People watching the January 6th Committee hearings are probably very familiar with the story of Rusty Bowers, the Republican Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives who testified about efforts to manipulate the 2020 election outcome. More specifically, what we remember is the horrifying campaign of harassment and intimidation that followed Bowers from the State House to his home. The campaign included threats made against his neighbors as well as video panel trucks which broadcasted the claim that Bowers was not only a corrupt politician, but also a pervert and a pedophile.
The term “pedophile” currently is a go-to term among conspiracy believers and the political right to discredit anyone they perceive as an opponent. Where and when did all this begin? How did it become such an important component of Republican identity?
Thanks to Netflix and its popular series “Stranger Things,” American audiences have rediscovered the brief panic about Satanic cults in the 1980s that somehow included the roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons. That one event is the tip of a much larger, half-century old cultural and political iceberg.
In his excellent Mother Jones article, Ali Breland chronicles conservative attacks on social welfare policies that manipulated fears about the breakdown of traditional society going back as far as the Nixon administration. The same approach resurfaced in 1988 when conservative crusader Phyllis Schlafly described childcare programs as the “latest federal monster being proposed by liberal Democrats.” More recently, pedophilia and “grooming” have resurfaced in discussions about LBGTQ rights at school board meetings, and even the recent hearings held for Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, where Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley repeatedly alluded to her “soft” sentencing standards for crimes committed against children.
The search for guilty pedophiles in public service is also a core belief of QAnon, which has moved in the past five years from fringe internet message boards like 4Chan to become a regular feature at Republican Party rallies. QAnon followers believe that a civil war exists in our government, with one patriotic faction represented by “Q,” who many believe is Donald Trump, locked in battle with a cabal of morally degenerate political and media figures. Among the blood-drinking, child-trafficking, “pedophiles” commonly cited are Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, and Anderson Cooper.
Following Trump’s example and bolstered by dozens of tweets before his account was suspended, many MAGA conservatives have embraced QAnon beliefs. Most people are familiar with the antics of Marjorie Taylor Green and Lauren Boebert, some of which are informed by QAnon theories. Three years before she ran for office, Taylor Green posted a video on YouTube that endorsed every QAnon belief about the hidden civil war and Trump’s role as “Q”. At a March 2021 town meeting, Boebert claimed that documents declassified by the Trump administration would lead to mass resignations and arrests, allowing Republicans to seize control of the House and Senate.
However, if you look at “Q’s” overall influence within the Republican Party, its influence isn’t limited to a few newsworthy oddballs. In November 2020, the non-profit Media Matters for America compiled a list of 97 candidates who supported QAnon. One was a Libertarian, one represented the Independent Party of Delaware, and four were independents. Two were Democrats. A whopping eighty-nine were Republican.
What is the draw?
A useful source to find out is old and written by an author who was speaking about American public discourse almost 60 years ago, but with a sense of his times that is very applicable to our great national debate today. His name is Richard Hofstadter, a historian of note who taught at Columbia University after World War II and wrote “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in 1964. Hofstadter spoke about conspiracy theories that identified the threat of communism, which apparently had infiltrated the United Nations as well as corporate America and the highest reaches of federal power. The list of suspected culprits then was extensive, and included such notable leaders as President Harry Truman, General George C. Marshall, and President Dwight Eisenhower.
But what Hofstadter chronicled was not just a story about politics. More fundamental to the long history of American conspiracy belief is its fixation on moral threats to the country and “our way of life.” In just nine pages, Hofstadter takes the reader through fear and paranoia about anti-Christian intellectuals first spurred on by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. He then speaks to the waves of anxiety and backlash in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries against Masons, Mormons, Jesuits, Catholic immigrants, and Jews.
In 1964, the far-right John Birch Society, which helped propel many conspiracy theories about communism into national prominence, was also making the same argument we hear from QAnon: that the enemy was already within the centers of power. “They” had already won. Consequently, the conspiracy believers were not just crusaders fighting the good fight, they were also victims of evil.
Moral crusades, supplemented by a feeling of being forced out of social and cultural relevance, and sharpened by political disagreement, are powerful motivators. This was true when a big government Democrat named Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination. It was true when Joe Biden entered the White House.
Moral crusades are also powerful fundraising tools. As much as we make fun of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s constant stream of gaffs and astounding public statements, she is a force to be reckoned with in terms of generating cash. Between 2021 and 2022, Taylor Greene raised over $9 million, an amount that places her in the top ten lawmakers in the House of Representatives.
Just how long this trend might last remains to be seen, but there are some encouraging signs. Taylor Greene’s fundraising appears to have bogged down at the start of this year. She reported her first losses in April 2022. The sheer throw weight of billion dollar lawsuits filed by the Dominion Voting Systems against proponents of the Big Lie may also result in some form of accountability and deterrence. The same might be true of legal actions taken against Donald Trump’s “elite strike force team” of Rudy Giuliani, Jenna Ellis, and Sydney Powell.
Lastly, it seems that the January 6th committee may be gaining some traction. According to a June 2022 Quinnipiac Poll, 64% of Americans believe the attack of the Capitol was planned and not a spontaneous event.
Time will tell. Perhaps sooner rather than later. One of the more important upcoming milestones will be elections this fall, where many Republican candidates will experience the ultimate litmus test of their beliefs.