Not long ago, the notion that American politics was oriented around a dispute over the merits of child sexual exploitation was viewed as so loopy that not even Donald Trump could take it seriously. It is now becoming the Republican Party’s most energetic idea. The two most prominent theaters of partisan combat of the moment, the Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation and Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, have both seen a growing swath of conservatives embrace charges of pedophilia as their central theme.
Two years ago, the pedophilia charge was confined almost entirely to QAnon, a sprawling web of far-right conspiracy theories that operated around the fringes of conservative politics. And while some of the details produced by its theories would find their way into the minds of Trump and his inner circle (especially with conspiracy theories centering on the “stolen election”), the broader narrative that American politics was a fight over pedophilia remained marginal.
The pretext for injecting the theme into the Jackson hearings was that, as a judge, she supposedly failed to sentence child predators sufficiently punitively. This conveniently allowed Republicans to waft the allegation of pedophilia under cover of questioning her tough-on-crime qualifications. In four days of hearings, Dana Milbank found, “ the phrase ‘child porn’ (or ‘pornography’ or ‘pornographer’) was mentioned 165 times,” along with 142 mentions of “sex” or related terms like “sexual abuse” or “sex crimes.”
On the surface, the Republicans appear to be concerned simply about sentencing criminals. But at the same time, they can seed more absurd and heinous charges they don’t need to defend openly.
The pedophilia charge has worked in Florida as a way for DeSantis to smear his critics and demonstrate dominance to the right-wing base. The most fundamental lie at work is the conflation of sexual orientation and sex, a traditional way of smearing gay people by presenting them as child molesters. The bill bans teachers from discussing the former — say, explaining to a class that a child might have two mothers or two fathers and why that is — while using the latter as its pretext.
At first, DeSantis was leaving the connection between the two implicit. Eventually, his spokespeople decided to make it explicit. His press secretary, Christina Pushaw, called opponents of the bill “groomers.” The impetus for this rhetorical maneuver seems to be their dismay at the “Don’t Say Gay” label’s taking hold. Needing a suitably catchy term of their own, they settled on calling it an “anti-grooming” bill and began accusing opponents of wanting to groom young children for sexual exploitation.
Whether DeSantis and his supporters believe any of this is beside the point. Conspiracy theories often operate on multiple levels. In the 1950s, Joseph McCarthy famously accused Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and ultimately Dwight Eisenhower of allowing a network of Communist spies to operate inside their administration. Right-wingers like Robert Welch, who were even more deranged than McCarthy, claimed these presidents were all dedicated members of a Communist conspiracy operating hand in glove with Moscow. Meanwhile, right-wingers who were less extreme than McCarthy, like Richard Nixon, could claim these presidents merely did too little to contain Communist expansion.
Nixon didn’t need to go as far as McCarthy, and McCarthy didn’t need to go as far as Welch, in order to profitably inject their charges into the public mind. Even when liberals succeeded in fending off the charge of their being secret allies of Joseph Stalin, it made it harder to rebut the notion they were soft on Communism.
Likewise, the pedophilia conspiracy theory can simultaneously charge Democrats with being pedophiles themselves and with being merely the unwitting allies of pedophilia, shifting from one accusation to the other. Sen. Josh Hawley, who has played a central role in amplifying the pedophilia “issue” in the Jackson hearings, announced smarmily, “We’ve been told things like child pornography is actually all a conspiracy; it’s not real.”
Nobody, of course, denies that child pornography and other sex crimes are real. The debate is over the claim that somehow Democrats want to permit those crimes to occur. Hawley’s gambit is to pretend any dismissal of a conspiracy theory is a denial of the crime.
Sean Davis, CEO of the Federalist, calls attention to a fact pattern he finds significant: “Romney opposed KBJ’s nomination to a lower federal court less than a year ago, which means he didn’t decide to support her for SCOTUS until *after* he learned of her horrifying history of going easy on child molesters and pedophiles.” What could it mean? He doesn’t quite say.
Mollie Hemingway, the Federalist’s editor, goes a half step farther. “The only new info since he voted against her a few months ago was increased awareness of her ‘soft-on-pedos’ approach,” she hisses, “which makes this new Romney position super interesting.” Interesting how? Again, that part is left unsaid. It is left to the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene to come out and say it: “Murkowski, Collins, and Romney are pro-pedophile. They just voted for #KBJ.”
In DeSantis’s case, that task has been taken up most energetically by Christopher Rufo, who is employed, believe it or not, at a think tank, the right-wing Manhattan Institute. Rufo has made his name principally as an opponent of critical race theory, a label he has applied to a wide array of left-wing pedagogy and rhetoric including, but by no means limited to, critical race theory itsef. Reihan Salam, the president of the Manhattan Institute (and a long-ago colleague of mine), proudly told the New York Times two months ago that “the broader work he’s been doing for us has been consistently insightful, intellectually serious and impactful.”
Rufo’s remit has expanded beyond “CRT” to smearing anybody who questions any of the laws his allies are enacting to crack down on CRT. Rufo has decided this means accusing Disney, which infuriated DeSantis by opposing the Don’t Say Gay law, of harboring sex criminals. “Starting tomorrow at 8:30am PT, I’ll be highlighting some of ‘the child-predators of Walt Disney Co.,’” he tweeted, and then made good on his threat by tweeting out a series of claims such as “Disney has had employees arrested for child sex crimes in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022 — in other words, at least once a year for the past decade.”
Obviously, given that a tiny percentage of the public commits crimes, including sex crimes, it should come as no surprise that a gigantic company would employ a handful of them. His purpose in floating this impressive-sounding yet meaningless fact is to insinuate a series of choose-your-own-adventure allegations he doesn’t need to back up or even specify, requirements that appear to be optional for employees of the Manhattan Institute. Ah, the life of the mind.
One irony of this debate is that if Democrats wanted to turn the issue against the Republicans, they would have a much richer fact pattern available to them. Trump, still the party’s effective leader, has been accused by five witnesses of walking in on undressed teenagers. The party’s former Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, engaged in horrific sexual abuse of minors. Representative Jim Jordan helped cover up a sex-abuse scandal in college. More recently, Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore was credibly accused of sexuallly assaulting minors.
To be clear, implying that the Republican Party or its program inherently facilitates sexual abuse would be false. The vast majority of Republican voters and officials, like everybody else, recoil at sex crimes. The crimes of a handful of deviants don’t amount to a conspiracy or even a pattern.
What is true about the Republican Party is that some of its members are still willing to support fellow Republicans even after learning of their sexual exploitation of minors. After Moore was revealed to have preyed upon teenagers as an adult, the likes of Trump and the Federalist still urged Alabamans to vote for him for Senate. One pro-Moore column in the Federalist, headlined “Why Alabamians Should Vote for Roy Moore,” included the uncomfortable rationale “To have a large family, the wife must start having kids when she is young.”
If you go to the Federalist today, you will find headlines like “Disney’s Obsession With Grooming Children Is Nothing New, But Their Openness About It Is,” and “Joe Biden’s Reversal on Sexual Exposure for Kids Shows Just How Extreme the Democratic Party Has Become.”
The spread of this “issue” says nothing about the parties’ comparative permissiveness about sexual assault. It only reveals the existence within one of them of an openness to conspiracy theories and a network of operatives unprincipled enough to exploit it.
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- Christopher Rufo Foments a School-Rape Panic