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The new red scare: The right leans into pedophilia accusations

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) speaks to reporters in the rain outside of the Capitol on March 17 in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
7 min

Upon learning that three moderate Republican senators — Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine) and Mitt Romney (Utah) — would support the Supreme Court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) offered the most derogatory, simplistic disparagement she could muster.

“Murkowski, Collins, and Romney are pro-pedophile,” Greene wrote on Twitter. “They just voted for #KBJ.”

This was incorrect in both the abstract and the specifics. To the second point, the Senate has not yet taken the vote to formally consent to Jackson’s nomination.

Nor is a vote in support of Jackson “pro-pedophile” in any rational sense.

Greene’s argument is rooted in accusations leveled against Jackson during her nomination hearings by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and others, alleging that she’d been unusually lax in sentencing those charged with crimes related to child pornography. As both fact-checkers and conservatives pointed out, those allegations were unfounded. But for many on the right, “soft on child porn” became a central part of Jackson’s purported philosophy.

It’s not surprising that Greene endorsed this idea. Before being elected to Congress, she was active in promoting the extremist QAnon ideology, a centerpiece of which is based on false claims that there’s a cabal of powerful people who are engaged in abusing children. It has incited violence and criminal acts and radicalized its followers, and the FBI has designated it a domestic terrorism threat. QAnon was itself an evolution of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory (which Greene also wrote about as potentially true), a more narrowly framed claim about leading Democrats abusing children.

At this point, though, insinuations about Democrats embracing pedophilia or downplaying sex crimes victimizing children are not simply the political fringe making its way into the Capitol. Instead, “pedophile” or “groomer” — a term used to describe people who try to prepare children for abuse — has of late replaced “socialist” as a preferred, political, pejorative, long-standing potency of elevating fears about the safety of children has combined with specific political fights like the Jackson nomination and Florida’s new legislation limiting instruction about non-heterosexual relationships to spur a new rhetorical focus.

The red scare is now the kid scare.

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Predictably, Greene is the least nuanced in making the charge. But she’s not alone. Mollie Hemingway, a right-wing writer, made a similar point in slightly less direct language. Pointing to Romney’s opposition to Jackson’s nomination to the appeals court, Hemingway charged that “[t]he only new info since he voted against her a few months ago was increased awareness of her ‘soft-on-pedos’ approach.” In case her intent wasn’t obvious, she later retweeted a supporter arguing that “the only change has been her record on pedophilia coming to light.”

Romney has explained how his process this time was different, explaining to CNN that he was doing “a much deeper dive” than he had for Jackson’s prior nomination, given the stakes of a Supreme Court appointment. What’s more, there has unquestionably been a lot of additional information about Jackson that’s come to light, through both questionnaires to which she’s responded and multiple days of hearings. But to diminish Romney, a lazy “sympathetic to pedophilia” label is slapped on him.

It’s fair to wonder what Jackson’s nomination fight would have looked like were it not for the legislation in Florida. Framed as an effort to protect parents, the bill would, among other things, prevent teachers from offering “instruction” on “sexual orientation or gender identity” for kids in kindergarten to third grade. Critics have noted both that the legislation’s prohibitions are vague and that it inherently assumes that things like men being married to women are not about “sexual orientation” while men being married to men are. Defenders of the bill, meanwhile, have given the lie to the idea that this is simply intended to protect parents by suggesting that the intent is to prevent “grooming” of kids for sexual abuse by familiarizing them with human sexuality.

This presentation of the law has been made by a spokeswoman for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), among others. She referred to it as an “anti-grooming” bill.

When Disney spoke out against the law, the backlash was fierce. Clearly, some on the right seem to think, one of the state’s largest employers wasn’t acting out of concern for its workers but was instead a virulently pro-pedophilia organization! Activist author Chris Rufo — formerly focused on the supposed threat of critical race theory to students — has been highlighting incidents in which Disney employees were arrested for child-sex crimes. Fox News’s Laura Ingraham alleged that Disney was “all about pushing a sexual agenda on little children across their entertainment platforms” and that it was producing “propaganda for grooming.” The network’s Twitter account highlighted an opinion piece written by a mother — and former Bush administration appointee and Republican National Committee member — who warned about the “grooming tactics of the left.”

Fox News is now talking about pedophiles and child porn more than it is about socialists, mostly because it’s talking about socialists a lot less than it used to. The last time the network talked about pedophilia and child porn this much was around the time of the gubernatorial election in Virginia last year, when it focused on both critical race theory and an alleged sexual assault that was incorrectly claimed to be linked to the alleged perpetrator’s gender identity.

By now, the line of argument is pervasive. Donald Trump Jr. claiming the Jackson hearings show that Democrats are “really doing their best to secure the pedophile vote for future elections." A spike in discussion of child pornography and Jackson on right-wing social media networks. A Newsmax host suggesting that an Oreo ad shows that “they” — the giant, elite “they” that includes Democrats and cookie retailers, apparently — “really do seem to be coming after the kids.”

Again, this push is not a function of QAnon but shares a similar root. QAnon thrived in part because it tapped into a deep-seated fear about abuse of children. It cast politics not in legislative but in good vs. evil terms. QAnon adherents were not simply fighting for Republican victories, they were fighting for a victory against the most evil people imaginable. It provided a visceral reward that normal political jockeying doesn’t.

Now that sensation is trickling out of the fringe. If Jackson has an “appalling history of leniency” toward child sex offenders, as former Trump adviser Stephen Miller put it on Twitter, opposing her nomination becomes about something besides simple control of the Supreme Court. If Florida’s legislation is about blocking efforts to molest little kids instead of simply pandering to conservative voters, then opposition to the legislation means you’re aligned with unqualified evil.

It is directly comparable to the red scare: Then, America faced an existential threat from communists purportedly intermingled in government and culture. Now, it’s pedophiles, exactly as QAnon warned. The political value is the same, even if the purported threat isn’t.

The question that looms is an important one. Does this roiling anger dissipate, or does it spread further?