During CNN’s marathon climate-change town halls later in the evening, the proposed switch was a topic of conversation. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was asked by moderator Chris Cuomo whether she thought “that the government should be in the business of telling you what kind of lightbulb you can have.”
“Oh, come on,” replied Warren, who’s running in the Democratic presidential primary. “Give me a break.
“There are a lot of ways that we try to change our energy consumption, and our pollution, and God bless all of those ways,” she continued. “Some of it is with lightbulbs, some of it is on straws, some of it, dang, is on cheeseburgers, right? There are a lot of different pieces to this. And I get that people are trying to find the part that they can work on and what can they do. And I’m in favor of that. And I’m going to help, and I’m going to support.”
In short order, the Trump campaign seized upon Warren’s response as evidence that Democrats sought to do precisely what Cuomo suggested: mandate how Americans should live their lives.
You’ll notice if you play that clip in President Trump’s tweet, though, that Warren’s response is suddenly cut off.
“But understand,” she continues, “this is exactly what the fossil fuel in — ” … and the clip ends.
This is what she went on to say:
“But understand, this is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about. That’s what they want us to talk about. ‘This is your problem.’ They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, around your straws and around your cheeseburgers. When 70 percent of the pollution of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air comes from three industries … Now, the other 30 percent, we still got to work on. Oh, no, we don’t stop at 70 percent. But the point is, that’s where we need to focus.”
That, of course, is precisely what the Trump campaign was doing in its tweet, highlighting lightbulbs and cheeseburgers and straws as the focus of liberal energy as opposed to more sweeping change in the country’s energy infrastructure. This is a campaign, after all, which made a big display of hyping the sale of reusable plastic straws from its campaign website, a way to jointly raise money and to provide supporters with a tangible rebuke of the enviro-police’s effort to limit the use of plastic in favor of biodegradable drinking devices.
Notice that this isn’t really related to climate change. The problem with plastic straws is largely pollution, not global warming. It’s akin to Trump’s ongoing conflation of climate change and clean air (as he did in a tweet on Wednesday evening). For Trump and, apparently, his team, every environmental issue is the same environmental issue.
Which isn’t really an environmental issue at all, but a political and cultural one. When the Trump campaign disparages “liberal paper straws” — as its website does — it’s equating the putative complaint (paper) with the actual one (politics).
Before Trump was in politics, former Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann was running a similar playbook. Her brief 2012 presidential campaign was heavily influenced by the then-still-potent tea party movement and its conflated concerns about government intervention and the changing American cultural landscape. A signature issue she championed? Rejecting the 2007 lightbulb rule, part of what she saw as liberal cultural intrusion on real America.
“I think Thomas Edison did a pretty patriotic thing for this country by inventing the lightbulb,” she said at one event in New Hampshire in March 2011. The incandescent bulb is all-American, and its replacements are presumably not.
March 2011 was the same month that Donald Trump first came out as a birther, telling “Good Morning America” that the circumstances of Barack Obama’s birth were “very strange.” While Trump’s flirtation with a presidential run collapsed after Obama released his full birth certificate, Trump was very much on board with Bachmann-style rhetoric about what the liberals were up to. By the fall of 2012, Trump was even publicly sharing Bachmann’s sentiments about the lightbulb transition, twice warning on Twitter that the replacement bulbs were carcinogenic. (They aren’t.)
Perhaps that sounds familiar. Earlier this year, Trump claimed that wind turbines cause cancer. (They don’t.) That claim — or, really, Trump’s hostility to wind energy — stems from the same 2011-2012 time period. He had recently purchased land in Scotland with the intent of turning it into a golf course, only to learn that a large offshore wind farm was being built nearby. Worried that the construction would be an aesthetic blight reducing the value of his project, he launched a scorched-earth campaign to block it from being built. He criticized politicians. He sued the government. He constantly disparaged wind energy on Twitter as unsafe, noisome and inefficient.
Environmentalism, in the form of clean energy, had become personally aggravating for Trump. Perhaps he recognized the political utility of lambasting environmental efforts as signifiers of an out-of-control government and out-of-control liberals, but even if he didn’t, he sympathized with the rhetoric’s inherent frustrations. As a candidate and as president, Trump has leveraged this idea that environmentalists are out to get Real America, from his fervent defenses of coal mining to his suggestions that wind energy isn’t trustworthy.
And to straws, and to lightbulbs.
Fossil fuel companies probably aren’t exactly disappointed that the discussion over the Green New Deal has centered on nonsensical claims that hamburgers will be banned, but, contrary to what Warren claims, companies aren’t really driving it, either. Republicans and, more energetically, Trump’s team have embraced the idea that coastal liberals want to control what you eat at McDonald’s, how you drink your Coke and what light illuminates your kitchen table. These are prods to remind supporters about a changing world — not in the sense that it’s warming but in the sense that it’s no longer the one you might recognize from “The Andy Griffith Show” — and that it’s the hated Democrats making that happen.
Until Jan. 20, 2017, Trump was just another conservative media fan angry at how the United States was evolving. Now he and his team can ensure that the Energy Department makes the lightbulb change that Bachmann was advocating. And now his campaign can stoke that same fan base in the same way with an eye toward earning another inauguration in 2021.