The Right’s Attack on Greta Thunberg is a Tired Exercise—but Serves Its Purpose

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg (Image Source: WikiMedia Commons)

Right-wing media personalities and outlets have aggressively attacked 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg with a worn-out playbook. Dilapidated and decrepit, its pages offer an old formula for bludgeoning young activists who gain popular support by cutting through the rhetoric of right-wing mouthpieces.

A cascading wave of smears against Thunberg erupted after Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations yesterday, where she upbraided the leaders of the world for failing to act to stem the climate crisis. In her scathing remarks at the United Nations Climate Summit, Thunberg admonished world leaders for failing to take meaningful action on the issue of climate change, despite the science being “crystal clear” for decades.

“How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you are doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight?” Thunberg asked world leaders. She added, “You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.”

Thunberg has polling to back her up; in the U.S., a majority of teenagers and young adults believe that the earth’s climate is changing in ways that will harm them, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey taken earlier this year. Reports about the latest climate report from the United Nations seem to confirm those fears and warn that tipping points in the earth’s climate have already been passed and that many severe consequences of climate change are no longer avoidable.

Many around the world have looked to Thunberg as a star communicator on the issue of climate change, which has also branded her as a target of right-wing activists and media. The ire directed at the European teenager often contains little refutation of her message, and instead follows an established strategy for smearing young activists working for progressive causes.

The acts in the play are exhausted. The scenes are as unoriginal as they are disingenuous. Yet, for right-wing leaders, they are nonetheless successful in discrediting youth activists within insular bubbles of reactionary communities online and among aging conservatives.

This ramshackle cottage industry exists at the core of right-wing media, earning buy-in from mainstream conservative thought leaders who seek to discredit progressive activists and movements that gain the support of the American public. As Christian Christensen, professor of journalism at Stockholm University, wrote at Common Dreams:

These attacks have become an industry supposedly rooted in a worldview that worships rights and individual freedoms, but, in actual fact, is rooted in a hatred of activism, principle and dedication. These three elements stand in stark contrast to the values and tactics of those who wish to smear Thunberg and her contemporaries: namely lies, obfuscation and denigration. What scares those who attack Thunberg and the Parkland survivors is not so much the message, but the poise, presence and visibility of young citizens unfazed by their older, jaded, cynical opponents. They are dangerous because they exist and persist.

Depending on which media personality a right-wing consumer listens to, Thunberg is an exploited child or, perhaps, Adolf Hitler himself. For those who paid attention to the smears aimed at Parkland school shooting survivors, the smears sound nearly identical.

One approach popular in establishment conservative media is feigned concern for the young people who enter the political arena coupled with a scolding for those who enabled that entry. In 2018, Todd Starnes wrote for Fox News that Parkland shooting survivors advocating for changes to gun control laws were “propaganda pawns to peddle a fake news narrative” and wrote that it was “shameful that reporters would take advantage of traumatized young people.” Fox News host Tucker Carlson delivered the same kind of performative concern during his primetime program last night; Carlson said that powerful people—presumably those seeking action on the climate crisis—are using Thunberg as a “human shield” against criticism.

The same sentiment was expressed by National Review’s Rich Lowry who put it in plain language: “She is a pawn being used by adults for their own interests.” Disgraced columnist Denise McAllister claimed that “lack of maturity is a greater threat to our world than mythical apocalyptic man-made climate change.” Glenn Beck called Thunberg’s parents “monsters.”

There’s a certain irony to such concern-trolling, considering that the right invests millions of dollars in the creation and upkeep of youth-targeted organizations like Turning Point USA, that Fox News hosts interview children who say they support President Trump, or that the religious right buses in thousands of young people—including high-schoolers and middle-schoolers—to Washington, D.C., every year to fill space at the annual March for Life.

The right has also attempted to rope Thunberg into its longstanding smear campaign against billionaire philanthropist George Soros; the Associated Press debunked a photo circulated on social media that was altered to depict Thunberg standing with Soros his arm draped around her shoulder. At The Gateway Pundit, Jim Hoft cited only a pro-QAnon social media account to allege that Thunberg was being escorted around events by a Soros-sponsored political operative.

Breitbart’s John Nolte said that Thunberg “needs a spanking or a psychological intervention” and called her fans “Gretards.” Nolte has made similar jabs at other youth activists; in 2018, Nolte compared Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg to the cult leader from Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn” and deemed him a “mean-spirited little zealot in over his head.” And just last night, Fox News Channel host Laura Ingraham, drawing from the same well, likened Thunberg to the children in the King story, members of a murderous cult who kill all the adults in the town.

The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles attacked Thunberg on Fox News last night, calling her a “mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left.” (Thunberg describes herself as being on the autism spectrum, calling it her “superpower.”) Fox News apologized for Knowles’ comments and told The Hollywood Reporter that it had no plans to invite Knowles back on its network.

Logan Cook, a meme-maker fancied by the Trump administration who attended the “social media summit” hosted at the White House in July, shared an edited a video of Thunberg’s United Nations speech with an audio track of a speech given by Hitler. Cook’s video is almost identical to similarly styled smears broadcast on Infowars in 2018 that depicted Parkland youth activists as Hitler Youth. Right-wing media outlets, including Breitbart and The Daily Wire, latched on to the same smear of Hogg in 2018, fixating on a portion of Hogg’s speech at the 2018 March for Our Lives rally in which Hogg raised his fist in the air. On Sunday, convicted felon and right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza compared Thunberg’s speech to Nazi Youth propaganda. Dale Hurd at CBN News belittled Thunberg as a “prophetess of doom.”

Justifications for the right’s barrel-scraping often attempt to divert attention from its own dirty job. One retort to those angered by the right’s attacks on Thunberg has been to draw a parallel to the way media and left-of-center people treated the teenagers captured on video displaying bigoted behavior toward an Omaha tribe elder who was playing a drum and singing—an episode in January triggered an all-out propaganda war by the right-wing commentators. But the right’s “whataboutism” argument, in this case, works only in a vacuum, as Amanda Marcotte noted.

The right’s game plan for smearing youth activists is tired but nonetheless quite effective within its own bubble. Despite its obvious faults and repetitive tropes, the right’s smear machine remains robust and American mainstream media continues too often to treat it as one equal “side” of partisan issues in the name of producing balanced coverage.