Because American politics are now just one, long, low-rent nightmare, Republican culture warriors have spent the past few weeks slandering their various enemies as being soft on pedophilia. For some time, this sort of raving was mostly confined to adherents of QAnon, the Trump-idolizing conspiracy cult that believes Democratic politicians and other elites are secretly operating a global child trafficking ring.
But a confluence of events has helped bring a version of it mainstream.
During the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in March, Republican Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz attempted to smear the nominee by inaccurately claiming that she had a record of handing out unusually light sentences in cases where defendants were accused of viewing child pornography. The issue descended deeper into absurdity after three moderate Republicans voted to confirm Jackson this week and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene—the walking id of MAGA-America—tweeted about them, saying “Murkowski, Collins, and Romney are pro-pedophile.”
Meanwhile, defenders of Florida’s new “don’t say gay” law, which strictly limits public school teachers’ ability to discuss LGBTQ people and issues in the classroom, began referring to the legislation as an “anti-grooming” bill—evoking the deeply homophobic idea that an adult would only talk about these topics with a child in order to prime them for abuse. After Disney, one of Florida’s largest employers, called for the law to be repealed, conservative social media influencers and Fox News personalities like Laura Ingraham launched a wild crusade against the company accusing it too of being complicit in “grooming.”
This is all galling. But it’s especially rich considering that, of the two major parties, the GOP has many more notable and recent scandals involving the sexual abuse of minors and young students—as well as a recent track record of reacting to them with a shrug.
Let’s review some of that history …
In 2015, former Rep. Dennis Hastert, the longest-ever serving Republican speaker of the House, pleaded guilty to making illegal hush-money payments in order to cover up his history of sexually abusing high school wrestlers he had coached decades before.
“Nothing is more stunning than having ‘serial child molester’ and ‘speaker of the House’ in the same sentence,” the judge said at his sentencing.
During and after the 2016 presidential race, among the dozens of women who accused former president Donald Trump of being a sexual predator were several contestants in the 1997 Miss Teen USA pageant, who reported that he barged into their dressing room while girls as young as 15 were changing. (Trump allegedly told them, “Don’t worry, ladies, I’ve seen it all before.”)
His campaign denied the accusation, but CNN unearthed a 2005 Howard Stern interview where Trump bragged about walking into backstage dressing rooms at the pageants he ran.
During the 2018 midterms, Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore was accused of preying on girls as young as 14 and 16; the New Yorker reported that his habit of trying to pick up high schoolers was so notorious that it actually got him banned from a local mall.
Also in 2018, Rep. Jim Jordan, one of Trump’s fiercest allies and a co-founder of the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus, became embroiled in a scandal over his time as a wrestling coach at Ohio State University, where a team doctor named Richard Strauss, who committed suicide in 2005, was found to have sexually abused more than 177 male student athletes.
An investigation commissioned by the university found that Strauss regularly used examinations as an excuse to grope and fondle the students, sometimes to the point of ejaculation; often ordered them to strip nude unnecessarily; and in two cases, attempted to perform oral sex. Numerous former wrestlers told reporters that Jordan was personally aware of the abuse during the early 1990s but chose to turn a blind eye. The Congressman simply denied having any knowledge of it—and suggested at least one of the accusers claiming otherwise was acting on a personal vendetta against him.
And finally, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida is currently the subject of a literal sex-trafficking investigation, which is looking into whether he had sex with an underage 17-year-old girl, among other issues. (Greene is close with Gaetz, who denies the allegations, and has defended him.)
On Twitter, liberals have taken to rattling off this list of scandals—among others—in response to conservative accusations of grooming (in a somewhat apt turn of events, a former Republican National Committee staffer was sentenced for a child pornography conviction the same day Jackson was confirmed to the court).
Some have gone further, remarking that the GOP is particularly afflicted with a pedophilia problem. “Every accusation is a confession,” goes one popular refrain. (Some large social media accounts have been trying to make the phrase “pedocon” stick.)
Personally, I don’t think Democrats ought to start earnestly debating with Republicans over which party really has more pedophiles overall (which is a sentence I can’t really believe I’m typing, but here we are). Sexual abuse and misconduct doesn’t have a partisan valence. You can certainly find some Democrats out in the world who’ve been convicted on child porn charges. And never forget that Anthony Weiner went to jail for sexting a 15-year-old.
But if conservatives are going to smear progressives as “groomers” and pose as the nation’s protectors of children, it’s certainly fair to bring up this history in retort. It’s also entirely valid to note how weak the GOP’s response has been to recent scandals concerning its own rank-and-file.
The way Republicans set aside the vast array of sexual abuse charges against Trump and lined up behind him has been discussed so many times that there’s no real need to go over it again. The party’s response to Moore, meanwhile, was what you might describe as, well, semi-pathetic. To their credit, a number of elected Republicans called on Moore to exit the race or said they would vote for a write-in candidate, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee pulled its funding from his campaign.
The Republican National Committee did as well, at least briefly.
But after Donald Trump decided to reendorse Moore, the RNC resumed its support of his candidacy, stating, “We stand with the president.”
When it came to Jordan, congressional Republicans simply circled the wagons. In 2018, then House Speaker Paul Ryan waved off demands for an ethics committee inquiry into whether Jordan was lying about his conduct as a wrestling coach, saying that the panel “investigates things that members do while they’re here, not things that happened a couple of decades ago when they weren’t in Congress.”
He then called Jordan “a man of honesty and a man of integrity.”
Later, in 2020, Jordan’s GOP colleagues selected him to become the top ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, which handles federal criminal legislation—including on issues such as sex trafficking and child pornography. Liz Cheney, then the No. 3 Republican in the House, said it was a “totally unified decision all around.”
This all unfolded in the face of credible allegations that Jordan not only knew about the abuse at Ohio State, but had responded to multiple students who told him about it with comments like “If he tried that on me, I would kill him.” By all accounts, Strauss’ behavior was an open secret. Six former wrestlers told CNN that they were personally present when Jordan heard misconduct complaints about the doctor. A former ref also filed a lawsuit alleging that he complained to Jordan and another coach after Strauss masturbated in front of him, and they merely responded, “Yeah, that’s Strauss.”
Jordan claims that he was cleared of any wrongdoing in the official report by Ohio State’s investigators, which did not mention his name. “The investigators concluded what we have said from the beginning: Congressman Jordan never knew of any abuse, and if he had he would have dealt with it.”
But that’s not what the report actually said. Rather, the investigators wrote that, except in the case of one coach, they could not “identify any other contemporaneous documentary evidence” proving that athletic staff were aware of Strauss’s actions. In other words, there was no paper trail. However, they added that “22 coaches confirmed to the Investigative Team that they were aware of rumors and/or complaints about Strauss, dating back to the late 1970s and extending into the mid-1990s.”
It is theoretically possible that Jordan really had his head so deeply buried in the sand during his coaching days that he knew nothing about what was happening on his team, and that the more than half-dozen witnesses who claim otherwise are simply lying or misremembering. (Several other former Ohio State coaches issued a statement saying they were unaware of Strauss’s misconduct).
A much simpler explanation, however, would be that Jordan himself lied to cover his complicity in a culture of tolerance around sexual abuse. Either way, Republicans chose to make him one of their most powerful members in Congress in spite of this unresolved cloud.
As for Gaetz, well, darkly enough, he also serves with Jordan on the Judiciary Committee—which has jurisdiction over the very Justice Department currently investigating him.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said last year he wouldn’t punish Gaetz or strip him of any committee assignments unless charges are filed, because Gaetz is “innocent until proven guilty.”
“If it comes out to be true, yes, we would remove him if that’s the case,” McCarthy said at the time. “But right now Matt Gaetz says that it’s not true, and we don’t have any information. So let’s get all the information.”
For now, the obvious conflict of interest remains. The Republicans have apparently decided that the committee in charge of sex crimes legislation should include one guy currently being investigated for actual sex crimes—and another who allegedly looked the other way on them. It’s not exactly the behavior of a party that cares deeply about sexual abuse.