Politics

Why Republicans Have Become Obsessed With Accusing Their Opponents of Pedophilia

Donald Trump Jr. stands behind a podium with a "Trump Pence" sign on it. He gestures with both hands, touching his pointer fingers and thumbs together. Several U.S. flags stand on poles behind him.
Donald Trump Jr. at the Republican National Convention on August 24 in Washington. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, has been a fixation of Donald Trump and his allies for more than a year now. Unconcerned with governing ably so as to win voter support on his merits, the president is instead convinced that smearing Biden via his son is the key to his reelection. He’s so convinced of this that he attempted to bribe a foreign leader to do it for him, which led to his impeachment. Now, with the president down in the polls in most swing states and less than two weeks to go before Election Day, Trump’s backers are throwing their entire pot of spaghetti at Hunter and his father, in hopes that one or more of their lines of attack might stick.

In the first presidential debate, for example, Trump mocked Hunter for his substance use disorder. The next day, Donald Trump Jr. called him a “crackhead.” Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon have been promoting the contents of a hard drive they say belonged to Hunter, full of endearing text messages from Joe Biden and emails they claim show underhanded dealing during Biden’s vice presidency. Right-wing news sites, social media accounts, and Giuliani himself have been spreading allegations that the hard drive also contains images documenting Hunter’s supposed history of child abuse, which there is no evidence to support.

On the disinformation-addled right, it’s not just Hunter Biden who’s been targeted by baseless pedophilia claims designed to stir up frenzied fear among the president’s supporters, a majority of whom say they believe top Democrats are involved in sex-trafficking rings. Trump has been openly suggesting that Joe Biden is a pedophile for more than a month. Donald Trump Jr.—who appeared on Fox News on Thursday to make unsubstantiated claims about Hunter’s alleged links to “human trafficking”enterprises—has been calling the Democratic presidential nominee a pedophile since May. On Wednesday, Trump-backing Newsmax TV host John Cardillo seemed to suggest in a tweet that Joe Biden was committing some kind of incestuous taboo by showing affection for his adult son. “Does this look like an appropriate father/son interaction to you?” he tweeted, along with a photo of Biden hugging Hunter and kissing his cheek.

These smears are part of a long history of conservative politicians and commentators accusing Democrats, with no evidence, of the actual sex crimes and child abuse they’re unwilling to condemn among their own political allies. There are a few reasons why pedophilia is the accusation of choice: It’s possibly the easiest to understand, least defensible allegation available to them, and it’s one of the few moral high grounds they believe they have left to claim. Invented pedophilia allegations are an appealing ploy for a party whose identity remains wrapped up in family-values rhetoric even as its efforts to camouflage its hollow moral center peter out.

For many on the right, child victims—even if they are completely imaginary—are a much more sympathetic group than actual people, especially adult women and immigrant children who’ve suffered legitimate harm. By pumping their followers’ media diets full of claims that Democrats abuse children, right-wing operatives are supplanting real stories about real victims with fake stories about hypothetical ones. In the wake of the nomination and election of a Republican president who allegedly barged into pageant dressing rooms to stare at half-naked teenage contestants, publicly speculated on his 1-year-old daughter’s future breasts, and told several young girls that he’d be dating them someday, followers of Pizzagate and QAnon organized around conspiracy theories about Democrats keeping children as sex slaves. Two years ago, after credibly accused child molester Roy Moore was endorsed by Donald Trump, funded by the Republican National Committee, and only narrowly lost the Senate seat he was running for, Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec targeted filmmaker James Gunn, Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon, and other Trump-dissing celebrities with baseless accusations of pedophilia. And today, as a new report reveals that the parents of 545 migrant children who were stolen under orders from the Trump administration still cannot be found, Trump’s closest allies are trying to associate Joe Biden and his son with child molestation.

The right-wing trolls behind the attacks on Gunn and Harmon made very clear that they were playing a political game—they were seeking revenge on their political enemies for Roseanne Barr’s firing after she made a racist remark about Valerie Jarrett. They didn’t actually believe their targets were pedophiles. The current wave of pedophilia claims is very similar: Trump and his cronies are inventing unsubstantiated allegations as retribution for actual, credible allegations that the president has raped, sexual assaulted, and sexual harassed more than two dozen women. They are feigning concern for theoretical children—including those who’ve been theoretically abused by theoretical transgender people in restrooms—as a retort to the outrage over the crimes they’ve committed against real, live children. They are dreaming up bogus narratives of harm that they can pretend to care about to give themselves a barely plausible cover for the measurable, factual harms that they don’t care about.

This political tactic is partially an attempt to rile up some true believers who think Donald Trump is indeed the savior of all the children Democrats currently hold in blood-harvesting torture cells. But it’s not just directed at partisans and conspiracy theorists. The greater project of the pedophilia-manufacturing right is the poisoning of public trust and the electorate’s well of political information. They are hoping that people hear these claims and lose all faith that decent politicians exist; or begin to believe the American political system is so irredeemably corrupt, and its leaders so depraved, that they might as well vote for the guy who doesn’t try to hide his corrupt depravity. Alternatively, people might feel so overwhelmed and exhausted that they tune everything out and disengage from the democratic process, or become convinced that there’s actually no moral distance between a politician who makes women uncomfortable with unwanted hugs and kisses and one who deploys the U.S. Department of Justice to defend himself against a credible allegation of rape.

It is in the best interest of the Republican Party, which has distinguished itself in recent years with an unfettered willingness to defend alleged sexual abusers, to flood the media landscape with false claims of sexual assault against the Democratic Party, whose members have demonstrated a far greater desire to hold abusers to account. It behooves right-wing leaders, who have fully relinquished any attachment to the truth and all concerns about hypocrisy, to tell lies about their political opponents that resemble truths about their political allies. The worst that can happen is they’re exposed as liars and hypocrites. And in that case, who among their supporters would care?