Republicans have kids on the brain. Over the course of the last year, conservative activists and Republican state lawmakers have been whipping up a set of interrelated moral panics over the supposed indoctrination of children in our schools and child abuse – from the notion that elementary school teachers are raising up junior divisions of the Black Panthers with critical race theory to the insistence that trans people, who today comprise less than half a percent of high-school athletes in the United States, might soon bring an end to girls’ sports. The word “grooming” is now in wide circulation on the right – a dogwhistle that implies basic education on LGBT identity and sex is priming kids for predation, perhaps at the hands of the Satanic sex traffickers at the heart of QAnon’s conspiracy theories.
All of this spilled into last week’s confirmation hearings for US supreme court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, which Senate Republicans did their best to derail by mischaracterizing her sentencing on cases on child sexual abuse images. As has been widely reported, those sentences had been entirely keeping with sentences delivered by most federal judges in comparable cases, including sentences delivered by Trump judicial appointees with broad Republican support. But that mattered not a white to Republicans on the Hill. “Every judge who does what you’re doing is making it easier for the children to be exploited,” Lindsey Graham told Jackson in a heated exchange. Ted Cruz accused Jackson of “a record of activism and advocacy as it concerns sexual predators that stems back decades.”
And Josh Hawley, best-known for defending Donald Trump’s allegations of election fraud and cheering on the rioters at the Capitol on January 6, led the pack with a fusillade of similar attacks on Jackson at the hearings and on social media. “I’ve noticed an alarming pattern when it comes to Judge Jackson’s treatment of sex offenders, especially those preying on children,” he tweeted ahead of the hearings. “Judge Jackson has a pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes, both as a judge and as a policymaker.”
Again, the Republican attacks on Jackson’s record, like the rest of their fearmongering about kids these days, have been ludicrous. It is true, though, that one of our parties has proven itself remarkably willing to defend sexual predators in recent years.
Here’s a genuinely alarming pattern the senator should take an interest in. In 2016, former Republican speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was convicted of trying to pay off men he had sexually abused as a high school wrestling coach. His victims of him had been boys between the ages of 14 and 17 at the time. After Hastert had pleaded guilty to making a set of payments, Hastert’s legal team compiled 41 letters in defense of his character from friends and former colleagues, including Republican congressmen David Dreier, Porter Goss, John Doolittle, Thomas Ewing, and the former Republican House majority whip Tom DeLay. “We all have our flaws, but Dennis Hastert has very few,” Delay wrote. “I ask that you consider the man that is before you and give him leniency where you can.” Unmoved, US district judge Thomas M Durkin sentenced Hastert to over a year in prison. “Nothing is more stunning,” he said, “than to have the words ‘serial child molester’ and ‘speaker of the House’ in the same sentence.”
The Hastert case might have stunned more people if Americans hadn’t been busy following the 2016 campaign, with its flurry of sex and other scandals, at the time. But the sexual misconduct allegations that had piled up against Donald Trump, from well over a dozen women by the year’s end, have since been mostly forgotten by the press and the public – including allegations from five contestants in Trump’s Miss Teen USA pageants that he would walk into dressing rooms while girls as young as 15 were changing. Notably, Trump had previously boasted to Howard Stern that he would intentionally walk in on undressing contestants in the adult Miss USA pageants. “You know, they’re standing there with no clothes,” he’d said in an appearance on Stern’s show. “And you see these incredible-looking women – so I sort of get away with things like that.” In fairness to Trump, a number of Miss Teen USA contestants either directly disputed the recollections of his accusers from him, or told reporters they could n’t remember Trump being present in the dressing rooms.
What is not in dispute is that Trump also happened to enjoy a friendship of well over a decade with Jeffrey Epstein. This past December, a former Miss Teen USA contestant testifying at the sex-trafficking trial of Ghislaine Maxwell told the court that she had met Trump through Epstein at the age of 14. That raises more questions about whether Trump knew of Epstein’s activities – in 2002, he’d told a reporter that Epstein liked women “on the younger side” – although it’s not at all obvious how much he would have cared if he had. After Maxwell’s arrest in July 2020, Trump told reporters that he had interacted with Maxwell socially “numerous times” but hadn’t been following the case closely. “I just wish her well, frankly,” he said.
Incredibly, Maxwell wasn’t the first accused sexual offender Trump had wished well from the White House. In 2017, Alabama’s Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore was accused of romantically and sexually pursuing teenagers while in his 30s, including a woman who told the Washington Post that Moore had molested her when she was 14. “On a second visit, she says, he took off her shirt and pants and removed his clothes,” the Post reported. “He touched her over her bra and underpants de ella, she says, and guided her hand de ella to touch him over his underwear de ella.”
Initially, Republicans met the allegations – which Moore denies – with the kind of response one would expect from a responsible major party. The Republican National Committee pulled its support from the campaign, and Republican leaders including Republican party chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called on Moore to step aside. Then, about a month after the allegations broke, Trump officially endorsed Moore by tweet. And, on the very same day, the Republican National Committee recommitted itself to the Moore campaign. “The RNC is the political arm of the president,” a senior RNC official explained, “and we support the president.”
This is worth repeating. In 2017, the Republican party now babbling nonsense about public schools and LGBTQ people grooming children for sexual abuse – the party that spent the past week in the Senate arguing that Democrats are soft on pedophiles – officially backed a credibly accused child molester for election to that very body. If the Republican National Committee had gotten its way, there’s a chance we would have spent the past week hearing Roy Moore opine on Jackson’s ethical qualifications. It’s a mercy of sorts that we heard instead from the likes of Hawley who, as the White House noted Earlier this month, he refused to say whether he’d vote for Moore during his own campaign.
The Republican party’s ambivalence on child abuse extends beyond pure politics and the protection of accused politicians. Nearly 300,000 children between the ages of 15 to 17 we were married in the United States between 2000 and 2018. An estimated 60,000 of them were below the age of sexual consent in their respective states; it’s thought that roughly 80% of American child marriages overall are between girls under 18 and adult men. Activists across the country have been pushing hard against those figures over the last few years. And while resistance to child marriage bans can be found on both sides of the ideological spectrum – which one would expect given that child marriage was legal in all 50 states as recently as 2017 – some of the most dogged defenders of the status quo have been red-state Republicans. Not long ago, for instance, the Kansas City Star called Josh Hawley’s state of Missouri “a destination wedding spot for 15-year-old brides” – especially ones who had been impregnated by men, thanks to uncommonly lax laws that facilitated the marriages of more than 7,000 children between 2000 and 2014.
When a ban on marriages to children 14 or younger advanced by a Republican party representative came up for a vote in February 2018, it was opposed by 50 members of the Missouri house – two Democrats and 48 members of her own party. Thankfully, that bill still passed the chamber, and a comprehensive ban on all marriages of adults over 21 to children under 18 was signed into law in Missouri later that year. But the significance of Republican lawmakers’ hesitation wasn’t lost on the marriage ban’s advocates. “Last week they were arguing that the government should be involved in approving a minor’s abortion,” Missouri representative Peter Merideth told the Riverfront Times after February’s vote. “So it’s a mind-boggling contrast when a minor who’s not even old enough to enter into a legally binding contract is being told they can enter into a relationship that makes statutory rape legal.”
It’s no mystery why Hawley and other Republicans are more interested in inventing child abuses and a record of leniency for abusers among Democrats than they are in criticizing their own party’s tolerance for predators. The more interesting question is why Democrats haven’t discredited the right’s narratives on this front more forcefully. While the party’s hands aren’t fully clean – Bill Clinton was on Epstein’s flights too, after all – the hesitance to engage more aggressively probably has less to do with that than it does with their preference for a particular mode of response to Republican attacks in general.
Feigned surprise and the performance of indignation have been the twin pillars of Democratic counter-messaging for as long as anyone can remember. pundits have puzzled about the lack of cover Dick Durbin and Senate Democrats offered to Jackson over the course of the hearings; one explanation that makes as much sense as any other is that Democrats assumed the attacks on Jackson would naturally backfire and make Senate Republicans look bad ahead of November’s midterms. Time will tell if they were right, but we have ample reason to doubt it. They’re running against a party that’s repeatedly defended the abusers of children with few lasting electoral consequences – a party whose hypocrisies rarely matter.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism