The New McCarthyism
Mainstream Republicans don’t have to name the conspiracy theory. They just signal it with their talk of pedophiles and ‘groomers.’
A couple of weeks ago, before the Judge Jackson SCOTUS hearings I made the following plea and prediction:
Republican politicians need to push back, and conservative media need to stop their nod-and-wink relationship with the QAnon audience. They have a reason to do so: anyone who empowers or goes along with conspiracy theorists who make wild accusations are themselves vulnerable to such accusations the moment they step out of line.
Unfortunately, I have more confidence that conservative media will instead continue to mainstream “grooming” as their new moral panic du jour.
I wrote in The Washington Post about what happened next. Multiple Senators made child sex abuse the central theme of the SCOTUS hearings. Republicans labeled even other Republicans who committed to support Jackson as “pro-pedophile.” “Grooming” has exploded as an all purpose smear on the right.
I include some edited excepts below. You can read the full piece is here.
Republican senators questioning Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson at her Supreme Court nomination hearing didn’t explicitly mention QAnon or its putative oracle, Q. They didn’t mention the child sex trafficking ring run by a global cabal of Democratic politicians, financial, media and Hollywood elites, medical establishment professionals and the satanic pedophile Hillary Clinton. They didn’t mention the Storm, the day these cabalists will be rounded up and executed. And they didn’t mention QAnon’s North Star, former president Donald Trump, who is secretly dismantling the pedophile ring.
They didn’t have to. QAnon, a sprawling set of baseless conspiracy claims, is built on nods and winks, which has allowed it to move from the fringes to the center of American politics without toppling the mainstream conservative politicians who are courting its adherents. All Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) had to do to set the stage for the hearing was allege in tweets beforehand that Jackson’s record on sex offender policies “endangers our children.”
The signaling, increasingly bold, found a prime platform at the Jackson hearings. The QAnon world was listening. While they had previously paid little attention to Jackson, supporters grew angry at the prospect of her nomination, with some calling for violence. Conservatives in the political and media arenas ran with the message: “Democrats really doing their best to secure the pedophile vote for future elections this week,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted.
When Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) announced Monday that he would vote for Jackson’s confirmation when the matter goes before the full Senate on Thursday, Mollie Hemingway, editor of the conservative magazine the Federalist, tweeted that the only new information Romney had secured since voting against Jackson’s confirmation to a lower court was “increased awareness of her ‘soft-on-pedos’ approach.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) was more direct about Romney and the other two Republican senators who indicated they would also vote for Jackson, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine:
Just last year Greene was forced to disavow explicit support for QAnon ahead of a vote to strip her of Congressional committee assignments. (She had also advocated violence against Democrats). But it’s fair to say that the Republican party has found a way to accommodate her views. Indeed, the party has moved closer to her position than to those of the Senators she criticized.
QAnon signaling extends beyond the Jackson nomination, of course. The most vivid importation of the QAnon worldview is happening in education, the policy domain where conservatives can best prey upon parental fears. Chris Rufo, the conservative activist who orchestrated the movement against critical race theory, is constructing a new moral panic using QAnon messaging. Rufo’s main strategy is “winning the language war,” which effectively means using the McCarthyite tactic of attaching a negative label (“Communist!”) to those who hold different beliefs and relentlessly repeating that label regardless of its accuracy. '
Rufo has urged followers to use language such as “grooming” or “predators” — words intended to trigger images of child sexual abuse. It works. The “groomers” framing played a prominent role in the passage of Florida’s law prohibiting discussion of sexual identity among young children in schools. When it became known by critics as the “don’t say gay” bill, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) reframed it as an “Anti-Grooming” bill. If you oppose the bill, “you are probably a groomer,” she said.
No target is too big. “Disney Goes Groomer” is the headline on a new article by Rod Dreher in the American Conservative. Disney ran afoul of conservatives by publicly supporting LGBTQ rights and opposing Florida’s new law. According to MMFA
Fox mentioned “Disney” more than 350 times and in over 3 hours of coverage this week. Its commentators claimed the company is “grooming” and “sexualizing children” in order to push a “progressive LGBT agenda.”
Chris Rufo searched for any current or past Disney employees accused of using child porn or engaging in child sex abuse. Bear in mind Disney had about 223,000 employees pre-pandemic. In any large organization, some number of people will be breaking the law. The point is not that these examples are representative. The point is to conflate actual child abuse with Disney’s belated opposition to the Don’t Say Gay law.
The QAnonification of our political discourse has real consequences. Just like the original version of McCarthyism, it instills fear and can ruin lives and reputations. It serves to erode trust in our public institutions. Educators already reeling from book bans and censorship now face accusations of “grooming” the children we trust them to teach. It can also encourage violence. A former candidate for Mississippi governor called for “a firing squad” for “those that want to groom our school aged children and pretend men are women.”
In the case of Pizzagate, a gunman turned up at the D.C. pizzeria looking for evidence of the baseless conspiracy claim he had become obsessed with. In an ironic quirk of fate, his sentencing judge was Ketanji Brown Jackson, who told the gunman,
“I hope you understand and see how much people have suffered because of what you did” and “I am truly sorry you find yourself in the position you are in, because you do seem like a nice person who on your own mind was trying to do the right thing. But that does not excuse reckless conduct and the real damage that it caused.”
The damage of the QAnon conspiracy claims will spread in the body politic until conservatives find the courage to push back. It can’t happen too soon. Almost 60 candidates running for Congress, including two incumbents, Greene and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), have espoused QAnon beliefs. Ron Watkins, who has long been suspected of playing a major role in writing QAnon posts that appeared on 8chan, the online message-board network he administered, is running for Congress in Arizona. Watkins has labeled Jackson and any senator who votes for her “a pedophile-enabler.”
Is this truly the future of Republican politics? Or will enough conservatives finally demand “Have you no sense of decency?” to these heirs of McCarthy.