It is hard to believe that sometime before February, when news of the new coronavirus began to gain public attention in the United States, most Americans said Dr. Anthony Fauci was unable to identify from a range of strict male physicians. Fast forward a month or two and the bespectacled face of the 79-year-old is 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 built an almost ubiquitous media presence in no time and has become the subject of glowing magazine profiles late at night (“How Anthony Fauci is the Doctor of America became “) talk show performances, online thirst (#FauciFanClub), and of course kitschy fan-made merchandise. On ecommerce sites such as Etsy, Redbubble and Amazon, the keyword “Fauci” currently displays thousands of results, with all kinds of pro-Fauci slogans (#TeamFauci, Fauci Gang, I Heart Dr. Fauci). Outside of the context of this pandemic, you would think the man was running for the president.
Fauci’s cult and associated tchotchkes serve a purpose, just as Special Counsel Robert Mueller (and the “It’s Mueller Time” tees) turned into a political motive during the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
Amid a never-ending pandemic in sight, people seem desperate for a figurehead, and it seems that believing in the gentle and measured Fauci is like believing in science. It means that we recognize that US political leadership has not substantially curbed the spread of the disease, and that the way forward is to trust scientists and experts – even if they don’t yet answer some of our most pressing questions.
“His reassuring and intelligent demeanor has helped alleviate our national fears,” it said a petition signed by over 26,000 people to designate Fauci as the sexiest man in People magazine in 2020. “He speaks the truth to power, a power few have right now.”
In these tumultuous times, Fauci somehow captured the imaginations of America, but his old colleagues say he always magnetic personality. He was so charismatic that the novelist Sally Quinn a character wrote inspired by Fauci after meeting him at a dinner party in the ’90s.
When 65 percent of Americans feel the White House has responded too slowly to the Covid-19 threat, it makes sense to turn to the doctor who has been hypervigilant in his public warnings, who has decades of experience fighting epidemics of the HIV / AIDS crisis against swine flu. And so, like most internet-glorified political figures, Fauci is made from meme and elevated to this larger-than-life hero who “speaks truth to power,” when in reality he is just doing his job.
There is a lot of misleading information. Thanks to Dr. Fauci and all other scientists, medical professionals and experts who educate the public based on facts, science and truth. We appreciate it! pic.twitter.com/NbpZM6YwfD
– Anthony Fauci Fan Club (@FauciFan) May 6, 2020
Co-expert Dr. Deborah Birx has barely received the star treatment Fauci received in the press and on the internet. Despite Birx’s decades of research into HIV / AIDS and serving as a U.S. Army physician, her scarves and press outfits, rather than her professional achievements, have been the subject of media coverage more often.
The pro-Fauci shirts, stickers and slogans are an all-in-one visual representation of performance, politics and consumerism; Americans have long been obsessed with collecting political paraphernalia and merchandise, but in quarantine it is 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 – can probably only present these items on social media and Zoom.
Many companies have taken advantage of this tendency towards screen-printed clothing. While popular sites like Redbubble or CustomInk sell mostly user-generated merchandising, others have used algorithms to create items with specific expressions that appeal to customers based on data marketers collected. That means, as my colleague Rebecca Jennings previously reported, “for every possible political stance, implausible hope or conspiracy theory, there will be a way for merch sellers to take advantage of it.”
Some suppliers from Fauci merch promise to donate some profit to charity or emergency aid funds, but buying an item may mean workers are at risk – to make, package and deliver it, instead of donating directly to a nonprofit of your choice. Quarantined, however, Americans with disposable income give in to their online shopping impulses out of boredom or as a feel-good remedy, and the plentiful options of Fauci merchandise available – and their charity intentions – are likely to contribute to people’s consumer desires.
“As a seller, I feel like people want to buy T-shirts that promote the truth and stand by who they believe,” Justin Sharp, the founder of Arkansas Tees, told me. Sharp released a “Fauci Fan Club” t-shirt sometime in early April (not affiliated with the @ FauciFan Twitter account), and the design quickly became the top-selling shirt on his Etsy store.
It was surprising, he admitted, that the item “ hasn’t stopped selling since day one, although he said several of his friends had approached him about a Fauci t-shirt before release. Sharp sells about 10 to 15 Fauci shirts per day on average, and he has noticed that “if there is some sort of conflict between Trump or Fauci online”, he is experiencing a small bump in orders.
Casual wear became a notable vehicle for political expression in the build-up to and aftermath of the 2016 elections, when bright red Make America Great Again hats, Nasty Woman capitals, and pink pussyhats became a visual acronym for politics. As someone who refuses to wear graphic T-shirts in public, I must admit that most Americans – regardless of their political affiliations and economic status – are old-fashioned. We pride ourselves on wearing hacky taglines or ostentatious emblems that seemingly reflect our values, whether it’s a mass-produced $ 6 political tee or a hand-stitched $ 380 sweater. And in times of pandemic, when supply chains are under pressure and postmen are slammed, you have to ask yourself: 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 best-selling item. “I don’t show my Etsy that much love except during tough political moments. People’s interests are changing and they are less passionate about certain designs,” he said.
If Sharp’s theory is correct, interest in Fauci merch is likely to wane in a post-pandemic America. However, the timeline for an effective coronavirus vaccine is not entirely clear, meaning that Fauci can remain relevant for months, if not years. For the most part, pandemic merchandise after 2016 is not as clearly political as, for example, ‘resistance clothing’; pro-Fauci items are “a memento of a certain momentEmilia Petrarca, The Cut’s fashion news writer, said. “It allows us to repack big ideas in a way that catches the eye and is easy to digest and fast.”
Years later, when Covid-19 (hopefully) becomes a pandemic of the past, most Americans are likely to remember Fauci as one of the key experts involved in the response of the American coronavirus. In our stressful and uncertain reality, it can be comforting to lion Fauci as our only true savior, rather than recognizing that successful smoothing of the curve depends on actions from many sources, most of which Fauci has no control over: the White House , governors, state legislators, local officials, and even citizens like you and me.
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