In the Magazine Analysis

Why Is the Alt-Right Obsessed with Pedophilia?

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Mike Cernovich speaks during a rally about free speech outside of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 25, 2017. Carlos Barria/Reuters

Updated | On October 30, a troubling image made its way across Twitter. It showed student activists at Columbia University in New York City protesting Mike Cernovich, a pro-Trump journalist and author who was delivering a speech to a Republican group on campus later that evening. The photo showed several people hoisting a banner. “No white supremacy,” it said. “No Mike Cernovich.”

Between those two messages was another: “No pedo bashing.” At the bottom of the banner was the rainbow-colored logo of the North American Man/Boy Love Association, also known as NAMBLA.

Cernovich’s supporters quickly lit up the internet with a combination of derision and outrage: Liberal activists and social justice warriors had presumably become so unhinged, they were now defending sexual deviants. NAMBLA, they implied, was leading the resistance to the Trump administration.

Well, not quite. A report emerged on Gothamist the following morning: “Mike Cernovich Stole My Photo, Lied About It on Twitter, and Sold Trump Jr. on Yet Another Fake Conspiracy,” said the headline of the article, written by freelance journalist Jake Offenhartz. He described how he’d seen right-wing counterprotesters unfurl the banner. “What they wanted,” Offenhartz wrote, “was for people to share photos of the stunt online, which I did, noting in a tweet that the banner was planted by the Alt Right.”

Offenhartz discovered that Cernovich and his supporters deliberately posted the photo without its context—that is, suggesting that leftist protesters were, in fact, marching in support of pedophilia. Offenhartz complained to Cernovich, who removed the photo from his Twitter account.

But that led to a fresh spurious complaint: that Twitter had censored the image. That tweet, by Infowars writer and prominent conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, garnered a like from the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., as well as tens of thousands of others.

The episode is part of a troubling new trend among social media users, conspiracy theorists and some journalists on the far right: leveling false accusations of pedophilia against Democrats and liberals in hopes of smearing them. The charge has frequently been made by Cernovich; conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, who recently started a pro-Trump super PAC; and Infowars founder Alex Jones, the most prominent conspiracy theorist in the nation and an energetic supporter of the president.

Lawrence Rosenthal, who heads the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, speculates that “fever dream projections” regarding pedophilia may have to do with concerns about the widespread erosion of traditional family patterns, the kind Republicans frequently discussed in the “culture war” years of the 1990s and early 2000s.

PER_Cernovich_03_627823982 The sign and front entrance of Comet Ping Pong pizzeria are seen on Connecticut Avenue December 5, 2016 in Washington, DC. A man was arrested Sunday after walking into the pizzeria and discharging a rifle, claiming he was "self-investigating" an online conspiracy theory about a pedophilia ring being run by high-ranking Democrats, including Hillary Clinton. Alex Wong/Getty

Like many people I spoke to for this piece, Rosenthal struggled to understand the right’s fixation on pedophilia. Cautioning that this is mere speculation, he says some on the right have resorted to the pedophilia accusation because lesser “charges”—homosexuality, interracial marriage, one-parent households—no longer have the power they once did. “What are you gonna do to make them seem worse? I offer you pedophilia,” he says.

The most notorious pedophilia-related smear recently promulgated by the right is Pizzagate, a lurid conspiracy theory alleging that Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, had operated a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. Cernovich was one of the early proponents of this conspiracy theory. So was Jones, whose Infowars site and radio show serve as a clearinghouse for the most fanciful right-wing conspiracy theories.

In December 2015, Donald Trump, then a candidate for the Republican nomination to the presidency, appeared on his show. “I will not let you down,” he told Jones. “You will be very, very impressed, I hope, and I think we'll be speaking a lot.” There is no evidence Trump believed in or promoted Pizzagate. But it fit perfectly with his narrative of “Crooked Hillary.” Jones simply took that narrative to perverse extremes by suggesting the Clintons engaged in some of the most heinous crimes imaginable. “When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped, I have zero fear standing up against her,” Jones said four days before the election.

It was in the weeks immediately after the election that Pizzagate found its greatest traction on the right. Posobiec—who gained notoriety during the presidential campaign for posing as a protester brandishing a “Rape Melania” sign at a Trump rally—showed up at Comet Ping Pong to record a video of his investigation there. But “managers saw him take his camera into a backroom where a child’s birthday party was underway,” The Washington Post reported. Posobiec and his friend were asked to leave, but that only turned them into fringe heroes—and Pizzagate into an obsession.

The fever broke on December 4, when a North Carolina man, Edgar Welch, showed up at Comet Ping Pong with an assault rifle, looking to, as the Post put it, “rescue sexually abused children he believed were hidden in mysterious tunnels.”

Earlier this year, Cernovich engaged in a Twitter feud with cartoonish Vic Berger IV, who’d mocked Cernovich in a video. As the argument escalated, a few internet trolls made abusive comments on Twitter, some of them related to a photograph of Cernovich with his infant daughter. From this, Cernovich deduced that they were pedophiles and that Berger was operating a pedophile ring.

Jesse Singal, who covered the Berger incident for New York magazine and writes about the far right, says pro-Trump provocateurs like Posobiec, Jones and Cernovich know what will generate an online audience and wouldn’t resort to the pedophilia charge unless it was popular.

Singal compiled a list of people and organizations Cernovich had either called pedophiles or charged with supporting pedophilia. It includes Clinton’s running mate, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine; the liberal outlet Salon.com; New York Times CEO Mark Thompson and his former employer BBC (one of whose personalities, Jimmy Savile, had indeed engaged in child molestation); the mainstream conservative magazine National Review; and Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican. Cernovich once also tweeted that he was “100 percent sure” Singal “was a sexual predator. He has all the telltale signs of a date rapist.”

David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at the Parsons School of Design who studies the far right, says Cernovich and Posobiec carefully track internet usage patterns and know what generates clicks from their base.

They also understand the psyche of the right. “Right-wing people are interested in purging unclean elements,” Singal says. Studies have found that the disgust response is stronger in people who identify as political conservatives. Singal notes the purity fixation is especially strong on Infowars, where Jones already “has the type of viewership that believes...the government [is] slipping chemicals into our water.”

A search for the term pedophilia on Infowars brings up about 32,800 results, including articles with headlines such as “As We Predicted, Mainstream Media Trying to Normalize Pedophilia.” A video by Watson about the rally at Columbia in late October—“Does Antifa Support Pedophilia?”—argues that it shouldn’t matter that the pro-pedophilia banner was a hoax. “Should we really be surprised that Antifa is embracing pedophilia?” Watson asks, despite there being no evidence of such support. He then asserts that “elements of the left embrace elements of pedophilia because they are degenerate scum who don’t have any morals or principles.”

I asked Cernovich, who sometimes appears on Jones’s radio show, why he so frequently returned to the charge of pedophilia. During the course of our lengthy email exchange, he stood by his claims that the left supports pedophiles. But he also made clear that those claims were a retribution for liberals calling Trump supporters Nazis. “My belief that the left is full of pedophiles is every bit as sincere—and more supported by evidence—as the left's belief that Trump supporters are Nazis,” he wrote. “When people view us as evil demons, how can they be surprised when we see the worst in them, and view them as being defined by the worst acts of their members?”

The preoccupation with pedophilia has helped hobble the once-promising career of Milo Yiannopoulos, who was forced to resign from Breitbart News after a recording came to light in which he joked about child molestation. He later apologized, but he also seems convinced that the allegations of pedophilia against liberals have merit. The “scent of moral putrefaction,” Yiannopoulos told me, “hangs heavy in the air.”

Perhaps, but as the old adage goes, whoever smelt it may have dealt it.

This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the circumstances surrounding Milo Yiannopoulos's departure from Breitbart News. This story has also been updated to include the version that appears in the 11/24/2017 magazine issue.  

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