The American right’s latest efforts to stoke a moral panic around gender and sexual identity has incorporated a term — “groomer” — to smear LGBTQ people as predatory abusers. That rhetoric, like so much that becomes common in political knife fights, migrated from the toxic message board 4chan, where users are now experimenting with another application for it.
“It’s the individual plus the groomers,” wrote an anonymous person on the site’s /pol/, or “politically incorrect” forum on Monday. They were responding to a question about who was ultimately responsible for the racially motivated mass shooting in a Buffalo, New York grocery store that claimed 10 lives on Saturday. “I bet we will never learn who he was talking to on that discord because they are in fact feds,” the anon speculated, referring to the chat server where the suspected shooter had allegedly laid out his plans for the assault in detail. The claim that federal law enforcement “grooms” or encourages right-wing terrorists is increasingly common.
For years, the denizens of 4chan have suspected and accused one another of being federal agents, nicknamed “glowies.” It’s widely thought that the FBI and CIA comb the forum for incriminating statements or hints of extremist plots, sometimes baiting individuals into committing crimes. That paranoia has led in turn to the presumption that glowies — as a kind of shadow cabal — are orchestrating massacres like the one in Buffalo. It’s the same kind of denialism that gave us conspiracy theories about mass shootings being staged events, “false flags” carried out with “crisis actors.” Only in this scenario, the violence is real, and the killer is a impressionable patsy (or, per 4chan, an “autist,” or “retard”) set up by government agencies.
This line of thinking is, unfortunately, supported by some of the FBI’s known activities: particularly in would-be cases of Islamist terror, the bureau has arranged sting operations to foil perpetrators who wouldn’t have acted without support and resources from the undercover feds monitoring them. Of special interest to 4chan, however, is the case of Jerry Drake Varnell, a schizophrenic man who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for trying to blow up an Oklahoma City bank using a fake bomb given to him by the feds. While Varnell supposedly hoped to spark a right-wing, anti-government “revolution,” his parents pointed out at the time of his arrest that he had no means of doing so on his own, arguing that the authorities had exploited his mental illness in order to entrap him. What if they engineered shootings the same way?
Well, they don’t. The feds absolutely deserve criticism for manufacturing terror schemes, but critically, they do it in order to look good. They provide weapons that don’t work — not functioning assault-style rifles — and take the suspect into custody without any victims getting injured or killed, announcing the charges as if their vigilance has once again saved the day. To believe that the FBI or CIA is secretly arranging for one civilian to murder many others, you need to come up with a different justification. On this, the anons are somewhat divided. Maybe it’s an attempt to jump-start meaningful gun control. Maybe they want to radicalize confused young men into advancing their own racist agenda. Maybe they just want to shut down 4chan.
Of course, it’s all deflection: The /pol/ users want the freedom to post hate speech and openly fantasize about genocide without getting blamed when someone who namechecked them in a manifesto starts gunning Black people down. They’re capable of spreading dangerous ideology even while blaming glowie groomers for the bloodshed, as in the post above, where the Buffalo shooting is described as an effort to accelerate the “Great Replacement,” which is the same white supremacist concept that served as a pretext for the killings.
And as Republicans try to dodge complicity in this pattern of violence, they’ll likely resort to similar maneuvers to defend themselves while continuing to sow fear of immigrants and non-white citizens. Their voters are already disposed to believe in a nefarious “Deep State,” call anyone they disagree with a “groomer” and dismiss racism and firearm worship as factors in these horrific attacks — while doubling down on both. It’s this contradiction, alas, that sets the stage for the next nightmare.