"It's constituent service, but the constituency is nuts."
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's hearing demonstrated the rapid QAnoning of the GOP.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is impeccably qualified to serve on SCOTUS and widely respected. Her confirmation would be historic — she’d be the first Black woman on the nation’s highest court. And so Republicans spent her confirmation hearing smearing her as soft on child porn.
The allegation is baseless, but effective. It portrays her (and Democrats more broadly) as dangerously anti-family to the sizable part of the GOP base that buys deranged conspiracy theories about prominent liberals being involved in child sex trafficking. For today’s newsletter, I thought it’d be timely to talk with Don Moynihan, a Georgetown political scientist who has closely followed the QAnon-ification of the GOP, about what it all means.
But first, let’s zoom out. The specific allegation Republicans pushed and pushed and pushed during the hearing is that Jackson has been too lenient when sentencing child porn offenders. This is a lie, as even the conservative National Review has acknowledged. The sentences Jackson has handed down in such cases have in fact been in line with the majority of federal judges. But the situation is complicated by Congress’s failure for the last 15 years to update nonsensical federal sentencing guidelines for child porn crimes. And Republicans like Josh Hawley understand that sensationalizing the disturbing details of individual cases where Jackson didn’t throw the book at an offender is an effective way to create a moral panic and tarnish her.
The topic dominated the latter two days of the hearing. On Wednesday alone, Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin’s attempts to stop Republicans from turning things into a circus prompted performative meltdowns from Lindsey Graham …
… and later from Ted Cruz.
Moynihan called it ahead of time. On Sunday, he published an article on his excellent Substack (“Can We Still Govern?”) about “The QAnoning of our political discourse.” The piece focuses on tweets Josh Hawley published last week telegraphing his child porn attacks on Jackson, noting that their point “is not to make the charges stick in any substantive way, but to create an association between Brown and this broader trope. And in some immediate sense this worked. Simply by airing the claims, Hawley gave conservative media an excuse to run them.”
“Hawley’s statements shows how the semi-respectable face of conservatism is reaching out to QAnon by incorporating it’s themes and beliefs,” Moynihan added. “It is signaling with denial plausibility. And it’s not just Hawley.”
So as the third and final day of Jackson’s hearing wound down, I called Moynihan to get his perspective on the ugliness and what it means for our politics. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.
Have these hearings been rougher than you thought?
I'm not surprised, but it's been worse than I expected. When I wrote about this before the hearings started, I posted basically a prediction that this would be something that would come up in the hearings. I didn't anticipate how much this would become a central theme, and how much it would extend beyond Hawley to also incorporate Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz.
So, to some extent, I felt this is going to be a test — how much is the mainstream of the Republican Party going to latch onto this? Will anyone push back against what Hawley is doing, or will they jump on the bandwagon? And I think you've seen maybe a little bit of pushback from Sasse, but mostly it's been bandwagoning where folks like Graham and Cruz have picked up the mantle from Hawley and are joining him with it.
I think in some ways, this is a precedent where it's not just Republican activists, but it's elected officials making this the central theme of a very public discourse in a way that would've felt really unprecedented five years ago.
What’s the ultimate goal of this stuff?
At the end of the day, I think Jackson is going to be confirmed. What's happening might affect the number of Republican votes she gets. There's an aspect of her record where she might actually win some Republican votes, but I think she'll still survive this because most people see it as nonsense.
I don't think the people who are pushing this are pushing it because they think it's going to be effective at stopping Jackson from getting confirmed. So then we ask ourselves, well, why are they doing this? And I think it’s really for two reasons. One is to make this an ongoing frame by which people differentiate the parties, so that in the back of their minds, when voters go to the polls, they think, ‘Well, the Republican party is against pedophilia — I'm not so sure about the Democrats.’
That's part of it. If you just emphasize it again and again and again that Democrats and public institutions are somehow friendly to child sexual abuse whereas Republicans are consistently fighting this, that creates some broad association in people's minds.
The second thing is it’s catering to a constituency. If about a quarter of voters and the majority of your party believe in this theory of wide-scale child sexual abuse, you have to signal some sort of support or alignment with that. Politicians hate to leave constituencies unattended or supporters ignored. Here, if you're a QAnon believer, you're seeing these hearings, and you look at Cruz and Graham, and you say, ‘They're my guys, they get it.’ And so I do think it's constituent service, but the constituency is nuts.
Do you think Democrats are doing an effective job pushing back on these smears?
Hawley, Cruz and Graham are generating made-for-Fox moments. I think Dems could be more demonstrative, get a little more outraged, call out the smear for what it is to balance this out, show more anger to let the public see that they are pushing back. Right now, the impression is that the first Black female SCOTUS candidate is being attacked without a forceful enough response. So I’d like to see a bit more like Cory Booker today, basically, maybe even with more anger.
I think we would love to have this West Wing version of things where there's a moment where the Joe McCarthy figure faces [someone like Army counsel Joseph Welch, who] and says, ‘Sir, have you no sense of decency?’ And then suddenly, the support just erodes from this figure.
To some degree, it would be nice for Democrats, and I think progressives more generally, to not only respond with facts — of course they have to provide the facts and records — but also to underline the fact that there is this broader game going on here where there's an attempt to smear Jackson and create this association.
It's a difficult line to walk because I don't think Dick Durbin wants to start talking about QAnon in the middle of these hearings, but I do think that in the same way that the word McCarthyism undermines McCarthy-like behavior, understanding the context pulls away some of the effects of this sort of QAnon signaling that we're seeing. So I think maybe not at the hearings themselves, but in media and in mainstream media coverage of the hearings, Democrats and reporters could do more to explain, ‘Here's what's happening here. It's not just that these are unfair attacks, but they're intended to cater to a certain worldview which is a conspiracy theory.’
What do you think this hearing says about the direction of the Republican Party and American politics as a whole?
I was just talking about this with my students today. Someone asked about longer term trends here and we talked about the paranoid style of thinking in American politics, which has existed since the 1960s. Birchers believed these fantastical conspiracies — ‘Dwight Eisenhower was a secret communist’ sort of thing. But the same groups were quite concerned about issues of race as well.
There's always been this element in American politics where racial concerns and conspiratorial thinking were bubbling together, but it's mostly been at the margins. The thing that's changed since Obama got elected is this conspiratorial mode of thinking has just become much more mainstream on the right. You go from 5 or 10 percent of Republicans believing some of the really crazy stuff, to half of Republicans believing that top Democrats are involved in child sex trafficking, or two thirds of Republicans believing that the election was a fraud. At some point, this becomes the mainstream of the Republican party and not just the fringe movement.
That really feels like the thing that's changed. And if you think politicians are rational actors who respond to the wishes of their constituents, to some degree, what Hawley is doing is completely rational.
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The other sort of thing that I worry about here is, what are the effects on not just trust in government, but public institutions? As I talked about in my newsletter, the other place you're seeing this is in education, where you have these activists like [Chris] Rufo being incredibly explicit and saying, ‘We're going to call these educators groomers. Anyone who disagrees with us is a pro-groomer.’ That's an incredibly toxic set of associations to introduce in the educational setting where teachers and education officials are already being pretty badly beat up by the anti-CRT activists and also the people who are upset about things like masks in school.
I also think it's not a coincidence that the people who are anti-CRT are also pushing these sorts of framings as well, because these framings are used to marginalize and make scary in particular, I think, racial minorities. With the anti-CRT movement, it was specifically about race. We saw books by Black authors being banned. We saw Black school officials being fired. You have exactly the same people who stoked up the anti-CRT movement now thinking about, ‘how do we use the frame of groomers and predators as a way to bring further pressure upon educational institutions?’