Last night, during the shameful town hall NBC gave Donald Trump so he could avoid another humiliating debate defeat at Joe Biden's hands, Trump played the same game with QAnon that he does with white supremacists and right wing terrorists: Played dumb while giving winking encouragement to his more unhinged followers.
After repeatedly pretending not to know what this "QAnon" thing might be, when asked about it by journalist Savannah Guthrie, Trump then exposed himself as a liar by proving he does, in fact, know what QAnon purports to be about.
"I do know they are very much against pedophilia," he said. "They fight it very hard."
As most people not caught up in the cult of QAnon understand, the loosely organized online movement does not actually fight pedophilia. Its adherents promote a conspiracy theory that claims Trump is some kind of secret warrior in a fight against a worldwide liberal cabal of pedophiles, which leads to accusing innocent people of being sexual predators. That is very different from fighting child sexual abuse in the real world. But by framing QAnon as a sincere movement promoting well-meaning convictions, Trump is establishing a poisonous narrative that threatens to help mainstream it.
This is, after all, how the anti-abortion movement mainstreamed their fringe views, by portraying themselves as good-hearted people who just love the children. That gave pundits and other political gatekeepers permission to look away from their true purpose, which is stripping women of the basic human rights. By claiming to be fighting against child abuse, QAnon appears to be trying to pull off the same trick. And they got a big assist from Trump Thursday night.
So let's be quite clear here: QAnon is not about helping, protecting or saving children from actual sexual predators. They are people who promote lurid and made-up accusations of pedophilia as cover for their true purpose, which is to spin out ever-wilder rationalizations for continuing to support Trump in the face of economic collapse, racist oppression and an out-of-control pandemic.
If anything, the rapidly growing cult is making it much harder for people who are doing the work to fight sexual violence.
"It is not helpful to present child sexual abuse as a shadowy conspiracy, when we know that most perpetrators are actually known to the child," Debra Hauser, the president of Advocates for Youth, told Salon.
"People who commit child sexual abuse are not strangers or monsters they read about online," Laura Palumbo, the communications director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, added in an email. "The hard reality is that parents, family members, neighbors, mentors and coaches are most often the ones who commit sexual abuse."
This idea that "the danger lurks outside" can make it harder for victims who are seeking help, Hauser noted, because if they tell their story to an adult "it becomes harder for that person to believe" if that adult has bought into QAnon-style images of what child sexual abuse looks like.
In the real world, sexual abuse — both of children and adults — rarely fits the QAnon-style dramatic fantasies of Satanic rituals and kidnapping rings. Instead it looks a lot like, well, the kind of thing Trump was on tape bragging to Billy Bush about — people, mostly men, who exploit their power over another person they know personally in order to sexually violate them.
We can already see evidence of the poisonous way that QAnon directs attention away from serious efforts to combat sexual abuse, especially of minors, and towards their ridiculous conspiracy theories by putting a strain on non-profit organizations that do the real life work of helping children and fighting human trafficking.
QAnon has been using the hashtag #SaveTheChildren on social media as a way to launder their radical views and recruit unwitting new followers. This has presented a problem for the very real child welfare charity Save The Children, who finally responded with a press release in August complaining that the use of their "name in hashtag form" is "causing confusion among our supporters and the general public." They also pointed people to a FAQ sheet debunking the kinds of myths about human trafficking that QAnon promotes.
When QAnon adherents spread an urban legend falsely accusing the furniture company Wayfair of enabling child sex trafficking, the Polaris Project — an organization that fights real human trafficking — was forced to issue a press statement after getting slammed with an "extreme volume" of contacts from people reporting the fake story, which "made it more difficult for the Trafficking Hotline to provide support and attention to others who are in need of help."
Similarly, officials in Oregon reported that 911 and other emergency hotlines were overwhelmed with false reports during the wildfires that swept the state recently, when QAnon accounts started spreading urban legends accusing "antifa" of starting the fires. These calls made it harder for people in distress to get help from first responders, which is alarming considering how dangerous and deadly the fires were. While that example doesn't directly involve sexual abuse, it does illustrate how QAnon whips credulous adherents into a frenzy over fake threats, which then creates a burden and drain on resources needed to fight real dangers in the world.
Zooming out a little more, it's also important to understand that, by supporting Trump, QAnon actually enables many real threats to the welfare of children. Trump's Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has undermined regulations meant to protect K-12 students from sexual harassment, a critical tool in fighting child sex abuse. Trump has also cut funding to sexual health care clinics, such as Planned Parenthood, that have long served as safe spaces for young people to report sexual abuse.
We know what's actually needed to fight child sexual abuse, Hauser explained.
"It is helpful to be honest, and to provide young people with honest education about what child sexual abuse actually is," she said. "It's really, really important for young people to understand, and for children to understand that their body is theirs and that they have the right to say no."
And it's important for "young people to be able to be trusted when they say this happened to them."
This kind of advice isn't as exciting as going on a QAnon message board and swapping wild tales of kidnapping rings, but it is the sort of thing that actually stops child abuse. Unfortunately, by spreading misleading tales about what child abuse looks like, QAnon isn't just concocting a silly cover story to justify unjustifiable support for Trump. This movement is flooding the discourse with noise, and making it harder for those who have useful information and advice to be heard.