By Douglas M. Charles
In the current presidential election cycle, we have witnessed unprecedented firsts from the nominee of the Republican Party, Donald Trump. We have seen this major-party presidential candidate say racist, misogynist, xenophobic and all manner of unorthodox or shocking things, like threatening to pull out of NATO and praising Vladimir Putin. We’ve also seen him borrow from the political past. He’s dredged up and embraced the previously discredited America First movement of the early 1940s, and he’s borrowed the Law and Order mantle of Richard Nixon in 1968. In early August Trump announced, to some excitement and drama, that he had signed the Children’s Internet Safety Presidential Pledge, a declaration crafted by an anti-pornography group claiming it seeks to protect children (they all do) and calling itself Enough Is Enough. This latest news item involving The Donald is also nothing new. Focusing on pornography or obscenity and appealing to people’s perceptions of decaying morality has been a standard GOP modus operandi since the late 1960s and Richard Nixon and ever after.
By the late 1960s, after various Supreme Court rulings liberalized federal anti-obscenity law, leading to a boom in the pornography industry, some Americans unsurprisingly became concerned. Around the same time (1970), in the realm of politics, political scientists concluded that Democrats won elections on economic issues while Republicans won by appealing to social issues. The GOP and Nixon fully embraced this idea and appealed to the great “silent majority” of Americans who worried about crime and respected decency, and Nixon squeaked out an electoral victory. Nixon continued to push social issues as president and focused on the pornography boom as something dangerous to Americans. A scientific presidential commission had even been formed by President Lyndon Johnson to study the issue, and the report was due out during Nixon’s first months in office.
The commission concluded that pornography did not contribute in any significant way to America’s various social problems of the time. Nixon would have nothing of it, and pushed the issue going so far as to arrange an all-out effort to discredit the commission’s report and advocating for the strengthening of federal anti-obscenity law. Nixon staffers even drafted an internal report on “The Pornography Explosion” and wanted to “activate all of the anti-obscenity groups” against the commission’s report. Nixon hoped to change the law (but the GOP had only minority numbers in Congress) or push for new obscenity prosecutions to develop a possible new Supreme Court ruling in its favor. Neither happened, but Nixon’s appointing of four conservative Supreme Court justices did slow, if not stop, the liberal trend in obscenity case rulings.
This trend then continued with certain GOP presidents. During the Reagan years pressure mounted again to do something about pornography, which resulted in Reagan’s attorney general, Ed Meese, releasing his own utterly un-scientific report concluding that pornography resulted in sexual violence and social problems. Even still during the 1980s fewer than 100 people were charged under federal anti-obscenity statues and only 71 convicted, a dismal record reflecting the continuing liberal evolution of Americans’ attitudes about the issue. Still, the issue was good for Republican base politics.
Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, however, was not much interested in this aspect of social politics and neither, of course, was the Democrat Bill Clinton. But when George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 he resurrected it as an appeal to his right-wing evangelical base who wanted something done about obscenity and pornography. Bush won the election and even tried, but failed, to reinstate federal prosecutions of adult obscenity — unsurprisingly claiming an aim to protect children, an age-old proclamation — which had previously faded away. When Barrack Obama assumed office in 2009 he ended the Bush effort (except for the focus on child pornography) as a drain on resources, but socially conservative Republicans tried to push back and demanded the Obama Justice Department do something about the alleged threat pornography posed to American society.
So Trump’s resurrecting the old ratty dog of pornography and its threat is really nothing new. It’s an effort to motivate the GOP’s socially conservative based in hopes to drum up votes. Could anything come of Trump’s anti-pornography pledge? Perhaps. But obscenity prosecutions have actually diminished steadily not just from the 1960s but throughout most of the 20th Century and into the next. It would be legally and socially very difficult for a President Trump to revive anti-pornography targeting and prosecutions; George W. Bush tried and failed miserably. American culture and social attitudes have just evolved too far to care much and see successful prosecutions. Then again, it would also depend on Trump winning the election, and that seems unlikely.
Douglas M. Charles is the author of UPK books, The FBI’s Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau’s Crusade Against Smut & Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s “Sex Deviates” Program.