Shortly after it became clear that Ketanji Brown Jackson would be confirmed to the Supreme Court with at least three Republican votes—Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, and Lisa Murkowski—the senators’ House colleague Marjorie Taylor Greene took to the one unsuspended Twitter account she has left to call them not just soft on pedophilia but actively in favor of it.
Greene, who embraced QAnon as a congressional candidate and who has pushed all manner of deranged conspiracy theories—including one that a Jewish “space laser” was responsible for devastating 2018 California wildfires—is typically presented as someone far outside the GOP mainstream: a wacko and a kook, nothing like her more sober-minded and responsible colleagues in either chamber of Congress. And yet, in this—and many—instances, Taylor Greene is very much a normal Republican. Here, while she was being coarser and less subtle than several of her colleagues, she was channeling the smear that dominated Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings: that Jackson is not only sympathetic to child molesters—an attack based on a mischaracterization of a sentence she handed down nearly 10 years ago—but that she was selected by her party because of that (fabricated) view.
In seven months, when the midterm elections are held, we may see these hearings as a turning point. For much of the last two years, QAnon—a conspiracy theory that alleges, among other insane things, that Democratic elites run a vast child sex trafficking ring—was deemed so insane, as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait argued Tuesday, that even Donald Trump kept his distance from it. Now, however, it is spreading through the Republican mainstream. By the midterm elections, it may very well form a troika in Republican attack ads: Democrats aren’t doing enough on inflation, they’re soft on crime, and, oh yeah, they’re also pro-pedophile. Not since George McGovern’s foes slandered him as the candidate of “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion” has our politics seen as vicious and baseless a charge.
The Q-inspired pedophile smear is consuming Republican politics. “The phrase ‘child porn’ (or ‘pornography’ or ‘pornographer’)” was mentioned 165 times during Brown’s confirmation hearings, The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank tallied. “I’m not suggesting she likes what’s happening in child pornography,” Senator Lindsey Graham said Monday. But “she ha[d] a chance to impose a sentence that would deter [child pornography], and she chose not to.” Senator Josh Hawley, meanwhile, referenced QAnon in his own remarks. “Judge Jackson’s view is that we should treat everyone more leniently because more and more people are committing worse and worse child sex offenses,” he said, while also stating that “we’ve been told things like child pornography is actually all a conspiracy, it’s not real.” The lunatics who follow QAnon may just be onto something, in other words: The truth is out there.
Recent polling offers one clue for why Republicans are eager to smear Democrats as pedophiles (or, at the very least, as being soft on such assault). Nearly half of Republicans (49 percent) and 52 percent of Trump voters believe that Democrats run child sex-trafficking rings, per YouGov polling conducted during Jackson’s confirmation hearings. Even though only 18 percent of Republicans had a positive view of QAnon (compared to 16 percent of all respondents), 30 percent of all respondents believed that “top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings,” suggesting the wide reach of the conspiracy theory.
It’s not just Jackson’s hearings. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prevents educators from discussing gender and sexuality with their students, was similarly conceived out of an inflated panic about protecting children from vicious predators. The spokesperson for Ron DeSantis, the state’s governor, has said that anyone opposing it is “probably a groomer,” while DeSantis himself has gone to war with Disney over its belated opposition to the bill. That law has spurred copycats in other states.
The cynicism of these attacks is profound, especially when you consider Republican support for figures like Roy Moore, an Alabama judge and GOP senate nominee who was accused of dating teenage girls while in his thirties, and Dennis Hastert, a former speaker of the House who was convicted of molesting several teenagers when he was a high school wrestling coach. Republicans have concocted a smear out of thin air, alleging that they are the only thing stopping the country from being seized by child sex predators. The most debauched version of this attack may not work. And yet polling suggests that, by virtue of this lie being repeated enough, it has taken hold amongst a sizable portion of the electorate—and a near majority of Republican voters. Regardless, panics about education and the safety of minors—particularly ones that also touch on concerns about rising crime—have also been effective in some instances. “Some version of it can work: Look at how Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin rode gender panic and [critical race theory] paranoia as well as parental fatigue with Covid restrictions to victory last November,” The Nation’s Joan Walsh wrote Wednesday.
Republicans certainly will be talking about this entirely invented issue come November. Their base, tweaking on unhinged internet conspiracy theories, demands it. But the party’s legislators are not much less deranged themselves. Their own positions in both economic and foreign policy are deeply unpopular. So they concoct increasingly psychotic attacks.
Judge Jackson was confirmed on Wednesday in spite of those attacks. Democrats across the country will be facing them soon.