Photo credit: Farragutful/Wikimedia Commons
This week, a story has come out of Florida that would be shocking, except, of course, that the event in question happened in Florida. First reported by Patricia Mazzei at the New York Times, and then by a team at the Miami Herald, it illuminated the conspiracy theory that the Covid-19 vaccination, vital to school reopening plans in many states, is a clear and present danger to the young, particularly girls.
The story was this: employees at Centner Academy, a private and uncertified school with two Miami campuses, who had already received the Covid-19 vaccine would not be invited back to work. Other teachers learned that they could not keep their jobs unless they remained unvaccinated.
Why? Fertility. As co-founder Leila Centner wrote to parents,
Tens of thousands of women all over the world have recently been reporting adverse reproductive issues simply from being in close proximity with those who have received any one of the COVID-19 injections, e.g., irregular menses, bleeding, miscarriages, post-menopausal hemorrhaging, and amenorrhea (complete loss of menstruation).
Vaccinated people, Centner continued, might “be transmitting something from their bodies” that could harm students and ultimately cause girls to be unable to bear children. Employees were asked to disclose whether they had already been vaccinated because “we cannot allow recently vaccinated people to be near our students until more information is known.”
This is, of course, all a lie. What is fascinating to me, however, is how the lie merges several sources of right-wing anxiety: replacement theory (that there are not enough white babies being born, so immigrants and people of color will “replace” whites); longstanding, and groundless, opposition to vaccines that has crossed over from religious conservatives to politically independent and liberal wellness communities; and, most importantly, theories about child abuse conspiracies among the nation’s power elite that have proliferated on online forums since the waning days of the 2016 election.
It is important to state the following clearly: assertions that people can transmit the vaccine to each other, that they “shed” dangerous vaccine particles, and that the Covid-19 vaccine contributes to infertility are completely and utterly false. But they do promote the narrative that Democratic policies hurt children.
Revelations about widespread child abuse are one of the oldest conspiracy theories in the book. They have been around since the late 19th century, and historically they have mostly targeted marginalized people—primarily immigrants, homosexuals, Jews, and African-Americans. As historian Lynn Sacco has documented in her book Unspeakable: Father-Daughter Incest in American History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), child abuse has been, and is common, but not because it is a conspiracy. “Most girls who are sexually abused are girls who were assaulted by their father or a male head of household,” she wrote in the early 1990s.
The idea that child abuse could be part of a believable, institutional conspiracy to exploit children emerged in 1984 when a single allegation made during a bitter divorce mushroomed into a false child abuse scandal at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach California. Allegations of Satanic rituals, the manufacturing of child pornography, and the execution of classroom pets in Manhattan Beach were repeated elsewhere around the country, and in other English-speaking countries, for over a decade, resulting in dozens of ruined lives.
This wave of moral panic was not wholly conservative: like anti-vaxx conspiracism, it consumed many liberals too. But it took root most prominently on the early right wing internet, merging with anti-Clinton conspiracy communities on sites like FreeRepublic.com. These were also the communities that would begin to incubate the movements that became Trumpist populism. Ultimately, the fixation on child abuse as a form of Democratic corruption laid the foundation for the most recent right-wing conspiracy theory about child abuse, Pizzagate.
You remember Pizzagate, right? It was the bizarre coda to a 2016 presidential election cycle stuffed with disinformation, much of it produced professionally and reproduced by partisans on social media. Pizzagate proposed that key members of the Democratic leadership, including (or especially!) then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, were engaged in running an elaborate child sex trafficking ring.
The activities of this perverted power elite, the story went, were hidden in plain sight at Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Northwest Washington, D.C., a take-out joint referenced in emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee server and published by Wikileaks. A few weeks after Clinton’s defeat, a man in a fever-pitch of anxiety over pedophilia showed up with an automatic weapon to liberate the children and found nothing.
He said publicly that he had found nothing. But this did not change the conviction among believers that Pizzagate was real. As with most conspiracy theories, it only demonstrated that the plot was more elaborate than they had previously understood—so elaborate, in fact, that the deep state had mounted a “false flag” operation to divert attention from pedophilia in high places.
These viral accusations consumed right-wing social media in the six weeks before election day and, fed by the Jeffrey Epstein revelations, have taken root as settled fact in the conspiracist QAnon community. In the first episode of the HBO docuseries, Q: Into the Storm (2021), there is a couple who will walk you through the details of how what seems to be a pizza order in a political operative’s email is really a code for “ordering” a child and a message about what sexual perversions are to be visited on that child. To this day, there is a Pizzagate group on the Gab social network in honor of Isaac Kappy, an actor and musician who became a major spokesman for the conspiracy theory and who committed suicide in 2019.
But child abuse accusations coming from the right are more frequent and more wide-ranging than they used to be. Because they attach themselves to conservative culture wars talking points, the accusations now go well beyond sexual abuse to psychological and medical abuse. Some accusations of abuse are indirect, speaking only of harm and lasting damage. The week before last, Grace Church math teacher Paul Rossi accused his employer of “indoctrinating” students with anti-racism workshops which, he argued, was “deeply harmful,” conducted “at the cost of students’ psychological and intellectual development” and causing students to become fearful. “Brearley Dad” Andrew Guttman protested similar workshops at his daughter’s posh Upper East Side school, also asserting that they were causing “damage” to students.
Other allegations that schools are sites for child abuse are more direct. The same week that Rossi and Gutmann released their diatribes, a California teacher turned conservative activist labeled anti-racist curricula “child abuse in plain sight,” a charge that echoes Donald Trump’s September 18, 2020 signing statement for an executive order establishing the 1776 “patriotic education” project.
Child abuse has also been used by the right to promote nativism. Activists like Kay C. James of the Heritage foundation allege without proof that undocumented immigration is a thin cover for child sex trafficking. But they pointedly ignore the documented fact that locking up children in federal detention centers during the Trump administration resulted in thousands of allegations of sexual abuse against federal and federally contracted employees put in charge of children’s safety.
Perhaps the most bizarre accusation before the Centner Academy letter was Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson’s recent rant about mask-wearing as a form of child abuse. Carlson instructed caring bystanders to call Child Protective Services if they saw a child wearing a mask: “What you’re looking at is abuse, it’s child abuse, and you are morally obligated to attempt to prevent it,” he shouted into the camera.
These falsehoods have a purpose. When far-right disinformation is articulated by someone in authority as “child abuse,” it heightens social anxiety. It compels political action against those who are said to tolerate and promote harm to children. It asks citizens to act against reputable institutions—schools, the state, health care organizations—that might otherwise compel trust.
But what do all of these culture wars campaigns also do? They turn conservatives’ attention away from the fact that what harms children most is poverty—not having access to education, healthcare, or a haven from violence in their home countries—and that, under Joe Biden, Democrats are reversing Trump-era policies that routinely hurt children by denying them food, shelter, medical care, and housing.
And that’s the replacement theory that isn’t a conspiracy, my friends. Republicans fear that if voters knew the truth about what the GOP has done to children, they would replace them with Democrats.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay was originally posted to her Substack.