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Conservatives are divided on how to react as the two 2024 Republican presidential front-runners turn to a term recently popularized by right-wing media to slander LGBT people and their rights against each other.

On Feb. 7, former President Donald Trump, who recently announced he was running for reelection, took to his platform Truth Social to accuse Florida Gov. — and expected primary competitor — Ron DeSantis of “grooming.”  

Trump reposted a picture that appeared to show a young DeSantis — from when he was a teacher at a preparatory school — drinking and in the arms of several of his students. The picture was captioned “Here is Ron DeSanctimonious grooming high school girls with alcohol as a teacher.”

While the authenticity of the photos is unverified, reports from former students appear to confirm DeSantis socialized with high schoolers at parties while employed as a teacher.


“Here is Ron DeSanctimonious grooming high school girls with alcohol as a teacher.” Photo via Dong-Chan Lee, Twitter.

DeSantis’ office has been integral in pushing for groomer, a term used to describe sexual predators who use manipulative behaviors to coerce their victims, to be misused to malign LGBT people and their allies. In particular, his press secretary, Christina Pushaw, was an early promoter of the lie, using it to promote DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Even though the misuse of the term to attack LGBT rights is hindering child welfare advocates’ ability to fight actual abuse, right-wing media have consistently exploited it to attack everything from children’s hospitals to mass shooting survivors to Sesame Street’s Elmo.

However, when levied against their chosen candidates — both of whom seem to have at least some history of impropriety — right-wing media are divided; DeSantis supporters like Post Millennial’s Ian Miles Cheong are turning the allegations back against Trump and Trump supporters like Alex Bruesewitz are castigating their opponents for defending DeSantis’ alleged misconduct. 

Right-wing media turn accusations of grooming against Trump, pointing to his connections to Jeffrey Epstein and past abuse.

Following Trump’s post, conservative figures supporting DeSantis were quick to turn the accusation back at Trump, citing reports of his connections to disgraced pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and his long history of reported abuse and inappropriate comments against girls and women.  

The Post Millennial’s Ian Miles Cheong tweeted, “Trump is falsely accusing DeSantis of pedophilia. It is only fair to point out the fact that he traveled on Epstein’s Lolita Express seven times. It is also fair to point out that Trump lied about the number of times he traveled on that plane.” Last year, Cheong called the LGBT community a “woke grooming cult” and lauded Russia’s “gay propaganda” law as an “anti-grooming law.”  

Conservative writer Pedro Gonzalez posted a thread (which was promptly retweeted by The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh) citing numerous incidents connecting Trump to Epstein and other examples of actual grooming, tweeting, “Trump, who was friends with Jeff Epstein, suggests DeSantis is a groomer ... DeSantis is prosecuting the capture of leftist institutions in Florida. Trump is posting about Stormy Daniels and calling other people groomers when there are images of him with Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell everywhere.”  

Gonzalez went on to tweet that he didn’t think Trump “was actually a groomer any more than DeSantis,” saying it was just an example of how Trump’s campaign was “throwing rocks in a glass house stupid.”  

In an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, Tiana Lowe called Trump’s allegations a “conspiracy theory,” saying that “insinuations that the Florida family man is a sexual predator represent hypocrisy of the highest order, coming from a serial philanderer accused of rape and more.” 

Meanwhile, ardent defenders and exploiters of the term on the right ironically attempted to blame its use on Democrats. Far-right conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich (who once claimed that “‘date rape’ does not exist”) tweeted that Trump was “trying to use some far left wing and fake MeToo tactics against DeSantis.” Less than a year ago, Cernovich defended using the term groomer when politically convenient. 

Pushaw appeared to be mostly silent on the feud, simply retweeting a Cheong tweet of a video in which DeSantis asserted that people should “be held accountable” for spreading misinformation.  

Others in right-wing media side with Trump, sparking interparty feuding.

Other figures in right-wing media took issue with those defending DeSantis.  

Alex Bruesewitz, founder of right-wing communications firm X Strategies, called DeSantis’ defenders “middle-aged weirdos,” saying of the allegations against DeSantis, “I’m 25 years old. I would NEVER consider doing such a thing.” Right-wing columnist Kurt Schlicter reacted by tweeting his objections to Bruesewitz’ comments.  

Right-wing online personality Catturd responded to another tweet from Cheong citing reports of Trump’s connections with Epstein by calling Cheong a “lying POS.” The two continued to argue, with Cheong saying Catturd was “a POS for defending [Trump] for falsely accusing DeSantis of pedophilia.” 

On Feb. 8, DeSantis fielded a question on Trump’s grooming accusations, suggesting the claims were a “smear” and saying he was more concerned with people who were “more little” and who didn’t “have a platform to fight back.”  

The governor’s supporters used his comments to continue defending him. An article for The Daily Wire covering DeSantis’ response described Trump’s accusations that DeSantis is a groomer as “smears” and asserted that the claims that DeSantis engaged in “grooming underage girls with alcohol” were “baseless.” Right-wing blog Twitchy posted an article claiming DeSantis’ response “dismiss[ed] Donald Trump’s desperate shenanigans.” 

The feud between DeSantis and Trump comes amid a growing divide on the right on whether the rights, safety, and dignity of LGBT people should continue to be a target for Republican politicians.  

Not everyone agrees that they should: The Daily Caller, a right-wing outlet co-founded by Fox host Tucker Carlson, ran an op-ed on Jan. 26 from news editor Grayson Quay titled “Why Conservatives Will Lose The ‘Grooming’ Debate.”

In it, Quay contends that targeting LGBT inclusion as either deviancy or “grooming” leaves conservatives with “two bad options: an unpopular argument and an incoherent one.” 

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters for America.