Back in early January, during the confirmation hearings for now-embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Senator Orrin Hatch posed a question about obscenity, an issue that has always obsessed him. If appointed, would Sessions consider bringing back obscenity prosecutions and cracking down on the porn industry? "Would you consider reestablishing a specific unit dedicated to prosecuting this category of crime?" asked Hatch.
Sessions — who said he wasn’t fully aware that the Obama administration had shut down the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force in the first place — noted that obscenity prosecutions have long been a part of the work of the Department of Justice, and that he’d happily consider bringing the task force back, were he to head up the department.
In many ways, this was an expected answer, typical of the Republican Party’s long-standing claim to be the nation’s protectors of morality and decency. When Sessions’ Republican predecessor, John Ashcroft, took office, he notoriously covered up the exposed nipples of statues like Spirit of Justice. Even in these more permissive times, the Republican Party has repeatedly declared porn a “public health crisis.” Attacks on “obscenity” — a vaguely defined category of speech that, due to being prurient, explicit, and lacking redeeming social value, isn’t considered protected by the First Amendment — are of a piece with this mindset.
But the man who nominated Sessions for attorney general is hardly a typical Republican. As many outlets have noted, President Trump once appeared on the cover of Playboy, and has had cameos in a few softcore porn flicks. Add to that the fact that Trump’s most ardent and vocal supporters — the shitposters of 4chan and Reddit’s /r/The_Donald, “free speech” warriors like Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes — are themselves obsessed with pushing the boundaries of community standards of decency, and the situation becomes very odd indeed. Racist memes; violent, aggressive trolling; and repeated rape threats hardly seem in line with the goals of a party that claims to stand for family values and decency. (In an extreme example of cognitive dissonance, former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos even once hired a porn performer as a bodyguard.)
How did we get to a place where champions of the obscene and offensive are in league with someone who claims to want to crack down on those things?
Potentially prurient content presents a tricky political situation that often results in strange bedfellows. Viewed from one angle, pornography and obscenity put creators on the front lines of the progressive fight for free speech, because they’re challenging social norms and fighting for the right to express themselves however they wish. Viewed from another angle, though, the same content may be upholding those social norms, by oppressing and dehumanizing women, people of color, and other marginalized communities. Feminism’s “porn wars” of the 1970s and ‘80s saw anti-porn feminists like Andrea Dworkin allying with the right wing because their goals aligned, even though their reasons didn’t. In some ways, the Trump administration, which has brought the racist, white-nationalist fringe with traditional Republicans, inverts that decades-old alliance.
But to what end? What would drive someone like provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to align with a traditional conservative like Sessions? As the Trump coalition has settled into power, some hints have begun to appear.
The answer certainly isn’t a genuine advocacy for free speech. For all the talk of “free speech” many Trump supporters use to defend their most vicious trolling — including the president’s habit of insulting anyone who dares to disagree with him — few people in this shaky alliance seem to have the stomach for freedom of speech when it’s coming from the other side. White House chief strategist Steve Bannon habitually refers to the media as “the opposition party.” Trump has declared that a slew of media outlets that have questioned his version of reality are “the enemy of the American people.” And even supposed free-speech warrior Yiannopoulos, who’s known for hurling quips like “Fuck your feelings” at anyone who protests him, demanded an apology after the mayor of Berkeley referred to him as a white supremacist. The most dedicated shitposters aren’t even guaranteed defenders of the porn industry: there’s plenty of overlap between the alt-right and the anti-masturbation movement, and posts within /r/The_Donald offer a wide range of views over how protected the work of pornographers really needs to be.
The real unifying factor behind this spin on free speech, as is often a case in oddball team-ups, is a mutual enemy. For many in the Trump camp, the fight to push the boundaries of decency only seems to be worthwhile when it ultimately upholds their conservative goals. It’s notable that the “controversial” ideas the conservative fringe’s shitposters want to be free to express aren’t new or novel. They’re advocating for a consequence-free opportunity to continue the oppressive orders of the past, remixed with more Pepes, explicitly racist imagery, and rape threats. For the anti-obscenity wing of the Republican Party, calls to Trump That Bitch, Grab America By the Pussy, and bombard any woman who advocates for her personhood with violent, explicit rape threats are ultimately tolerable, no matter how crass or obscene they are. And that’s because they’re essentially upholding the same power structure the Republicans have been protecting for decades.
Yiannopoulos, one of the alt-right’s most visible forces of obscenity, has been the clearest sign that this alliance has limits. His declaration of his status as a “dangerous faggot” was upheld and embraced, so long as he used his platform to mock women, people of color, immigrants, and trans people. When he actually ventured into truly controversial territory — noting that isolated queer teenagers might find affirmation of their identity in relationships with more experienced queer adults — the community swiftly cut him loose. The neo-Nazi right values its ability to be offensive when the end goal is to subjugate marginalized groups like immigrants, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. When those views are challenged, resisting the status quo becomes a form of obscenity that must be shut down.
Which is why when conservative ideology is out of favor, free speech, and the ability to advocate for the oppression of anyone who isn’t a straight, white man, feels important. But when conservatives are at the helm, there’s a renewed interest in authoritarianism, a damn-all-conventions attitude toward getting their way. Michael Malice, an Observer columnist who frequently covers the alt-right, tells me this: “A lot of [Trump fans] are very big on authoritarianism” when it means silencing the liberals they see as threatening their way of life. Even a Sessions-led crackdown on obscenity might be welcomed if it was “part and parcel of a broader crackdown on social liberalism,” one that would harken a return to a time when men had total control over women’s bodies.
And in spite of some obvious ideological differences, it seems Sessions already has the support of many of those obscenity-loving shitposters. A Reddit post celebrating his confirmation met with a great deal of approval from Trump fans convinced the Alabaman will help return law and order to America. (The one recurring reservation there, of course, being Sessions’ on-the-record opposition to marijuana.)
Time will tell whether the alliance will hold. Feminists and conservatives united in their hatred of pornography didn’t manage to get it banned. The infighting that’s already emerged within the Trump administration (as well as the alt-right itself) suggests that the Trump coalition may be equally doomed. The appeal of authoritarianism, and the reassertion of white male privilege, may be seductive enough to unite the agents of obscenity with those who’ve dedicated themselves to fighting it. But it seems unlikely that it’ll be able to keep them together for the long haul.