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How the GOP Fell in Love With Cancel Culture

A concept popularized by online media has fully migrated to the Republican fever swamps.

Samuel Corum/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the pro-Trump riots that left five dead at the United States Capitol, Republicans have focused on the real problem: cancel culture. Citing the president’s removal from just about every social media app in existence and the scores of companies announcing they would no longer do business with Donald Trump or his family, Eric Trump blamed the left. “We live in the age of cancel culture, but this isn’t something that started this week,” he said. “It is something that they have been doing to us and others for years.”

Representative Jim Jordan, one of the president’s most vociferous defenders, made a similar case on the floor of the House, arguing that Trump wasn’t being impeached for encouraging an insurrection that endangered the lives of his fellow members of Congress, but because liberals “want to cancel the president.” Trump himself ended a short, pre-taped speech that was largely devoted to belatedly imploring his supporters to renounce violence by condemning “the efforts to censor, cancel, and blacklist our fellow citizens.” Trump, surely, was thinking of one soon-to-be private citizen, in particular.

Representative Elise Stefanik, who was removed from an advisory committee at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics over her attempts to overturn a legitimate election? She was canceled. Senator Josh Hawley, who lost his book deal with Simon & Schuster after he led the attempt to decertify Joe Biden’s presidential win? Canceled. “I will fight this cancel culture with everything I have,” Hawley said in a statement attacking “the woke mob” at his erstwhile publisher.

The operatic warnings about the dangers of cancel culture, often made by people who work in elite media and academia, have now become a staple of Republican ideology. “The woke mob” is the new “liberal media,” a bogeyman that makes it clear who society’s real victims are: Republicans.

The right’s embrace of the “cancel culture” concept has been growing steadily for years. Conservatives have complained about students deplatforming the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray, and Tucker Carlson has been railing about it for a good year. But the term really became ubiquitous last summer, after Tom Cotton’s “Send In the Troops” op-ed resulted in the ouster of New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet, and former Times opinion editor Bari Weiss subsequently self-canceled.

Cancel culture also featured heavily in August’s Republican National Convention. It was there that the Covington Catholic teen Nick Sandmann, who achieved infamy after appearing to mock an Indigenous activist at the Capitol in 2019, spoke about what happened to him after the incident. “I learned that what was happening to me had a name,” Sandmann said. “It was called ‘being canceled.’ As in annulled. As in revoked. As in made void. Canceled is what’s happening to people around this country who refuse to be silenced by the far left. Many are being fired, humiliated, or even threatened. And often, the media is a willing participant. But I would not be canceled.” Sandmann concluded by putting on a Make America Great Again cap.

What does it even mean to be canceled? For years, the people warning about cancel culture have been conflating online criticism with “cancellation,” which is both more ominous-sounding than mere criticism and also a hell of a lot more amorphous. In a semi-ironic 2018 New York Times piece, Jonah Engel Bromwich argued that “almost everyone worth knowing” had been canceled for crimes both small and large: Bill Gates, Gwen Stefani, Erykah Badu, Cristiano Ronaldo, and on and on. Needless to say, none of these people has actually been “canceled.”

The cancel culture warriors have done little to distinguish public criticism from the more insidious pathology they claim is running rampant in America. And when they’ve tried, the diagnosis has been as vague as the terminology. A public letter published in Harper’s over the summer and signed by a number of journalists, authors, and public intellectuals, argued that “editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.” No names were named; no statistics provided. From the letter, it is impossible to tell just how large the specter of cancel culture is, though its signatories want you to believe it casts a shadow over everything.

Cancel culture warriors sometimes allege that social justice advocates are creating a climate of fear, preventing opponents of cancel culture from speaking out from concerns that their cancellation will surely follow. But all the anti-woke crowd has are sweeping generalizations, slippery-slope arguments, and a handful of scattered examples. There might not be many real-world examples of cancellation now, but just you wait until the activists being bred at Smith and Oberlin get out in the world!

Since the riot at the Capitol, “Persuasion,” the cancel culture–obsessed newsletter launched by Yascha Mounk last summer, has published pieces arguing that Shakespeare is being canceled for not being “woke” and that liberal arts colleges have canceled military history for similar reasons. The former argument was about activists who have argued for more diverse syllabi, and claimed that teachers “may be” trashing The Great Gatsby to their students for “perpetuating the myth of meritocracy.” The latter blamed humanities departments, which have been gutted in the wake of the Great Recession, for favoring hippie-dippie programs like “peace studies.”

This is the playbook: Isolated incidents are ballooned into crises of liberalism. Donald Trump may be trying to cancel the results of the presidential election, but the real First Amendment issue is a single school in Massachusetts that stopped teaching The Odyssey.

The result is a hall of mirrors that Republicans like Josh Hawley have gleefully exploited. The right’s hostility to free speech, free thought, and basic facts has been exemplified again and again over the last five years. Republicans are purging people for minor offenses against their Dear Leader. But a number of writers and academics have insisted, throughout all of this, that the real problem is on the left.

A Morning Consult poll from the summer found that 46 percent of adults had never heard of cancel culture, while 18 percent were “not very familiar” with it. That is about to change, thanks to Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and the cancel culture warriors who paved the way.