How the holy Prius fueled Republicans’ love for gas guzzlers

How the holy Prius fueled Republicans’ love for gas guzzlers

On the campaign trail earlier this month, US Senate candidate Herschel Walker of Georgia made a bizarre defense of vehicles spewing pollution droplets, celebrating their inefficiency. Walker, a Republican facing a runoff against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, told his supporters at a rally in Peachtree, Georgia, that the United States is not “ready for the green agenda.”

“What we need to do is continue to have those gas-guzzling cars,” Walker said. “We’ve got the good emissions under those cars.”

It was a moment when Walker’s absurd comments squared with the party line (unlike, say, his comments about the “good air” of the United States deciding to float to China). Republicans have said similar things over the years, displaying a world view that fossil fuels have inherent virtue, once described as “carbonism”. It’s the belief system that led former President Donald Trump to ban California from setting stricter emissions standards in 2019, and what led congressional Republicans to defend fossil fuels at the international climate negotiations in Egypt earlier this month.

This pro-pollution view can be explained in part by the Republican Party’s close connection to the oil industry, which channels millions in Republican campaigns every election year. Walker’s celebration of gas guzzlers can also be understood as a reaction to the notion, silent but pervasive among many environmentally conscious people, that cleaner cars are morally superior.

In 2000, the Toyota Prius was introduced to the United States, marketed as an eco-friendly option and holier than you. The hybrid car caused such a strong reaction that its echoes can still be heard today. Prius owners were parodied in the cartoon. South Park. On the highway, drivers of hybrid vehicles were sometimes attacked by clouds of thick black smoke, the target of truck owners who had removed their emissions controls. A popular bumper sticker from the mid-2010s simply read “Prius Repellent.” Even Toyota embraced the image with tongue-in-cheek ads.

Today, gas-free vehicles are finally starting to go mainstream. When the all-electric version of the Ford F-150 pickup, long the best-selling vehicle in America, and a favorite among republicans – was released this spring, its waiting list was three years. Electric vehicle sales increase almost 70 percent in the first nine months of this year compared to the same period last year. And 36 percent of Americans reported that they were considering buying an electric vehicle for their next car, according to a survey by Consumer Reports this summer, largely due to high gas prices and long-term cost savings. For many, the environmental benefits may only be an advantage, or not even a consideration.

“I don’t have the disposable income to spend $50,000 or $60,000 on a car just to help the environment,” Russell Grooms, a Virginia librarian who bought a battery-powered Nissan Leaf, said recently. told the New York Times. “It really came down to numbers.”


In a 2008 Prius commercial, a hitman pulls a body out of his car in the middle of the night and dumps it in a river. “Well, at least he drives a Prius,” the ad says.

It was one of many advertisements mocking the car’s environmental bona fides. The joke is based on the realization that driving a Prius is a form of moral “capital” that can be used to “make up for life’s other sins,” wrote Sarah McFarland Taylor, a scholar of religion, in the book Ecopiedad: green media and the dilemma of environmental virtue.

Buying a Prius is not Really what a pious act After all, the vehicle requires a large amount of fossil fuel to make and runs primarily on gasoline. The greenest move: don’t buy a car at all. But that didn’t stop the hybrid from taking off as a good choice. Within two years of its American launch, the Prius had amassed a long list of celebrity owners, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Larry David. In 2002, the Washington Post called the Prius “Hollywood’s latest politically correct status symbol.”

For conservative commentators, that symbol was a ripe target. “The bottom line here is that people who buy Priuses do so for glamor reasons,” Rush Limbaugh said in his radio show in 2005. “They wanted to appear virtuous. But they’re getting nowhere… These liberals think they’re ahead of the game on these things, and they’re just plain dumb.”

It wasn’t just Limbaugh. In 2006, South Park devoted an entire episode, called “Smug Alert,” to poking fun at holier-than-thou Prius owners. It begins with Kyle’s father, Gerald, showing off his new hybrid car, the “Toyonda Pious”.

“I couldn’t sit back and be part of the destruction of the Earth anymore,” Gerald tells his neighbor with a condescending smile.

“Well, there goes the high and mighty Gerald Broflovski,” comments one onlooker. “Yeah, since he got that new hybrid, he thinks he’s better than everyone else,” says another. Not long after the episode aired, a market research company found that 57 percent of Prius owners said the main reason they bought one was because it “makes a statement about me,” versus 36 percent who said they bought it for good gas mileage.

The car continued to be popular, reaching the 1 million vehicle sold mark in 2011, and so did the parodies. In 2012, the satirical news site The Onion ran an ad for a new, even greener Prius that “reduces its driver’s carbon footprint to zero by driving spikes through his lungs as soon as he gets in the car.”

The air of self-righteousness that surrounded the Prius had real-life consequences. Certain truck owners rejoiced in rebelling against it, rolling in front of hybrids and engulfing the vehicles in plumes of tailpipe smoke. This testosterone-fueled practice of “rolling coal” (modifying diesel engines to spew clouds of soot) became a health threat in the mid-2010s. Targeted at electric car owners, pedestrians, cyclists, or anyone Unlucky enough to be around, the rolling coal became for these fans a defiant symbol of American freedom, a “don’t tell me what to do” sign.

When states moved to ban rolling coal, some drivers backed down, the New York Times reported in 2016. “Why don’t you just go live in Sweden and get the hell out of our country?” one diesel truck owner wrote to an Illinois state representative, who proposed a $5,000 fine for removing the equipment from emissions. “I’ll keep rolling coal whenever I feel like it and tarnish their stupid eco cars.”

One of the dangers of framing environmental concerns in moral terms is that it can provoke a backlash, especially when it relates to individual behavior. A study discovered that listening to green advice actually makes people less likely to do something about climate change. Think about eating meat, often discussed as a moral issue among people concerned with animal rights or climate change. Fast food chains like Taco Bell and Burger King have expanded their vegetarian menus; meanwhile, Arby’s has leaned toward the opposite “pro-meat” demographic. In 2018, Arby’s ran an ad with the slogan “Friends don’t let friends eat tofu.” The following year, the network trolled vegans by introducing the “marrot”, a carrot made of meat.

As America has grown increasingly polarizedseemingly innocuous things have been associated with the other party, since pizza chains a sports leagues. One in five voters say that politics has damaged their friendships; there are a growing aversion to go out with people from the other side. With hybrids and electric vehicles most frequently owned by DemocratsRepublicans like Walker might try to distance themselves from their perceived enemies by showing their affection for gas-guzzling vehicles.

To be sure, the environment remains one of the top reasons to buy a greener car for many Americans, especially those on the political left. Nearly three-quarters of those who would consider buying an electric vehicle said helping the environment was a key consideration, according to vote from Pew Research. and in a survey published this month, 10 percent of Americans said it was “morally wrong” to drive a car that is fuel efficient. But even when they’re rolling out new electric models, car companies don’t seem to be chasing efficiency; instead they are doing large trucks and SUVs. And they are gaining popularity across party lines.

Aside from some lingering resentment against green cars and what Walker called the “green agenda,” America seems to be getting over the hang-ups surrounding the Prius. Over the past decade, the success of Tesla, which has marketed its vehicles as cool and desirable, not a virtuous choice, has paved the way for other automakers to follow in the quest.

“The [Tesla] The Model S completely delivered on its promise to change the way the world thinks about electric cars,” said Jake Fisher, senior director of Consumer Reports’ automotive center. said earlier this year. “Electric vehicles were no longer the vegetables you were meant to eat, they became the dessert you craved.”


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