Right-wing activists are on a pedophile-hunting spree. Over the past several days, supporters of Donald Trump have targeted a series of left-leaning celebrities for tweets and jokes that make light of child rape. Trump-hating filmmaker James Gunn, who was set to direct the third Guardians of the Galaxy movie, was fired by Disney on Friday after Mike Cernovich, Jack Posobiec, and other far-right trolls resurfaced years-old tweets in which Gunn joked about sex acts and children, including one in which he wrote, “I like when little boys touch me in my silly place.”
In the wake of Gunn’s ouster, Cernovich, Posobiec, et al. began circulating a 2009 video that showed Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon pretending to sexually assault a baby doll.
Harmon, who has ranted about Trump’s pandering to Nazis on his podcast, apologized and deleted his Twitter account. Adult Swim, which airs Rick and Morty, has stood by Harmon.
While Harmon reportedly filmed the video as a low-budget send-up of Dexter, Trump fans on public-facing platforms like Twitter said the clip was evidence of his perverse sexual fantasies and/or his lack of concern for survivors of childhood abuse. In the privacy of their own forums, they told a different story. The Guardian reported that a 4chan user defended the decision to publicize the video by referencing Roseanne Barr’s ouster from her eponymous ABC sitcom after she compared black Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to an ape. “If they get to take scalps for someone making racist jokes,” the user wrote, “we get to take scalps for them making pedophilia joke.”
To understand the nature of these public and private conversations, start by looking back at Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that Cernovich and Posobiec helped spread just after the 2016 election. That myth, which took hold in the white-supremacist fringes of the internet, held that Washington pizzeria Comet Ping Pong was a cover for a pedophilic sex-trafficking ring led by Democratic Party leaders, including Hillary and Bill Clinton. The propaganda campaign eventually inspired a believer with an assault weapon to shoot up the pizza place, claiming he was there to free the captive kids. Since that incident, Cernovich has deleted his Pizzagate-related tweets, while Posobiec—who went to Comet to livestream an “investigation”—later claimed that he never believed the conspiracy theory.
The attacks on Gunn, Harmon, and Comet Ping Pong are all examples of the same bizarre phenomenon: a bad-faith, right-wing fixation on pedophilia as a panic-raising ploy to discredit and silence progressive celebrities. While the Pizzagate gunman had clearly convinced himself that something sinister was going on in the back rooms of Comet Ping Pong, we should take Posobiec at his word that he thought the rumors were “stupid claims.” Similarly, it’s impossible to imagine that Cernovich, Posobiec, and their ilk genuinely believe that Gunn’s tweets are anything more than bad jokes. Cernovich’s tweets comparing Barr and Gunn (“Roseanne made an accidental racial joke. Once. Gunn had a patter and history going back years”) made it clear he was playing a political game. Posobiec, meanwhile, started the hashtag #JamesGunnMovieTitles on Tuesday morning—his own entries included “Illegally Blonde,” “KinderGuardians of the Galaxy,” and “Mad Max: Felony Road”—seamlessly transitioning into making jokes about child rape after spending a couple of days decrying jokes about child rape.
Right-wing pedophile-accusers are simply grasping for the easiest way to tarnish someone’s name. Adult women are unsympathetic as a victim class—otherwise, Cernovich’s own history of rape tweets might have forced him to fire himself from his job as an inveterate tweeter—but imaginary children are just right. Once the word pedophilia is uttered, a risk-averse corporation like Disney is going to do what a risk-averse corporation does. (Adult Swim deserves credit for not falling for this ploy.) This is the same tactic Cernovich pioneered during Gamergate, the movement in which a group of mostly men targeted mostly women who wrote feminist analyses of the video game industry and gamer culture. In one case, Cernovich successfully lobbied Gawker advertisers to end their arrangements with the site after a Gawker writer tweeted an obvious joke about bullying gamers.
The same strategies that worked back then—target individuals critical of your movement, make their identities known to a large group of angry people, embarrass their employers—are still effective now. In both Gamergate and this current wave of pedophilia accusations, far-right agitators have ginned up legitimate-sounding pretexts (ethics in games journalism, child rape) to abet their goal of harming their political enemies. With the help of social media platforms that allow them to spread disinformation to millions of users and bots, these guys can easily win the numbers game that convinces companies that firing a progressive employee—like Sam Seder, who was briefly let go from MSNBC after Cernovich found a 2009 tweet joking about Roman Polanski—is the smart thing to do.
Pizzagate and pedophile-smearing also have something in common with the day care– and satanic-abuse hysterias of the ’80s and ’90s. “Moral panics function somewhat like parables: They validate a group’s anxieties in a dramatic way, they exonerate the anxious from culpability, and they assign blame,” wrote Richard Beck, author of We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, of the relationship between Pizzagate and those earlier conspiracies. Alt-right and men’s rights activists are nothing if not anxious—anxious about falling white birth rates, the increasing prominence of communities of color, the entrance of feminist rhetoric into mainstream discourse, growing visibility and rights for LGBTQ people, the election of a black president and the near-election of a female one, and mounting pushback against people who say racist and sexist things in public. By accusing progressives of pedophilia, men scared of losing power can convince themselves and their like-minded peers that they have legitimate reasons to orchestrate their opponents’ downfall.
The day care abuse hysteria, Beck noted, was similarly rooted in anxieties about gender equality and perceived threats to the heterosexual nuclear family. “As the institution that cared for the children of working mothers during the week, day care became an object of suspicion for people who believed that a woman’s proper place was at home with the kids,” he wrote. People who suspected that day care pedophilia rings were sweeping the country were partially preoccupied with the idea of gay people existing around children. Gay people like day care worker Bernard Baran and the lesbians of the San Antonio four were unjustly prosecuted on account of their sexuality under the guise of a crackdown on pedophilic abuse. Likewise, Pizzagaters latched on to Comet Ping Pong as a supposed site of child rape in part because the owner is a gay man, an easy target for accusations of pedophilia. The white supremacists who went after the pizza place dug up pictures of drag queens who performed there and presented a gay bartender’s personal Instagram post of two men sharing a slice of pizza as apparent proof that something depraved was going on there.
Cernovich, Posobiec, and the other right-wingers who have now made vocal anti-Trump comedians their main targets—including, in recent days, Patton Oswalt and Michael Ian Black—aren’t saying the so-called pedophiles they’re exposing are gay. But their followers have been quick to link one moral outrage with the other.
In a forum on HLTV.org on Sunday, users discussing Harmon’s video joked that the LGBTQ acronym should be changed to “LGBTP.” “Those people need to be slaughtered,” one person wrote. On FFTodayForums.com, a user who quotes Trump in his profile posted a link to the video under the title, “#Himtoo Dan Harmon next up for being a pedophile.” Farther down the thread, others commented that “this is the crew constantly moralizing at the rest of us” and that “Hillary spent half her campaign hanging out with them … they couldn’t trot enough of them out on the stage at the DNC.” It’s not entirely clear to whom them refers in that comment, but it’s most likely trans people. (The July 2016 Democratic National Convention was the first in history to feature a transgender speaker.) Another user explicitly linked pedophilia to the issue of trans bathroom access, which the GOP has tried to restrict through legislation: “You mean you are opposed to your little girl using the same restroom as a grown man who decides to take a little extra peek between the door crack when hes walking by and hears her going tinkle? Bigot.”
It’s tempting to dismiss the pedophile-pushers as fringe actors—nuisances whose fake pedophile hunts will peter out when they run out of bad tweets to trumpet. But they’ve already gotten themselves a sympathetic audience in Congress: Sen. Ted Cruz has tweeted multiple times that Gunn should be prosecuted “if he’s telling the truth” about molesting children in his joke tweets. Cernovich has been tweeting and retweeting requests for members of Congress to schedule a hearing on child sex abuse in Hollywood. It wouldn’t shock me if such hearings actually took place.
People on the right are hungry for a win on the family-values front, a morals-based excuse to vote and advocate for the profoundly immoral. Our Republican president allegedly liked to make surprise tours of his pageant dressing rooms to ogle the half-naked teenage contestants. He also once speculated about the size of his 1-year-old daughter’s future breasts and has told several young girls that he’d be dating them in a few years. That’s not to mention the more than 20 women who’ve accused the president of sexual harassment or assault. With this unabashedly abusive man leading the GOP from the White House, and with a literal Nazi and a credibly accused child molester representing the party on the ballot, mainstream right-wingers are sick of holier-than-thou liberals scolding the GOP. Cernovich and his acolytes aren’t interested in the right developing a conscience. They’d rather do away with moral authority altogether than try to reclaim some semblance of it for themselves.