Talking Points

Why are Republicans so concerned about 'grooming'?

Suddenly the American right is fairly exploding with accusations of sexual "grooming" against its political opponents. 

Christina Pushaw, the spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, used the term last month to defend the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill. "If you're against the Anti-Grooming Bill," she tweeted, "you are probably a groomer or at least you don't denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children." Rod Dreher, who writes at The American Conservative, has in recent days lobbed the term at "pervy" Disney for its (belated) opposition to the new law, and labeled Democrats the "party of child mutilators & kidnappers." And MAGA outlet American Greatness on Monday printed a broadside against "Groomer Fragility."

"It's not a very nice word, to be sure," wrote the American Greatness author. "But the right must decide: Do we prefer to play nice with perverts who are very sexually interested in our children? Or do we prefer to stand up for the innocence of childhood against societal forces that seek to mutilate little kids for political gain?"

It's hard to know how much of this is sincere hysteria and how much is ugly, McCarthyist politics. Mostly the latter, probably: In its normal usage, "groomer" suggests a sexual predator, carefully prepping their prey for assault. But Dreher — who has long been obsessively shrill about the rise of gay and trans identities in American culture — says that's not really what he means.

"I think it is coming to have a somewhat broader meaning: an adult who wants to separate children from a normative sexual and gender identity, to inspire confusion in them, and to turn them against their parents and all the normative traditions and institutions in society," he wrote last week. "It may not specifically be to groom them for sexual activity, but it is certainly to groom them to take on a sexual/gender identity at odds with the norm."

Maybe — maybe — that's what he means. Most Americans will hear the term, though, and understand it to mean something much more violent than "encouraging kids to question their sexuality and the church."

That misunderstanding is almost certainly intended. Accusations of pedophilia and child rape are old hat in today's Republican Party. In 2020, Trump shared a tweet falsely accusing Biden of being a pedophile. Karl Rove reportedly inspired a similar whispering campaign during an Alabama judicial campaign back in the 1990s. Sometimes the ugliness is overt, as during the QAnon conspiracy theorizing that led, in part, to the Jan. 6 insurrection. And sometimes it's a bit more subtle, as with Republicans accusing Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson of being lenient on child predators. 

Those accusations and rumors were untrue, unfair, and ugly, and just another piece of performative politics. The point isn't to protect children. It's to weaponize concerns about their safety in the service of conservative political power.