CONTRIBUTORS

Stirring up a new 'Satanic panic,' the GOP wants voters to see pedophiles all around us

Jean Guerrero
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) speaks during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on February 5, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

The Republican Party is testing a new style of hatemongering politics: one that brands all opponents as pedophiles or "pro-pedophile."

Preying on the universal protective instincts for children, it's a cynical ploy from a party that supports sabotaging our planet's climate for future generations, promotes policies that traumatize brown and Black children, and has backed people accused of molesting and even trafficking teenagers.

Conjuring up the vilest of villains — child rapists and molesters — allows politicians organizing around democracy's destruction to dupe otherwise decent people into voting for them.

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The strategy has roots in Pizzagate and QAnon, but it broadens the bad guy beyond those conspiracy theories' cabals of Democratic and Hollywood elites who were said to be engaging in Satanic child sex trafficking and blood guzzling. The predators are now down the street and in schools. It's a revival of the Satanic panic of the 1980s and 1990s, when Americans saw this type of demonic evil everywhere in ordinary people.

California was an epicenter of the panic, which resulted in dozens of Satanic ritual abuse convictions and many long prison sentences nationwide, according to Kurt Andersen's "Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire." In 1983 in Manhattan Beach, the McMartin preschool was said to be the site of demonic abuse of hundreds of children after a mentally ill mother alleged her son had been violated. She wrote that "the goatman was there" and that the abuser "flew in the air."

An unhinged response by police and the media contributed to what was then the longest and costliest trial in U.S. history. One of the alleged victims later shared he had been pressured to invent his stories of abuse. The nationwide hysteria, with echoes of the Salem witch trials, was stoked by omnipresent images of missing children on milk cartons back then.

'Blood libel': One of the reasons child-abuse panics are so contagious, beyond their visceral power, is their long history in humanity. Talia Lavin, author of "Culture Warlords," traces the GOP's child-predation obsession and its accompanying visions of the devil to blood libel, an antisemitic smear dating back to Middle Ages Europe that falsely accused Jewish people of ritualistically murdering Christian children for their blood.

She argues that the 1980s and 1990s child-abuse panic, which demonized day-care centers, was fueled by people who believed women should be full-time mothers. It's not a coincidence that the panic arose at a time when more and more women were in the workforce. The latest panic, Lavin told me, is a "concerted effort to turn back the clock on gay rights."

Last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw linked the pro-LGBTQ community to pedophiles, tweeting that anyone who opposes the bill prohibiting public school instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity is "probably a groomer."

QAnon congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene later unleashed homophobic word vomit conflating Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg with transgender people, nonsensically warning him — a cisgender gay man — to "stay out of our girls' bathrooms." On Monday, she flung the "pro-pedophile" smear at Republican Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney after they expressed support for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. She was building on colleagues' baseless accusations that Jackson was sympathetic to child porn offenders.

This pedophilia scaremongering is no longer about smearing only Democratic leaders and the people they support. It's about creating the impression that all Democrats, and even moderate Republicans, are "pro-pedophile."

Meanwhile, Republicans will continue their double exploitation: using children as pawns for depraved propaganda and using that propaganda to further warp Americans who are disconnected from reality and need help.

The omnipresent boogeyman encompasses all the MAGA boogeymen, from immigrants and Black Lives Matter protesters to "critical race theory" teachers who dare to acknowledge racism … and adds LGBTQ people. It offers a throughline with other dangerous GOP conspiracy theories, including the QAnon border variant that attacks Democrats who oppose cruel border policies as supporting child sex traffickers.

"It's a literal form of child exploitation," Michael Edison Hayden, a senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center who has reported on the extremist origins of digital-age pedophilia panics, told me of the GOP strategy, which has involved exploiting images of migrant children to promote unfounded fears about sex trafficking.

The lies have found fertile ground in this country because they prey on existing homophobic and racist biases. Moreover, fantasy is "encoded in our national DNA," wrote Andersen in "Fantasyland." As Andersen told me: "The pilgrims were theologically extreme people who came here for the Second Coming and to destroy 'Satan's minions,' which is to say the natives." Others came to get rich quick with gold and silver. "We started with these two groups of true believers in fantasies," Andersen says.

Parenting styles: But why are conservatives in particular so prone to pedophilia panics? In "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think," George Lakoff, a renowned UC Berkeley cognitive science linguist, argues that conflicting liberal and conservative views arise from opposing conceptual frameworks about parenting.

While Democrats apply a nurturing parenting framework to their politics that centers on empathy, Republicans apply what he calls a "strict father" framework that prizes patriarchal authority. In study after study, authoritarian parenting is associated with worse mental health in children. Lakoff told me he thinks being raised under this hegemonic framework makes people more susceptible in adulthood to misleading information.

People with mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, are in fact more vulnerable to false conspiracy theories. Shauna Bowes, a research psychologist at Emory University who studies conspiratorial ideation, told me that narcissism and wanting to belong to an "in" group are among many other complex characteristics that contribute.

"If I want to feel really good about my party, the worst way someone can be sexually aberrant is hurting a child," she said. "It puts even more distance between my group and their group."

We can't solve the misinformation crisis in this country without addressing the mental health crisis in the U.S., which has long had one of the highest rates of mental illness among developed nations.

— Jean Guerrero is an opinion columnist at the Los Angeles Times.