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U.S. Sens. Ron Johnson and Ted Cruz have emerged as the prime misinformation spreaders in the anti-Fauci crowd. 

Ron Johnson is conspiracy theory-spouting crackpot.

But the Republican senator from Wisconsin is not a lonely lunatic. He’s got plenty of company, especially when it comes to spreading the most dangerous lies of all — the lies that could kill people who take his nonsense seriously.

Last week, Johnson claimed Dr. Anthony Fauci, the physician and scientist who has directed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the past 37 years, had “overhyped” the threat posed by COVID-19 variants. As part of his attack on Fauci, Johnson claimed that the immunologist had previously “overhyped” the threat posed by HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. Johnson did this on World AIDS Day, sparking a national outcry — not merely because of his jaw-dropping insensitivity, but because of concerns about the prospect that there were Americans who might take seriously the ranting of a delusional senator.

During an interview on Fox News host Brian Kilmeade's radio program, Johnson declared that Fauci had been too concerned about the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus at a time when Americans were struggling to understand a health crisis that was beginning to claim lives at an alarming rate.

“Fauci did the exact same thing with AIDS. He overhyped it,” Johnson told Kilmeade. “He created all kinds of fear, saying it could affect the entire population when it couldn’t. And he’s doing, he’s using the exact same playbook with COVID, ignoring therapy, pushing a vaccine,”

Fauci is the first to admit that he didn’t get everything right in the early days of the AIDS crisis. He was criticized at the time by LGBTQ activists who said he was too cautious in sounding alarms, just as he was criticized by others for being an alarmist. But today, the doctor is widely credited with having helped the country navigate a challenging moment in the mid-1980s when conflicting studies created confusion regarding the spread of a still little understood health threat.

“Dr. Fauci has always provided us with the best information possible," Mike Gifford, the president and CEO of Vivent Health, a Wisconsin organization that provides health services to patients with HIV and AIDS, told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “And what we've seen in his leadership is what we need in leaders, and that is to take the best information, share it with their constituents, share it with the general public, and update it as we learn more. And that's happened with Dr. Fauci in the HIV pandemic and it's happened with Dr. Fauci with the COVID-19 pandemic, and thank goodness it's happened."

If Johnson were the only politician peddling conspiracy theories and misreads of history in hopes of discrediting Fauci, that would be bad enough. Unfortunately, the senator is part of an anti-Fauci chorus in the Republican Senate Caucus that keeps getting louder — and more visceral in its attacks. They’ve gone so overboard that columnist S.E. Cupp talks about: “The right’s Fauci Derangement Syndrome.”

Just last week, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz declared: “Fauci is an unelected technocrat who has distorted science and facts in order to exercise authoritarian control over millions of Americans. He lives in a liberal world where his smug ‘I REPRESENT science’ attitude is praised.”

In October, the Texan went so far as to demand that a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate Fauci for allegedly lying to Congress about COVID research.

When asked about that threat in a CBS interview, Fauci said, “I have to laugh at that. I should be prosecuted? What happened on January 6, senator?”

Stung by the reference to his amplifying of the Big Lie about the 2020 election results that inspired insurrectionists to attack the U.S. Capitol, Cruz again tore into Fauci, calling the doctor “the most dangerous bureaucrat in the history of the country.”

He went on to say: “I don’t think anyone has hurt science, has hurt the credibility of the CDC, has hurt the credibility of doctors, more than Dr. Fauci, because throughout this pandemic, he’s been dishonest. He’s been political. He’s been partisan, and the American people know it.”

Cruz’s anti-Fauci ranting peddled falsehoods so outrageous that a previous Washington Post fact-check awarded them “Two Pinocchios.”

The lies told by Johnson, Cruz and their right-wing media echo chamber is so over the top that it’s easy to write them off as nothing more than political claptrap. But there’s a serious side to what’s happening here. These prominent Republicans are seeking to discredit Fauci at precisely the point when Americans should be taking seriously the immunologist’s counsel about the need to get vaccinated and take precautions.

The pandemic is surging in many parts of the country — especially in regions where vaccine hesitancy is high and vaccination rates are low — and the death toll has surpassed 777,000. With a new variant in motion, the senator’s current assault on Fauci is more than a clash of personalities. Cruz is spreading misinformation that puts people in danger, especially conservatives who take him at his word.

Public health experts have been adamant this week about the need to take precautions against the general spread of the virus, which is all but inevitable this time of year, and the Omicron variant, which has now arrived in the United States. Yet Cruz was telling Sean Hannity: “There’s always going to be a new variant. Joe Biden and the Democrats need to stop threatening shutdowns of schools, stop threatening shutdowns of business. Enough is enough.”

Ron Johnson and Ted Cruz would have us believe that Anthony Fauci — and Big Bird — are spreading the virus of governmental overreach to the detriment of American freedom. In fact, Johnson and Cruz are spreading the virus of disinformation and distrust to the detriment of American health, and American lives.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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