. While popular sites like Redbubble or CustomInk primarily sell user-generated merch, others have employed algorithms to create items with specific phrases that appeal to customers, based on data marketers have gathered. That means, as my colleague Rebecca Jennings previously reported, “for every possible political viewpoint, implausible hope, or conspiracy theory, there will be a way for merch sellers to capitalize on it.”
Some purveyors of Fauci merch do promise to donate some profits to charity or emergency response funds, but purchasing an item means potentially putting workers at risk — to create it, package it, and deliver it, as opposed to donating directly to your nonprofit of choice. In quarantine, however, Americans with disposable income are giving in to their online shopping impulses out of boredom or as a feel-good remedy, and the plentiful options of Fauci merch available — and their charitable intentions — likely feed into people’s consumerist desires.
“As a seller, I feel like people want to buy T-shirts that promote the truth and to stand with who they believe in,” Justin Sharp, the founder of Arkansas Tees, told me. Sharp released a “Fauci Fan Club” tee (no affiliation with the @FauciFan Twitter account) sometime in early April, and the design quickly became the top-selling shirt on his Etsy shop.
It was surprising, he admitted, that the item “hasn’t stopped selling since day one,” although he said before its release, several of his friends had approached him about a Fauci tee. Sharp sells on average about 10 to 15 Fauci shirts a day, and he has noticed that “if there’s any kind of battle between Trump or Fauci online,” he experiences a small bump in orders.
Casual clothing became a notable vehicle for political expression in the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2016 election, when bright red Make America Great Again hats, all-caps Nasty Woman tees, and pink pussyhats became a visual shorthand for politics. As someone who refuses to wear graphic tees in public, it pains me to admit that most Americans — regardless of their political leanings and economic status — are corny. We take pride in wearing hacky tag lines or garish emblems that seemingly portray our values, whether on a $6 mass-produced political tee or a $380 hand-stitched sweater. And in pandemic times, when supply chains are strained and mail carriers are slammed, you have to wonder: Is this item really worth it?
“That’s absolutely true on Etsy,” Sharp told me, adding that he only uses the site to promote shirts with more general slogans. Before the success of his Fauci design, his Nasty Woman shirt was his bestselling item. “I don’t show my Etsy that much love other than during heavy political moments. People’s interests change and they become less passionate about certain designs,” he said.
If Sharp’s theory holds true, then interest in Fauci merch will likely subside in a post-pandemic America. However, the timeline for an effective coronavirus vaccine isn’t entirely clear, which means Fauci could stay relevant for months, if not years. For the most part, pandemic merchandise isn’t as clearly political as, say, “resistance” apparel after 2016; pro-Fauci items are “a memento of a certain moment,” according to The Cut’s fashion news writer Emilia Petrarca. It “allows us to repackage big ideas in ways that are eye-catching and easily digestible and fast.”
Years from now, when Covid-19 (hopefully) becomes a pandemic of the past, most Americans will probably recall Fauci as one of the key experts who played a role in the US’s coronavirus response. In our stressful and uncertain reality, it might be comforting to lionize Fauci as our one true savior, rather than recognize that successfully flattening the curve depends on actions from many sources, most out of Fauci’s control: the White House, governors, state legislators, local officials, and even civilians like you and me.