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Why the right’s usual smears don’t work on Greta Thunberg

She keeps the focus on science, and they hate it.

Activist Greta Thunberg seated at a microphone at a press conference.
Frankly, she is skeptical.

Time Magazine announced Wednesday that Greta Thunberg is its Person of the Year. Then, on Thursday, President Trump attacked her again in a tweet. This piece, originally published in September 2019, helps explain why she has been so effective.

To her considerable and growing list of accomplishments, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg can now add another mark of distinction: She has been attacked by the troll-in-chief.

In September, in response to Thunberg’s coruscating, impassioned speech to the UN, President Trump tweeted sarcastically, “[s]he seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” (Thunberg promptly edited her Twitter bio to read: “A very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”)

Trump’s sneering attack came amid a torrent of often misogynist and ableist abuse hurled at Thunberg since the speech, with conservatives attacking her demeanor, her looks, her mental health (she has autism), and above all her autonomy, claiming she is “brainwashed” or a victim of child abuse. Several have compared her speeches to Nazi propaganda.

“She’s ignorant, maniacal and is being mercilessly manipulated by adult climate bedwetters funded by Putin,” ranted C-list climate denier Steve Milloy, somehow fitting all the mutually contradictory stereotypes about powerful women into his pea brain at once.

What’s remarkable about this is not that the right-wing slime machine has gone to work against a new progressive threat. That’s what it was made for. What’s remarkable is how ineffective it’s been, how little it has affected Thunberg and her extraordinary influence.

The right-wing tabloid Daily Wire has published some of the vilest stuff about Thunberg. But when it sent Michael Knowles to Fox News to say Thunberg is a “mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left,” Fox took the rare step of apologizing to viewers and saying it would no longer book Knowles.

On a female-led Fox show, the lone male guest (“Buck Sexton,” I kid you not) went after Thunberg and was promptly scolded by the hosts for “kid bashing.” Up in Canada, Maxime Bernier of the far-right People’s Party of Canada was forced to apologize for calling Thunberg “mentally unstable.”

These moments of accountability on the right are rare, of course — there are dozens, hundreds more examples of attacks far uglier than this that have brought no pushback at all. But they help illustrate that Thunberg has the rare ability to tap into something human, something that, at least sporadically, can break through the media filter pushing the public into partisan camps.

As for Thunberg, her reaction to her attackers remains as bemused and clinical as ever:

Even against the nuttiness of current events, Thunberg’s story is remarkable, in both human and political terms, as David Wallace-Wells masterfully captures in his recent New York magazine piece. He taps into the heady sense of a movement exploding but also offers a clear glimpse of the intently focused, achingly vulnerable teenager who finds herself at its white-hot center. Everyone should read it.

Here I just want to dwell on one theme of that piece, namely the unlikely confluence of personal history and characteristics that have made Thunberg so politically potent and so resistant to the right wing’s familiar smears.

It’s important to note, as she frequently does, that Thunberg has not single-handedly created this movement. She stands on the shoulders of generations of activists before and alongside her, many of them people of color, who are, to say the least, less likely to be adopted as icons by Westerners. (Check out this great thread on other young climate activists.)

But she has proven extraordinarily potent in crystallizing and focusing what has been a somewhat diffuse activist energy. She has brought a directness and simplicity to the movement that has been lacking. Her influence is growing, even as the right ramps up its barrage, and it is driving them out of their minds.

Let’s look at why their usual tricks don’t work.

Greta avoids the trap of recommending specific policies

Across the world, businesses, scientific institutions, investors, and governments are effectively unanimous in recognizing the urgent need for action on climate change. The science has made it inescapably clear that business as usual leads to disaster. Many debates remain over the best path forward, but the basic case for action has become unassailable.

And so for the most part, opponents of action — generally far-right coalitions fueled by a mix of fossil-fuel cronyism and populist ethnonationalism — don’t assail it. They do everything they can to distract from it.

That almost always involves attacking the messengers (“Al Gore has a big house”) and their proposed solutions (“the Green New Deal will take away your hamburgers”). The scientists are after grant money; the activists are undercover socialists; the leaders are hypocrites; the marchers litter. Casting doubt on the motives and authenticity of people fighting for progressive causes is the right’s primary political tool, with efforts now led out of the White House.

For climate scientists and advocates, it’s a familiar trap. Any political program sufficient to address climate change at scale is, almost by definition, going to be radical, which allows the right to dismiss it as “far left.” The go-to attack on the climate movement is that it’s a “watermelon,” green on the outside and socialist red on the inside — that climate change is just a cover story for the political program.

Thunberg has sidestepped attacks on her motives by almost entirely refraining from endorsing specific political reforms or policies. “I can’t really speak up about things like [politics],” she told Wallace-Wells, “no one would take me seriously.”

Her insistence on this point was illustrated when she submitted the IPCC’s report on limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in lieu of testifying to the House. Attached was a short letter that said: “I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to the scientists. And I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take action.” She refuses to allow her opinions to become the focus.

Coming from almost any adult, this strategy would be vulnerable. Adults have political worldviews and very few have the discipline to keep them entirely hidden. But Thunberg is, in her own words, an “uneducated teenager.” She’s 16 years old! She can’t be expected to know what actions government agencies need to take and she doesn’t pretend to.

She just drags the focus back, again and again, to the subject grown-ups want to avoid: the need for immediate action and their longstanding failure to take any.

(The right has been circulating a picture of Thunberg with her parents in matching “antifascist all-star” T-shirts, claiming that it exposes her far-left politics. Ponder for a moment what it says about the right that it considers opposition to fascism politically compromising.)

Attempts to personally smear Greta have backfired

Right-wing media’s first instinct is to smear the messenger, to find some behavior on which to hang a charge of hypocrisy or some venal motive that allegedly undercuts moral authority. They have done it to everyone who has stuck their head up on climate change (beginning, famously, with Al Gore) for many decades now, snooping through stolen emails, filing lawsuits, and ruining careers.

But this is where Thunberg’s autism has proven, as she has put it, a kind of superpower. She has Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that makes her indifferent, often blind, to social cues and incentives as well as inclined to focus intently on a single subject, a tendency Thunberg says is exacerbated by obsessive-compulsive disorder.

As Wallace-Wells notes, Thunberg fell into a depression when she was younger, after she learned about climate change, and spent a few friendless years eating and speaking little, barely motivated to leave the house. In her own words, her climate activism gave her a sense of focus and meaning that helped lift her out of depression.

(I’m far from the first to draw a connection between Thunberg’s autism, her authenticity, and her effectiveness. Steve Silberman wrote about it here on Vox; Naomi Klein and Liza Featherstone, among others, have made the point. Indeed, Thunberg herself has made it.)

In characteristically vile fashion, the right in both Europe and the US has attempted to use Thunberg’s mental health against her, but the attempt has largely backfired. For one thing, it is virtually impossible to watch her speak for any length of time and maintain a good-faith belief that she is responding to social pressure from adults. She is manifestly authentic, direct in a way unique among public figures, no more subject to flattery than to coercion.

Witness Thunberg’s utterly indifferent reaction to the plaudits lavished on her by congressional Democrats. “Please save your praise,” she said. “We don’t want it. Don’t invite us here to tell us how inspiring we are without doing anything about it. It doesn’t lead to anything.”

She’s not intimidated or dazzled by social hierarchy. She just drags the focus, again and again, back to her fixation, what the grown-ups don’t want to talk about: the need for immediate action and their long-standing failure to take any.

However the right tries to twist it, her personal story remains perfectly relatable. She’s a child who found out that the world she was born into is sliding headlong into crisis and suffering, and nobody’s doing much of anything about it. It depressed her. And it eventually motivated her to act.

The question is not why she was depressed and driven to action but why more children aren’t.

When Greta disregards social cues, it sends a social cue

The reason is simple: social cues. Children don’t see the adults around them acting like climate change is a crisis, so they don’t either. For most people, those social signals and affiliations — the building blocks of identity — are much more significant than “the facts” as conveyed by distant, disinterested authorities.

But, in part through their indifference to social cues, people with autism have a unique capacity to face the facts clearly. And the facts about climate change are fucking terrifying.

This, I think, helps explain why Thunberg has inspired so many people, especially so many young people: There’s a kind of courage in ignoring the pervasive social pressure to calm down about climate change. She takes the facts seriously, even when very few adults are modeling how to do so, even when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient for those around her. She’s vegan, she won’t fly, and she’s devoting her young life to prodding adults into action; the default right-wing accusations of hypocrisy and duplicity simply don’t stick.

The right has established a social environment in which speaking up on climate change leads to bullying and shaming, but those tactics just don’t seem to work on Thunberg. And without them, the right has nothing to fall back on (not one of the hundreds of attacks launched at her has the courage to directly dispute the IPCC report she submitted).

In ignoring social cues, Thunberg has become one: A signal to other young people around the world that, yes, this really is an emergency, and yes, they really can and should speak up.

Making more Gretas.
Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Greta’s power will be in making more Gretas

So far, Thunberg has played her game expertly — mostly by being almost entirely oblivious to the other games being played around her — and I hope she does this as long as possible. I hope she continues to refrain from policy recommendations, live a low-carbon life, and drag the spotlight back to science. She has pulled off something like a political miracle, and I don’t want it to end any more than anybody else.

But the thing is, as much as Thunberg might now seem like a transparent lens, directing focus at climate science without the distractions of personal baggage, she is in fact a human being, one 16-year-old girl, and she cannot remain forever in the strange social position where she finds herself. Sooner or later, she’ll do something, join something, or say something that forces her out of the improbably apolitical space she now occupies — and the public tends to be unforgiving of females who disappoint their expectations, even young white ones. No human being can survive the full intensity of the right-wing smear machine undamaged.

If Thunberg is to have a meaningful long-term effect, it can’t be through staying in the spotlight. It must come from others adopting some of her focus, determination, and courage, learning to disregard the social pressures that suppress their fear and anger and prevent them from speaking up, connecting, and finding hope in one another. It will come from others, especially those in positions of power, listening to her and treating the threat to her generation’s future as a crisis.

Listen to Today, Explained

In just one week, she inspired global protests, mean-mugged President Trump, and chastised world leaders at the United Nations. David Wallace-Wells, editor at New York magazine, explains the rise of Greta Thunberg.

Looking for a quick way to keep up with the never-ending news cycle? Host Sean Rameswaram will guide you through the most important stories at the end of each day.

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