Sorry to everyone who wanted more time, but the 2024 presidential election began in earnest on Tuesday. Joe Biden delivered a searing State of the Union address that laid out the themes of his reelection campaign: He used his time in office to make the economy better and fairer, and his opponents are kooks who want to cut Social Security and Medicare.
The proceedings got chaotic, with Republicans jeering at Biden and the president throwing quips back in their direction. You’re probably not going to see a more blistering start to a campaign fight. Unless, of course, you were tuned in to the way the Republican Party’s presidential primary had kicked off a few hours earlier, when former President Donald Trump called Florida Governor Ron DeSantis a pedophile.
This was really something else: In a post on his bespoke social media network Truth Social, Trump alleged that his leading opponent for his party’s nomination was a “groomer.” Trump’s accusations came alongside a picture of a twentysomething DeSantis—then a high school teacher—allegedly drinking alcohol with high school girls, purportedly his students. (Adding another surreal wrinkle to this story is the fact that the picture, which is unverified, was first reported on Hill Reporter, a website run by the weirdo anti-Trump, pro-Robert Mueller-and-the-rule-of-law Krassenstein brothers.) “Here is Ron DeSanctimonious grooming high school girls with alcohol as a teacher,” Trump posted. “That’s not Ron, is it? He would never do such a thing!” he added.
This was inevitable. For years, Republicans—and DeSantis in particular—have been throwing around accusations of pedophilia and “grooming” at Democrats, particularly gays and those participating in and promoting drag shows. The play was essentially stripped from the QAnon conspiracy canon, whose adherents believe that Democrats and their allies are deliberately exposing children to homosexuality, transsexuality, and other deviant identities in a malevolent attempt to transform society. Trump, in this telling, is a messianic figure ordained to expose this ring of malefactors and imprison them all in Gitmo.
Rather than repudiate the QAnon types, Republicans have dipped into its lore, entwining its themes and symbols into the party’s own tropes, stoking a moral panic that they can then exploit politically. DeSantis is no dilettante when it comes to QAnon fusion. He won reelection by arguing that Florida was “where woke goes to die,” a reimagining of the state’s unofficial motto (“where your grandparents go to die”). He has used his power as governor to ban teachers from even referencing the existence of homosexuality and has obsessed over the very existence of drag shows: He recently threatened to strip the liquor license of the Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation after it hosted one. His aide-de-camp, Christina Pushaw, relentlessly characterizes those who oppose DeSantis’s harsh sanctions of the LGBTQ community as de facto participants in a pedophilia conspiracy.
Republicans like DeSantis have adopted the “groomer” slur because it’s a potent political weapon. Republicans may cut school funding and social welfare programs, but it allows them to make the case that they are protecting defenseless children from those who would wantonly exploit them. Now Trump is turning the tables on DeSantis, calling him a creep, a groomer, and a pedophile—all words the Republican base now associates with Democrats.
There’s no guarantee that Trump will get this idea to stick in voters’ minds. One reason why the slur has been so effective is that it prudently backfills Republicans’ assumptions about their political rivals. Republicans increasingly believe that Democrats are not just bad politically but actually evil. The “groomer” accusation is a potent exercise in confirmation bias—proof that Democrats really are rotten to the core. The GOP’s obsession with drag shows allows them to characterize these events as part of a a large-scale conspiracy; proof that their political enemies are trying to undermine America’s moral foundation. But while a picture of an adult Ron DeSantis drinking with high school girls–his students!—is creepy and gross, it doesn’t really fit in with the right’s larger “grooming” rhetoric.
More than anything else, Trump’s attack on DeSantis probably speaks to his own desperation. At the moment, he’s trailing in many head-to-head polls against his rival. The Florida governor has heretofore ignored Trump’s attacks. But Trump needs DeSantis to get into the race so he can try to drag him down—and so voters who are intrigued by DeSantis can see just how wooden, weird, and uncharismatic he is. A flamboyant accusation of grooming and pedophilia is really just a gambit to get DeSantis to pay attention to Trump, and it isn’t working.
Still, it’s what DeSantis deserves. The right’s efforts to paint its political opponents as not only deviants but evil people who exploit children are disgusting and immoral. DeSantis has benefited immensely from these baseless accusations and is, in fact, one of their leading promoters. It’s only fair that he gets tarred with the accusation that he and his allies have gleefully been throwing around for years. And if, at some point, DeSantis decides to complain about how slanderous Trump’s accusations are, it would be just as fair to remind him that he’s done far worse.