On Monday night, Fox News apologized to Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old environmental activist, for airing an interview where a guest, Daily Wire contributor Michael Knowles, called her a “mentally ill Swedish child.” Thunberg has Asperger syndrome, and American conservatives have used her diagnosis to cast her as a hapless victim of adult manipulation. “[She] is being exploited by her parents and the international left,” Knowles insisted. There’s no evidence for this, but plenty that conservatives who claim to worry about her are really just sanitizing their pejorative views about her mental capabilities. One case in point is Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who later that same night equated Thunberg with the antagonists from “Children of the Corn,” Stephen King’s short story about a murderous children’s cult. “I can’t wait for Stephen King’s sequel, ‘Children of the Climate,’” Ingraham quipped, after airing footage of Thunberg and a clip from the 1984 film adaptation of the story.
Thunberg herself has a less-conspiratorial explanation for why she began her climate-action strikes alone, and how her Asperger’s has impacted the process. “People … say that since I have Asperger I couldn’t possibly have put myself in this position,” she wrote on Facebook in February. “But that’s exactly why I did this. Because if I would have been ‘normal’ and social I would have organized myself in an organisation, or started an organisation by myself. But since I am not that good at socializing I did this instead.” Nevertheless, her dire predictions about the world’s climate future have prompted high-profile conservatives to mock and circulate conspiracy theories about her. Dinesh D’Souza tweeted an image likening her to the children Nazis used for propaganda in the 1930s and 1940s. President Trump captioned a Twitter video of her impassioned speech this week to the United Nations, “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” (Thunberg responded by making this glib remark her Twitter bio.)
There’s plenty to revile in how liberal figureheads have turned Thunberg into a kind of secular saint, applauding her outspokenness despite their own complicity, and frequent inaction, around the very issues she assails them for ignoring. Misgivings about her position as a spokesperson despite the fact that nonwhite activists, many of whose communities are already hit hard by climate change, have beat the same drum for years to little avail are perhaps also warranted. But to her credit, Thunberg has been generally disdainful of her celebrification, and acutely aware of how absurd it is that lawmakers are looking to her, a child, for guidance as the atmosphere heats, forests burn, biodiversity plummets, and oceans acidify around them. None of this, though, changes American conservatives’ response to youth protests against pillars of their political agenda — which is to impugn the character, motives, and intelligence of children, while declining to engage substantively with their concerns.
It would be naïve to view the right’s performative concern that kids like Thunberg are being used as vessels by scheming partisans as sincere, given their habit of lionizing the likes of teenage Parkland, Florida, shooting survivor Kyle Kashuv, who diverged from his March for Our Lives–leading classmates by opposing stricter gun-control laws, and became a conservative celebrity. The same goes for then–9-year-old Jacob Silva, billed in his multiple Fox News appearances as “Trump’s youngest fan.” Widespread conservative support for the Trump administration’s migrant child-separation policy, which explicitly uses violence against children to deter immigration, does little to help their case. In truth, there’s also a likely bipartisan consensus that involving children in some political protests is a good thing: The Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963, where black schoolchildren in the city were placed intentionally in harm’s way when organizers sent them to confront public safety commissioner Bull Connor and his German shepherds and firehoses, produced brutal images that galvanized public sympathy for the civil-rights movement and helped facilitate the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It helps, certainly, that time has validated the mission of the civil-rights struggle in ways that its then-detractors, much like today’s climate-change deniers, refused to see at the time.
But the reality today is that, for all their rhetoric about the sanctity of childhood, many on the right routinely treat children who undermine them politically with the same vitriol as their adult counterparts. When Trayvon Martin was shot dead in 2012, the partisan spectrum was awash in sorrow and calls for a swift investigation. The moment when President Obama suggested that Martin could have been his son, that sympathy transformed into a smear campaign against the dead child and the lionization of his killer, George Zimmerman. The “thoughts and prayers” Republicans issued after the Parkland shooting gave way to partisan media attacks against its young survivors after several Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students helped organize protests calling for stricter gun-control legislation. Fox News’ Laura Ingraham famously taunted survivor David Hogg for being rejected from four colleges he applied to. She later apologized after advertisers threatened to divest from her show.
That Greta Thunberg would face similar treatment — albeit of a categorically milder sort than that facing victims of gun violence — was perhaps to be expected, given her ability to galvanize a global protest movement that threatens deregulators and oil profiteers, and has been joined by children from countries as disparate geographically as Mexico, Croatia, Uganda, and Bangladesh. As was the likelihood that President Trump and Fox News would lead the charge against her, given their shared knack for casting their political opponents in often-vicious personal terms. The biggest development here is that they’ve seemingly yet to process that children are capable of drawing well-reasoned political conclusions without adults serving as their puppets. That gleeful disregard for the long-term costs of unchecked carbon emissions in 2019 is so outrageous it elicits disgust from kids, is more damning of world leaders like Trump, and their media enablers, than of the children struggling to wake them up.