Members Only | April 12, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
The Republicans and their allies take an eliminationist turn
It’s recognizable in totalitarian regimes overseas.
Supporters of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law have dusted off the vintage lie that gay men, trans folks and their allies are child molesters.
The word of the day is “grooming.”
Much has been written about how dangerous this rhetoric is to LGBTQ communities (see John Stoehr’s interview with Gabriel Rosenberg), but the threat extends further. Republicans have opened a new front against political opponents, insinuating or downright alleging that all Democrats and even dissenting Republicans are pedophiles.
Falsely labeling one’s enemies as pedophiles is a tacit incitement to violence. If a campaign is waged from huge platforms over a long time, as we’re seeing now, it crosses the line into stochastic terrorism.
The GOP is tapping into the energy of the QAnon base by repackaging their entire domestic agenda, from education policy to Supreme Court confirmations, as a crusade against pedophilia.
Actual grooming is a form of manipulation.
Abusers ingratiate themselves into the victim’s life and wear down their defenses so they submit to sexual abuse. Proponents of these anti-gay bills claim that teaching kids about sex and gender is the same as grooming them for abuse, if not child abuse in itself. That’s preposterous, as are allegations that supporting a trans child’s identity or providing gender affirming medical care is child abuse.
The rightwing is cynically collapsing the distinction between sexually abusing children, teaching ideas they falsely claim make children vulnerable and supporting the teaching of these ideas, thus exposing a large segments of the population to reprisals for alleged pedophilia.
“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children,” wrote Ron DeSantis’s press secretary Christina Pushaw on Twitter.
US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene proclaimed “the Democrats are the party of pedophiles,” adding that, “Either you are pro-pedophile and pro-transgender biological men or you defend children and women.”
Greene’s comments might be dismissed as the ravings of a crank if the rightwing weren’t united behind her. The moral panic over child porn extends from the lowliest 8chan poster to the halls of the United States Senate. The GOP is tapping into the energy of the QAnon base by repackaging their entire domestic agenda, from education policy to Supreme Court confirmations, as a crusade against pedophilia.
A bizarre gambit alleging that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was soft on child porn became the centerpiece of GOP objections to her confirmation. Greene even accused three senators of her own party of being “pro-pedophile” for voting to confirm Judge Jackson.
Not to be outdone, Tucker Carlson told viewers the Walt Disney Company was behaving like a sex offender by including gay characters in its movies and for opposing “Don’t Say Gay.” Carlson later said dads should physically attack teachers who “push sex values” on children.
Far-right operative Jack Posobiec claimed to have been suspended from Twitter Sunday for hawking shirts that read “Boycott Groomers” in Disney font and “Bring Ammo,” a veiled allusion to shooting up a theme park. This is familiar territory for Posobiec. In 2016, he was a major promoter of Pizzagate, a baseless pedophile conspiracy theory that culminated with a 28-year-old man firing an automatic rifle in a family restaurant because he believed child sex slaves were there.
This strategy of equating political opponents with child molesters and pedophiles in order to legitimize violence against them may be more recognizable when seen in totalitarian regime overseas.
When protests erupted against the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian state media responded by branding the organizers of the demonstrations as “political pedophiles,” whom they baselessly allege to be sexually exploiting young activists who joined their cause.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin famously equates homosexuality and pedophilia with the west. In his speech outlining his motives for invading Ukraine, Putin claimed he was invading in part to stop the west from imposing on Ukraine values “contrary to human nature.”
The term eliminationism was coined by political scientist Daniel Goldhagen in his 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners to describe the kinds of rhetoric used to utterly dehumanize a segment of society and mark them for forcible exclusion, expulsion or even elimination.
More recently, journalist and scholar Dave Neiwert has written extensively on eliminationist themes in US rightwing rhetoric.
Eliminationist rhetoric asserts that a group of people is so depraved and debased that coexistence is impossible. The group is thought to be a menace that must be crushed, expelled or otherwise eliminated.
At its core, eliminationist rhetoric is permission for violence. That is exactly what branding your political opponents as pedophiles does.
“Pedo” is eliminationist rhetoric. It’s the logical bridge that explains why people who claim to be the biggest proponents of democracy and freedom don’t want democracy or freedom for Democrats.
Allegedly, we’re too depraved to engage in normal politics.
We must be crushed, literally.
These spurious allegations can also be viewed as a form of stochastic terrorism that involves a group with a big media platform picking a target, blaming them for social ills and unleashing a torrent of rhetoric branding them as subhuman, depraved and dangerous.
“Stochastic” refers to probabilities. In a country seething awash with guns, telling millions of people their enemies are pedophiles is playing a numbers game. Violence becomes reasonably foreseeable.
Stochastic terrorism is not new. It has long been a favorite tactic of anti-choice movement. Who can say whether disgraced former Fox host Bill O’Reilly wanted someone to shoot Dr. George Tiller by he incessantly calling the Wichita, Kansas, abortion provider a “baby killer” and a child abuser? The fact remains that someone did assassinate him in the name of protecting children.
We are also seeing stochastic terrorism from the anti-vaccination movement as leaders routinely label vaccination as “child rape” and allege that the shots kill young people. If this explosive rhetoric is repeated enough times, some suggestable people will take it literally. In 2021, Maryland man allegedly murdered a pharmacist and two others because he believed the vaccines were poisoning people.
Stochastic terrorism unfolds in predictable phases:
- desensitization and
Someone with a mass audience sets out to demonize a person or a group of people as the cause of a major social ill whether it’s child sexual abuse, a global pandemic, or an electoral defeat.
The target is repeatedly and falsely labeled as deviant, criminal, diseased and dangerous. The target may be called pedophiles, psychotics, drug addicts, Nazis, communists and murderers. The despised group is often likened to a disease or to vermin that must be eradicated to restore the health of the body politic.
The audience comes to think of the target as subhuman. At this point, it becomes easier to imagine violence as acceptable and necessary.
If these messages are disseminated widely enough, it’s virtually guaranteed the target will be harassed and threatened. Periodically, someone will take the inciting rhetoric literally and bomb a clinic or shoot up a theme park. Nobody can predict when.
It’s a numbers game, but the dread is constant.
The certainty of harassment and the possibility of violence can easily drive the target out of public life, ruin political careers and terrorize families. When the target complains or law enforcement begins asking questions, the stochastic terrorist can deny all responsibility.
If these messages are disseminated widely enough, it’s virtually guaranteed the target will be harassed and threatened. And, in a country awash with guns and angry people, there’s a non-trivial chance that someone will eventually attack the target.
After all, they didn’t tell their followers to harass abortion providers, Jews, trans kids, public health officials or female tech journalists.
They merely blamed these groups for major social ills and implied that they are too debased and dangerous to be engaged with politically, and normalized violent rhetoric about them.
Legally, they have a point.
Morally, we all know the score.
The concerted Republican attempt to label their enemies as pedophiles is a disgusting and dangerous display of homophobia and transphobia, but the threat extends to all of their political enemies.
They are trying to construe anyone opposing their agenda, whether by supporting gay kids, voting for the wrong Supreme Court nominee or even watching a Disney movie with their family, as a a pedophile.
This is stochastic terrorism by a major political party.
Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.