opinion | Madison Cawthorn’s ‘orgies’ line show how right-wing politics can boomerang

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It takes a lot to get Republican members of Congress angry at one of their own. Goal Rep. Madison Cawthorn (RN.C.) managed to do it, not just by being a uniquely repugnant figure, but also by claiming to reveal the dark underbelly of official Washington in a way that Republicans apparently found offensive.

What’s important is the particular tale Cawthorn offered. It shows how far-right systems of thought can boomerang on those who try to benefit from the political energies unleashed by them — while still maintaining distance from their sources to avoid getting too tainted.

Cawthorn told a podcast host that the “sexual perversion” in Washington is so rampant that even Republicans are involved. His fellow Republicans are aghast, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has vowed to discipline him.

Cawthorn is one of a new breed of Republican representatives who operate in the most fetid gutters of the new political pathways carved by Donald Trump. This class includes worthies like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.) and Matt Gaetz (Fla.): They’re basically professional media provocateurs who also happen to have gotten elected to Congress.

These lawmakers marinate in various far-right conspiracy theories and other assorted crackpottery, even if they claim to not be adherents. Central to those theories is that the political enemy is not just wrong about policy or ideology, but has created a secret, horrifying world of decadence and perversion.

At the far end, QAnon believers think Democratic leaders run a transnational pedophile ring. While “respectable” Republicans won’t say that, they will badger a Supreme Court nominee for hours about child pornography, in apparent awareness of how deep QAnon sentiments run within the GOP base.

But Cawthorn went too far when he responded to a question about whether the over-the-top melodrama “House of Cards” accurately depicts Washington:

The sexual perversion that goes on in Washington, I mean being kind of a young guy in Washington, where the average is probably 60 or 70. You look at all these people, a lot of them that I’ve looked up to through my life , I’ve always paid attention to politics … Then all of a sudden you get invited to, “Well hey, we’re going to have kind of a sexual get-together at one of our homes, you should come.” What did you just ask me to come to? And then you realize they’re asking you to come to an orgy. Or the fact that some of the people leading on the movement to try and remove addiction in our country, and then you watch them do a key bump of cocaine right in front of you.

While we can’t prove Cawthorn made this up, let’s just say the idea that he’s being invited to orgies by lawmakers in their 60s and 70s strains credulity. And Cawthorn’s long history of making up stories is precisely what turned him into a right-wing superstar.

True or not, Politico reports that at a meeting of GOP representatives, many were angered with Cawthorn for portraying his own colleagues as “bacchanalian and sexual deviants.” One complained that he’s fielding questions about orgies from constituents.

Which highlights the danger in indulging the conspiracy theorist’s view that the surface world always hides something grotesque and disturbing beneath it. It’s one thing to say that about Democrats, these Republicans believe — that’s all well and good. But if you say that about all of Washington, they’re involved, too.

Yet in recent days, we’ve seen how the lurid fantasies of the far right, and particularly the alarm about “perversion,” are becoming more and more incorporated into the rhetoric of supposedly mainstream Republicans.

Consider laws and proposals advancing in many GOP state legislatures limiting how gender and sexual identity are taught. Many of these, in addition to muzzling teachers, also seem designed to advance an underlying premise: that parents should constantly fear that their kids risk falling prey to perverts and deviants around every classroom corner.

Sometimes Republicans make this obvious. In defending Florida’s odious “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Monday, the governor’s spokesperson tweeted, “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.” The term “grooming” refers to pedophiles preparing children to be sexually abused.

This sort of proposal goes beyond Florida to include other proposals around the country. A bill in Georgia would ban encouragement of classroom discussion of sexual orientation, a vaguely worded proposal obviously meant to imply this poses a terrifying threat. An Oklahoma bill bans from school libraries books that are about “sex” in some way or are even “of a controversial nature,” which seems designed to foment similar panic.

“A lot of these bills rest on the belief that at all hours of the school day, students are surrounded by constant threat of perversion, and that teachers are complicit in that threat,” Jeffrey Sachs, a political scientist who closely tracks these laws, told us.

“These bills see schools as cesspools of deviancy” Sachs said, and as “places where students will be, quote, ‘tricked’ into thinking of themselves as gay or trans.”

This tendency has metastasized all over the place. The claim that children everywhere are being “groomed” into some form of depravity has become ubiquitous on the right; as Fox News host Laura Ingraham recently asked, “When did our public schools, any schools, become what are essentially grooming centers for gender-identity radicals?”

Various laws attacking trans people are regularly justified with claims that they are defenses against creeping deviancy. Even giving a trans teen love and support is characterized as “abuse,” a horror from which children must be protected.

Ultimately, this sort of language has become omnipresent for lawmakers such as Cawthorn, almost like the air they breathe, which is why they regularly slip into it so reflexively. But as this episode shows, these tendencies can boomerang: The lure of depicting Washington as a kind of bottomless cesspool of degeneracy — a guaranteed right-wing applause line — led Cawthorn to accidentally hit his own colleagues with friendly fire in the form of charges of “sexual perversion.”

As those colleagues no doubt want Cawthorn to know, such claims are supposed to be aimed only at leftists and liberals.

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