The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The QAnon catchphrases that took over the Jackson hearings

Mainstream Republicans don’t have to name the conspiracy theory. They just signal it with their talk of pedophiles and ‘groomers.’

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) speaks April 4 as the Senate Judiciary Committee debates Ketanji Brown Jackson's nomination to the Supreme Court. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

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.”

Never mind that Hawley’s attacks have been fact-checked and found wanting, or that they were never raised in previous nomination hearings for Jackson or for Trump judicial nominees with similar records. The allegations were not about the facts. The goal was to portray Jackson, and by extension Democrats, as players in the QAnon narrative that public institutions are overrun with child predators. The attacks also represented a test of what conservatives would accept. Would the conservative establishment recoil? With few exceptions, the answer was no. Republican senators including Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) jumped on the child predator bandwagon and were rewarded with slots on Fox News to repeat their allegations.

QAnon counts at the ballot box, but saying the Q part out loud can still come with costs. “I know nothing about it,” Trump said shortly before the 2020 election. “I do know that they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard, but I know nothing about it.” Signaling with plausible deniability, however, is sufficient to cater to this constituency, and QAnon showed up in force both at the polls and at the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

It’s a big constituency. Polls vary but show a shockingly high level of support for these claims, concentrated among Republicans. A recent Economist-YouGov poll found that 16 percent of Republicans have a “very” or “somewhat” favorable view of QAnon, and 49 percent of Republicans said it was “definitely” or “probably” true that top Democrats were involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings.

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 went 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 voted for Jackson — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine: “Any Senator voting to confirm #KJB is pro-pedophile just like she is,” Greene tweeted.

Forcing out the fringe

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 among 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 wrote on Twitter.

This was another moment when conservatives could have paused and asked themselves: “Is this really who we are?” They didn’t. DeSantis stood by his appointee. Other prominent conservatives didn’t just come to her defense but doubled down. As the chyron “Liberals are sexually grooming elementary students” appeared on the screen, Laura Ingraham asked her Fox News viewers: “When did our public schools, any schools, become what are essentially grooming centers for gender identity radicals? As a mom, I think it’s appalling, it’s frightening, it’s disgusting, it’s despicable.” Remember that “grooming” in this context appears to mean acknowledging that LBGTQ people exist, or allowing young people to have contact with an openly LBGTQ person.

This is the deliberate abuse of language that Rufo advocates. He uses “grooming” to describe children being exposed to ideas he dislikes rather than actual sexual abuse. In other words, the sharing of certain political beliefs — usually centered on recognizing the status of marginalized groups — is treated as interchangeable with child abuse, its perpetrators akin to child abusers. Such language is especially likely to be deployed if openly LGBTQ adults interact with children.

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.

Two conservative activists who helped frame the DeSantis law in QAnon terms stand out. Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec were present at the creation of this tactic. Before there was a QAnon, the pair spread the Pizzagate theory, which falsely claimed that leaders in the Democratic Party ran a child sex-trafficking ring out of a neighborhood pizzeria in D.C. As Pizzagate morphed into QAnon, Posobiec and Cernovich kept going, labeling politicians, celebrities and members of the media as pedophiles. Those who questioned them got the same treatment. This was another test that conservatism failed. Rather than being shunned, the pair became influencers in conservative media. The lesson was that smears work.

Five myths about misinformation

The QAnonification of our political discourse has real consequences. 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 claim he had become obsessed with. In a 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. Three dozen 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? The answer may depend on whether enough conservatives will finally demand “Have you no sense of decency?” to these heirs of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.