The Right Stuff: Sex, Lies, and Judicial Confirmations

Ketanji Brown Jackson
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
April 8, 2022

On Thursday afternoon, Ketanji Brown Jackson was elevated to the Supreme Court with just three Republican senators supporting her. In an earlier, pre-Trumpian era, Jackson’s historic achievement might have been an occasion for bipartisan celebration. Instead, her confirmation hearing will likely be remembered for the volume of cynical attacks labeling her as sympathetic to child abusers. (On the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Jackson supported the consensus in favor of eliminating mandatory-minimum sentences for first-time offenders in possession of child pornography.) The Washington Post kept count: in four days of hearings, according to transcripts, the phrase “child porn” or “pornography” or “pornographer” was mentioned 165 times. In addition, there were 142 references to sex, 15 references to pedophiles, and 18 references to prepubescents.

From the outside, it’s possible to view the hit on Jackson as simply the latest ratchet in an escalatory cycle of partisan warfare—revenge, as several Republicans acknowledged, for Democrats labeling Brett Kavanaugh as a rapist. “I’m not suggesting she likes what’s happening in child pornography, [but] she has a chance to impose a sentence that would deter [child pornography], and she chose not to,” Senator Lindsey Graham said during the hearing. Shortly after voting against Jackson, he released a video stating “Remember Kavanaugh … The game has changed.” 

But the specific decision to tie Jackson to the scourge of child sexual predation has deeper and more sinister roots—specifically, to QAnon conspiracy theories, deeply entrenched in the far right, which posit that Democratic political elites are part of a global cabal of child sex-traffickers. Crazy as that sounds, about one in five Americans subscribe to various Q-adjacent conspiracy theories, incentivizing Republicans to wink at the fringe while providing themselves plausible deniability. “We’ve been told things like child pornography is actually all a conspiracy, it’s not real,” Senator Josh Hawley said in his closing statement. Of course, literally nobody in Washington is saying that sex crimes against children aren’t real—but the Q bloc got the message.

The tragic beauty of courting the QAnon base is that all a Republican has to do to engender support is say the correct buzzwords and let the base connect the dots. Trump, the movement’s former messiah figure, learned that doing something as simple as waving his hand in public could drive Q followers nuts: they would see it as him drawing a Q in mid-air to signal his allegiance. (“I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much,” he told reporters in August 2020, adding that ridding the world of Satan-worshiping pedophile cults was, obviously, a “good thing”.) Fast forward to 2022, and while the initial wave of QAnon prophecies didn’t come to pass—Trump, to their dismay, did not conduct mass tribunals to purge Washington of pedophiles—their obsessions have lodged in the wider conservative consciousness. In a midterm election year, the child pornography interrogation is part of a growing pattern in which Republicans blur the lines between defending far-right, populist domestic policy and placating the erogenous zones of the QAnon devotees among the party base. 

Indeed, the far right is presently fixated on several educational issues which deftly weld culture wars over “wokeism” with moral panics over trans youth rights, the growing number of teenagers who identify as queer, and the possibility that public schools are exposing children to awareness of nontraditional sexual and gender identities at a young age. In Florida, for instance, the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill—which exposes elementary school teachers to lawsuits, for example, if they refer to their same-sex partner or assign a book that has an L.G.B.T. character—has been framed by its proponents as an “anti-grooming bill,” as Ron DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw put it. (According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, “grooming” is a general term describing “manipulative behaviors [an] abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.”) When Disney C.E.O. Bob Chapek responded by halting company donations to Florida Republicans, right-wing pundits hit back by accusing Disney of promoting a predatory queer agenda within its family-friendly content. “Boycott every park, every show, every coloring book,” commentator Candace Owens said recently. “Pedophilia is around the corner…we must not give these freaks and predators so much as one inch.” 

Jackson’s confirmation thus became a vehicle for Republicans to interrogate her about every culture war controversy on Fox News: critical race theory, the biological definition of a “woman,” and yes, child pornography. The latter issue may seem like Q-signaling overkill. But even Stanford-and-Yale educated senators like Hawley appear to have opportunistically embraced the fringe. Earlier this week, the famously QAnon-friendly Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted directly to her Q base: “Any Senator voting to confirm #KJB is pro-pedophile just like she is.” Hawley later told Huffpost that he did not believe Jackson was pro-pedophilia, himself, but that he was not bothered by Greene’s remarks: “I don’t feel any responsibility for the words of other people.” Apparently, neither did the 47 other Republicans who voted against Jackson’s confirmation, particularly the ones who openly discussed child pornography in their cross-examinations: naturally, no MAGA-courting GOP Senator wants to be viewed by the Q absolutist as “pro-pedophile.” 

On Cocaine Orgies

Meanwhile, the fringe obsession with D.C. sex crimes is now a central factor in 26-year-old North Carolina congressman Madison Cawthorn’s flailing attempts to rescue his political career. To recap: A few weeks ago, Cawthorn made an appearance on a YouTube show with Warrior Poet Society, a right-wing lifestyle brand that reviews guns and promotes the “warrior mindset.” During this appearance, Cawthorn claimed that he had been invited to an orgy by senior Republican members of Congress—“between 60 and 70 years old”—and had witnessed other G.O.P. members doing cocaine in front of him. 

It’s telling that G.O.P. leadership was so disturbed by those comments, given all of the other bullshit they ignore or let slide. To be clear, there has been absolutely no proof to back Cawthorn’s allegations. According to an infuriated House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who demanded answers, Cawthorn later admitted in a private meeting that he’d made it all up: no orgies, no cocaine, though “he saw maybe a staffer in the parking garage from 100 yards away.” 

The House Freedom Caucus has openly floated kicking Cawthorn out of the populist group, and Republican Senator Thom Tillis is backing Cawthorn’s opponent in his upcoming primary. Cawthorn, naturally, has refused to back down, releasing a statement that simply obfuscated the matter: “Washington is corrupt. Human nature is fallen. Compromising activities occur because when other people place you in compromising positions, they control you.”

Cawthorn was already on the ropes within the G.O.P. after he called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug” last month, during the early days of Russia’s invasion. But he also has something that many in the modern Republican Party, however unfortunately, crave: MAGA credibility. Cawthorn has a history of making statements that resonate deeply with the movement’s digital soldiers, as QAnon adherents call themselves. Cawthorn’s rhetoric in particular often reflects the jargon of the growing Christian nationalist movement, particularly “spiritual warfare”—the concept that society’s ills are, quite literally, driven by demons and agents of Satan.

There’s plenty of overlap between Cawthorn’s appeals to Christian nationalist ideals and the tenets of QAnon ideology. Look no further than a Cawthorn speech last September to the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in North Carolina, where he essentially declared holy war on Washington: “I am here to tell you with first-hand knowledge, [Washington] is evil and vile,” he said. “But I will tell you when I’m there, I don’t feel an overwhelming sense of darkness as if the devil has complete dominion of that area because I feel a spiritual battle going on on Capitol Hill. And patriots like all of you in this room, on your knees, praying that we have the cover within the spiritual fight, is what it will take to save this country.” 

Powerful, elderly Republicans inviting an innocent, Jesus-loving millennial to a Capitol Hill townhouse for a drug-fueled orgy? Now that is a narrative straight out of a collective right-wing fever dream. Leveling those accusations while refusing to elaborate (because “the devil has complete dominion” of the Washington elite, of course) is absolutely a move that could endear the God-fearing, conversion-happy Cawthorn to this fanbase. 

Given that he’s still scheduled to speak at a Trump rally next week, it isn’t inconceivable that Cawthorn could be re-elected to Congress, even over the objections and disavowals of other House Republicans. Regardless, the question of Cawthorn’s political survival may double as a litmus test for the power of Christian nationalism as a post-Qanon, Q-adjacent voting block within the modern G.O.P. 

On Musk’s Twitter Play

There was only ever one tech executive whose leadership could make libertarians slightly less hyperbolic about Twitter’s tightening regulations on free speech, and he just bought 9.2 percent of the company and a spot on the board. Yes, self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” Elon Musk is now the second-most powerful voice at Twitter, after C.E.O. Parag Agrawal, as well as the social network’s single largest shareholder. 

Conservatives appear to be pleased, if only because progressives seem pissed. No less than Tucker Carlson, Fox News host and the antipope of cancel culture, praised Musk’s activist investment during his monologue on Monday. “He’s already the world’s richest man, he does not need the money,” Carlson noted. “Could this be the first move in a hostile takeover of Twitter that transforms the company into a platform for free speech? Seems that way. Elon Musk is not an orthodox conservative but he sees the people in power with devastating clarity.”

Other than the cryptic tweets and polls he’s run over the past several weeks, Musk has yet to articulate a vision to integrate any particular free speech philosophy in a way that avoids ruining the present user experience. (He would, however, like Twitter to add an “edit” button.) But I’ve tracked the right’s gradual adoption of the Tesla-and-SpaceX executive over the past two years, and would describe Musk as one of the very few people—other than, say, Joe Rogan and Carlson—who has significant clout within MAGA world without ever having declared fealty to Trump. Musk always had his libertarian tendencies, but the right fell in love during the pandemic era when the billionaire suggested that hydroxychloroquine could be a Covid cure, called lockdowns a “massive infringement on our civil rights,” and moved his Tesla factory from California to Texas. Musk only got more “redpilled” from there, increasingly using his platform on Twitter to mock elite liberal groupthink—he recently posted a joke about Netflix wanting to make a movie depicting a “black ukraine guy [falling] in love with a transgender russian soldier”—and has openly decried “wokeness” as “divisive, exclusionary, and hateful.”

Perhaps most importantly, Musk appears to be philosophically aligned with conservatives in the view that Twitter, like Facebook, should be considered as a public square—and, potentially, stripped of the legal shield that allows it to regulate and sanction harmful content. (One First Amendment lawyer described his views to me as “cautiously hopeful.”) Some have even speculated that Musk might push Agrawal to reinstate banished personalities including Trump himself. But just because he’s an ally doesn’t mean that the right views Musk as their anti-woke savior. Unlike his contemporary Peter Thiel, who’s long used his influence to espouse a specifically nationalist worldview and supported like-minded candidates, Musk has his own kooky passion projects and neither-left-nor-right agendas to pursue here. Presumably he’d give it all up in a second to put solar panels on Mars.

What I’m Reading…

Josh Dawsey at the Washington Post went inside Mar-A-Lago for a screening of a new film, funded by Trump ally David Bossie, that outlines a new, less batshit angle to Trump’s 2020 loss: Rigged: The Zuckerberg Funded Plot to Defeat Donald Trump. Just like the title says, the film alleges that Mark Zuckerberg funded voter turnout initiatives that were slyly intended to help Joe Biden win the 2020 election. 

Unlike past claims that, say, voting machines were hacked by China or that Sharpies prevented Trump ballots from being scanned, this film has the benefit of a reality-based premise: Zuckerberg did, indeed, invest money in a foundation aiming to increase voter turnout during the pandemic, and many of those areas did end up voting for Biden. According to the film, he and his wife Priscilla Chan dropped $270 million in the process. 

Still conspiratorial? Yep. But the narrative of “election fraud” remains potent among the G.O.P. primary voter base—an Axios poll taken two months ago revealed that 40 percent of voters still do not believe Biden won—and it still drives Trump’s decisions about whom to endorse. (He recently yanked his endorsement of Alabama Senate candidate Mo Brooks partially due to Brooks’ stolen-election squishiness.) Rigged is now repackaging the “stolen election” narrative in the guise of something that resonates with the average voter: a loathed social media billionaire putting his thumb on the scale for Biden is a far more palatable theory, rather than something as convoluted as, say, deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez conducting a plot from beyond the grave.