What the Conservative Version of Cancel Culture Looks Like

It’s love Trump or get lost.
July 23, 2020
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It is hard to think of a major sector of the culture-shaping industries and institutions of American life—Hollywood, news media, universities, arts, publishing, music, advertising, and so on—that isn’t thoroughly absorbed into the intersectional zeitgeist of the American left. There are pockets of conservatism, of course, such as Fox News, talk radio, some publishers, and various online publications and communities. But for various reasons, they can neither balance nor meaningfully compete with the cultural and social throw-weight of progressivism and the left.

Given this imbalance, it is worth reflecting on how the right has chosen to exercise the cultural power it does have. Rather than securing the broadest possible coalition against the illiberal left, the right has decided to mimic the left’s strategies and tactics to conduct a purity campaign. In short, the right is canceling itself.

Earlier this month, I casually asked on Twitter whether the right has a cancel culture analogous to the left. My AEI colleague Stan Veuger dryly suggested checking out this week’s issue of the Weekly Standard for a symposium on the topic. Point taken: Lacking the muscle to compete in the mainstream of American life, the right cancels competing views and their adherents among fellow conservatives. You see the irony? While the left continues its long march through the institutions that guide cultural and social development, the right focuses on stamping out internal differences of opinion. One side steadily adds to and multiplies its influence while the other plays a game of subtraction and division against supposedly heterodox allies.

How did conservatives arrive at this point? The answer lies, I think, in the imbalance between conservative political success and its ongoing and pervasive cultural weakness. The coalition that came to power under Reagan was always far more successful at the ballot box than it was in the broader culture wars. Reaganism succeeded almost in spite of itself. Reagan himself understood this and actively discouraged internecine wars under the auspices of his 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” He knew lasting change required broad, strong, and occasionally even bipartisan coalitions. Victories were achieved by the steady application of political strength and sound governance; incremental advances could, over time, reshape society and politics.

Without the leavening influence of Reagan’s personality and political wisdom, however, his platform of smaller government, lower taxes, and stronger defense hardened into pledges and scorecards. Overreach, and the backlashes that accompany it, replaced “three yards and a cloud of dust” advances. These rigid ideological checks have come to serve as one of the primary mechanisms for internal GOP cancelation. Former senator Jim DeMint—himself eventually defenestrated at the Heritage Foundation as part of another intraconservative fight—once declared that he’d prefer “30 Marco Rubios to 60 Arlen Specters” in the Senate. His vision is taking shape: the creation of a zealous GOP minority.

What cancel conservatism didn’t see coming was Donald Trump. As a completely transactional politician, Trump has been more than happy to become the avatar of longstanding Republican views. He accepted most GOP planks: tax cuts, increased defense budgets, outsourced but conservative judicial picks, and selective social conservatism. (On immigration and foreign policy, the Republican establishment long included a diversity of views.) Free trade has been Trump’s one departure from orthodoxy, but it has mainly been a rhetorical one, marked by a spasmodic and ineffectual protectionism that seems to have succeeded mostly in inflicting pain on American producers and consumers. The price among Republicans for these policy victories has been the imposition of the ultimate “cancel”: an omerta as it relates to the erratic leadership and unsavory character and behavior of Donald Trump himself. All conservative interests, positions, policies, and fidelity measures have been collapsed into an oath of loyalty to Donald J. Trump.

Republican governing identity and support for Donald Trump are now one. People like Mark Sanford (a 93 percent voting record from Heritage Action) and Jeff Flake (85 percent) weren’t driven from public life over compromises on taxes, judges, or abortion but for active criticism of Donald Trump. Ben Sasse (83 percent) survived cancelation by moving to an undisclosed political location until he finished slogging nervously through his Republican primary. Even Jeff Sessions has been permanently canceled under the barrage of Trump’s Twitter siege artillery in recompense for putting the rule of law above his loyalty to the president. And now, in the depths of today’s pandemic, economic meltdown, and nationwide protests over police killings, the presidential personnel office is busily conducting loyalty stress-tests on the administration’s own appointees that focus on personal commitment to Trump rather than any particular administration policy.

Which brings us to the peculiar case of Mitt Romney, the former GOP blue-state governor, presidential nominee, senator from Utah and bête noire of the Trumpist movement. Famously, he provided the lone Republican vote in either chamber for removing Trump from office during the impeachment proceedings. This brought down the full force of Trumpian cancel-power. Relatives have changed their names. CPAC, engaging in what the late, great Florence King might have called the “height of WASP rage,” made a point of announcing that it had not invited Romney this year on the theory that this constituted punishment rather than deliverance. Through this fire, Romney has emerged as the political equivalent of Harry Potter, “the Boy Who Lived.” The moral here is that if you’re going to state the obvious about Trump, survival depends on having a couple hundred million dollars in the bank, a lifetime of personal achievement, great hair, and a tan of a shade that occurs in nature.

At the moment, polls are pointing toward a presidential wipeout and the possible loss of the GOP Senate majority. Suburban America, having already executed a volte-face in 2018, is withdrawing in horror from the GOP in 2020. Is this a rejection of lower taxes, a strong national defense, or a conservative federal bench? Not in the least. It’s a verdict on the character, personality, behavior, and governing incompetence of President Trump. And as long as the GOP anchors its fortunes in Trumpian decadence rather than competent, philosophically coherent leadership, there’s little chance of escape.

Brent Orrell

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he works on criminal justice reform and job training.