I glanced at the story, read it, and then moved on to something else. But the story of William B. Crews kept bothering me, because it might be a harbinger of things to come.
Crews is—or was—an employee of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the federal agency run by Anthony Fauci. While working as a public-affairs officer for NIAID, Crews was also a prolific conspiracy theorist. He spent the past six months attacking Fauci, NIAID, and the American scientific establishment more generally, on the website Redstate.com, using the pseudonym “Streiff.” On Monday, Lachlan Markay of The Daily Beast published a story unmasking him. Crews abruptly retired that same day.
The United States has a long tradition of government employees criticizing their superiors. But in his extracurricular writing, Crews was not composing whistleblower memos. These were not carefully sourced revelations of wrongdoing at the agency. Instead, they were rants that accused Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, and many others of turning the coronavirus into a deliberate plot to undermine the Trump administration. In June, Crews attacked America’s most respected scientific bodies: “If there were justice,” he wrote, “we’d send and [sic] few dozen of these fascists to the gallows and gibbet their tarred bodies in chains until they fall apart.” In July, he attacked Fauci by name: “If you made those recommendations and they were disastrously wrong and based on bad science that you promulgated, you owe it to all of us to STFU and go away.”
These were not his only posts. “Streiff”—whose work, as of this writing, is still available on Redstate.com—also had views on the riots in Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin; on Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore; on Attorney General Bill Barr (favorable) and former National Security Council staffer Alexander Vindman (unfavorable); on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson (favorable) and CNN’s Jake Tapper (unfavorable). Nothing that he wrote was clever or surprising. Day after day he produced boringly predictable pablum, the sort of average-vile stuff pumped out on Fox or Breitbart News all the time. The only thing remarkable about this writing is that Crews was doing it while simultaneously being employed by a government body whose most important task is to fight exactly the kinds of conspiracy theories he was producing. He may even have been doing both at the same time. Markay could not determine whether Crews actually filed any of his posts from his office computer, but many of them first appeared during weekday working hours.
In the everyday world, this kind of behavior would be considered bizarre: What type of person betrays his co-workers this way? But in the Trump administration, it is not unusual, especially among people who work at health agencies. Recently, Michael Caputo, the Trump-appointed head spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, was caught meddling with scientific reports on the pandemic put out by the CDC, which, like Fauci’s agency, is part of HHS; he then posted a Facebook video claiming that scientists at the CDC were plotting “sedition” and worse. “You understand that they’re going to have to kill me, and unfortunately, I think that’s where this is going,” Caputo said. “There are hit squads being trained all over this country,” he continued: “If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.”
Caputo, who has been diagnosed with cancer, has now gone on leave. But he was not the only one in his office who made wild statements expressing radical views. Yet another HHS political appointee, Paul Alexander, regularly sent emails harassing employees of the CDC. He described its deputy director, the physician Anne Schuchat, as “duplicitous” for saying she hoped the country could “take [the pandemic] seriously and slow the transmission … we have way too much virus across the country.” Alexander also regularly sought to censor weekly scientific and statistical reports—the “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” to be precise—written by the nation’s most important public-health institution, describing them as “hit pieces” targeting the Trump administration.
My Atlantic colleague David A. Graham recently noted that Caputo may well represent the face of a second-term Trump administration. Instead of people with expertise and competence, the White House and Cabinet agencies will contain ideologues with no experience—or, worse, ideologues with a long record of bad judgment and terrible errors. But the cases of Crews, Caputo, and Paul Alexander suggest an additional conclusion: that people whose jobs require them to provide “alternative facts” on a regular basis might eventually break under the strain. Maybe there is a price to be paid, in loss of mental clarity, for supporting the fantasy world needed to sustain this president.
This is worth contemplating, because in this election year we are grappling with something entirely new. The president, the Republican Party, and its campaign machine are collectively seeking to create a completely false picture of the world. This isn’t just a matter of wishful thinking or a few white lies. The president’s campaign staff needs voters to believe that the pandemic is over, or else that it never mattered; that 200,000 people did not really die; that schools aren’t closed; that shops aren’t boarded up; that nothing much happened to the economy; that America is ever more respected around the world; that climate change isn’t real; that the U.S. has no legitimate protesters, only violent thugs who have been paid by secretive groups. This fantasy has to be repeated every day, in multiple forms, on Fox News, in GOP Facebook ads, on websites like RedState. Inevitably, it will affect people’s brains.
It is easy to see why Trump appointees who work in institutions that deal with science and public health might be the first to break: Their jobs require them to grapple every day with data that they have to deny. But the same dissonance may also be fueling some of the more ridiculous conspiracy theories now circulating online. The adherents of the QAnon cult may have literally been driven past the point of reason. In order to make sense of the world they can see all around them, they have created an elaborate and obviously false explanation—that an omniscient Trump is fighting a cabal of deep-state satanists and pedophiles. No wonder Republicans, instead of shunning QAnon believers, are working to elect some of them to Congress in November. They genuinely serve a function, helping Trump supporters navigate the gap between the reality they live in and the fiction they see on Fox and Facebook.
Looking at this bizarre moment in a longer lens can be quite sobering. Parallel situations are hard to come by, and I can think of no similar election to take place in any democracy, no moment when Danes or Spaniards were forced to choose between reality and fiction. The only historical parallels come, inappropriately, from Stalin’s Soviet Union, Maoist China, and other regimes that created elaborate propaganda versions of the world and then forced people to pretend they were true. But those alternative realities were backed up by violence. America does not have that kind of police state. There are no mass arrests or concentration camps for political dissidents. Nobody is forcing people to swallow the Republican Party fantasy. The decision to do so remains purely voluntary.
That, of course, is everyone else’s salvation: Voters can still choose to grapple with reality—to read real news, to seek accurate information, to use our daily experience as a guide before deciding what to believe—without fear. But for people like “Streiff”—people who actually work in this administration, and people who would choose to work in a second Trump administration—reality might no longer be an option.