Conservatives claim to hate "cancel culture" — but it's the heart of the right-wing agenda

Real "cancel culture": The right's decades-long campaign to stifle progressive ideas, protest and democracy itself

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published May 1, 2021 12:16PM (EDT)

Canceled (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Canceled (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

You know who's not canceled? The endless parade of conservative pundits and politicians complaining about "cancel culture." You know who is canceled? George Floyd is canceled. Breonna Taylor is canceled. Ma'Khia Bryant is canceled. Andrew Brown Jr. is canceled. They are the true victims in America's longest-running culture war. Anyone who tells you different is just gaslighting. You want "cancel culture"? America is plagued with cancel culture. And no one is more American than conservatives, as they never cease reminding you.

Despite earlier boutique appeal, the term "cancel culture" had only faintly registered with the broader public before the July Fourth holiday last year (Google trends), when then-President Donald Trump gave a speech at Mount Rushmore, warning of "a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for," and saying that his opponents' "political weapons" included ''cancel culture' — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees." 

It was a ludicrous accusation coming from the man who's signature line — "You're fired!" — was the quintessential  expression of actually-existing cancel culture. More recently, Trump had been the main driver of the cancellation of NFL Colin Kaepernick, demanding not just that the NFL quarterback be fired, but driven from the country. That absurdity prompted CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale to post a list of people or institutions Trump had called out to cancel on Twitter over the years, ranging from corporations like AT&T, Apple and Macy's to newspapers like the Dallas Morning News and the Arizona Republic to liberal commentators like Paul Krugman and Touré and even conservatives like Karl Rove, Rich Lowry, Charles Krauthammer and Jonah Goldberg. 

But now that Trump himself has been canceled by the votes of 81,268,924 Americans, "cancel culture" has become a go-to weapon of choice for Trumpian conservatives, fueled by a branded string of stories in conservative media, including the New York Post, Breitbart, the Daily Caller and the Daily Wire. With Trump himself no longer dominating news cycles 24/7, there's a huge void to fill. Conservative "cancel culture" panic helps fill that void by providing a shared cookie-cutter framework to both fuel and give shape to that panic — which is in fact a genuine cultural panic about the white right's loss of power to impose its worldview, and resulting judgments, on others. To hold onto power, conservatives are committed to building the "cancel culture" narrative, casting themselves as victims — along the lines of my December Salon story on perceived victimhood

A meaningfully meaningless term

As Media Matters editor Parker Malloy argues, regarding the terms "cancel culture," "woke" and "identity politics": "Whatever real definitions these words had before they were co-opted by the right have been diluted to the point of meaninglessness." For conservatives, that meaninglessness is a feature, not a bug. Those words mean whatever a right-wing accuser needs them to mean in the moment. They are talismanic terms, representing the very cultural power the right feels itself losing in today's rapidly changing world. "Cancel culture" in particular has a profound Orwellian or even Nietzschean power: a transvaluation of values, transforming a moment of existential loss into one of triumph, at least for as long as we let them get away with it. 

There are, however, two modest constraints on meaning we can observe: the notions that cancel culture is something new, and that it comes exclusively from the left. The reality is exactly the opposite. For as long as culture has been changing, conservatives have tried to stop it by suppressing or demonizing anything that challenges their worldview. Not all conservatives, of course, and not in all ways. But this has been a central thrust of conservative thought, not just in the modern political era, when the terms "liberal" and "conservative" emerged, but as far back as ancient Greece, as Eric Alfred Havelock showed in "The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics." 

In American history we can see dramatic examples of conservative cancel culture in the Alien and Sedition Acts, in the 4,743 post-Civil War lynchings to terrorize and suppress black political power, in the post-World War I Palmer Raids, in which 10,000 were arrested and 556 deported, in the McCarthy era, during which hundreds were imprisoned and 10,000 to 12,000 Americans lost their jobs — including the long-neglected anti-gay Lavender Scare — and in the FBI's COINTELPRO Program, which targeted the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements, labelling Martin Luther King Jr.'s SCLC as a Black nationalist "hate group." Trump's obsession with canceling people he fears fits squarely within this historical tradition. After all, his political mentor and second father-figure was Joe McCarthy's lead investigator, Roy Cohn. We shouldn't be the least bit surprised or confused by the cancel culture hysteria being promoted today as a front for the same evils it pretends to be fighting against. 

Still, the term itself is new compared to this centuries-long history, so it warrants clarification. In early April, the Washington Post's Clyde McGrady provided an excellent guide, "The strange journey of 'cancel,' from a Black-culture punchline to a White-grievance watchword." McGrady offers a concise cultural history, from legendary songwriter/producer Nile Rodgers' experience with a bad date, rendered into the 1981 Chic song "Your Love Is Cancelled" to its appearance in "New Jack City" a decade later to 2000s songs "Hustler's Ambition" by 50 Cent and "I'm Single" by Lil Wayne and finally to Black Twitter.  

"Declaring someone or something 'canceled' on Twitter was not really an attempt to activate a boycott or run anyone from the public square," McGrady explains. "Saying someone was 'canceled' was more like changing the channel — and telling your friends and followers about it — than demanding that the TV execs take the program off the air." 

It's worth highlighting that Rodgers' bad-date experience at the root of all this sprang from his working-class common man rejection of tossing his cultural weight around:

[A]t heart, he was still a humble kid whose parents had struggled with drug addiction and who felt fortunate to have made it as far as he did. So, when his date asked the maître d' to remove people from a table so they could sit there instead, Rodgers bristled. … 

Her attempt to use his celebrity to push people around was a dealbreaker. "No, no, no, I don't do that," Rodgers remembered explaining. "I don't play that card."

In short, canceling everyday people in the way that conservatives portray "cancel culture" to work was the exact opposite of what motivated Rodgers to coin the term in the first place, as well as how it's been used on Twitter. Think about that anytime you hear the term used.

You should also think of everything conservatives are doing — or trying to do — right now to cancel the views of those they disagree with. The following are just a few prominent examples. In each case, it's about those who wield power "canceling" — or at least trying to cancel — those who would challenge them. Their efforts to cancel democracy at the ballot box (with 361 bills in 47 states as of March 24) and in the streets (81 anti-protest bills in 34 states as of April 21) are deadly serious threats to American democracy.

But the right's most persistent, long-running cancel-culture attacks center on education. As Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting noted on William F. Buckley's death, "Buckley's career began in 1951 with the publication of 'God and Man at Yale,' an attack on his alma mater that urged the firing of professors whom he felt were insufficiently hostile to socialism and atheism." 

Cancel culture in education

In March, Boise State University abruptly suspended all 52 sections of a required general education course, "Foundations of Ethics & Diversity," citing "allegations that a student or students have been humiliated and degraded in class on our campus for their beliefs and values." Suspending 52 sections of a required course without investigation for perhaps a single student complaint is of course wildly out of bounds, as pointed out by John K. Wilson at the Academe blog

Even if one instructor had done something terrible in one class, that would only justify (in the most extreme cases) suspending that instructor temporarily and finding a substitute to continue the class. It could not justify suspending all 52 classes in which there was no evidence of any misconduct.

Shedding light on the over-reaction, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported, "The cancellation of the classes comes after more than a year of lawmakers' efforts to rein in classes at Idaho universities and colleges." But the legislature wasn't acting on its own, as Wilson made clear:

The Idaho legislators are being pressured by right-wing nonprofits who demand censorship of liberal ideas on campus. A December 2020 report from the right-wing Idaho Freedom Foundation and the Claremont Institute declared that "eliminating social justice initiatives at Idaho's universities is necessary for meaningful reform, as well as disrupting their ability to provide stable careers for social justice advocates." The report called for the state legislature to act by "penalizing universities that continue to emphasize social justice education." This report urged the state legislature to violate academic freedom and ban classes it deemed too liberal: "Direct the University to eliminate courses that are infused with social justice Ideology." Leading right-wing think tanks are actively demanding a ban on courses based on their ideology. This is an example of conservative cancel culture far more extreme than anything pushed by left-wing activists. 

The report doesn't just call for eliminating individual courses, however. It calls for the elimination of five whole departments — Gender Studies, Sociology, Global Studies, Social Work and History — that it claims are infused with "social justice" ideology. (A sixth blacklisted department has since been added: Criminal Justice.) Eight other departments (later updated to nine) are on a watch list of sorts, judged to be "social justice in training." What conservatives want here is strikingly similar to what Viktor Orbán has done in Hungary, where he's just announced the privatization of 11 public universities, to be run by political allies. 

Boise State's recklessly illegal actions are just the tip of the iceberg. On April 15, Education Week reported that Republican lawmakers in eight states (including Idaho) have drafted bills restricting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. "The bills use similar language as an executive order former President Donald Trump put in place to ban diversity trainings for federal workers," it reported. 

Georgetown political scientist Donald Moynihan saw all this coming years ago. In a New York Times op-ed just before Trump took office, Moynihan — then at the University of Wisconsin — focused attention on what was really happening where he worked.

"At least three times in the past six months, state legislators have threatened to cut the budget of the University of Wisconsin at Madison for teaching about homosexuality, gender and race," his article began. All the discussions focused on the dangers of "political correctness" (the buzzword of choice before "cancel culture") bore no relation to his own experience teaching at public universities in three states over 14 years. "Students can protest on the campus mall, demanding that policies be changed; elected officials can pass laws or cut resources to reflect their beliefs about how a campus should operate," he wrote. "One group has much more power than the other." 

I asked Moynihan about how he came to write that piece when he did. Here's what he said: 

I was first engaged on speech issues when the then-governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, proposed to remove "the search for truth" from my university's mission statement. (He would later claim it was a typo.) He then reduced tenure protections for faculty and new policies that would have made it easier to bring guns on campus. Republican politicians would talk about free speech on campus, but seemed to be intent on eroding the conditions to protect such speech. Politicians were also willing to target faculty members. The chair of the Assembly Higher Education committee started monitoring faculty syllabi and calling for the firing of faculty whose courses he did not like. 

That was when I spoke out…. It seemed deeply unfair that state officials would so blatantly use their power to determine what was, and what was not, acceptable speech. ...

Soon after a Ben Shapiro talk was interrupted for about 10 minutes the legislature proposed and the conservative Board of Regents adopted a new set of policies that they said protected free speech but effectively forced campuses to punish students for protest. Our Board of Regents was almost uniformly conservative appointees who seemed to see it as their job to attack the institution they had been appointed to represent.

I'll have more to say about Shapiro's role below. But it's part of a broader campaign. "Conservatives have been successful at demonizing the people who work on campus — faculty, staff and students — as threats to free speech," Moynihan told me. "Attacking universities became a staple of the far right, propelled by an entire ecosystem of media funded by donors like the Koch or DeVos families, such as Campus Reform. [More on them below, too.] Tucker Carlson had a themed segment called 'Campus Craziness.'"

 Worse than that, Moynihan said: 

The mainstream media bought it. It wasn't just on the right. Journalists at the Atlantic or writers in the New York Times told us that students were becoming dangerously intolerant, and faculty were brainwashing them. My op-ed in the Times was one of the few that pushed against that general narrative. The dominant narrative, even in places like the New York Times, was that conservative speech was being suppressed, and the students and faculty were the villains. Someone counted this! They found that over an 18-month stretch, there were 21 op-eds about the suppression of conservative speech but just three, including mine, on conservative threats to speech.

Remember: Moynihan's op-ed ran just days before Trump took office, having made complaints about "political correctness" a recurrent campaign theme.  

"Once the general narrative was established, even trivial examples — students at Oberlin complaining about food names - were presented as serious and representative threats to speech," Moynihan continued. "There were also a series of college tours by people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro who said offensive things designed to enrage people, and then generated protests and interruptions that embellished their brands as fearless free-speech champions." 

In March 2018, Sanford Ungar reported on results from the Georgetown Free Speech Tracker:

[M]ost of the incidents where presumptively conservative speech has been interrupted or squelched in the last two or three years seem to involve the same few speakers: Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray, and Ann Coulter…. In some instances, they seem to invite, and delight in, disruption.

At Vox, Zack Beauchamp put a finer point on it:

What Ungar is suggesting here is that the "campus free speech" crisis is somewhat manufactured. Conservative student groups invite speakers famous for offensive and racially charged speech — all of the above speakers fit that bill — in a deliberate attempt to provoke the campus left. In other words, they're trolling. 

Trolling takes other forms as well, as Alice Speri reported for the Intercept in early April. Her story carried the subhead, "Campus Reform and its publisher, the Leadership Institute, are siccing armies of trolls on professors across the country." Campus Reform purports to expose "liberal bias and abuse on the nation's college campuses," but regularly relies on misrepresentation, first to elicit faculty comments and then to mis-report them, making them seem as sinister as possible.  "Over the last several years, Campus Reform has targeted hundreds of college professors," Speri reported, "leading to online harassment campaigns, doxxing, threats of violence, and calls on universities to fire their faculty." 

A Trinity College assistant professor, Isaac Kamola, "has tracked more than 1,570 stories posted on Campus Reform since 2020 and surveyed the 338 individuals they targeted." He "found that at least 40 percent of respondents received 'threats of harm' following a Campus Reform article, mostly via email and social media." She goes on to say, "Less than half the people surveyed by Kamola reported receiving support from their universities' administrations, and more than 12 percent reported facing disciplinary action as a result of a Campus Reform story. Three people said they lost their jobs."

In short, they were canceled. And no one put them on national TV to talk about it. That's just one more way in which conservative gaslighting about cancel culture advances the very thing conservatives claim to be concerned about. 

"Having created the narrative of the intolerant liberal campus as a problem, conservative politicians could propose a solution," Moynihan continued. "They could make a case for why their policing of speech on campus was actually protecting free speech. They effectively persuaded many that politicians should be trusted to monitor speech on campus, more than the people who lived on campus and have historically done a pretty good job of protecting speech."

But none of this matched reality. "Wisconsin has a long history of protest and counter-protest on campus, some of it quite violent. The idea that students had suddenly become aggressive seemed clearly wrong to me," Moynihan recalled. "These terms I kept hearing just did not fit with my experience with the students I engaged with. The gap between my lived experience on campus and what was being portrayed in the media was large." 

At the same time, "I looked around the world and saw a very disturbing trend: Authoritarian governments in places like Hungary, Turkey and China were policing speech on campus as part of their effort to stifle dissent, using many of the same tools that U.S. state legislatures are adopting," Moynihan said. "For example, a bill in Florida encourages students to record and monitor their professors to expose their views. What could be more chilling to speech in the classroom? This is the same tool that China uses to control universities: Student informers report any dissent against the party."

Canceling democracy at the ballot box

Trump's refusal to accept his defeat in the 2020 election was the epitome of attempting to cancel democracy. But it was only an intensification of processes already underway. Republicans have only won the popular vote for president once in eight elections since 1988. They have not represented a majority of voters in the Senate since 1996. Their $30 million REDMAP project in 2010 created the most sweeping partisan redistricting of the House in US history, as former Salon editor in chief David Daley recounted in "Ratf**ked." Baseless claims of voter fraud have been repeatedly invoked in justifying and motivating voter suppression efforts. More broadly, a new study of state-level democratic backsliding since 2000 found that "Republican control of state government, however, consistently and profoundly reduces state democratic performance during this time period."

Still, what's happening now goes considerably further. A majority of Republicans refuse to believe Biden legitimately won the election, leading to an avalanche of new voter suppression bills — 361 bills in 47 states as of March 24, according to the Brennan Center, which reported:

Most restrictive bills take aim at absentee voting, while nearly a quarter seek stricter voter ID requirements. State lawmakers also aim to make voter registration harder, expand voter roll purges or adopt flawed practices that would risk improper purges, and cut back on early voting. 

Sharply underscoring the cancel culture motivations — the conflict between established state power and shifting public opinion — the report continued: "The states that have seen the largest number of restrictive bills introduced are Texas (49 bills), Georgia (25 bills), and Arizona (23 bills). Bills are actively moving in the Texas and Arizona statehouses, and Georgia enacted an omnibus voter suppression bill last week."

The most infamous aspect of the Georgia law is its restriction on giving water to people waiting in long lines to vote. But as election law expert Rick Hasen explained in a New York Times op-ed, there's something even more sinister involved, a "new threat of election subversion" that "represent[s] a huge threat to American democracy itself." Specifically, "The Georgia law removes the secretary of state from decision-making power on the state election board," which is aimed at Brad Raffensperger, who refused to "find" 11,780 votes to overturn Biden's victory. "But the changes will apply to Mr. Raffensperger's successor, too, giving the legislature a greater hand in who counts votes and how they are counted," Hasen explained. 

It's hardly an isolated case, he noted: "According to a new report by Protect DemocracyLaw Forward and the States United Democracy Center, Republican legislators have proposed at least 148 bills in 36 states that could increase the chances of cooking the electoral books." More precisely, the press release says: 

Many of the bills would make elections more difficult to administer or even unworkable; make it more difficult to finalize election results; allow for election interference and manipulation by hyper-partisan actors; and, in the worst cases, allow state legislatures to overturn the will of the voters and precipitate a democracy crisis. If these bills had been in place in 2020, they would have significantly added to the turmoil of the post-election period, and raised the prospect that the outcome of the election would have been contrary to the popular vote.

This is what a real cancel culture crisis looks like. And it's 100% conservative from top to bottom. There are of course some individual conservatives who strongly object — but nowhere near enough.

Canceling democracy in the streets

But democracy doesn't begin and end at the polls. The First Amendment protects basic freedoms that make meaningful democracy possible, including "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Republicans have been busy trying to cancel our democracy on this front as well, with 81 anti-protest bills introduced in 34 states during the 2021 legislative session, "more than twice as many proposals as in any other year, according to Elly Page, a senior legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law," the New York Times reported on April 21. (Those laws are tracked here.) 

"Republican legislators in Oklahoma and Iowa have passed bills granting immunity to drivers whose vehicles strike and injure protesters in public streets," the Times reported. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. "We've seen at least 15 bills introduced that would create new immunity for drivers who hit protesters with their cars," Page's colleague Nick Robinson told Democracy Now! on April 26. That just one of many objectionable features in a recently-passed Florida bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed while claiming it was as "anti-rioting." The ACLU of Florida characterized it instead as "anti-protest." Just three people would be enough to constitute a "riot" and 26 would constitute an "aggravated riot," potentially facing long prison sentences.

"Under this new bill, let's say you just go to a protest, and a handful of people kick over a trash can. Just by being part of that crowd, you can be arrested and prosecuted for rioting and face a felony," Robinson explained. "Actually, under the law, no one actually has to commit any violence at all. If there's just a danger to property, then people can be arrested for rioting." 

In short, this a naked governmental power grab, meant to squelch popular protest, and aimed specificallyat Black Lives Matter protesters. How do we know? Florida lawmakers said as much, and they included a provision blocking any Florida city or county from cutting police budgets without explicit permission from the state. 

Conservative anti-protest cancel culture is nothing new, of course. The Palmer Raids were supposed to head off a Russian Revolution-style violent uprising, but only turned up a total of four pistols from thousands of arrests. More recently, Republican state lawmakers have focused on criminalizing climate activism, as the Brennan Center reported in March:

Since 2016, 13 states have quietly enacted laws that increase criminal penalties for trespassing, damage, and interference with infrastructure sites such as oil refineries and pipelines. At least five more states have already introduced similar legislation this year. 

The laws are based on post-9/11 national security legislation to protect vital physical infrastructure, "but most state critical infrastructure laws focus more narrowly on oil and gas pipelines," the Center noted. "While protecting critical infrastructure is a legitimate government function, these laws clearly target environmental and Indigenous activists by significantly raising the penalties for participating in or even tangentially supporting pipeline trespassing and property damage, crimes that are already illegal."

And there's one final conservative cancel culture twist: the question of who's calling the shots: 

Many laws are modeled on draft legislation prepared by the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC, a powerful lobbying group funded by fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Shell.

Cancel culture In Congress

Those are three broad areas where conservative cancel culture is both widespread and deeply dangerous to democracy. But that's hardly the whole story. Consider what's happened with two key Biden appointments, Vanita Gupta, for Associate Attorney General, and Kristen Clarke to head the DOJ Civil Rights Division. Both were subject to dishonest, racist right-wing smear campaigns, as CNN reported, and Gupta was confirmed 51-49, with just one Republican vote (Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) on April 21. Both were relentlessly portrayed as dangerous extremists, when they've actually been leaders of mainstream civil rights organizations — the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (Gupta) and Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights Under Law (Clarke). Both were attacked for supposedly being anti-police (no racial stereotyping there, right?) even though both had been endorsed by police organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police (Gupta) and the Major Cities Chiefs Association (Clarke). 

The attacks on them were part of a broader pattern of attacks on nominees who are women and/or people of color, including Xavier Becerra (Health and Human Services), Deb Haaland (Department of Interior) and Neera Tanden (Office of Management and Budget). Becerra was confirmed 50-49 — with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine as his only GOP vote — while Tanden's nomination was withdrawn. 

All this is simply accepted as normal now, but it's prima facie evidence of a concerted conservative cancel-culture effort to stifle the voices of key Democratic constituencies. It's visible in the broad reach of voter suppression efforts, of protest suppression efforts and curriculum suppression efforts as well. They've all but given up on advancing anything like a governing agenda. At the Atlantic, Ron Brownstein observed:

With their opposition to President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan, Republicans are doubling down on a core bet they've made for his presidency: that the GOP can maintain support among its key constituencies while fighting programs that would provide those voters with tangible economic assistance. 

To accomplish that, they have to cancel reality itself. No problem — Republicans have been doing that for decades. The only difference now is that they've stopped doing anything else.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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