Fox News has a tendency to worship the Founding Fathers not as pretty-cool-but-flawed revolutionaries, but demi-gods. And yet, when Fox & Friends brings on an actor to pretend to be Thomas Jefferson, co-host Gretchen Carlson talks to him like he's an idiot child.
The morning news crew has had a long history of saying and doing silly things, so when Carlson interviewed a fake Thomas Jefferson about the current Tea Party on Friday morning, the most shocking moment was not a historical error, but a mathematical one (video at right via Talking Points Memo). Carlson didn't seem to understand where big numbers, like the $16 trillion federal debt, come from, and presumed fake Jefferson had never seen a number that size. Either Carlson doesn't think the number $16 trillion existed until sometime in the mid-19th century, or she thinks Thomas Jefferson is (was) dumb. If Carlson thinks Jefferson wouldn't know what a trillion is, you have wonder what she thinks of her viewers.
Fake Jefferson, in bangs and red pants, was introduced as a Tea Party-esque spending cutter. "Even though you were one of the very first presidents of the United States, as you remember, you were a budget cutter, weren't ya?" co-host Steve Doocy asked. Fake Jefferson responded in a thoroughly modern southern accent, "Well, I was. I believe that government needs to be simple and frugal.. And when I became president in 1801, I inherited a debt, $83 million. When I left the presidency eight years later I had reduced that $33 million."
The current national debt flashed on screen, and Carlson said, "I know that you've never seen a number that big that we just showed on the screen. That's something that's been created since you've passed." Here, Carlson seems to believe that the number 1 trillion was invented sometime after the real Jefferson died in 1826. Though the U.S. has certainly experienced inflation since 1826, math already existed, even if it doesn't always make its presence felt on today's Fox News Channel. The first references to the word "trillion" are in the 1500s, though the word was likely around earlier. But the concept is way older than that — ancient Greeks had the concept of infinity. Real Thomas Jefferson was a pretty educated guy. He would have been aware that big numbers exist.
Carlson's belief that Jefferson would have never seen a number like $16 trillion raises troubling questions. She seems to think that the biggest numbers don't exist until the American federal debt reaches them. For someone with little faith in the American government, she gives it an awesome power.
On the other hand, she gives Jefferson very limited brainpower. The Tea Party fetishizes the Founding Fathers, and Fox serves up lots of fake Founding Fathers for them. At right is a still from interviews with Founding Fathers in 2010, though that time Doocy didn't ask them about contemporary politics. The show asked "What Would Our Founding Fathers Do?" in September 2012. But despite the role the Founding Fathers play as Ghosts of Politics Past, Carlson doesn't seem to have much faith in their actual brainpower. If Carlson thinks Jefferson wouldn't know what $16 trillion is, maybe she shouldn't invite him on her show to talk about the current national debt.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.