The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s overly simple to tie all political rhetoric about sexual abuse to QAnon

A person dressed as Lady Liberty wears a shirt with the letter Q, referring to QAnon, as protesters gathered Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) had a narrowly defined line of attack against Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden’s nominee for the Supreme Court: Jackson was soft on those who commit sex crimes against children.

“Judge Jackson has a pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes, both as a judge and as a policymaker,” Hawley wrote on Twitter earlier this month. His questioning during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings considering her nomination reflected that line of reasoning.

This was not a particularly strong attack. The Washington Post’s fact-checking team found that Jackson’s record in such cases was consistently misrepresented; Jackson herself noted that part of the problem was a congressional failure to update sentencing guidelines. Even the conservative National Review found the attack to be meritless.

Hawley was undeterred both in the hearings and afterward. On Monday, he announced he would introduce legislation to “get tough” on those who commit crimes related to child pornography.

“Dems, the White House & Judge Jackson spent last week saying sentences for child porn offenders are too harsh,” Hawley falsely claimed on Twitter. “They’re wrong. Child porn & exploitation is exploding. It’s time to protect our children.”

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For some observers, all of this — and particularly that last bit of rhetoric about protecting children — smacks of QAnon.

QAnon is an extremist, dangerous and evolving ideology centered on the idea that there’s a massive, clandestine battle between good and evil in which the side of good is (or was) represented by Donald Trump and the side of evil anything from the Deep State to a cabal of satanic, leftist politicians and celebrities who abuse, murder or eat children for their gratification. Generally, though, it’s presented as a fight against child abuse and sex trafficking. Protests over the past few years organized by QAnon adherents focused on a “save our children” message — very similar to what Hawley is talking about.

And that’s the point. It’s not necessarily that Hawley is specifically trying to appeal to QAnon supporters, though that may be part of what he’s doing. After all, Trump’s ouster and the end of new messages about the ideology (probably because their anonymous authors were identified) has created space for someone else to be the movement’s champion. By focusing on saving the children, a politician could carve out a nice little base.

But QAnon’s focus and Hawley’s politics share a common point of origin: elevating and amplifying the fears of parents. And in both cases, that amplification overlaps with hyperpartisan attacks on the political left.

The idea that there is some broad, evil conspiracy targeting kids is an old one. There was a similar scare in the 1980s dubbed the “Satanic Panic.” Even the evolution of QAnon depended on a different preceding baseless conspiracy theory: Pizzagate, the idea that there was a secret group of Democrats committing acts of abuse against children at a pizza shop in Washington. That assertion was partly a troll, an outgrowth of the toxic online community 4Chan’s references to child pornography as “cheese pizza” that was applied to material stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman by Russian hackers. The result was the same, allegations that Democrats were masking a rampant system of abusing children.

Focusing on the extreme combination of allegation and politics, though, ignores the potency of that mixture in lower doses.

Consider how Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) spokeswoman attacked those who opposed legislation that bans any classroom instruction about sexual orientation for children younger than fourth grade.

This isn’t QAnon. Instead, it’s a suggestion that 1) Democrats support 2) “grooming” kids younger than 9 — meaning they want to prepare those kids for sexual exploitation. It’s the same allegation as the one Hawley is making, but in a different context and formulation.

That legislation was called the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, reinforcing the point that Florida ostensibly wanted to protect the rights of parents when it came to what their children learned, though, of course, the protections only applied to a very specific subset of discussion. It also aimed to take advantage of potential political energy in the state. Last year, conservative media focused on schools in Virginia in advance of the state’s gubernatorial election, creating a broad anger about schools developing curriculums and rules to which some parents objected, including things such as critical race theory, pandemic mask rules and perceived leniencies toward transgender students. The Florida legislation aimed at directing that parental anger, targeting non-heterosexual relationships. And then DeSantis’s spokeswoman elevated the subtext.

This is happening at a time when partisan hostility is virulent. In a poll conducted early in Biden’s administration, more than half of Republicans said they saw Democrats not as political opponents but as enemies. (Most Democrats said Republicans were their political opponents.) Polling conducted by YouGov for Yahoo News in October 2020 found that a core theory of QAnon — that Democrats were running sex-trafficking rings being targeted by Trump — was accepted by half of Republicans, even though most Republicans said they didn’t believe QAnon’s claims to be true.

About 4 in 5 Republicans said that child sex trafficking was a big or somewhat big problem — a large pool of voters focused on that particular concern. Then you ask if their enemies on the left are committing that most vile of acts? Sure, yes — who could put anything past them?

Again, it’s long been the case that pedophiles and those who peddle child pornography are seen as the most vile members of society, for understandable visceral reasons. Any parent would be repulsed by the idea; it’s an emotionally potent tactic to imply that one’s opponents are sympathetic to that sort of abuse, even if it isn’t true. There’s no sliding scale of acceptability for the sexual abuse of children, so it’s also easy to suggest that one’s opponents aren’t going far enough in punishment. Approve 10 years in prison for abuse and there’s an obvious rejoinder: Why not 20? Why don’t you hate child predators?

So we get to this point. There are hundreds of thousands or millions of people who believe in the most delusional construction of leftists abusing children as articulated by QAnon. But there are millions more who dislike or don’t trust the left or school administrators or experts and who see child sex-trafficking as a critical, urgent problem.

The opportunity for demagoguery is obvious — and apparently hard to resist.