Amid debate over one of the most expensive stimulus packages in American history and turmoil over the global pandemic, many Republicans have been focused on what they view as “cancel culture” run amok.
In some ways the furor illustrates a party still attempting to find its post-Trump way, a fractured GOP in search of something to unite around. Biden’s top priority — a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package — remains broadly popular. Meanwhile, former president Donald Trump is going after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and criticizing his party for opposing the $1,400 stimulus checks that are now in Biden’s package.
That has prompted Republicans to return to the familiar terrain of culture wars and the argument that Biden represents a country that is too sensitive and too frightened of giving offense.
“The cancel culture is real. And it’s what generated the outrage that generated a Trump presidency,” said Frank Luntz, a veteran Republican pollster. “I don’t know if it’s revenge, but it’s certainly to silence alternative points of view. And that’s a big mistake. That’s when people take to the streets and revolt.”
While Biden is the frequent target, each of the issues has a confusing backstory that is often driven by individual companies making business-based decisions. The toymaker Hasbro, for example, decided last Thursday to drop the “Mr.” from its Mr. Potato Head brand, leaving it gender-neutral (clarifying later that the toys themselves would still be called Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head).
Last week, Disney Plus began adding a disclaimer to some episodes of “The Muppet Show” to warn that the “program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures.” That led to conservative complaints including from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) who called it a “total Mickey Mouse move.”
Dr. Seuss Enterprises said Tuesday it would stop publication of six books — none of which are among the author’s most popular titles — because they contain racially offensive images. Critics have responded by buying up Dr. Seuss books, which has presumably helped the company that made the decision in the first place.
Scott Reed, a longtime Republican consultant, said the issues are not frivolous. “I think it merits attention and opposition because it’s gone to such an absurd level,” Reed said. “I mean, really, you’ve got to be sanctioning Dr. Seuss? What next?”
He said that while the cultural skirmishes will inevitably garner media attention — “There will still be a Mr. Potato Head segment tonight on Fox, because they can’t resist” — the important point is that the GOP is unifying against Biden’s spending plans.
“This covid package has united the Republicans like nothing in years,” Reed said.
But it’s the cultural issues that are dominating conservative discourse.
Over the course of the past week, Fox News has spent 4 hours and 38 minutes on Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head and Biden’s comments about Neanderthals, according to a tally by the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America. That compared to 42 minutes from CNN and 39 minutes from MSNBC on those topics.
Fox News on Tuesday alone devoted an hour and nine minutes to Dr. Seuss — more than the combined amount it spent on the coronavirus vaccine and FBI testimony about the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The issue has even invaded the halls of Congress. “First they outlaw Dr. Seuss, and now they want to tell us what to say,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a House floor speech.
“Is there anything they won’t destroy?” asked Donald Trump Jr., who posted a photo of himself with his son and a “The Cat in the Hat” book.
“There is nothing that is sacred,” he added in a four minute video. “Who knows what’s next? You know, you saw Mr. Potato Head. And you saw the Muppets, they’re all gone in the last 10 days. Look at how quick the snowball is building up, going down this hill with cancel culture and what’s happening.”
“Cancel culture” is used broadly by conservatives for what they see as a destructive rush to eliminate ideas or images that fail a liberal litmus test. Liberals respond that they are targeting bigoted messages, and that conservatives are just as likely to go after ideas they dislike.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) has called on the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings to “examine this cancel culture sweeping America,” a topic he has said is the biggest threat facing the country.
The Neanderthal issue is a little different. Biden on Wednesday criticized two Republican governors — Tate Reeves of Mississippi and Greg Abbott of Texas — for lifting covid-19 mask mandates.
“We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way we’re able to get vaccines in people’s arms,” Biden said. “The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it.”
Republican immediately seized on his use of “Neanderthal,” likening it to Hillary Clinton’s comment four years ago that half of Trump’s supporters belonged in what she called “the basket of deplorables.”
“You can laugh and say ‘Oh, it’s a joke,’ whatever, but Republicans across the country already feel like people on the left think they’re dumb rednecks,” Meghan McCain said Friday on ABC’s “The View.”
Abbott said on CNBC it was “not the type of word that a president should be using,” before criticizing Biden for having a “Neanderthal-type approach to dealing with the covid situation.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki later emphasized that Biden was not calling the individuals involved Neanderthals — just saying that they were acting like them.
“The behavior of a Neanderthal,” she said. “Just to be very clear — ‘the behavior of.’ ”
Neanderthals are a group of archaic humans believed to have emerged more than 200,000 years ago. The first human fossil was discovered in 1856 in a cave in Germany’s Neander Valley.
“President Biden’s use of an old stereotype is hurtful to modern Europeans, Asians & Americans who inherit about 2% of their genes from Neanderthal ancestors,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote on Thursday. Presumably mocking what he considers political correctness, Rubio called on Biden to apologize and “seek training on unconscious bias.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), meanwhile, launched a defense of the species, saying she had taken such pride in being called Neanderthal when fighting a state income tax that she started a “Neanderthal Caucus” in the Tennessee legislature.
“Neanderthals are hunter-gatherers, they’re protectors of their family, they are resilient, they’re resourceful, they tend to their own,” she said on Fox Business. “So, I think Joe Biden needs to rethink what he is saying about the states that are choosing to move away from these mask mandates.”
Blackburn has said she does not believe in evolution.
Meanwhile, the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany, weighed in to support Biden, saying it approved of his advocacy of mask mandates. Still, museum staffers urged Biden to one day visit their museum.
Neanderthals, they wrote, “were smarter than You think!”
The White House has generally attempted to stay out of the cultural debates. Psaki brushed aside a question about why Biden’s administration did not include mentions of Dr. Seuss books on Read Across America Day.
But the White House is not backing down on the use of “Neanderthal.” On Thursday, it responded to a Politico article about the dispute with an effort at Seussian flare that included this couplet:
“Republicans may complain, but they’re still in thrall
To a President who acted like a Neanderthal.”