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Donald Trump is the king of cancel culture

No other politician has spent more time trying to cancel those who offend him.

President Trump (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

“President Trump stands against … cancel culture, which seeks to erase our history,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany declaimed on Monday.

Talk of “cancel culture” — defined as the “popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive” — is everywhere these days. “Social justice warriors are waging a dangerous 'Cancel Cultural Revolution,’” screams the headline in the New York Post. “Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, who’s next on the statue cancellation tour?” demands Fox’s Greg Gutfeld. Democrats are being “driven by this radical 'cancel culture’ left,” insists Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).

So perhaps it isn’t surprising that the left-bashing president has jumped on this particular “culture wars” bandwagon.

But here’s the hypocrisy: Donald Trump has embraced “cancel culture” his entire life. I cannot think of another politician, or public figure, who has spent more time trying to “cancel” critics than the thin-skinned former reality TV star in the Oval Office. Over the years, Trump has called for the boycott of leading U.S. brands such as Macy’s, Apple, and Harley Davidson, among others, because they displeased him in one way or another. He forces those around him into nondisclosure agreements and then threatens them with legal action if they dare speak out against him — including his own niece Mary, whose forthcoming tell-all book the president is desperately trying to … cancel.

This approach has only been amplified since he came into office, a period that has found him publicly and repeatedly trying to cancel both social media companies (“We will strongly regulate, or close them down”) and network news channels (“Challenge their license?”) while calling for prominent journalists who have upset him, such as Chuck Todd and Jemele Hill, to be fired. (In private, Trump has gone much further: according to his former national security adviser, the president wants some journalists to be “executed.”)

The 'reasonable' rebels

Then there is Colin Kaepernick. The president not only supported the benching of the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback but insisted NFL owners sack other players, too. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” he ranted at a rally in September 2017.

Trump’s interest in silencing his opponents — the very thing cancel culture’s conservative critics decry — is more pronounced when he’s targeting members of his own political party. Take Mitt Romney. The sole Republican senator to vote for impeachment in February faced an intense backlash from both the president and his ideological allies — especially after Trump labeled him an “ass” and a “fool” and called for Romney’s impeachment. The president’s son demanded the Utah senator be expelled from the GOP. The chairman of the Conservative Political Action Conference said he could not even guarantee Romney’s “physical safety” should the senator decide to attend the organization’s annual event. In short, at Trump’s behest, the Republican Party canceled their own former presidential candidate.

Romney, of course, wasn’t the first independent-minded GOP member of Congress to endure such mistreatment at the hands of the Canceler-in-Chief. Remember Jeff Flake? Canceled. Bob Corker? Canceled. Justin Amash? Canceled. Mark Sanford? Canceled.

It’s no secret that Republican officials now live in fear of having their careers ended by Trump, and/or his base, if they step out of line. After Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the fourth-ranking Republican in the Senate, dared to vote against Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border, in March 2019, he was disinvited from a local dinner by a Missouri county GOP committee. After Anthony Scaramucci, the president’s former communications director, described Trump’s attack on four congresswomen of color as “racist and unacceptable,” in July 2019, he was disinvited by the Palm Beach County GOP from its annual Lobsterfest fundraiser.

Even loyalists aren’t safe from a potential cancellation. After Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), “the Trumpiest congressman in Trump’s Washington,” voted in favor of limiting Trump’s authority to start a conflict with Iran, in January, a White House official told The Washington Post that it was “quite unwise” for him to have cast such a vote and “added that White House officials would not be returning Gaetz’s phone calls, text messages, ‘smoke signals or his kneelings in the snow.’”

Then there are the public servants who dared to testify against Trump during the House impeachment hearings. Ambassador Gordon Sondland and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman were both canceled by the president for having the temerity to speak out. Trump even canceled Vindman’s brother for the crime of being his identical twin.

The dead aren’t spared, either. The late Republican Sen. John McCain is such an objectionable figure to the president that White House officials asked “the U.S. Navy to move ‘out of sight’ the warship USS John S. McCain ahead of President Trump’s visit to Japan,” according to the Wall Street Journal in May 2019. (The ship was named after the father and grandfather of the late Republican senator — so much for Trump standing against the “erasing of our history”!)

While Trump has taken “cancel culture” to new and authoritarian heights, the conservative moment as a whole has spent years loudly withdrawing support for those deemed “objectionable or offensive.” The Republican National Committee boycotted MSNBC and even the conservative National Review. A conservative group tried to boycott Burger King and Kit Kat for (what it claimed) were offensive ads. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tried to cancel Nike and the NFL. Fox News fans tried to cancel Keurig by smashing the company’s coffee machines. Right-wing pundit Erick Erickson tried to cancel the New York Times — by shooting bullets into a copy of it!

What critics of 'cancel culture' really hate

Recall also what happened to the Dixie Chicks — now known simply as the Chicks. In March 2003, in the run-up to the illegal invasion of Iraq, the band said they were “ashamed” that President George W. Bush was from their home state of Texas. In response, conservatives denounced them as “Saddam’s Angels,” “Dixie Sluts, and “traitors,” and banned them from hundreds of conservative radio stations across the country. In Bossier City, La., hundreds of pro-Bush protesters used a 33,000-pound tractor to physically crush the band’s CDs.

The list of conservative “cancel culture” targets stretches back decades, long before the dawn of the Internet. In 1966, right-wing Christians tried to cancel John Lennon, after he claimed the Beatles were “more popular” than Jesus. The British band received death threats in the United States and a Birmingham, Ala., radio station announced a bonfire and invited teens to burn their Beatles records.

So ignore the hysterical attacks on “cancel culture” from the right. Not only because they are a distortion of the facts and endless talk of a leftist “cancel culture” mob is a “joke” and a “con,” as Osita Nwanevu has documented in the New Republic, but because they are a product of bad faith and brazen hypocrisy.

Right now, in 2020, here in the United States, we have an anti-free speech, authoritarian egomaniac sitting in the White House, backed by a cultish political movement steeped in grievance politics, constantly cracking down on critics, dissenting voices, and unpopular opinions. Donald Trump and the Republican Party have never stood against “cancel culture.” To the contrary, they embody it.