With Donald Trump defeated and Republican federal government domination over (for now), the American political right was inevitably going to refocus its energy somewhere. The needed a way to strike back at liberals for taking back power while also calling their base to action. It wasn’t hard to imagine things would get this weird this fast.
Mr. Potato Head is gender neutral, Dr. Seuss is cancelled, and Amazon is banning books.
This is what a Democrat majority looks like.
— Congressman Greg Steube (@RepGregSteube) March 2, 2021
If Dr. Seuss wanted to #DefundThePolice, his books wouldn’t be getting canceled.
— Rep. Jim Jordan (@Jim_Jordan) March 2, 2021
choose your fighter pic.twitter.com/zHlwj83KuF
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 27, 2021
Over the last several weeks, the American right has taken every opportunity its gotten to cry about cancel culture. It started when Disney Plus slapped a content disclaimer on 18 episodes of The Muppet Show in regards to material that might be considered offensive. Right wing pundits went into a tizzy, saying that the left was insidiously trying to push its sexless, colorless, over-sensitive agenda onto children. Within days, Donald Trump Jr. was on Fox News saying the Muppets had been banned. The same formula applied when cancel culture then supposedly came for Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss—endless frothing conservative outrage. It was all a reaction to liberals’ alleged unending attempts to erase any sort of antiquated or conservative ideals from popular culture and children’s content by any means necessary.
But none of the recent cancel culture complaints are actually real. Disney is, of course, a private company and can label content with any sort of disclaimer they please; doing so was clearly a reaction to audience sentiment. No one forced them to do it. The ungendering of Mr. Potato Head never actually happened, at least as conservatives claim it did—Hasbro was simply rebranding its Potato Head toy line, not taking away the misters and missuses. And the decision to stop publishing six Dr. Seuss books was made by the late author’s own business, also in response to audience sentiment regarding racist and insensitive imagery. Seuss wrote more than 60 books, which means that more than 50 are still being published and widely available.
Almost seamlessly, cancel culture has become the calling card of the American right. It’s not new, of course—right wing pundits and politicians have been revving this engine for years, seemingly in preparation for this moment. Nicholas Sandmann an the 1619 Project were just test runs. Now, with nowhere else to focus their energy and no actual interest in helping Americans being ground into paste by endless illness, death, and economic suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic, conservatives have entrenched themselves to defend children’s books and cartoons from the left’s creeping culture war. It even made its way to CPAC, which was themed “America Uncanceled” before conference organizers ironically disinvited someone for sharing antisemitic views.
The right’s newfound grievance is even dumber than it sounds if you attempt to break down what conservatives are actually trying to defend. Racist imagery on pancake mix and in old books? The gender assignment of plastic potato toys known for having interchangeable body parts? The validity of a puppet show filmed 40 years ago? Even a simple mental reduction brings you to the obvious conclusion that the only thing being fought for here is the past, an outdated version of the world where (mostly white) people didn’t have to question whether their beliefs or behavior or things they consume might actually offend other people. It’s no coincidence that most of the right’s fixation with cancel culture surrounds mid-20th century children’s content and popular food brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s. It certainly hasn’t stopped there, but it’s telling not just what they’re trying to defend but where in history it comes from.
It makes sense, then, that Donald Trump is still the god-king of the cancel culture right. Well before he was a political figure, Trump became a celebrity by unceremoniously firing people on television. Canceling people is his bread and butter. His entire political persona is built on the foundation of the birther lie, which can really be read as a loud half-assed attempt to cancel Barack Obama. As president, Trump spent almost his entire time in office alienating and publicly reaming cabinet members he didn’t like until they were uncomfortable enough to quit. But his canceling tendencies go back much further—as a real estate mogul in 1980s New York, it can argued no one tried getting more people “canceled” than Tump. He’d regularly call in favors to his favorite New York tabloids and complain loudly whenever he read something unflattering about himself. Far more sinisterly, Trump took out full page newspaper ads to call for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, innocent teenagers wrongfully accused and imprisoned for years after being coerced by police into confessing to a brutal rape and assault. Is there a better example of “cancel culture” than publicly calling for the death of innocent kids without any details, evidence, or firsthand knowledge of the situation?
The exact definition of cancel culture, if there every was one, no longer matters here. It’s a nebulous phrase that’s long been a boogeyman for the right before they decided to weaponize it, much the same way “fake news” quickly came to mean “any news coverage that I don’t like or is mean to me.” Cancel culture’s only meaning now is attacking conservatives, and it works for them perfectly. Any right winger who’s now deplatformed for hateful rhetoric or investigated for corruption or even just receives bad press can now say they’re being canceled by the woke mob or the radical left or whatever other empty catchall is on the menu that week. If the shoe fits, wear it—just tie the laces tightly so it can’t be canceled off your foot.