It was the perfect political dog whistle — at a frequency that bypassed mainstream journalists but was picked up loud and clear by the millions of internet swamp creatures who dwell in a land of online make-believe called QAnon. With President Trump looking to rally his shrinking base in a presidential election that’s already underway, his compliant acting Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf made a naked appeal to the folks who’ve hijacked the #SaveTheChildren hashtag.

The announcement of a new Center for Countering Human Trafficking, under the banner of Wolf’s Department of Homeland Security, was proclaimed this week by the DHS chief as a way to integrate federal agencies that deal with different aspects of child trafficking under one roof. And who knows?...under professional and not-politicized management, such an effort could bring some progress against a problem that experts say is a real one if often badly misunderstood, especially by the growing online hordes getting roped by QAnon.

But make no mistake, Wolf’s announcement was a thinly veiled win for QAnon as the conspiracy theory seeks to go mainstream and win new converts, especially among suburban women up for grabs in the presidential election. The ugly truth is that QAnon’s core followers believe there’s a Satanic cult among Democratic Party elites and Hollywood that’s protected by a “deep state” cabal and which engages in rampant pedophilia (at minimum) and maybe rituals where small children are killed by monsters who then drink their blood.

Dimwitted Donald Trump Jr. gave up the game this week when he took to Twitter to complain about the lack of media coverage over DHS’s child-trafficking push, charging the media is “too busy running cover for Hollywood,” the bête noire of the QAnoners. Indeed, believers in the bizarre conspiracy theory got a huge boost from the president himself when he refused to criticize QAnon as his recent NBC News town hall in Miami, first claiming he didn’t know anything about it but then adding he knows they’re “very much against pedophilia” — which true believers took as a signal boost just like his prior refusal to condemn the violent Proud Boys.

“Human traffickers prey on the most vulnerable citizens and people,” the president insisted back in January, calling them “vicious” and “violent.” OK. So I don’t know if Team Trump’s new child-trafficking center will have a hot line, but if it does I’d love to be the very first caller. That way I could report the “vicious” plot to traffic innocent young children for political gain that was hatched at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

In this Jan. 3, 2019, file photo, a migrant from Honduras passes a child to her father after he jumped the border fence to get into the U.S. side to San Diego, Calif., from Tijuana, Mexico. As of this week, the ACLU has filed nearly 400 lawsuits and other legal actions against the Trump administration, some meeting with setbacks but many resulting in important victories. Of the lawsuits, 174 have dealt with immigrant rights, targeting the family separation policy, detention and deportation practices, and the administration’s repeated attempts to make it harder to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza, File)
Daniel Ochoa de Olza / AP
In this Jan. 3, 2019, file photo, a migrant from Honduras passes a child to her father after he jumped the border fence to get into the U.S. side to San Diego, Calif., from Tijuana, Mexico. As of this week, the ACLU has filed nearly 400 lawsuits and other legal actions against the Trump administration, some meeting with setbacks but many resulting in important victories. Of the lawsuits, 174 have dealt with immigrant rights, targeting the family separation policy, detention and deportation practices, and the administration’s repeated attempts to make it harder to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza, File)

It is impossible to break through the pre-election bombast with new investigative journalism, but NBC News almost did it this week with its explosive report that advocates who’ve been scouring records, the internet, and even the backstreets of Central America have been unable to find the parents of 545 kids, many of them under age 6, who were wrenched away by federal agents during Trump’s crackdown at the southern border.

These young, mostly brown-skinned kids whose families made a desperate attempt to flee violence or poverty in their native countries scream out for the kind of sympathy that Facebook-addled suburban moms pour into made-up Washington pizza-parlor sex basements. Despite efforts to place these children with distant relatives or loving foster homes, psychologists say they are traumatized by the lost contact with their mothers and fathers, and may be scarred for life.

“People ask when we will find all of these families, and sadly, I can’t give an answer," Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project," told NBC. "I just don’t know.” It’s a muddled picture, for sure. Advocates note that some parents who are tracked down in Central America aren’t eager to ship their kids back to dangerous locales. But the Trump administration remains in deep denial that its 2017-18 “zero tolerance” policy — the embodiment of the president’s xenophobic campaign politics — caused real harm to innocent children. “Let’s not mince words,” the Washington Post editorialized Thursday. “The Trump administration kidnapped children.”

Following up on the NBC News report, the New York Times tracked down one mother of four children aged 9 to 16, Juana, in a shelter for victimized migrants in Honduras. She was deported but the children were sent to their father — with whom they were not close — in Virginia. “They cry when we talk on the phone," she said. "They say they miss me, that they want us to be back together again...Girls need their mother.”

It all smacks of the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s most famous writings on “the banality of evil.” While the masses are fantasizing about elite celebrities hosting child orgies and blood rituals, the real child-abusers are bland bureaucrats rendered into cowards by a system, a political machine that defends the narcissistic authoritarianism of its leader that QAnon fantasizes is protecting their white suburban kids even as real brown ones are traumatized.

Not long ago, the Times obtained a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general that showed how high-level officials including then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions deliberately drove the child-separation policies to keep refugees from coming to America and fulfill Trump’s political aims, with little thought to the lack of morality. “We need to take away children,” Sessions told his underlings right after speaking with the president.

No one objected. All of the president’s men decided to just follow orders. None more so than deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who — according to the report — then told the lawyers under him that it didn’t matter how young the kids were, including two children barely more than infants who were taken from their parents. Rod Rosenstein is an American Everyman who grew up in a suburban Philadelphia neighborhood that looks just like the one I’m writing from now, who went to the right schools, did the right things, and rose up the career ladder until it all hinged on how he responded to an authoritarian bully. He wilted, and in doing so he became the face of a real monster, not the cartoon ones conjured by QAnon.

There’s a straight line from the moral choices that America’s best and brightest flubbed during the nightmare of the Trump years, and the decision that everyday citizens like you and me will be making between now and nightfall on November 3.

On one side is the utterly fake empathy of QAnon and the followers of all the related conspiracies from Pizzagate to the second coming of the late John Kennedy Jr. Their online cocoon of postings about Hollywood or D.C. pedophiles helps them ignore the real-life screams of children who’ve been separated from their families or whose food stamps were almost arbitrarily cut by their president-savior—who also won’t lift a finger to keep guns out of schools.

Or we can come on up for the rising — a renewed America that somehow learns to again welcome the world’s tired and poor and politically oppressed as refugees to be hugged, and that realizes that a lot of the harm imposed needlessly on children doesn’t come from blood-sucking Satanists but from greedy demagogues and the serious men in suits who do their bidding.

Don’t let all of the deafening background noise — the debate shouting and the Russian hacking or even the Borat outtakes — distract you for one second from what the 2020 election is really all about. Are the American voters going to embrace internet gibberish, or are they going to embrace a child screaming out for her mother?