Opinion |

The American Right’s 'Anti-grooming' Crusade Smells Like Fascism

'Save our children': Why the Republicans' campaign accusing liberals of pedophilia, based on conspiracy theories and intimidation, sounds grimly familiar – and so ominous

Ari Paul
Ari Paul
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A supporter of Florida's GOP-backed "Don't Say Gay" bill dances in a mouse costume holding a Ron DeSantis poster while other protestors change the Walt Disney World sign to "Pedo World"
A supporter of Florida's GOP-backed "Don't Say Gay" bill dances in a mouse costume holding a Ron DeSantis poster while other protestors change the Walt Disney World sign to "Pedo World"Credit: OCTAVIO JONES/ REUTERS
Ari Paul
Ari Paul

In QAnon mythology, the powerful web of satanic Democrats who prey sexually on children will end in a violent orgy of retribution, led by Donald Trump, called "The Storm." With each passing day since Trump’s ouster and charges against January 6 insurrectionists go forward, the hope that reality would knock the wind from this murderous political fantasy, a kind of reworked Protocols of the Elders of Zion for the 21st century, has grown distant.

Quite the opposite is happening. This neo-fascist ideology has gone mainstream, retreating to state capitals while Democrats control a majority in Congress. There, they're not only passing oppressive laws but sharpening the rhetoric against the opposition toward a new kind of "storm."

At the same time, the grip of the anti-LGBTQ narrative on right-wing America beyond the walls of legislatures has been confirmed by a sustained surge in targeted online intimidation and threats against public sector workers falsely accused of "grooming" children for sexual exploitation.

The "Libs of TikTok" saga is an instructive moment: A social media persona enormously popular in right-wing circles, dedicated to doxxing LGBTQ teachers with unsubstantiated claims about "grooming," was the object of a Washington Post investigation. The right-wing social media outrage cycle fixated solely on the perceived unfairness of identifying her, without a word about the sustained, vicious campaigns the account had led which resulted in harassment and sackings.

But the two streams of prejudice are interlinked. Libs of TikTok feeds "information" to influential advisors and local legislators, including to the press advisor for Florida Governor Rick DeSantis, cheerleader for the legislation his critics call the "Don't say gay" bill.

In Alabama, the governor has approved a set of bills that, according to the Associated Press, "outlaw gender-affirming medications for transgender youths…and prohibiting early classroom instruction on sexual and gender identity," the latter of which is based on the Florida bill. A Texas judge blocked a unilateral move by the governor to force state investigations into parents of trans children. Arizona has also outlawed gender affirming health care for youths.

For anyone who remembers Republican whining during the Obama administration about how public healthcare would mean government control over people’s medical treatment, the hypocrisy is thick.

The "Don’t say gay" bills are as vague as they are pernicious – if one can’t discuss any gender identity in the classroom to children, what is a teacher to do if a child asks why a classmate has two parents of the same gender? As for mandates against trans care, the consequences are dire: the Journal of the American Medical Association found that "gender-affirming care" for those between the ages of 13 and 20 "was associated with 60 percent lower odds of moderate or severe depression and 73 percent lower odds of suicidality."

But as Governor DeSantis tells it, this legislation is about waging broader cultural warfare, as he claimed in typical inflammatory style that opponents of his bill "support sexualizing kids in kindergarten."

The sexualized hype against those who defend LGBTQ rights has only amplified. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon fanatic with a history of expressing antisemitic and Holocaust revisionist conspiracy theories, as well as cosying up to white supremacists, accused the recently confirmed Supreme Court justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and the senators who confirmed her, as being "pro-pedophile," supporting child rapists, pornography and predators.

Tucker Carlson, one of the most highly watched American talk show hosts and a far-right adherent, told viewers that the problem of sexualization of children has gotten so bad that fathers should storm schools and "thrash the teacher." Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, has also echoed the idea that Democrats are "pro-pedophile." Acclaimed playwright David Mamet told Fox News that "teachers are inclined…to pedophilia," making the untethered case that all of a sudden the nation’s public schools are government-run grooming centers.

Twenty years ago, America's culture wars were divisive, but today's battles are super-charged. In 2022, the right can't easily turn back the clock to fight old battles about same-sex marriage or anti-gay discrimination, so they have found a different framing: as righteous defenders of the young and vulnerable. They are crusaders on a mission to "save our children."

But behind such appealing language comes the same intimidation and punitive closedmindedness of earlier generations. They are targeting gender-affirming medicine for minors and "sexuality in schools" – despite there not being any egregious examples of official and systematic impropriety in these areas enjoying widespread state support.

This culture war feels different: Democrats might have once been cast as libertines, but now the Republican Party and its media allies are reinforcing the QAnon myth that it is a network of violent perverts whose crimes are so grotesque no democratic system of due process can contain them. Indeed, far right internet forums are already threatening violence against teachers considered "groomers," with some participants calling to "execute them."

Disney is the latest target of the pedophilia conspiracy theory that it's "grooming" children

Charging liberals with pedophilia sounds familiar for a reason. The millennia-old myth of the blood libel, with its stories about Jewish predators of Christian children, has long been a central motivating factor in anti-Jewish violence. The fear of Black men lusting after white women reinforced Jim Crow segregation. False accusations of violent perversion have always worked to justify violent acts and oppressive systems.

While Martin Niemöller’s famous "First they came for...” poem rightfully points how Nazi persecution of communists and socialists led ultimately to the Holocaust, it skips over how by 1933 the Nazis had launched attacks on homosexuals, both by law and with gangs of Brownshirts. Any population that undermines patriarchy is a threat to fascism, for whom patriarchy is central. And so it goes with QAnon, American Christian nationalism and so forth.

“This is desperation, it’s a last grasp at power," says Michelle Marzullo, the department chair and professor of human sexuality at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Conservatives sense they "need to turn to really totalitarian measures," she notes. "The core of our entire social system is based on sexuality and gender roles, it is how we establish personhood and social order. So these areas are often first attacked, especially if you're in an era when you’re seeing an expansion of ideas around sexuality and gender. It's a way of social control."

Fundraising card used by Anita Bryant to support her "Save Our Children" campaign against what she claimed was the "recruitment" and abuse of children by gay AmericansCredit: Wikipedia

Of course, this movement is reworking old battles: Anita Bryant’s anti-gay campaign of the 1970s often cited the conspiracy theory "crisis" of gay teachers preying on children. This modern-day campaign also harkens back the great "Satanic panic" of the 1980s, which galvanized hysteria based on the false charge that Satanists were preying on children.

The resistance to anti-gay and anti-trans oppression by the state is not, as it too often assumed, a form of identity politics, but part of a universal human struggle. These discriminatory laws, and the rhetoric of their advocates, form a war cry not just against gay and trans people but against anyone who stands up for LGBTQ rights or even speaks openly about them.

It is simply not a coincidence that this is happening as the political right seeks to implement sweeping injunctions against the teaching of racial oppression and the Holocaust in American schools. It is no coincidence that the political right now seeks to exclude gay people from legislation guaranteeing their most basic civil rights

In late 2016, a man was arrested for shooting at a Washington DC pizza restaurant that was falsely accused of being a pedophile front connected to prominent Democrats. With the rhetoric accusing everyone who votes against these bills or who challenges them in court as dangerous criminals, will we see more potential tragedies like this? When the same personalities who rabble roused "Pizzagate" now clamoring to "save" America's children?

The Republican Senate candidate JD Vance who's endorsed by former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Delaware County Fairgrounds, OhioCredit: AP Photo/Joe Maiorana

It’s certainly not out of the question, and the right continues to push the envelope. Trump-endorsed Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance has gone so far to call for a great presidential-led anti-woke "cleansing," a "de- Baathification program," of U.S. institutions that sounds as sweeping and paranoid as Pol Pot’s rampage against anyone wearing glasses.

Marzullo points out that Republican cultural policing tends to focus on the bedroom, but she asks, "Where will they stop?"

Supporters of Florida's GOP-backed "Don't Say Gay" bill rally outside Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, U.S. this monthCredit: OCTAVIO JONES/ REUTERS

It’s no accident that as all this is happening, the right’s most popular television host, Tucker Carlson, is putting out "The End of Men," a documentary bewailing the West’s apparent abandonment of good old-fashioned masculinity and virility.

That’s an old American paranoia that was parodied in "Dr. Strangelove," where an (insane) U.S. general, enraged by a baseless conspiracy theory accusing the Soviets of polluting the 'precious bodily fluids' of the American people, launches nuclear weapons at them. Carlson isn’t quite there, but the right is telling us very plainly that they intend to take this hysteria, based on a regressive, demagogic and coercive idea of gender, sexuality and national identity, as far as they can.

And when nearly half of self-identified Republicans believe that "top Democrats are involved in elite child trafficking rings," and the gay-grooming-pedophilia trifecta is so high on the American right’s campaigning and legislative agenda, it’s already gone too far. We – meaning anyone who cares about protecting pluralism and universal rights – must fight back.

Ari Paul is a New York-based journalist and has covered politics for the Nation, the Forward, the Guardian, Jacobin and VICE News. Twitter: @aripaul

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