Comment: How can smart guy like Tucker Carlson sound so dumb?

Among other odd statements, Dollar Stores and litter are somehow to blame for climate change.

By Philip Bump / The Washington Post

Tucker Carlson isn’t dumb. In fact, at one point he was a wunderkind, a sharp young rising star on the political right in the mold of William F. Buckley. The sort of polished, bow-tied Ivy Leaguer who is the foil in so many 1980s high school movies.

But through some combination of understanding his audience and a personal drift toward the right-wing fringe, Carlson now plays a dumb guy on TV. Well, that’s not quite right. He plays a smart guy who espouses dumb things.

There are a lot of examples from which to choose, but in the spirit of timeliness we can focus on his interaction with Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., during Monday night’s broadcast.

Hawley was there to tout new legislation that would, in the articulation of a news release sent by his office, “reverse President Joe Biden’s shutdown of the American energy sector and return American energy to full production.” You would be forgiven if you hadn’t heard about this “shutdown of the energy sector,” given that it didn’t happen. 2021 saw the third-most domestic crude oil production in American history. It’s just rhetoric aimed at using the war in Ukraine to bash Biden’s environmental agenda and to show support for expanded oil and gas extraction.

Speaking to Carlson, Hawley offered some similar nonsensical arguments.

“Joe Biden has allowed [Russia] to have energy dominance. We’ve surrendered our energy independence to them,” he claimed. “It is time to shut down their energy sector and return ours to full production.”

This is sitting-at-a-bar level thoughtfulness. We haven’t “surrendered our energy independence” to Russia; most of our imported oil comes from Canada (which, until last week, was Carlson’s and Fox’s favorite “authoritarian” state to complain about). Biden did not let Russia have “energy dominance”; the country exports a lot of fuel because it has a lot of fuel. “Shutting down” Russia’s energy sector, presumably through sanctions would mean a quick spike in gas prices; as Carlson, allowing his actual knowledge to briefly shine through, pointed out. Hawley waved the question away as being somehow something that was Biden’s fault, without explanation.

This conversation was happening hours after the United Nations released a new report offering dire predictions about the effects of global warming on the planet. In a statement, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said that the international “abdication of leadership is criminal.”

“The world’s biggest polluters,” he added, “are guilty of arson of our only home.”

This, of course, is the under-discussed alternative path toward weakening international actors who are dependent on fossil fuels for their economy: moving away from gas and oil consumption broadly. If you’re concerned about importing Russian oil in particular — a small subset of our annual imports — and if you believe for some reason that all of that oil ends up being consumed as fuel by American buyers, you could remove demand for the oil by lowering demand for oil in general, instead of simply replacing it. This is overly simple, certainly, but not more simple than Hawley’s rhetorical approach.

Carlson and Hawley didn’t mention the climate report or climate change in general, except to laugh at it.

Here are three question-comments Carlson offered, in a row:

“It’s so funny how many people buy this nonsense that I mean, you even see Republican governor; the governor of Texas buying into the windmill lie. I mean, why wouldn’t this be an absolute deal killer for Republican voters? If you’re making our energy grid unstable, if you’re making us more dependent on China for solar panels or Russia for oil, we are not voting for you.

“If you’re flying to global warming conferences in a private plane and sucking up to China, clearly you don’t really care about climate change, because you’re adding to it. So what would be the motive of someone, our policymakers, to hamper, to hobble to shut down America’s domestic energy production?

“They don’t care about the environment, I noticed. America is getting much dirtier and there are like Dollar Stores everywhere and people litter. So if you cared about the environment, maybe you clean up the environment, but instead they’re lecturing us about climate. Maybe it’s an intentional effort to weaken the country, maybe they just don’t like America.”

That’s a lot of nonsense in short order.

The “windmill lie,” of course, is that wind energy is an inexpensive alternative to burning fossil fuels for energy, which it is. Carlson, you’ll recall, fed his audience misinformation during last year’s power outage in Texas by blaming wind energy for the crisis. As for “making the U.S. more dependent on China for solar panels” bit, the political right spent a decade undercutting efforts to boost domestic solar panel manufacturing (in favor of Hawleyesque defenses of oil and gas production) and now use China’s strength in the industry as reason not to transition to solar.

The “flying to global warming conferences on private planes” line is a long-standing one. It functions the way that Fox News’s beloved “Democratic official goes maskless despite mandate” stories do: using an example of contradictory behavior to undercut a broad effort as insincere or oppressive. In that sense, it’s very on-brand for Carlson, whose anti-intellectualism over the past year has been on full display in his assessments of the coronavirus pandemic response. It’s a bad look to take a private jet to a climate conference, certainly, but the problem of climate change is a global one driven by huge aggregated decisions about fossil fuel consumption far more than small, individual ones. That’s why climate experts “suck up” to China: They want China to agree to emit fewer greenhouse gases.

And then there’s Carlson’s last bit there, about how “dirty” America is.

The good news is that, this time at least, Carlson isn’t blaming that “dirtiness” on immigrants, as he has in the past. This time, it’s poor people and their dollar stores, leaving trash all over his pristine streets.

Of course, this has nothing to do with climate change. Environmentalists are, certainly, anti-litter. But to suggest that they should focus on litter instead of the threat posed by the warming planet is simply idiotic. It’s the sort of pivot that President Donald Trump often tried, suggesting that he was a staunchly pro-environment because he wanted America to have “the cleanest air and water,” misrepresenting the actual concerns of climate change. (Not that he worked terribly hard on ensuring clean air and water, mind you.)

I was never certain that Trump understood the actual point of the effort to combat climate change, but I’m quite confident Carlson does. He knows, or should, why litter is not considered as significant a threat as global warming and he knows, or should, that the effort to combat climate change must necessarily be a global, sweeping one. If we could turn back warming by adding more garbage cans on street corners in cities, I’m confident we would. At least, we would if it didn’t undercut industries that are part of the Republican political universe.

The entire discussion between Hawley and Carlson was just a rhetorical slam-dunk contest, with each participant seeking to make a splashier point disparaging Biden and the left. Viewers would have come away less informed about the issues of energy production, international energy markets and climate change than they went in.

But they wouldn’t have changed the channel, so Carlson could consider the exchange a success.

Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York. He writes the weekly How To Read This Chart. Follow him on Twitter @pbump.

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