Ahead of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s historic Senate confirmation hearings this week, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri injected a predictable dose of nastiness into the dialogue when—sans evidence—he accused the Supreme Court nominee of enabling child sex offenders.
Hawley backed up his claim by misrepresenting Jackson’s record of sentencing offenders in several child pornography cases to less prison time than was recommended by federal sentencing guidelines, which is an ordinary practice within the federal judiciary. At Jackson’s Tuesday confirmation hearing, she clarified that she had ruled on 14 cases involving child pornography or sex crimes related to children, and in 10 of those cases, she imposed a sentence consistent with or greater than what was recommended by the government.
If Hawley and other Republicans’ bizarre fixation on framing Jackson as supposedly soft on child sex crimes feels like a twistedly familiar right-wing song and dance at this point, that’s because it is. There’s a reason 15% of Americans have said they believe Satan-worshiping pedophiles run the country. From Pizzagate—the viral 2016 conspiracy theory that the Hillary Clinton campaign ran a child sex trafficking ring at restaurants including a pizzeria in DC—to QAnon, the very online far-right has relied on equating the Democratic Party with pedophilia as its go-to smear. And actual prominent Republican politicians like Hawley, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and others have not-so-subtly been taking their cues from these conspiracy theorists.
None of this is new. Cultural panics involving child porn and pedophilia have long been weaponized to stymie social progress, Jeffrey Debies-Carl, a professor of sociology at the University of New Haven whose research has focused on online conspiracy theories, told Jezebel. “People often make these accusations kind of cynically, because they have an agenda, because they know a lot of people will believe them,” he said. “These theories are frequently reactionary, or there’s some sort of threat perception involved that’s usually progressive in some way.”
Historically, the rise of cultural lore about supposed pedophilia and child sexual abuse at daycare centers in the 1980s was deployed as part of anti-feminist backlash against mothers for supposedly endangering their kids by dropping them off at daycare to go to work. More recently, the right wing has used egregious sexual violence cases involving children to argue for more policing, despite lack of evidence that registries or expanding the carceral system keeps children safe at all.
Debies-Carl certainly sees connections between right-wing panics about “child safety” and pedophilia with ramped up efforts to censor teachings about LGBTQ identity in schools, or state legislation policing the health care options and inclusion of trans youth, as an extension of right-wing, wholly political child abuse panics. He also sees the smear campaign against Judge Jackson amid her Supreme Court confirmation hearings as part of this trend—and reflective of deeper issues with racism and otherization that can go hand-in-hand with these panics. “A lot of people that are targeted are often emblems of progress, like Jackson,” Debies-Carl said.
As for the potency of accusing any figures perceived to be representing progress—or the Democratic Party broadly—of somehow being pro-child pornography, Kathryn Olmsted, a professor of history and gender studies at UC Davis who has extensively researched conspiracy theories, says that this is simply “the worst thing you can say about somebody.”
“It’s not just that they are misguided, that their position on health care is wrong. It is that they are evil,” Olmsted told Jezebel. “People who prey on children are just completely horrifying—it’s the best way to dehumanize the opposition.” She noted that these conspiracy theories and moral panics about liberals abusing children are especially effective among Republican voters because of their particular focus on “maintaining a patriarchal nuclear family,” and demonizing anything that might be a threat to that, such as mothers not being pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen and keeping constant watch on their children.
“On the most superficial level, children are harmless, they’re the future, and we’re all concerned about the safety of children,” Debies-Carl said. “But these panics are about exploiting fear, often using the language of freedom, while often actually threatening and controlling children.”
The potency of accusing a public figure of enabling pedophilia can also become dangerous, quickly. “When you’re literally demonizing someone to that extent, that invites violence—we’ve seen that throughout history, like even recently, the attack on the DC pizzeria. It’s something to watch for, and know these messages [about Jackson] can be dangerous.”
Moreover, Debies-Carl notes, there is extensive research suggesting that the people spreading these conspiracy theories are actually “accusing people of things they’re doing themselves, or that they would want to do themselves.” This certainly brings to mind moments in recent history like ongoing investigations into Rep. Matt Gaetz’s alleged sex trafficking of a minor, or decades of allegations of assault and predation of minors made against former, far-right US Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, whom many Republicans stood by despite knowing the man is a pedophile.
Perhaps the GOP should take a hard look in the mirror.