Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Why have U.S. Republicans started accusing their opponents of abusing children?

The Signal

Why have U.S. Republicans started accusing their opponents of abusing children? Matt Lewis on the new politics of “grooming.”
Matteo Catanese
Matteo Catanese
“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill,” Christina Pushaw—a spokesperson for Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis—recently tweeted, “you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.” If you’ve never heard of an “anti-grooming bill,” however, and are uncertain about what a reference like this to “the grooming of 4-8 year old children” might mean, you’re not alone. “Grooming” is an old term with a suddenly new political meaning in the United States. Historically, it’s a reference to how a pedophile might manipulate a young person into sexual abuse, as well as a slur about gay people preying on children. Yet now—among elected officials, operatives, activists, and media figures on the American right—it’s a more ambiguous and expansive reference: It includes school discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms with young children, as prohibited by Florida’s “anti-grooming bill,” since passed into law; it includes entertainment produced by the Walt Disney Corporation; and according to Chanel Rion of the far-right One America News Network, it somehow includes U.S. President Joe Biden, “the groomer-in-chief.” What’s happening here?
Matt Lewis is a conservative American political commentator, a senior columnist for The Daily Beast, and the author of Too Dumb to Fail, a history of the modern Republican Party. As Lewis sees it, the abrupt redefinition and proliferation in charges of “grooming” is connected to the rise of right-wing conspiracy theories like QAnon, which revolves around the idea of child sex trafficking. It’s also connected to political maneuvering of the sort in evidence at the U.S. Senate’s recent hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson—where Republicans distorted her record to accuse her of, in Senator Josh Hawley’s words, “a pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook.” Lewis sees this broader pattern as driven by a generalized escalation of hostility in America’s polarized elite discourse; the increased traction of conspiratorial beliefs; and the unprecedented ways that social media enables memes and viral slogans to spread publicly. The kind of rhetoric the “grooming” meme represents can seem fair play to those who use it, Lewis says, but its implications are extreme and the consequences culturally corrosive—or potentially worse.
Graham Vyse: Why has the idea of “grooming” become such a meme on the American right?
Matt Lewis: We’re seeing an attempt to redefine language. Language naturally evolves over time, but in politics, people sometimes attempt to redefine it in order to frame debates. The problem here is that the word “grooming” means something. It means preparing a child for sexual abuse. Now it’s being redefined to mean opposing the so-called “anti-grooming” or, alternatively, “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida. You have right-wing activists creating a permission structure to hurl a tremendously incendiary accusation at other people—but giving themselves plausible deniability by saying they’re just trolling or engaging in hyperbole. It’s very dishonest.
Ironically, in my view, calling the Florida law “Don’t Say Gay,” as those on the left are doing, is also dishonest—though not nearly to the same degree. The Florida law is actually very popular when it’s framed as supporting parental rights. There’s no need for the right to engage in rhetoric that’s—I don’t even want to describe it as name-calling, because it’s much worse than that.
Vyse: So, who among America’s right-wing elites is using this “grooming” rhetoric?
Lewis: It’s very widespread now. It’s being used in almost every faction on the American right. Those, like me, who oppose it are in the minority. It’s generally accepted in the Make America Great Again universe, among people who are on the populist-nationalist right or the Christian-nationalist right.
In fact, those who use this rhetoric likely overlap a lot with those who got into saying, “Let’s go Brandon.” [This is a meme that spread on the American right last year, after a crowd at a NASCAR race in Alabama chanted, “Fuck Joe Biden!”; and an NBC Sports reporter said they were chanting, “Let’s go Brandon.”] There was a humorous quality to it, and—thinking of permission structures—it became a way for people who considered themselves decent and devout basically to tell the president to go fuck himself in a way that seemed funny and harmless. The use of the “groomer” slur is an escalation of this dynamic.
Vyse: Do you see any evidence that “grooming” rhetoric is becoming more than just an elite phenomenon? I realize it’s emerged only recently, but how prevalent is it among everyday Republicans and conservatives across the U.S.?
Lewis: As you note, it’s still a new phenomenon. It’s widespread on Twitter, but sometimes it’s easy to confuse what’s widespread on Twitter with what’s widespread at the grassroots. Twitter users—and especially those tweeting about politics—are a sliver of the population. I’ve not seen evidence yet that “groomer” rhetoric is widespread at the Republican and conservative grassroots. I’ve not seen it coming from normal people, though I’ve also not seen a lot of normal people rebuking it—and my intuition says, it will ultimately take hold at the grassroots.
Matteo Catanese
Matteo Catanese
More from Matt Lewis at The Signal:
This rhetoric isn’t merely the product of Twitter trolls. Governor DeSantis’s spokesperson said on Twitter that opponents of the ‘anti-grooming bill,’ which he’s now signed into law, were pro-grooming. This isn’t some random yahoo; it’s the spokesperson for the governor of Florida, who—if Donald Trump doesn’t run for the White House again in 2024—may be the most likely Republican nominee for president of the United States. The rhetoric of ‘grooming’ is consistent with some fringe conspiracy theories we’ve seen emerge, including QAnon, but isn’t just being bandied about by crazy people.”
I think about the history of the Red Scare. Right-wing demagogues like Joseph McCarthy were making things up about communist infiltration, but there really were some communist infiltrators in the U.S. government and entertainment world. It could be that some people at the grassroots had a sense that something bad was going on but then got taken in by McCarthy and his fellow demagogues. It’s like the guy who showed up at Comet Ping Pong; he was taken in by an internet conspiracy theory but by all indications was someone with a good heart. Decent, sincere people can be exploited by demagogues.”
Some of this comes from the fever swamps of the polarized political right, but some of it seems calculated. When I started saying it’s wrong to call people groomers, I got a lot of feedback from people who think it’s okay. Some of them would say, You know, we don’t think our kids should be indoctrinated with critical race theory—and for that, they call us racists. Calling someone a racist is a big deal, so if they’re going to do that, we’re going to call them something that’s a big deal. It’s an ends-justify-the-means, fight-fire-with-fire kind of rationalization. So you have some people with a crazy, conspiratorial, paranoid mindset and some very calculating, strategic activists and operatives.”
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