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Opinion Nobody loves ‘cancel culture’ more than Republicans do

Morgan Wallen arrives at the CMT Music Awards in Nashville in 2019. (Sanford Myers/AP)

America, conservatives will tell you, is under siege by “cancel culture.” What they won’t tell you is that they couldn’t be happier about it, since it gives them a handy comeback to any criticism, and helps feed their supporters’ sense of victimization.

Consider the defense Donald Trump Jr. offered of Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s jaunt to Cancun while millions of his Texas constituents froze without power.

“The optics of that right now isn’t ideal,” Trump Jr. admitted in a video posted to social media, but “I’m not going to jump on this bandwagon of trying to cancel the guy.” Because Cruz is the real victim here.

Or consider this new effort by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 in the Senate GOP leadership, to apply the term “cancel culture” to allies of former president Donald Trump. Thune called on them to stop attacking Republicans who condemned Trump’s incitement of the insurrection at the Capitol, in hopes of tamping down the intra-GOP war.

“If we’re going to criticize the media and the left for cancel culture, we can’t be doing that ourselves,” Thune gamely suggested. This time the victims were Republicans suffering backlash for criticizing Trump.

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In short, any time you’re being criticized in a way you don’t like, you can just say you’re being “canceled.” This will always find a ready audience with Republicans, because they agree with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)’s claim that cancel culture “is the most dangerous thing happening in our country today.”

Thune is right in one sense: Republicans who stood up against Trump have indeed received fierce attacks from within their party, everything from letters of condemnation to formal censure to death threats.

But that doesn’t mean they’ve been canceled. After all, they still have their jobs (as does Cruz). They can do TV interviews and write op-eds. And if they lose primary challenges because of the decision they made, well, that’s politics. Whether you think a failure to support Trump is a good reason to vote against a candidate, nobody has an inherent right to win their next election.

There’s no question that we’re in a time when people — both the famous and the obscure — are more likely than ever to incur consequences for things they’ve said or done. There’s also no question that in some cases it’s long overdue, and in other cases it can be excessive or unfair, with someone losing their job over a misinterpreted joke on Twitter.

But the truth is that both sides are happy to cancel people all the time. They just want the grounds for cancellation to be different. For some a history of bigotry is a reason for you to be canceled; for others it’s criticizing Trump.

The right, however, routinely makes, “Don’t cancel me!” an all-purpose defense to excuse any misdeed. And this has been many years in the making. Long before the phrase “cancel culture” existed, conservatives were complaining that they were constantly being scolded by censorious liberals wielding false accusations, especially accusations of racism.

Trump understood this. A big part of his appeal was that he promised the GOP base liberation from “political correctness,” the term that has now been replaced by “cancel culture.” To conservatives, political correctness represented two things they didn’t want: a universalization of liberal values, and the imposition of those values on the daily behavior of everyone, even conservatives.

So Trump said, in so many words, To hell with that. He told them that not only is it okay to be racist and sexist and xenophobic, but that you should do so proudly and loudly, and he’d show you how. To voters who had never heard that from a politician, it was thrilling.

This was what the late Rush Limbaugh said for a couple of decades: You should be able to say whatever you want, no matter how offensive, and if the libs didn’t like it then you should revel in their dismay.

But now accountability is breaking out all over. And what really disturbs conservatives is when liberal standards start getting applied in realms where conservatives thought they had all or most of the power.

Conservatives didn’t complain about cancel culture when former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was drummed out of professional football for silently and peacefully expressing a political view — after all, it was the NFL, where conservative values ruled. But a few years later, the league commissioner was saying, “Black lives matter” and NASCAR banned the Confederate flag — nothing less than liberal values infecting what they thought were conservative safe spaces.

Nor did conservatives mind in 2003 when country stations refused to play the Dixie Chicks after their lead singer gently insulted then-President George W. Bush. But when country star Morgan Wallen received similar treatment this month after video emerged of him saying the n-word, his sales went through the roof. It’s almost as though people downloaded his songs precisely because he looked like the victim of a liberal canceling.

For all their faux outrage, nobody is more pleased to see the latest excess of cancel culture than Republican politicians and the conservative media, because it gives them plenty of material to work with, to stoke their audiences’ sense of victimization.

That narrative — that you, my conservative constituents, are being oppressed by a liberal culture that abhors your values and wants to silence you — has some elements of truth. But it’s also a terrific means of political mobilization, and helps distract from unpopular Republican policy positions and failures of governing.

Yes, the new culture of accountability sometimes goes too far, particularly on the occasions when it sweeps up the powerless. But if it didn’t exist, conservatives would have invented it.

Read more:

Kathleen Parker: Don’t cancel Shakespeare

David Von Drehle: If cancel culture is scary, you shouldn’t be in the ideas business

Christine Emba: Yes, God cancels people, and we can, too

Megan McArdle: The real problem with ‘cancel culture’

Ed Hirs: Why Texans are cold and in the dark

Jennifer Rubin: The party that does not give a darn