By Sunday afternoon, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) had dubbed President Joe Biden the “Hamburglar.” Pictures of steaks and hamburgers were rocketing around the rightwing media ecosystem, escorted by captions screaming that Biden’s climate plan would force Americans to cut 90 percent of red meat from their diets. We had entered the era of baseless meat fear-mongering.
But let’s rewind.
It all started on Thursday, when Biden delivered remarks during the “Virtual Leaders Summit on Climate.” During his speech, Biden sketched out his vision that the United States will cut its greenhouse emissions in half by 2030. His comments were short on specifics as his plan has not yet been released, more of a practice in goal-setting than a detailed outline of how to get there.
Enter: the Daily Mail. The British tabloid, known to compensate for its paltry fact-checking with all-caps sensationalism, shouldered the responsibility of filling in the blanks of Biden’s plan with shoot-from-the-hip speculation.
“How Biden’s climate plan could limit you to eat just one burger a MONTH, cost $3.5K a year per person in taxes, force you to spend $55K on an electric car and ‘crush’ American jobs,” the pithy headline exclaimed, published the same evening Biden made his remarks.
In the article, the Daily Mail cited a January 2020 study from the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems that explored how various dietary changes would affect greenhouse gas emissions. The researchers ran a number of scenarios, one of which tested what would happen if beef consumption dropped by 90 percent.
“Further reducing beef by 90 percent of current levels while replacing 50 percent of other animal based foods results in a per capita decrease in [greenhouse gas emissions] of 51 percent,” they wrote.
The Daily Mail calculated that deprivation to total just one “average sized” burger per month for each American.
And with that, the GOP faux outrage Rube Goldberg machine was triggered.
By Friday morning, Fox had sunk its teeth in. Hosts slyly painted the study and Biden’s plan as related, implying that the one-and-a-half-year-old research exercise was actually part of some analysis of requirements to satisfy Biden’s plan, which has still not been released. The topic was introduced on “Fox and Friends” early that morning and hammered by Fox News and Fox Business Network throughout the day.
“President Biden has been boasting about his plan to save the planet and cut carbon emissions by 50 percent,” said Fox News host Jesse Watters. “That sounds great, but what would Americans have to give up to make that happen? Americans would have to cut red meat consumption by a whopping 90 percent. That means only one burger a month.”
Fox Business host Larry Kudlow also conflated Biden’s plan with the Green New Deal, legislation re-introduced last week by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
“Speaking of stupid, there’s a study coming out of the University of Michigan that says that to meet the Biden Green New Deal targets, America has to — get this — America has to stop eating meat, stop eating poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, diary and animal-based fats,” Kudlow said as a meat-grilling montage flashed across the screen. “Okay, got that? No burgers on July 4th. No steaks on the barbie. I’m sure middle America is just gonna love that.”
“So get ready,” he plowed on. “You can throw back a plant-based beer with your grilled brussels sprouts and wave your American flag — call it July 4th green.”
By Saturday, the disinformation had permeated conservative radio as well. Todd Starnes, host of the the Todd Starnes Show, painted the University of Michigan study as a concurrent analysis of Biden’s plan on his show Saturday. He also tweeted his level-headed conviction that the apparently more carnivorous southern states would “definitely secede” over the fully fabricated red meat ban.
And the imaginary outrage had lapped up to the doors of Congress.
Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) erased what small distance Fox had preserved between the study and Biden’s plan, asserting that Biden’s not-yet-released plan itself mandates cutting 90 percent of individual Americans’ meat consumption.
Joe Biden’s climate plan includes cutting 90% of red meat from our diets by 2030. They want to limit us to about four pounds a year. Why doesn’t Joe stay out of my kitchen?
— Lauren Boebert (@laurenboebert) April 24, 2021
Don Trump Jr. tweeted the Fox News graphic a few hours later, getting 33,000 likes. “I’m pretty sure I ate 4 pounds of red meat yesterday,” he wrote. “That’s going to be a hard NO from me.”
I’m pretty sure I ate 4 pounds of red meat yesterday. That’s going to be a hard NO from me. https://t.co/wvGC19cN6R
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) April 24, 2021
Loath to miss the outrage train, Greene tweeted out her witticism about Biden “the Hamburglar” Sunday afternoon.
By Sunday night, there was some Democratic counter-dunking from the Senate Majority Leader, a tweet likely indecipherable to anyone who hadn’t watched the Daily Mail’s seed bloom on Fox over the weekend.
Excited to be watching the Oscars with an ice cold plant-based beer.
Thanks Joe Biden. pic.twitter.com/Wk8MQnjkUf
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) April 26, 2021
In less than 24 hours, the Daily Mail’s reckless speculation reached Fox, where, like blood cells through veins, it quickly spread to the network’s many arms. Viewers grabbed screenshots and posted them on social media, where they were further amplified by right-wing figures with substantial followings.
It’s this week’s Dr. Seuss scandal, a story so twisted and contorted by the GOP outrage machine that it emerges in an unrecognizable form. But while that period featured right-wingers clutching their favorite (never-endangered) children’s books, this episode has a different visual footprint. By Monday afternoon, a quick Twitter search produces results peppered with users’ “official responses” to Biden’s imaginary meat ban: plates heaped with absolutely massive quantities of beef.
Correction: An earlier version of this article did not accurately describe Sarnes’ current affiliation with Fox News. He no longer is associated with the Fox News radio network. TPM regrets the error.