Long ago, in another America, you had to turn to the underground press if you wanted to conjure up images of wholesome Disney cartoon characters fornicating. In 2022, Republican lawmakers now provide that service. In 1967, The Realist, a gleefully subversive journal founded by Paul Krassner, published Wally Wood’s “The Disneyland Memorial Orgy,” a two-page spread that showed Mickey Mouse and the gang, impeccably rendered, engaged in all manner of X-rated activity. Krassner and Wood were countercultural anarchists, but by some strange alchemy, what they presented as satire is now a part of Republican rhetoric.
On his podcast, Verdict With Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas added his voice to the chorus of Republican lawmakers who have suddenly started to accuse Disney of pushing sexual propaganda on kids. In an April episode, Cruz sputtered, “Now they’re going to have, you know, you know, Mickey and Pluto going at it.” Even Cruz’s guest was nonplussed, responding, “Thank you for that image, senator.”
Cruz’s comments may be (the pun is inescapable) goofy, but they are also part of a much larger wave of bigotry. Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, predictably, provided the crudest expression of the opinions echoed by many of her colleagues. “The Democrats are the party of pedophiles,” Greene said in early April. “The Democrats are the party of princess predators from Disney. The Democrats are the party of teachers, elementary school teachers trying to transition their elementary-school-age children and convince them they’re a different gender.”
These comments by Cruz and Greene are part of the recent revival of a brand of homophobic rhetoric rooted in the belief that LGBTQ identity is intertwined with pedophilia and the sexual “recruitment” of children. Such rhetoric was a staple of the anti-gay movement of the 1970s led by figures like the singer Anita Bryant. In the years after the 2015 Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized marriage equality, this type of homophobia seemed to be in abeyance.
As Colby Itkowitz noted in The Washington Post on April 20, “The rapid escalation in public support for the LGBTQ community’s rights in recent years had quieted much of the blatant homophobia in the nation’s political discourse. But, in recent weeks, Republicans have reverted to verbal and legal assaults on the community, sometimes employing baseless tropes that suggest children are being groomed or recruited by defenders of gay rights.”
Itkowitz argues that this revived homophobia is motivated by short-term electoral concerns: “The efforts ahead of the midterm elections are intended to rile up the Republican base and fill the campaign coffers of its candidates, without offering evidence that any Democrat had committed a repugnant crime.”
This is true, as far as it goes. Obviously, measures like the notorious “Don’t Say Gay” law pushed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are designed to energize the Republican base, particularly the religious right. When DeSantis’s efforts met with resistance from Disney (which faced an uprising by LGBTQ employees urging opposition to the bill), Disney became a target as well. But the grooming and pedophilia smears go beyond being a particularly nasty example of political hardball.
These deranged accusations of grooming and pedophilia have a more immediate, and more sinister, antecedent than Anita Bryant–style homophobia: They also derive from the Pizzagate conspiracy theory (which held that Democratic elites were part of a satanic pedophile cult run out of a Washington pizza parlor) and QAnon (which spun this conspiracy theory into a saga involving a hidden war between Donald Trump and the “deep state”).
It’s this fusion of partisan conspiracy theories with a homophobic moral panic that makes the current grooming smears a threat to the physical safety of LGBTQ people—and to the survival of US democracy. Such charges go beyond mere political mudslinging designed to discredit opponents. The horrific nature of the accusations—combined with the imputation of powerful conspiracies—suggests that the accusers have no other goal than dehumanization and destruction.
Few pundits have thought through the underlying logic of this smear campaign. The two major exceptions are Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo and Sarah Jones of New York magazine. Both have used the word “eliminationist” to describe this rhetoric. “These aren’t so much purported factual claims or even conspiracy theories,” Marshall argues. “They are libels designed specifically to stir elemental primal fears, render their targets so evil and threatening as to be less than fully human and set the stage for mass violence against them.”
Jones usefully links this eliminationist rhetoric to the GOP’s authoritarian turn (evident in the Trump presidency, the January 6 insurrection, and subsequent antidemocratic activities). Jones says she is “concerned that QAnon’s creep toward mainstream respectability lowers the probability that there will be a significant backlash, at least within the bubble of the right wing. They’ll certainly anger liberals and alienate younger voters, but I think that’s why we see this fixation on LGBT rights occur alongside an assault on voting rights and a gradual turn toward anti-democratic beliefs.”
The Democratic Party has been so discombobulated by the grooming/pedophilia accusation that it hasn’t come up with an adequate response, aside from a few individual exceptions like the fierce and eloquent rebuke of homophobia made by Michigan Democratic state Senator Mallory McMorrow. A clip of her speech got 12 million views, indicating an audience among voters for a strong offense.
It’s not enough to say that the grooming/pedophilia smear is a lie. Nor is it enough to respond by pointing to evidence of grooming and pedophilia in the Republican ranks (although the case of former House speaker Dennis Hastert is real enough).
Rather, Democrats need to build on McMorrow’s condemnation of homophobia by noting that their opponents are reviving an old bigotry to make a wholesale assault on American democracy itself. The current Republican rhetoric will get LGBTQ people killed and inspire future insurrections. The eliminationist logic of this Republican smear has to be spelled out and condemned—along with the party’s war on democracy.