“The left has told us something that should put fear into the heart of every parent,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene began her speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday morning. “They said they’re coming for our children.” Dressed in a light pink blazer and with straightened bleach blonde hair, Greene painted a gruesome (and fictional) picture: a multibillion dollar industry preying on kids and eager to subject them to life-altering surgery.

“I am going to be introducing my bill, the Protect Children’s Innocence Act, that will make it a felony to perform anything to do with gender care on children,” she said. The crowd roared in applause.

At CPAC, held this past weekend at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center in National Harbor, Maryland, trans bashing—and talking about kids’ genitals—was a main theme. Panels were dedicated to it, speakers harped on so-called “transgender ideology,” and politicians threw out one-liners about trans people when they were short on applause. CPAC is a place where rhetoric and strategy are typically tested, where politicians get a sense of what lands with their base, and this past weekend, Republican politicians eagerly deployed transphobia for their gain. As they denied trans people’s existence, CPAC’s speakers paired their attacks with efforts to galvanize the conservative base ahead of 2024 and to take over public schools.

The panel following Greene’s provides some insight as to how we arrived at this place. Terry Schilling of the anti-LGBTQ American Principles Project took the stage with Chloe Cole, a woman in the process of reversing her transition, and Riley Gaines, a former Division 1 swimmer at the University of Kentucky who lost races last year to Lia Thomas, a trans woman. After describing the “transgender lobby” as “evil,” Schilling belabored the state of women’s sports.

Before “grooming” rhetoric was commonplace on the right, religious-right groups like Schilling’s began peddling stories about trans girls hurting girls’ sports. But this supposed concern was never about sports. In 2020, a Right Wing Watch investigation found that while much of the anti-trans messaging focused on sports, a coalition of religious-right groups was busy taking action, drafting legislation not only to prevent trans girls from playing on girls’ sports teams, but also to prevent trans kids from receiving gender-affirming care. Called “Promise to America’s Children,” the coalition included groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, Heritage Foundation, and Family Research Council—groups that have long been dedicated to rolling back rights for LGBTQ Americans. Thanks to these groups and allied state legislators, in 2023, some 400 anti-trans bills have been proposed in 42 states and 9 have passed, according to a national trans legislation tracker.

Riley Gaines (left) at the Moms for America exhibit booth at CPAC 2023. (Photo by Kristen Doerer/Right Wing Watch)

“The strategy is fearmongering and propaganda,” Schuyler Bailar, a trans rights activist, told Right Wing Watch. “There’s absolutely no data to support the idea that trans people are an inherent threat to children.” In fact, gender-affirming care is supported by major health institutions, Bailar noted, with the American Medical Association declaring it “medically-necessary, evidence-based care that improves the physical and mental health of transgender and gender-diverse people.” But the facts aren’t what these attacks are about.

“Republicans found that when they could paint trans people as deviant, nefarious, harmful people that are going to hurt you in the bathroom or groom your children as the narrative goes, they could drive votes,” Bailar said.

Religious-right groups like Family Research Council have been explicit that their attacks on trans people are part of what they see as an election-winning strategy. “Our goal: Make the SAFE Act THE ‘wedge issue’ of the 2022 midterm elections!” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins wrote in a 2021 fundraising letter for FRC Action.

The right’s strategy was on display on CPAC’s mainstage. Sebastian Gorka—a former Trump adviser and an alleged member of a Nazi-cooperating political group in Hungary—took the stage shortly before Marjorie Taylor Greene Friday to try to fire up the nearly empty room. He focused his sights on 2024.

“We have to win it so big that this radicalized party that thinks it’s OK to have open borders, to change the Constitution, to get rid of the Supreme Court, to,” he paused for effect, “mutilate young girls and boys as sacrifices on the altar of the transgender insanity. We have to so crush them at the next election that they collapse.”

Heron Greenesmith, a researcher at Political Research Associates, told Right Wing Watch Saturday that “CPAC is showcasing the truth of the right.” “Trans people have become, once again, the recruitment tactic and fundraiser of the right,” Greenesmith said. “Trans-supportive conservatives have ceded the floor to those who advocate openly for anti-trans violence.”

As these ideas about the need to “protect” kids and women snaked their way into right-wing media, the right has expanded its messaging. Now, right-wing activists say a shadowy “gender lobby” preys on kids to turn them trans. Politicians portray drag queens reading books to kids as “grooming” children. Gay teachers are “indoctrinating” children, they say, as are diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings.

Such fearmongering is effectively being deployed by groups like Moms for Liberty, which is trying to ban books about the LGBTQ experience, and Moms for America, a conservative group that urges right-wing candidates to run for school boards and claims to have more than 500,000 members across the country. Kimberly Fletcher, president and founder of Moms for America, made it clear to the CPAC audience that it’s not just trans people her group is organizing against, but the honest teaching of the history of our nation, sex education, and the tolerance and acceptance of the LGBTQ community writ large.

At a Thursday CPAC panel titled “One Tuff Mutha,” Fletcher claimed the left was coming after children, her voice quivering as she spoke. “They’re trying to erase us as moms,” she said. “And they know historically that’s what you do—that’s what Hitler did, that’s what Mao did, that’s what Stalin did. You take the children, you win the future.”

She listed a series of fears, her voice rising at each new alleged assault: “Everything that we’re facing: The CRT—the critical race theory is racism, that’s 101, that’s what it is. The comprehensive sex education, which is teaching kindergartners how to stimulate themselves. The gender confusion, where they’re having coming out parties since the first grade, and children are coming home terrified they’re suddenly going to turn into the opposite sex.”

She called on the audience to go on “the offensive,” asking kids to record their teachers. What we really need, she said, is “a new PPP”: “parents, pastors, and people of faith uniting together to save this country, protect our kids, and reclaim our culture, and restore the republic.”

Beneath the fearmongering about trans people as a tool to galvanize the base ahead of 2024 and to instigate a right-wing takeover of the schools is an even more dangerous ideology and agenda: a belief that trans people do not and should not exist.

On the third and final day of CPAC, The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles made that stance explicit: “The problem with transgenderism is not that it’s inappropriate for children under the age of 9,” Knowles said. “The problem with transgenderism is that it isn’t true.”

“There can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism,” Knowles said. “If it is false, then for the good of society… transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” The crowd erupted in applause.

As controversy ensued, Knowles insisted that he never called for the eradication of trans people but merely the eradication of an ideology. But transness is not an ideology, and ‘transgenderism’ is simply a phony term used by anti-trans activists. Based on Knowles’ remarks at CPAC and elsewhere, the results of such a call to action is clear: eliminating so-called “transgenderism” in public life as he emphatically calls for would make it impossible for trans people to live as themselves.

“It is a call for the eradication of trans people because you can’t separate transness and trans people,” Bailar told Right Wing Watch. “You cannot take away ‘transgenderism’ and leave the person. That’s not how it works.”

Bailar said that Knowles’ comments came up in the trans support groups he guides. His clients were terrified by the statement—not so much for Knowles’ transphobia but for the reception his comments received. “The cheering of the crowd—that was really disheartening and striking to receive watching that video,” he said.

In 2020, Right Wing Watch spoke to LGBTQ activist and writer Charlotte Clymer as religious-right groups and far-right politicians were attacking trans girls in sports. When asked what their goal was with such attacks, she was blunt—and prescient.

“Their goal has been to wipe out trans people from the public square from day one,” she said.