The Real Reason Republicans Are Talking About “Cancel Culture”

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
Having forgone an official party platform for this year’s Republican National Convention — a huge reason conventions exist, last time we checked — the Republican Party has instead opted to release a terrifying, incoherent, and terrifyingly incoherent word salad, the goal of which appears to be provoking their favorite targets: Democrats and the media. 
On Monday evening, the first night of the RNC, many of the featured speakers argued that citizens should be most concerned about, of all things, Democrats trying to “control” them through “cancel culture.” Rather than spend significant time on how they plan to solve any of the major crises America is facing, outlined by Democrats last week — the pandemic, an economic crisis, an urgent call for racial justice, and the threat of climate change — Republicans talked about cancel culture.
One of the night’s key speakers, a glassy-eyed and fidgety Donald Trump Jr. argued that by taking down monuments to Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee and calling for the removal of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on Mount Rushmore, the “left” is trying to “cancel” our nation’s founders. "They don't seem to understand this important principle: In order to improve in the future, we must learn from our past — not erase it. So we are not going to tear down monuments and forget the people who built our great nation. Instead, we will learn from our past so we don't repeat any mistakes," he said to an empty Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium.
Of course, no one is actually trying to “cancel” or erase the Founding Fathers or Confederate generals from history books — as Trump Jr. himself said, we must learn from our past. It’s just that statues and monuments are ways to honor the past, and we shouldn’t honor people who owned slaves and fought to preserve slavery. But when you’re on the Trump train, who cares about honor, anyway?
Certainly not Kimberly Guilfoyle, a top Trump campaign official and Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, who gave one of the most frightening speeches of the night, and asserted that Democrats will “fundamentally change this nation” and “defund, dismantle, and destroy America’s law enforcement” — effectively canceling police. (They really kept the fact-checkers busy all night.) She also attacked the “cancel culture” of “cosmopolitan elites,” who she said want to “steal your liberty, your freedom. They want to control what you see and think and believe, so they can control how you live.”
It’s clear that decrying cancel culture was a theme of the night, but why lean so hard into this talking point now? In part, it’s because Republicans are a flailing, soulless, idealess party terrified of losing in November and trying to shore up more support with cheap methods. Culture-based attacks generally kept the first night of the convention fact-free and devoid of discussion of the elephant in the room: the ongoing global pandemic which has devastated families and communities across the country. In order to distract from their tragic mismanagement of the pandemic and the economic crisis, Republicans are using easy, lazy arguments that land with their base. That’s why they spent very little time on coronavirus during the first night, save a video in which President Trump says it will “disappear” and is “under control.” 
“It speaks volumes that Republicans would rather attack the press and ‘cancel culture’ than lay out a comprehensive plan to rescue the economy Trump wrecked and the pandemic response he mismanaged,” Kyle Morse, Deputy Communications Director for the Trump War Room at American Bridge 21st Century, which has compiled an extensive public research file on the president, told Refinery29. “The RNC’s crusade against so-called ‘woke-topia’ underscores just how disconnected the Republican Party is from the concerns of real people and the depth that they’ll go to appease Donald Trump.”
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about cancel culture in the discourse recently, with several prominent center-right voices taking up the battle for free speech in places like college campuses. After author J.K. Rowling made public transphobic comments, she and other prominent writers including Bari Weiss signed a much-debated letter to Harper’s magazine asking for an end to what they called a “stifling atmosphere” in the media and society, at large. Their arguments largely ignore marginalized groups and the fact that “canceling” somebody is not as harsh a punishment as some would have you believe — it’s actually free speech at its finest. What they, and Republicans, don’t understand is that shaming somebody online and asking for accountability are slaps on the wrist compared to forcing people to sign NDAs, firing them for speaking to the press, filing judicial injunctions preventing books from being published, and constantly attacking our free press — all things Trump has done. 
And it’s not just Trump. As writer Jean Guerrero pointed out, one of the speakers at the RNC is Charlie Kirk, whose far-right organization Turning Point USA keeps a “watch list” of liberal professors. Also, the RNC, in a resolution, has attempted to “cancel” the Southern Poverty Law Center for identifying what they deem the wrong groups as "hate groups."
“The term ‘cancel culture’ lumps together and demonizes critics of white male supremacy, deliberately inverting the moral value of the criticism to silence it, while painting hate speech advocates as victims of discrimination,” Guerrero, the author of recently released book Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda, wrote on Twitter. 
Guerrero traces the concept of “cancel culture” back to the heyday of “political correctness,” a term that right-wingers adopted as a pejorative back in the early ‘90s. She, too, said that Republicans use “cancel culture” to distract from real problems, adding that it’s also used to appeal to “white fear.”
“The distraction comes in the form of scapegoating and creating this idea that America faces an existential threat in the form of the ‘radical left,’ demonizing any of Trump’s political opponents as against democracy and against free speech,” Guerrero told Refinery29. “It’s deliberate psychological warfare. Another aspect of this is that Trump can’t incite hope right now, without having a real platform. So he is appealing to ‘white fear.’ But in reality, it’s the Trump administration that has objectively been using anti-democratic tactics to suppress opposition.”
 Tonight’s program promises more of the same chaos and nonsense: An anti-abortion activist who made racist comments about her own son. Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who nixed the Trump University fraud case right after Trump donated to her PAC. A high school student known for wearing a MAGA hat and arguing with a Native American activist at the Lincoln Memorial. They really do have “the best people,” don’t they?

More from US News

R29 Original Series