'Groomers,' Paul Pelosi and so much more: The most unhinged GOP conspiracy theories of 2022

'Groomers,' Paul Pelosi and so much more: The most unhinged GOP conspiracy theories of 2022
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Conspiracy theories have been a fixture of American politics for generations, but in the age of Donald Trump and the internet, they have become more dangerous and unhinged than ever. In the past year — quite likely a golden age of conspiracy theory — Republicans have endorsed all kinds of dubious, far-fetched or provably false theories, most based either in denying the validity of election results or embracing the all-encompassing online cult movement QAnon, which is now pretty much the conservative mainstream.

This is not to say that liberals or progressives are incapable of embracing ludicrous theories. Both sides do it! But let's be honest: Republicans have a particular gift for this stuff, which has reached new heights of late with baseless claims that the "deep state" used ballot drop boxes to rig the 2020 election or that electronic voting machines were somehow programmed — by the Chinese government? the Italian military? an incomprehensible cabal linked to the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez? — to defeat Republicans.

These theories have either been debunked entirely or fall into the unfalsifiable category of speculative fiction. But to honor conservatives' unique achievements in this field, Salon created a roundup of the most unhinged Republican conspiracy theories of 2022:

Voting as late as possible on Election Day will "stop the steal"

In the lead-up to the 2022 midterms, a close ally of Republican Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano sought to convince voters to cast their ballots "as late in the day as possible" on Election Day in order to "overwhelm the system" and "stop the steal of 2022".

Conspiracy theorist and QAnon supporter Toni Shuppe claimed this strategy would prevent hackers from altering voting-machine totals and avoid voter fraud.

This brilliant plan wasn't just confined to Pennsylvania. The local Republican Party and allied groups in El Paso County, Colorado, proposed similar plans, with the GOP county clerk saying that people were discussing voting as late in the day as possible to "overwhelm the system" and "expose the algorithm."

Apparently, the idea here is that lots of Republican votes late in Election Day would derail Democrats' plans to commit fraud, since they wouldn't be sure how many ballots they would need to win elections.

An aide to Michael Peroutka, the Republican candidate for Maryland state attorney general, made the same suggestion, encouraging voters at a rally to arrive at the polls in the last two hours before they close. "Vote on Nov. 8 as late in the day as possible," Peroutka's campaign coordinator said. "If everyone could stand in long, long lines at 6 o'clock, that would actually help us."

The messaging was further amplified and widely circulated on right-wing social networks like Gab and Truth Social. "VOTE IN PERSON on NOVEMBER 8th! VOTE AS LATE IN THE DAY AS YOU CAN! This helps make it harder for the DEMOCRATS to cheat and create fake ballots," a user with almost 6 million followers wrote on Oct. 22.

Republicans also recycled their claims from 2020 that mail-in voting was somehow manipulated to create widespread fraud. ballots. It's worth noting that Mastriano and Peroutka, like most other Republicans who spread election falsehoods, lost their races, leading at least some Republicans to conclude that this entire strategy may have been flawed.

The "great replacement" makes it to the mainstream

The "great replacement" theory, which claims that liberal elites are deliberately driving high levels of immigration in order to "replace" white Americans — or even to kill them off — was once confined to the far-right white nationalist fringe. But at this point it has been almost completely normalized within the Republican Party. Fox News' Tucker Carlson had mentioned replacement theories more than 400 times on the air before the deadly mass shooting that killed 10 Black people in a Buffalo supermarket last May. It later became clear that the shooter, a young white man, believed in this hateful fiction and had driven for several hours to stage a violent assault in a predominantly Black neighborhood.

Different versions of the theory have been used by white supremacists to justify racial hatred and violence for decades, but only recently have major media commentators like Carlson and elected Republicans adopted it at scale.

In an interview with Fox News host Larry Kudlow, for instance, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., criticized the Biden administration's stance on immigration. "This administration wants complete open borders," Johnson said. "And you have to ask yourself why? Is it really they want to remake the demographics of America to [ensure] that they stay in power forever?"

Another apparent believer, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., falsely claimed that Democrats want to grant amnesty and a path to citizenship to "8 million illegal aliens."

"Yes, there is definitely a replacement theory that's going on right now," Boebert added. "We are killing American jobs and bringing in illegal aliens from all over the world to replace them if Americans will not comply with the tyrannical orders that are coming down from the White House."

During a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on the root causes of migration from Central American countries, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa. — who was also an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump's 2021 coup attempt — said that many Americans fear that "national-born American[s]" are being replaced in an effort "to permanently transform the political landscape of this very nation."

Several U.S. Senate candidates in 2022 also endorsed the conspiracy theory to varying degrees, in an apparent effort to align themselves with the most zealous Republican voters. Republican J.D. Vance, who won the Ohio Senate race, released a campaign ad entitled "Are you a racist," in which he claimed the media had censored Republicans and called them racists for "wanting to build Trump's wall."

"Joe Biden's open border is killing Ohioans with more illegal drugs and more Democrat voters pouring into this country," Vance added. (In fact, newly arrived immigrants cannot vote, and there is currently no pathway to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants or asylum seekers.)

Another Senate candidate Eric Greitens of Missouri, claimed that Biden was "wiping out the distinction between citizens and non-citizens, and he's doing it on purpose."

Despite Republicans' disappointing results in the midterms, there are no indications the party intends to back away from this rhetoric.

Adults who support equal rights and access to care for LGBTQ youth are "groomers"

This ugly combination of homophobic slur, sex panic and psychological projection might have been the biggest hit of the GOP's conspiracy-theory year. Fox News host Laura Ingraham claimed on her show, for example that public schools that accept or embrace gay, lesbian, bisexual, nonbinary and trans youth have become "grooming centers" where "sexual brainwashing" takes place.

Many Republicans have espoused similar claims, suggesting that support for LGBTQ youth amounts to "grooming" them for sexual activity, and some have explicitly made charges of pedophilia.

When Florida Republicans were pushing legislation to ban discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in classrooms, Gov. Ron DeSantis' press secretary, Christina Pushaw, defended Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill by accusing opponents of preying on children.

"The bill that liberals inaccurately call 'Don't Say Gay' would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill," Pushaw wrote on Twitter. "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. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn't make the rules."

On the day DeSantis signed the bill into law, the Walt Disney Company, one of Florida's largest employers, released a statement saying the bill "should never have been signed into law" and that Disney's "goal as a company" was to see for the law "repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts."

Disney then became the target of "grooming" accusations, with far-right Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers tweeting that "Disney should now be known as the grooming company." Rogers continued to attack those who support LGBTQ youth as "groomers" while campaigning for Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who mounted a far-right Republican primary campaign for governor (and lost).

In an interview that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia posted on Twitter, she referred to Democrats as "the party of pedophiles" and blamed them for all the "horrible things" happening in the country.

"The Democrats are the party of princess predators from Disney," she added. "The Democrats are the party of elementary school teachers, trying to transition their elementary-school aged children and convince them they're a different gender. This is the party of their identity, and their identity is the most disgusting, evil, horrible things happening in our country."

Several Republican candidates have also promoted closely related anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theories that feed on anxiety around trans youth in particular. Michigan secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo falsely suggested that sexual abuse stems from the LGBTQ community and said in a podcast episodes that the "political LQBT movement" will "indoctrine [sic] society with sexual perversion" and that as a result, "pedophilia is going to be normalized." (She lost.)

Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon repeatedly claimed that "grooming" was taking place in schools and attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno actually called his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Dana Nessel, "Michigan's Groomer General," amplifying false beliefs associated with QAnon. (Dixon and DePerno lost too.)

The attack on Paul Pelosi was fake

After the brutal home-invasion attack in which Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was seriously injured, right-wing outlets began circulating groundless claims — many rooted in salacious homophobic rumors — casting doubt on what had happened.

Some Republican officials went on to suggest that the man who broke into the Pelosis' San Francisco home and attacked Paul Pelosi with a hammer was in fact Pelosi's secret lover, even though the man's social media revealed that he was obsessed with right-wing conspiracy theories. The assailant was later charged with attempted murder and attempted kidnapping of a U.S. official.

Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., circulated a photograph on Twitter that showed a group of young white men holding oversized hammers beside a gay Pride flag, with the comment "LOL," according to the New York Times.

These conspiracy theories spiraled out of control after a local TV news reporter tweeted that the attacker was clad only in his underwear at the time of his arrest. The reporter later deleted the tweet after police said it was untrue.

Republicans seemed especially unwilling to acknowledge that the attacker was inspired by right-wing ideology. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas called the man "a hippie nudist from Berkeley," and Marjorie Taylor Greene continued to insist that the media was spreading misinformation and the intruder was a friend of Paul Pelosi.

"The same mainstream media democrat activists that sold conspiracy theories for years about President Trump and Russia are now blaming @elonmusk for 'internet misinformation' about Paul Pelosi's friend attacking him with a hammer," Greene said on Twitter.

Donald Trump Jr. mocked the attack on his social media, sharing a "Halloween costume" intended to represent the hammer-wielding intruder.

Alongside a photo of a distressed-looking Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., falsely asserted that the attack was a prostitute. "That moment you realize the nudist hippie male prostitute LSD guy was the reason your husband didn't make it to your fundraiser," said his later-deleted tweet.

Whether or not Republican candidates and officeholders personally believe in all these conspiracy theories, they have clearly adopted or adapted them in an effort to draw in supporters from the most extreme fringes of American politics, many of whom share an ideology that supports or condones political violence. Once upon a time, that would have been seen as off limits: In the 1960s, Republicans tried to force overt white supremacists and anti-Communist conspiracy theorists out of the party. In 2022, the boundary between "mainstream" Republican politics and dangerous rhetoric on fringe internet message boards has almost completely evaporated.

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