What’s the most repulsive accusation you could make about a person? It’s hard to think of anything worse than calling them a pedophile. Which is what conservatives are now doing to anyone who criticizes the anti-gay and anti-trans legislation they’re promoting in state after state.
In this case, we can watch it happen almost hour by hour. What had been relegated to the extreme right is now moving into the center of mainstream conservative rhetoric on this issue.
Much of the debate revolves around a bill just signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) meant to shut down discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. Dubbed by opponents the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the practical implications of its vaguely worded provisions are less than clear. But its intentions are not: DeSantis is at the vanguard of a right-wing movement to create a new moral panic around schools, to convince parents that their children are being indoctrinated with bizarre and threatening ideas.
What has changed in recent days is that as liberals have become more vocal in opposition to laws like these, conservatives have developed a response: Anyone who opposes these laws supports pedophilia and may be a pedophile themselves.
This point is made via the invocation of “grooming” when discussing these laws. It’s not a new idea, shocking as it is. But the universe of who’s saying it and whom the charge is being hurled at is rapidly expanding.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, the term refers to pedophiles winning the trust of children to prepare them for being sexually abused. On far-right websites, the Florida law has for some time been described almost exclusively as the “Anti-Grooming Bill” (see here or here or here or here or here or here).
Earlier this month, DeSantis’s spokesperson tweeted that anyone who opposes the Florida bill “is probably a groomer.” While DeSantis has not used the word, he has repeated the idea. When he signed the bill this week, he said those who opposed it “support sexualizing kids in kindergarten.”
The “grooming” idea then exploded on Fox News. One after another, hosts and guests accused opponents of the bill, and in particular the Disney corporation (which has come out against it), of wanting to “sexualize our children” and get “your kindergartner talking about sex.”
The network’s stars knew a hot moment when they saw one. Referring to the idea that Disney might include LGBTQ characters in its entertainment, Tucker Carlson said “Well, it sounds like the behavior of a sex offender. Normal people do not sexualize underage children, period.” Laura Ingraham accused the company of spreading “propaganda for grooming,” and said, “Why not just name the roller coaster ‘Sex Mountain’? C’mon kids, it’ll be a blast.”
To be clear, the only ones who have even contemplated “sexualizing” small children are conservatives themselves. They relentlessly conflate acknowledgment of sexual orientation with sex itself, seemingly because they can’t lay eyes on a gay couple without immediately thinking of them having sex.
And while they obsess over fantasies of child sexual abuse, they seem utterly unconcerned about actual child sexual abuse.
Because the “grooming” trope has now made the jump from the far right to Fox, within days you’ll start to hear it from Republican politicians, who are always monitoring what their base is eager to hear and where the acceptable limits of political rhetoric lie. Before you know it, the idea that any opponent of anti-gay legislation is a pedophile or an enabler of pedophiles will be just another thing Republicans say every day.
The connection to QAnon, whose adherents make up a substantial portion of the conservative base, is hard to ignore. But unlike QAnon, which posits a highly organized conspiracy of satanic pedophiles who drink children’s blood, the “grooming” mongers are trying to convince people that half of all Americans are either pedophiles or promoters of pedophilia.
Like so many moral panics, this one started organically but is being seized on by powerful forces who see a vehicle for their own ambitions. It is also one more branch of a toxic tree with deep roots, moving from Newt Gingrich advising Republicans to describe Democrats with words like “sick” and “traitor,” through Republicans convincing themselves Barack Obama was a foreign terrorist agent whose entire life was geared toward the destruction of America, to what we see today.
The common theme is that liberals are not ordinary human beings with whom one can engage in political contest and debate, but instead are profoundly, fundamentally, horrifyingly evil in their actions and motivations. Once they believe that, there is nothing, not even a grotesque accusation of pedophilia, that conservatives will consider out of bounds.
Which is why we’re going to hear a lot about “grooming” in the coming days. Until they decide it isn’t working, and move on to some other repellent lie.