Cancel Culture Is Alive And Well On The Right

[ Posted Thursday, April 27th, 2023 – 16:16 UTC ]

Remember when conservatives decried "cancel culture"? It wasn't actually that long ago that they regularly did so. The phrase originally meant, essentially: paying a price for offensive behavior. Anyone (usually celebrities) caught saying anything deemed beyond the pale was subject to harsh criticism (usually online) and efforts were made to ostracize or shun them -- which usually included pressuring their employers to fire them or otherwise exacting an economic price from the offender. Republicans, led by Donald Trump and others, began denouncing such efforts as somehow being unacceptible, under the very Trumpian ideal that nobody should ever have to pay a price for anything, no matter how offensive. Hadn't Trump shrugged off multiple scandals that would have destroyed any previous politician and gotten elected anyway? So everyone else should be just as free to offend anyone they pleased without ever having to answer for the offense in any way.

They called it "censorship" even though it wasn't. Of course, Republicans have been tossing around the term censorship with abandon in recent years, trying to apply it to all sorts of situations where it does not apply. Censorship is when the government somehow tries to silence someone's free speech. Period. An online pressure campaign to make a Hollywood actor toxic to all the major studios is not censorship. The government calling Hollywood actors in front of a congressional inquisition and forcing them to be blacklisted by the industry is, however (see: House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s). Likewise, a private online social media company cannot censor anybody, but they can indeed make corporate decisions on who they allow on their platform.

These days, however, what Republicans used to condemn as "cancel culture" seems to be alive and well within the Republican Party. Rightwing media companies (well, one in particular) are literally cancelling their own stars. Republican-led governments are trying to cancel corporate free speech -- even though conservatives fought very hard to prove that corporations are entitled to that same free speech, a few years back. GOP politicians are blatantly cancelling the political free speech rights of Democratic politicians. Republicans want to cancel certain authors, in schools and in libraries. Teachers are being targeted with laws that restrict what they can say to students. And the Republican House is attempting to cancel a district attorney in New York who is prosecuting Donald Trump, using its power as leverage in a pressure campaign to try to get him to drop the charges. Cancel culture isn't just alive and well in the Republican Party, it has grown and morphed into a much more dangerous form.

First on that list is Fox News, who has a newfound appreciation that they can indeed pay a very steep price (over three-quarters of a billion dollars) for not just offensive but downright libelous statements. This presents a whole new risk/benefit ratio to the corporate leaders, and in response they have jettisoned two of their own on-air personalities: Dan Bongino and Tucker Carlson. Carlson was more notable since he reigned supreme as the king of the cable news ratings. But he was deemed too much of a risk and shown the door. This one actually sparked a backlash from conservatives, but all Fox is concerned with is their own bottom line. They are a television network and they are able to cancel anyone they please for whatever reason they please, but this didn't exactly sit right with their own audience.

While pressuring a corporation to cut ties (or, in Carlson's case, not cut ties) with a celebrity had been part of the cancel culture definition from the start, using government to do so is a serious escalation. And this has been happening in many various ways throughout red-state America.

The governor of Florida is on a crusade of retribution against the second-biggest employer in the state, the Disney Corporation. Disney's sin (as far as Ron DeSantis is concerned) was to -- belatedly -- speak out against a law Florida passed which gagged teachers in the earliest grades from admitting that gay people even existed to their students. This was decidedly not what Republicans had in mind when they celebrated the victory of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which established that since corporations were legally "people," they had the same constitutional rights as actual people. To Republicans, this equated to one thing and one thing alone: corporations were free to give massive amounts of money to Republican politicians. But then corporations began to realize that inclusion was a good thing in the marketplace, and more and more corporations have been supporting a whole raft of things that Republicans disapprove of -- such as treating gay people not just with compassion but just like everyone else.

Disney's tepid opposition to the bill enraged DeSantis, or perhaps he just saw it as a political opportunity to build up his "anti-woke" chops before launching a presidential bid. Whatever his true motivation, DeSantis has been trying to come up with new and creative ways to punish Disney for their temerity in taking a political stance Republicans didn't like. Disney has finally had enough of this bullying and just filed a federal lawsuit charging Florida with stomping all over its right to free speech via a campaign of retribution. What the Florida government has been doing is not direct censorship, but instead using the power of government to create leverage against a corporation to threaten both it and all other corporations in the state from ever offering political support for liberal causes ever again. Which may actually have worked, to some extent. Florida just recently expanded the "Don't Say Gay" law for teachers not just to the very earliest grades, but all the way up to 12th grade and high school teachers. Disney wasn't very vocal in opposing this expansion (at least, that I noticed), which is somewhat telling.

Then there is blatant censorship of elected representatives. The "Tennessee Two" were expelled from the state legislature for launching a protest on the floor of the state's lower chamber. This wasn't just free speech, it was political free speech, which has even higher legal protections under our Constitution. But it didn't matter to the supermajority of Republicans, who booted two Black representatives from their seats. Their own local governments immediately reinstated them, but the message was pretty clear: say something we don't like in a manner which we disapprove of, and your political power will be cancelled. Montana's state government didn't go quite as far this week, in condemnation of an impassioned speech by a transgender representative -- they didn't expel her, they just banned her from speaking on the floor for the rest of this year. Both of these are examples of raw political power being used to outright cancel speech that Republicans simply don't want to hear. It is political censorship, plain and simple.

Florida is not just paving the way with it's ongoing feud with Disney, they are also out in front of another trend -- Republicans trying to cancel authors whose works they do not approve of. At first this began in school libraries, since it is easier to make the case that "we're just doing this to protect children," but since then this effort has spread to public libraries in general -- some of which are now being threatened with outright closure by Republican state and local legislatures. This is all a rather bizarre argument to be having in 2023, although it is a recurring phenomenon in American politics (book banning has a long tradition here, sadly enough). But in all the previous spasms of censorship attempts there was no other way to see the books. If a book was banned at the national level or even just at the local libraries and bookstores, then people had no other easy option to see what all the fuss was about. That simply is not true these days. The internet exists -- a fact which is notably absent in all the book-banning arguments.

As with all other eruptions of book-banning mania in history, this began with a handful of books deemed too offensive (the word "pornographic" is almost always deployed in these arguments) for fragile eyes to view. But then the desire to control things spreads, and pretty soon the calls for banning books are widened to include even the most casual references to, say, a gay couple. Having two mommies or two daddies -- even just as a background thing, not even as a part of the plotline at all -- is deemed just as pornographic as all the other books on the banned lists. And banning books was the original "cancel culture," so it's pretty easy to see why this has all come roaring back now that Republicans are comfortable with cancelling all the people they don't like.

The most toxic recent example of raw political "cancel" power being flexed is the crusade Representative Jim Jordan is waging against the New York district attorney who filed 34 felony counts against Donald Trump. Democrats have -- quite accurately -- called the committees Jordan runs "nothing more than an extension of Donald Trump's defense team." Although the federal government has exactly zero role in a local prosecution of any state-level crime, Jordan does not care. He has not only mounted a pressure campaign against the D.A.'s office (by asking for things he has no legal right to, such as information on Trump's ongoing prosecution), he even moved his whole committee to New York City to hold a circuslike hearing in a blatant attempt to undermine public confidence in the D.A. So far, this entire effort has been a failure -- it has not moved the needle at all, either in the prosecutor's office or with the general public -- but Jordan will not be deterred and plans for future hearings and "investigation" of an elected official who had the temerity to try to make Donald Trump answer for his wrongdoings. The real irony -- which is downright Orwellian -- is that one of Jordan's pet committees is supposed to be rooting out "weaponizing government," when in fact that is precisely what Jordan is attempting to do.

Call it cancel culture run amok. Originally, Donald Trump attempted the "old school" cancel culture by ranting and raving against the prosecutor on social media. But Trump's social media reach isn't what it used to be (by a very long shot), so this wasn't actually all that effective. Jordan stepped up to the plate and is now using the levers of government in an attempt to not just silence but actually influence prosecutorial decisions because a prominent Republican is being charged with criminal behavior. Cancel culture has gone through the looking glass in the Republican Party.

One interesting footnote to all of this is who Republicans have refused to cancel -- Representative George Santos. Santos lied and quite possibly cheated his way to election, but when all of this was mercilessly exposed he was not forced to pay any political price. Kevin McCarthy needed Santos to get elected speaker of the House, and so the House Republican leadership did not strip Santos of his committee assignments or exact any other sort of punishment for all the serial lying (Santos did "temporarily" voluntarily step down from his committee assignments when the public pressure hit a crescendo, however). Some individual Republicans have called for Santos to resign, but he has ignored such calls and has actually filed for re-election. Democrats introduced a motion to expel Santos from the House, but it would require a two-thirds vote to pass. The motion has not come up for a vote, and likely won't, as Santos still enjoys not only McCarthy's support but also the support of the entire Republican leadership team. His continued tenure in office proves that there are few sins which will cause Republicans to cancel one of their own in the same manner they have been cancelling Democrats.

Democrats should really do a better job of pointing out all this hypocrisy and tying it together under the theme of "Republicans embracing cancel culture." Far from its origins as a popular movement to get celebrities to pay a price for odious and offensive statements and/or behavior, Republican cancel culture seems all about one thing -- the exercise of raw political power to silence or intimidate any opposition to what Republicans believe and support. Cancel culture is not just alive and well in today's Republican Party, it is growing into something a lot more dangerous than mere public disapproval.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


18 Comments on “Cancel Culture Is Alive And Well On The Right”

  1. [1] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    Woke is just another name for enlightenment...

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    ...and anti-enlightenment is just another name for Republican.

  3. [3] 
    andygaus wrote:

    It seems like only yesterday that the Scopes trial was something out of the distant past.

  4. [4] 
    dsws wrote:

    What did Kamala Harris say in the debates? I'm pretty sure I wasn't considering her as someone I was likely to vote for at that point, so if I noticed anything negative about her I didn't really feel the need to remember it.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Yes, her debate performance was quite forgettable. She really should still be in the US senate ... learning her craft.

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    ... instead of using it as a 'quick and easy' stepping stone to the presidency. At least while Joe Biden was still alive and kicking. Ahem.

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Ironic that he picked her for his running mate. I had a long list of people I would have loved to see run with him and she wasn't on it.

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    To be fair, compared to Biden, they were all mere straw and flyweights. Still are. That goes for RFK junior, too, in spades.

  9. [9] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    kamala made and still makes a lot of sense as a running mate for biden. she's young, smart, african american, moderate/corporate, and not a big enough personality to overshadow biden himself.

  10. [10] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    maya rudolph's portrayal of her on SNL was brilliant, too.

  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    She's not ready to be president, in my not so humble estimation. And, that is the bottom line.

  12. [12] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Just to be clear, that last comment up there has NOTHING, whatsoever, to do with Biden's age or health.

  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Putting her on the ticket was a very political decision and I understand that. I don't have to like it, though.

  14. [14] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    kamala was also close friends with beau biden, so the decision was personal as well as political.

  15. [15] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    That's right. I forgot about that. I just watched the WH Correspondents Dinner. Okay, so, I feel bad about what I have said about her. I do remember her remarks at the funeral of Tyre Nicholls and being very impressed.

  16. [16] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I should know better than to second guess Biden by now. He's usually right. :)

  17. [17] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    But, not always ...

  18. [18] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    So, no snap reactions to the old guy and his delivery??

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