As Capitol rioters fought with police on Jan. 6, 2021, a Trump supporter named Sean McHugh allegedly heckled law enforcement. “You guys like protecting pedophiles?” he shouted at police from a megaphone, according to prosecutors. “There is a Second Amendment behind us, what are you going to do then?”
The insinuation that Capitol police supported pedophiles, and should therefore be subject to violence, was noteworthy—in part because McHugh had previously been convicted of statutory rape against a 14-year-old.
McHugh’s alleged remarks about pedophilia might have been inscrutable to more moderate Republicans in early 2021. But for years, the militant right has encouraged violence on the basis of false (and sometimes hypocritical) accusations of child exploitation. Now, a year after the Capitol riot, the broader GOP is embracing those baseless accusations, falsely conflating their foes and the LGBT community with pedophiles, while amplifying calls to violence.
It’s a cynical line of attack that has already led to violence in fringe-right communities. Now it’s going mainstream. In recent weeks, the smear has spread from violent groups like the Proud Boys, to elected officials and pundits who call for ridiculous boycotts of Disney for opposing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Right-wing attempts to smear the LGBT community as predatory are nothing new. For decades, conservatives have attempted to malign gay people as a threat to children, even while some of those same conservatives preyed on minors.
But a conspiracy-fueled movement has revamped that panic for the marriage-equality era.
That conspiratorial slurry—conflating Democrats, pedophilia, and implicit calls for violence—was in the works even before Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. In October of that year, a white supremacist Twitter account falsely accused Hillary Clinton of being part of a gay pedophilia ring. The rumors would become the basis of the discredited Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which wrongly claimed that Democratic elites were participating in child sex-trafficking at a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.
From its outset, the hoax was virtually indistinguishable from calls to violence. The D.C. pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong, was inundated with threats. “I will kill you personally,” read one, directed at the restaurant’s owner. Less than two months after the hoax first appeared on Twitter, a gunman entered the restaurant and fired several rounds into the interior. He later told police that he was there to investigate Comet Ping Pong and rescue sex-trafficked children from its interior. Two years later, another man entered the restaurant and set fire to its curtains.
The conspiracy theory soon metastasized into QAnon, an influential hoax that expanded on the Pizzagate rumors, falsely accusing a broad swath of Trump’s rivals of supporting pedophilia.
Meanwhile, some far-right activists outright fabricated evidence of supposed child exploitation on the left. In October 2017, students at Columbia University gathered to protest a talk by Mike Cernovich, a conspiracy theorist who was once charged with rape (a charge that was later downgraded to misdemeanor battery). Counter-demonstrators on the right posed in front of the students with a poster promoting the “North American Man-Boy Love Association.” Although students quickly discovered and destroyed the poster, far-right Twitter personalities circulated a picture of the sign, falsely claiming that it showed acceptance for pedophiles.
Militant far-right groups have also taken up the conspiracy theories, tying them even more explicitly to calls for violence. The Proud Boys, a violent paramilitary group, have acted as a “security” force for QAnon marches that used the slogan “Save Our Children,” and have marched into street clashes in Portland, Oregon, with “Save Our Children” shields. Messaging about “killing pedophiles” is common in Proud Boy chat channels, although a popular Proud Boys shirt, which bears the group’s logo and the message “ALL OF OUR ENEMIES ARE PEDOPHILES” suggests that their targets go far beyond actual child abusers.
Increasingly, the Proud Boys and other violent groups have tied those pedophilia claims to the LGBT community. An Oregon Proud Boys leader recently called an LGBT flag a “gay pedophilic flag,” and in Los Angeles this summer, a series of violent anti-transgender protests falsely smeared a transgender activist as a pedophile.
While the pedo-panic ran rampant on the far right, elected Republicans remained somewhat removed from the smear until recent months. But amid a GOP push to ban references to LGBT people in schools, some politicians have fallen back on the far right’s more bloodthirsty tropes. In Florida, members of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration claimed that legislation banning references to LGBT people in schools—dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” law—was actually an “anti-grooming bill.”
“Grooming” refers to the process of luring children for sexual abuse. But a right-wing campaign, with origins on message boards like 4chan, attempts to repurpose the definition to include simply educating children about a range of topics, including race and gender.
The term’s viral use this month accompanied new calls for violence. After the Walt Disney Company condemned Florida’s anti-gay law, far-right internet personality Jack Posobiec tweeted a picture of a T-shirt featuring an edited version of the Disney logo. “Boycott groomers, bring ammo,” the shirt read.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene also adopted the pedophilia smear. “The Democrats are the party of pedophiles,” the Georgia Republican claimed in a Tuesday night broadcast about transgender children. (She previously accused senators of being “pro-pedophile” for confirming Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.)
While Greene’s claims are baseless, she has taken up a more forgiving position toward people charged with other criminal offenses. Greene has emerged as a vocal champion of alleged Capitol rioters, visiting some defendants in a D.C. jail and describing them as “prisoners of war.”
“Persecuting people awaiting trial to the point they lose hope and commit suicide is not due process,” Greene recently tweeted of Jan. 6 defendants.
That post was retweeted by an account for one of the Jan. 6 defendants awaiting trial in the D.C. jail: Sean McHugh, the convicted statutory rapist who allegedly attacked Capitol police as defenders of pedophilia.