“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill,” Christina Pushaw—a spokesperson for Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis—recently tweeted, “you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.” If you’ve never heard of an “anti-grooming bill,” however, and are uncertain about what a reference like this to “the grooming of 4-8 year old children” might mean, you’re not alone. “Grooming” is an old term with a suddenly new political meaning in the United States. Historically, it’s a reference to how a pedophile might manipulate a young person into sexual abuse, as well as a slur about gay people preying on children. Yet now—among elected officials, operatives, activists, and media figures on the American right—it’s a more ambiguous and expansive reference: It includes school discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms with young children, as prohibited by Florida’s “anti-grooming bill,” since passed into law; it includes entertainment produced by the Walt Disney Corporation; and according to Chanel Rion of the far-right One America News Network, it somehow includes U.S. President Joe Biden, “the groomer-in-chief.” What’s happening here?

Matt Lewis is a conservative American political commentator, a senior columnist for The Daily Beast, and the author of Too Dumb to Fail, a history of the modern Republican Party. As Lewis sees it, the abrupt redefinition and proliferation in charges of “grooming” is connected to the rise of right-wing conspiracy theories like QAnon, which revolves around the idea of child sex trafficking. It’s also connected to political maneuvering of the sort in evidence at the U.S. Senate’s recent hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson—where Republicans distorted her record to accuse her of, in Senator Josh Hawley’s words, “a pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook.” Lewis sees this broader pattern as driven by a generalized escalation of hostility in America’s polarized elite discourse; the increased traction of conspiratorial beliefs; and the unprecedented ways that social media enables memes and viral slogans to spread publicly. The kind of rhetoric the “grooming” meme represents can seem fair play to those who use it, Lewis says, but its implications are extreme and the consequences culturally corrosive—or potentially worse.

Graham Vyse: Why has the idea of “grooming” become such a meme on the American right?

Matt Lewis: We’re seeing an attempt to redefine language. Language naturally evolves over time, but in politics, people sometimes attempt to redefine it in order to frame debates. The problem here is that the word “grooming” means something. It means preparing a child for sexual abuse. Now it’s being redefined to mean opposing the so-called “anti-grooming” or, alternatively, “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida. You have right-wing activists creating a permission structure to hurl a tremendously incendiary accusation at other people—but giving themselves plausible deniability by saying they’re just trolling or engaging in hyperbole. It’s very dishonest.

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