The QAnon Dog Whistle at the SCOTUS Confirmation Hearings

Republicans invited a lawyer from QAnon’s favorite nonprofit to weigh in on Ketanji Brown Jackson.

QAnon iconography, image of Supreme Court building and Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty; Anna Moneymaker / Getty; John Rudoff / Anadolu Agency / Getty; The Atlantic

The confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson have been marked by bizarre lines of questioning from Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Maybe none was weirder and more surprising than an attack by Josh Hawley, who planted the idea that Jackson is abnormally sympathetic toward consumers of child pornography. He presented his case in a long Twitter thread on March 16, five days before the hearings began, pointing to a handful of sentencing decisions in which she didn’t recommend the maximum possible penalty for those kinds of crimes.

Hawley’s claims about Jackson’s leniency are easily debunked, though they have since gained some traction. During yesterday’s hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Jackson that she and other judges were “making it easier for the children to be exploited.” The White House called this line of inquiry an “embarrassing, QAnon-signaling smear”—but things were about to get even more explicitly QAnon-related. For today’s slate of witnesses, Senate Republicans called Alessandra Serano, the chief legal officer of international operations for the anti-child-trafficking nonprofit Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), an organization that is well known at this point for flirting with QAnon, despite denying any connection.

Child-trafficking conspiracy theories are foundational to QAnon, which manipulated concern for “the children” as a recruitment tactic from its beginning. And in the summer of 2020, when a QAnon-related conspiracy theory alleging that children were being sold on the furniture-retail site Wayfair swept across the internet, dozens of anti-trafficking organizations signed an open letter stating that “anybody … who lends any credibility to QAnon conspiracies related to human trafficking actively harms the fight against human trafficking.” OUR did not sign. And the group’s founder, Tim Ballard, took to Instagram to engage with the Wayfair theory directly, saying in a video, “No question about it; children are sold on social-media platforms, on websites, and so forth.” (The video has since been viewed more than 2.7 million times.)

Because of the ways in which OUR left the door open for QAnon adherents, the group has become a favorite of anti-child-trafficking activists who want to support a good cause and remain free to indulge in fringe theories. This is undoubtedly part of the reason that OUR’s fundraising ballooned during the year of the #SaveTheChildren marches, which took place across the country and often featured QAnon iconography and slogans. According to public tax filings, OUR brought in $21.2 million in donations in 2019 and $45.9 million in 2020—the OUR website claims that more than 27,000 people have signed on as monthly donors, whom the organization refers to as “abolitionists,” engaged in a fight to end “modern-day slavery.” Meanwhile, OUR is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation. Led by Troy Rawlings, the prosecutor of Davis County, Utah, the probe reportedly expanded to include investigators from the FBI, the IRS, and Homeland Security. A source close to the investigation told me last year that its scope was broad, but that one focus was on whether OUR had made misleading statements about its involvement in arrests. (OUR has denied being asked to cooperate with any investigation.)

In her appearance at today’s confirmation hearing, Serano invoked Nelson Mandela, reciting the common quotation “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.” In her allotted five minutes, she made fairly bland comments. She subtly portrayed the production and consumption of child pornography as equivalent crimes. “No one wants to see reruns of TV or movies,” she argued. “That includes voyeurs and distributors of [child-sex-abuse material].” She didn’t say Jackson’s name or mention anything specific that Jackson had said or done, instead making a quick reference to a “trend by certain judges” to order sentences that “minimize the gravity” of crimes against children.

Because Serano didn’t directly engage with the matter at hand—the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson as a Supreme Court justice—her remarks were useful only insofar as they reminded everyone listening of the impossibility of arguing with anybody who purports to be defending children from heinous crimes. This has long been Operation Underground Railroad’s ethos. Ballard uses graphic language and highly emotional appeals to captivate audiences—he refers to the United States as the country with “the largest population of pedophiles,” and emphasizes that American kids live “amongst this madness.”

Even though QAnon’s influence on American politics has seemed to recede somewhat during Joe Biden’s presidency, Republicans’ attempts to wield it now indicate that the country isn’t so close to being done with it. Why they might find it expedient is obvious. The disingenuous evocation of harm to children has been politically useful for decades if not centuries, and has recently been a key tactic of the Republican Party in its efforts to chasten technology companies and penalize sex workers. OUR claims to be nonpartisan, but it has taken numerous political stances prior to today’s: The organization opposes the decriminalization of sex work and supports the proposed EARN IT Act, which would give law enforcement a “back door” into encrypted messaging services and which the ACLU has called a “disaster for online speech and privacy rights.” In 2019, Ballard himself testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, arguing in favor of President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, which he insisted would help prevent child trafficking. (Most experts say that it definitely would not.)

In all of these cases, a political aim is given the angelic image of an innocent child; any opponents are put in the awkward position of brushing that child aside to get back to the real substance of an argument. “I hope all of the members of this committee agree that there is no cause more noble than protecting our children,” Serano said near the end of her statement. Well, of course. Or, at least, sure. And what were we talking about?