The GOP Is Contemporary America's Foremost Cancel Culture

It's time for Americans of every political persuasion to acknowledge that Donald Trump is the most powerful and vocal proponent of "cancel culture" in America.

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Introduction

One of the reasons I almost never use the phrase “cancel culture” is because, like the phrase “political correctness”, it was built in a focus group by high-priced Republican political consultants, intended for use—for cynical political gain—as a catch-all term to describe a universe of unrelated ideas and behaviors. If you love focus groups and the empty suits paid six or seven figures to run them, by all means embrace the phrase “cancel culture” the same way you would any other product you’ve been manipulated into purchasing but don’t need.

Indeed, “cancel culture” serves a similar function to the word “smurf” in the 1980s animated kids’ television series The Smurfs. It’s a linguistic chameleon that can do a variety of tasks, though in the case of the phrase “cancel culture” case none of them are particularly important, unless you consider far-right virtue-signaling important.

A second reason I take a dim view of the phrase “cancel culture” is that, as a university professor of rhetoric, composition, and digital communications, I admit to being irked by the fact that the phrase doesn’t actually mean what its constituent words import. Just as conservatives call phenomena that are (a) unpopular, and (b) have nothing to do with politics “politically correct”—when in fact such cultural detritus is neither “political” nor generally received positively (i.e., as “correct”)—“cancel culture” is usually used to denote situations in which no one is being cancelled and no “culture(s)” are involved.

This said, something like “cancel culture” certainly could exist if the phenomenon so denominated involved:

  1. “Cancellation” in the conventional sense of that word, meaning a process with some finality to it, that puts one on the wrong end of a binary pejorative status; and

  2. a discrete, circumscribed “culture” with the capacity to systematically execute a “cancellation” and do so permanently.

Distinguishing Cancelling and Cancel Culture

To be clear, even with all the misuses of the phrase “cancel culture” in America today, there are surely some people—I might add that they are usually “extremely online” people, as those who live mostly in “meatspace” don’t really possess the proper tools to orchestrate a “cancellation”—who would indeed love to cancel certain others from both the marketplace of ideas and the nation’s free market, and to do so permanently.

We find such people on both the political left and the political right, of course. They contact the employers of those they criticize online to try to get them fired; or they slander and libel and defame their targets; or they spread vile conspiracy theories or outright disinformation about their enemies; or they organize snap boycotts or mass departures from a given service or venue. In short, when such people—Donald Trump would be the archetypal example—find something or someone they deem unpalatable or even dangerous, they do not engage with it but seek to destroy it immediately.

Let’s remember, though, that in some select instances this impulse is a responsible one.

There’s no particular reason we shouldn’t at least try to “cancel” neo-Nazis from our marketplace of ideas and, to the extent it can be done legally and consistent with our Constitution, even from the free market—inasmuch as, for instance, we can demand that the booksellers we frequent not organize a White Supremacy Literature section, and we can lobby local politicians not to let, say, a storefront for white-supremacist paraphernalia open up next to a synagogue.

On the other side of the political spectrum, while I’d never propose the “cancellation” of “antifa” because (a) it’s an idea and not an organization, (b) the idea (“anti-fascism”) is one all Americans should support (as millions of people, including many hundreds of thousands of Americans, have died fighting fascism at home and abroad), and (c) even when anti-fascists organize in groups, they overwhelmingly do so peacefully, some notable exceptions notwithstanding, if, in contrast, someone were to propose trying to “cancel” violent anarchists from American discourse, and to the extent allowable from marketplaces—e.g., by disallowing, say, bomb-making guides on Amazon—I’d not see anything objectionable in it, nor would, I’d venture, most Americans.

{Note: With respect to my comment about peaceful anti-fascists, which I’m sure some far-right cranks would love to jump on, I’ll just say the following: in recent years, many U.S. Republicans have developed another nasty habit besides authoritarianism. This is the use of argument-by-anecdote exclusively. Know that this is just a crutch for those unwilling to do serious research.}

Cancelling Is An Ancient Tradition

My point is that at some time or another we’ve all had a desire to “cancel” someone or something by eliminating its cultural capital and perhaps even its market capital.

The notion that this is an idea that hails from either the American “left” or “right” is preposterous. The idea is an ancient and universal one. It’s a very human impulse to try to eliminate phenomena we regard as not just noxious but actually dangerous to us and those we care about.

For instance—albeit in every possible sense of the two words indefensibly and risibly—the political right in America has now spent approximately over 140 years trying to “cancel” Black voters through Jim Crow legislation, violent intimidation, poll taxes, literacy tests, misinformation, disinformation, systematic voter-suppression plots, voter identification laws, the curtailment of early voting and Sunday voting hours, manipulation of polling places and polling hours, the refusal to make Election Day a national holiday, and much more. All of these efforts were aimed at destroying Black voters as a cognizable political base of power in the United States. Thankfully, after decades and decades of these efforts being successful they are starting to backfire in states like Georgia, Nevada, and Arizona. Cancelling Black voters—a favorite hobby among the American right—just doesn’t have the track record it once (tragically) did.

Indeed, for all that cancelling is a human and group instinct—one sometimes deployed with honorable intentions, sometimes dishonorable ones—it’s almost never successful.

So why is that?

The simple answer is that “cancellations” tend to not be permanent or comprehensive unless and until they occur in the content of a discrete “culture.”

While none of us would deny that cultures throughout human history have used the punishment of “exile” as a form of cancellation, we also can’t deny that—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—Donald Trump Jr. is right to mock attempts to “cancel” him as doomed to fail. They are indeed so doomed, as short of imprisoning someone for demonstrated crimes, American culture writ large doesn’t have the capacity to cancel anyone, be it Trump Jr. (who richly deserves to be imprisoned for election fraud and campaign finance crimes) or anyone else. American culture is simply too large, too heterogeneous, and too dynamic to effectuate permanent cancellations.

Try to “cancel” Trump Jr. and you’ll simply make some segment of the population love him more. Try to cancel Freddie deBoer on Substack via an allegation of transphobia and you’ll just (as has now happened) increase his newsletter’s readership exponentially. And these things don’t happen because Americans are contrarian—that is, being the target of a would-be but inevitably ineffectual cancellation isn’t the thing that causes someone to gain in popularity—but because benighted attempts to cancel anyone or anything invariably raise their profile and the amount of attention they receive and so, through the hegemony of large numbers we see in the digital age, build their audience.

While in theory it’s possible for a cancellation campaign to be so large, so protracted, so well-organized, and so highly publicized that it could in time become successful— I’m imagining, for instance, the forcing of a company to shutter, or the forcing of a public figure to retire from public life permanently—situations in which this sort of erasure from America’s collective consciousness occurs are usually accompanied by other protocols that would or could have caused the same end: for instance, a company has been or is about to be sued into oblivion by all those it has harmed, or the public figure in question faces criminal prosecution for his public or private misconduct.

The odds of a permanent cancellation occurring in the absence of systemic cancellation are extremely low. Again, the reason is simply the size, complexity, and dynamism of our transnational digital culture (whether it is seen as a “monoculture” or, more viably, as a near-infinite number of nano-cultures abiding within and sometimes crossing over micro-communities). Even if an attempted cancellation doesn’t result in someone becoming more popular with an audience comprised of individuals with the opposite ethos of the would-be cancellers, anyone or anything shooed away from public life can eventually reemerge in an entirely different format—with a wholly different identity—and with a renewed and refreshed purpose. This process may take time, but it certainly can and does happen.

The only exception to the above we might propose is one in which someone’s conduct should have enacted systematized cancellation protocols, but did not. For instance, the allegations against comedian Louis CK—that he exposed himself to women comedians in private spaces—were more-than-arguably criminal in nature, as indecent exposure statutes in nearly every state would’ve made his conduct punishable by imprisonment. But these protocols were never enacted. Instead, Louis CK has suffered a protracted cancellation whose duration is clearly warranted by the fact that, in a very real sense, he “got off easy” by escaping a new and individuated criminal prosecution for every single instance in which he exposed himself to someone else without their permission.

Where We Actually Find Cancel Cultures

So in what context does “cancel culture” exist?

It exists in closed systems so tightly controlled—often by some centralized authority or protocol—that they can reliably enact permanent punitive excommunications. An example of such a system would be the contemporary Republican Party, which is, as we all know by know, controlled with an iron fist by former president Donald Trump.

It seems that every hour on the hour a cable news program is informing us that the reason Republican politicians at the local, state, and federal levels can’t behave with any integrity, decency, or honor anymore is that they are “scared” of how Trump will react to them acting out of concert with his desires. These elected cowards are quite clear about what they fear—and when they’re not, they always have interlocutors on cable to explain their apprehensions. What they fear is that Donald Trump will, using means both high-tech and low-tech, public and private, conventional and illicit, (1) take away all their money (by making it impossible for them to fund-raise), (2) take away their current employment (by making it impossible for them to be re-elected), and (3) take away their future livelihood (by making them personae non grata in GOP circles, including not just GOP entities at the local, state, and federal levels but right-wing nonprofit advocacy orgs, right-wing think tanks, and right-wing lobbying firms).

In short, Donald Trump enforces his will on GOP minions through “cancel culture.”

Of course, in the case of Donald Trump’s Republican Party, the emphasis isn’t so much on “culture” but on the first four letters of the word: “cult.” In overseeing a culture of fear whose conventional wisdom and permissible conduct is so tightly run and policed—to the point it bears all the hallmarks of the sort of “culture” one finds in cults—Trump ensures that he has the authority and agency and resources to “cancel” almost anyone he wants in what we call the “GOP” but now think of as a cult of personality.

The Problem With Every Discussion of Cancel Culture

I write all this knowing that there’s virtually no point in writing it. Since “cancel culture” is, in the hands of right-wing demagogues, really just a meaningless buzzword that acts as a proxy for things demagogues don’t wish to say outright, I really don’t know why I bother remarking on its silliness. It’s hard to see any real benefit in that.

Indeed, in a sense the silliness of the phrase “cancel culture” is the point. The phrase is so obviously being misused that all those who misuse it and hear others misuse it have essentially already reached an accord about its misuse. It’s sort of like a musical artist a large group of music patrons listens to ironically; as long as everyone is in on the joke, it doesn’t so much matter that the music is awful, as it’s the sense of togetherness in casting judgment on an absent third party that’s the real purpose of the whole exercise.

By the same token, people on my end of the political spectrum—the political left— increasingly find themselves responding to the evident preposterousness of the phrase “cancel culture” by over-correcting and insisting that even temporary cancellations never happen, though we know they do. We lose our moral authority when we pretend that no one ever loses a job because of a digital mob action; no one ever loses friends or the comfort of family members; no one ever loses their voice in public discourse or indeed really loses anything at all through the concerted acts of other people online. Or, we progressives will sometimes say, if anyone did suffer such punishments it’s due to the fact that such consequences were deserved—an observation that’s undoubtedly sometimes true, but also doesn’t mean that a cancellation (a permanent one or, much more often, a temporary one) has occurred. The simple fact is that a cancellation is not something other than a cancellation simply because it’s been richly earned—though as noted above, it’s certainly fair to question a claim of “cancellation” when a cancellation is impermanent.

In view of all the foregoing, I propose a simple catechism for reasonably identifying the existence of, and assessing the operations of, a so-called “cancel culture.” Here are the questions we’d expect to ask and have answered via such a catechism:

  • Did the “cancellation” arise within a closed system, or a discrete community or subcommunity?

  • Did the situation result in a permanent excommunication from that closed system or discrete community or subcommunity?

If the answer to either question is “no,” a cancellation cannot reasonably be said to have occurred. If the answer to both questions is “yes,” a cancellation has occurred. But to then find out if a cancel culture was involved, a third question must be asked:

  • Has the closed system or discrete community or subcommunity developed, intentionally or negligently or accidentally, a series of formal or informal protocols for cancellation that are endemic to the system or community?

If the answer is “yes,” congratulations—you’ve located a “cancel culture.” And in doing so, you’ve encountered an ancient phenomenon that extends back to pre-homo sapiens and an era in human history when roving tribes of early humans developed practices and rituals and traditions for kicking someone (or a group of people) out of their tribe.

A Case Study in Cancellation

So for instance, when Justin Amash, once a Republican congressman from Michigan, expressed his intent to vote to impeach Donald Trump, he was dismissed from House Republicans’ Freedom Caucus almost immediately, and made to understand that he would eventually be stripped of his House committee assignments—a process he then hastened by becoming an independent (after which House GOP leadership told him he could no longer caucus with them).

Throughout Amash’s excommunication, Donald Trump cheered it and shepherded it via relentless external pressure on his congressional allies. To the extent the GOP has a discrete culture of authorities, protocols, traditions, and rituals—which it does—and to the extent Amash was removed from that culture in its entirety, which he was, he was the “victim” of a “cancel culture.” And his victimhood was publicly and privately orchestrated by the single most active canceller of other humans in the United States: Donald Trump.

I don’t say that Trump is a proponent of “cancel culture” because he often proposes boycotts, though he does, because (as noted above) there’s really no way to execute a successful cancellation of an entity like the National Football League or Major League Baseball—two entities Trump has sought to cancel—for the sort of specious reasons Trump has advanced. If the NFL or MLB were found to have systematically committed a slew of illicit offenses like those Trump’s friend Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) is accused of—to wit, covering up the systemic sexual abuse of students under his care at The Ohio State University—there might have been some bite behind these boycott efforts by Trump, but again, any resulting cancellation would really have been caused by the universally condemned activity rather than the boycott. The boycott would be a mere symptom of the virus of (in this hypothetical) not giving a fig if the young men in your charge are sexually abused, as was and is the case with Trump’s friend Jim Jordan.

Conclusion

Trump is the reigning “King of Cancel Culture” because there’s no discrete system or community in America as tightly controlled by a single person as the contemporary Republican Party is by Donald Trump. We’re reminded of this daily when we are sagely told by political commentators that Republicans “cannot” cross Trump—yes, the word “cannot” is used—even when, say, the lives of kids on the U.S.-Mexico border are at stake, or the lives of 32 million Americans doomed to experience COVID-19 because of Trump’s refusal to acknowledge it, or when the lives of U.S. soldiers are imperiled because Trump decided to nearly start a war with Iran in January of 2020 for no reason whatsoever. In each instance, we have been told that Trump has the power to cancel the personal, professional, and pecuniary lives of Republicans anywhere in America who dissent from his deadly, capricious, and exclusively self-interested designs. Such is the power and the predilection of the leader of the contemporary Republican Party.

Now that—to quote Elroy Patashnik of Community, my very favorite television show—is a man who knows how to run a “cancel culture.”