When Republicans Say They Want to Protect Children, Don’t Believe Them

Here are a few of the things the Republican Party is prepared to do to protect children.

The Republican Party — in states like Tennessee, Oklahoma and Kentucky — is prepared to ban or strictly limit the public performance of drag and other gender-nonconforming behavior.

“This bill gives confidence to parents that they can take their kids to a public or private show and will not be blindsided by a sexualized performance,” Jack Johnson, the Senate majority leader in Tennessee and one of the sponsors of the state’s ban, wrote on Twitter.

“I can’t think of anything good that can come from taking children and putting them in front of a bunch of grown men who are dressed like women,” said Gary Stubblefield, an Arkansas state senator who wants to enact a similar ban there.

The Republican Party is prepared to ban or strictly limit discussion of L.G.B.T.Q. people and identities in public schools, as well as transgender health care for minors, to protect them from what they say is manipulation and abuse.

“We don’t want parents to be abusing their children,” said Shay Shelnutt, an Alabama state senator whose bill to restrict teaching and ban care was signed into law last year. “We don’t want to make that an option, because that’s what it is; it’s child abuse. This is just to protect children.”

The Republican Party is prepared to extend this circle of protection to discussions of race and American history in public schools — so-called critical race theory — to protect students from guilt, shame, discomfort and any other negative emotion. “Critical race theory is a divisive ideology that threatens to poison the American psyche,” Dan Bishop, a state representative in North Carolina, said, when he introduced the Stop CRT Act in 2021. “For the sake of our children’s future, we must stop this effort to cancel the truth of our founding and our country.”

And the Republican Party is prepared to strictly limit or even ban social media, over concern that platforms like TikTok and Instagram may harm the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents. “We protect our children from drinking, from smoking, from driving,” said Representative Chris Stewart of Utah, who has introduced a bill that would make social media companies legally liable if they fail to keep kids under 16 off their websites and applications. “They can’t drive when they’re 12. We should protect them from the impacts of social media.”

There is a lot, in other words, that the Republican Party is prepared to do to protect children from the world at large. But there are limits. There are lines the Republican Party won’t cross.

The Republican Party will not, for example, support universal school lunch to protect children from hunger. When Minnesota Democrats pushed the measure in the most recent session of the state’s Legislature, for example, one of their Republican colleagues strenuously objected. “I have yet to meet a person in Minnesota that says they don’t have access to enough food to eat,” Steve Drazkowski, a state senator, said. He, like most Republicans in the Legislature, voted against the bill.

In the United States Congress, most Republicans will not support a child allowance to keep children, and their families, out of poverty. On the question of health care, there are 10 states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming — where Republicans have refused the Medicaid expansion passed under the Affordable Care Act, depriving millions of Americans, including many children, of access to regular medical care.

And in the wake of yet another school massacre — in Nashville, where a shooter killed three adults and three children at a private Christian school — Republicans refuse to do anything that might reduce the odds of another shooting or make it less likely that a child dies of gun violence.

“There isn’t anybody here that, if they could find the right approach, wouldn’t try to do something because they feel that pain,” said Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota in an interview with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on Wednesday. “And yet, when we start talking about bans or challenging on the Second Amendment, I think the things that have already been done have gone about as far as we’re going to with gun control.”

“It’s a horrible, horrible situation,” said Representative Tim Burchett of Tennessee, who represents the district in question. “And we’re not gonna fix it. Criminals are gonna be criminals.”

In 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control, firearms were the leading cause of death for children and adolescents in the United States.

When you put all of this together, the picture is clear. The Republican Party will use the law and the state to shield as many children as possible from the knowledge, cultural influences and technologies deemed divisive or controversial or subversive by the voters, activists and apparatchiks that shape and guide its priorities. When Tucker Carlson, Christopher Rufo and Moms for Liberty say jump, their only question is: How high?

But when it comes to actual threats to the lives of American children — from poverty, from hunger, from sickness and from guns — then, well, the Republican Party wants us to slow down and consider the costs and consequences, and even possible futility, of taking any action to help.

On Tuesday, I wrote about the fundamental deception behind the slogan “parents’ rights.” What sounds like due consideration for parents as the most important adults in the lives of most children is in fact a rallying cry for a subset of the most conservative and reactionary parents, who want a state-sanctioned heckler’s veto over the education of all the children in the community. It is a Trojan horse for the slow destruction of public schools.

Something similar is true of the constant calls to “protect children.” The way they talk about them, these “children” are not real, living, vulnerable kids. They are a symbol, and the calls to protect them are an excuse, a pretext for wielding the state against the perceived cultural enemies of the American Right. These champions of children aren’t all that interested in young people as citizens with rights and entitlements of their own.

The dark irony in all this is that as the Republican Party turns the idea of “the children” against gay people as well as trans and other gender nonconforming Americans, it becomes more likely that actual kids will try to harm themselves, out of fear or despair or a sense of isolation or all of the above.

Not all children, it seems, are worthy of protection.