A few weeks ago, most Americans either hadn’t heard of “cancel culture” or were quite unfamiliar with the term.
And then President Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention began.
Since Monday night, primetime convention speakers repeatedly have warned of a future where conservative patriots are silenced and vilified as a nation led by Joe Biden descends into lawlessness. Democrats and the media, they’ve argued, are canceling your beloved founding fathers and will cancel you next if you don’t adhere to their politically correct point of view.
The message stands out during a week when Republicans have no policy platform beyond devotion to Trump and his “Keep America Great” promises. And it comes with an emotional urgency that convention speakers — first lady Melania Trump and Vice President Mike Pence being exceptions — have not held for the coronavirus. Trump’s allies, after three days, have elevated cancel culture as a threat equal to, if not greater than, a pandemic responsible for 180,000 US deaths.
The most pronounced example of the theme’s priority came Tuesday night when Nick Sandmann — the Kentucky high school student who became briefly infamous last year after an interaction with a Native American activist in Washington, DC — addressed the virtual convention in primetime. Early video of the 2019 encounter at the Lincoln Memorial spread rapidly on social media, and early coverage presented Sandmann, shown wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat and a tight smile, as an instigator. Subsequent videos provided more context, showing Sandmann had not started an already-tense situation. He has since settled lawsuits against CNN and the Washington Post.
“I learned that what was happening to me had a name,” Sandmann, now 18, said in his remarks. “It was called 'being canceled.' As in annulled. As in revoked. As in made void. Canceled is what’s happening to people around this country who refuse to be silenced by the far left. Many are being fired, humiliated, or even threatened. And often, the media is a willing participant. But I would not be canceled.”
Sandmann ended the speech defiantly, placing a MAGA hat atop his head.
Two recent polls from Morning Consult suggest cancel culture is not quite the energizing idea Republicans think it is. In one from late July shared with BuzzFeed News, 46% of adults surveyed had never heard of cancel culture; 18% were “not very familiar” with it. In the other, conducted for Politico, registered voters were read a definition: “the practice of withdrawing support for (or canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive” and “generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.” No broad consensus emerged. A plurality of respondents, 44%, strongly or somewhat disapproved, 32% strongly or somewhat approved, and 24% had no opinion. Nearly half, 46%, believed cancel culture had gone too far. Democrats tended to be more favorable than Republicans.
Some Republican strategists believe the messaging can work, and that this week’s emphasis on cancel culture will resonate with voters.
“Part of the reason why it does is it’s in the news daily, so it’s relatable and relevant to people’s lives,” Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist who works on House and Senate races, told BuzzFeed News. “And I think what a lot of Republican or independent voters are frustrated with is it seems like the left hates President Trump and Republicans so much that they always go too far.”
Canceling — or ostracizing or shaming someone for their behavior — is relatively new and thrives in some areas online, especially among people who spend a lot of time online. The concept and its use as a verb for this purpose have recent origins in Black Twitter and, going back deeper, in the 1991 film New Jack City. But like all things that mutate on social media, the act of canceling has spread from policing unquestionably abhorrent behavior, such as racism, misogyny, and sexual harassment, to refereeing political disputes and lesser transgressions. And the punishments — whether boycotts or firings or prolonged public embarrassment — are not always viewed in hindsight as a proportional response.
The origin of the noun "cancel culture" is tougher to place, but its use became more prevalent a few years ago when the rapper Kanye West became friendly with Trump. Republicans have weaponized the phrase to evoke images of a hostile gang of politically correct liberal vigilantes coming to damn you for life.
“The politics of identity, cancelation, and mob rule are not acceptable to me,” Daniel Cameron, the first Black attorney general of Kentucky, said in his convention speech Tuesday night. “Republicans trust you to think for yourselves and to pursue your American dream however you see fit.”
The strategy goes beyond defending founding fathers (enslavers whose contributions to history are under uncomfortable reflection amid a national conversation on systemic racism), preserving statues honoring Confederate leaders (who fought for the right to continue slavery), and rationalizing whatever a person or company may say or do to warrant cancelation. Republicans are asserting more broadly that Democrats wish to also cancel the police (via the Defund Police movement that Biden has publicly opposed) and the suburbs (through low-income housing that Trump has warned against, using racist fearmongering). And they are extending their mob rule imagery to anti-racism protests happening across the country, including in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a Black man was shot in the back by a white police officer on Sunday.
“As hard as Democrats try, they can’t cancel our heroes,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said of law enforcement and military officers during Wednesday night’s convention program. “They can’t contest their bravery, and they can’t dismiss the powerful sense of service that lives deep in their souls. … Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and their radical allies try to destroy these heroes, because if there are no heroes to inspire us, government can control us.”
Blackburn’s remarks followed a convention appearance Monday by Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who were targeted online after they were captured on video pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters who marched by their home in June. The McCloskeys, who were ultimately charged with felonies, aren’t suburbanites, but they nevertheless issued a Trump-style warning.
“They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning,” said Patricia McCloskey, leveling a false claim against Democrats. “This forced rezoning would bring crime, lawlessness, and low-quality apartments into now thriving suburban neighborhoods.”
Members of Trump’s family have hit the theme particularly hard. Donald Trump Jr. took on the cause of the founders. His girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, argued that Democrats “want to enslave you to the weak, dependent, liberal, victim ideology, to the point that you will not recognize your country.” Tiffany Trump warned that “our thoughts, opinions, and even the choice of who we vote for are being manipulated and invisibly coerced by the media and tech giants.” To the “shamed, censored, and canceled,” Eric Trump pledged, “my father will fight for you.”
Even the more traditional speeches this week — those that otherwise would have fit in at a pre-Trump Republican convention — weaved in brief condemnations of cancel culture. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina asked if voters wanted “a society that breeds success, or a culture that cancels everything it even slightly disagrees with?” Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, knocked down the practice as “dangerous” before accusing Democrats of characterizing the country as racist and sharing her story as the daughter of Indian immigrants — “a brown girl in a black and white world.” Madison Cawthorn, the 25-year-old Republican nominee for a congressional seat in North Carolina, chided liberals: “Here, we will have freedom of speech, not freedom from speech.”
Michael Gonidakis, a convention delegate from Ohio, told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday morning that the speeches he had enjoyed most after two nights were those that emphasized faith and inclusion, and singled out those by Scott and Haley. He kept his adopted 8-year-old Black son up late to watch Cameron’s speech. And Gonidakis was particularly moved by the story of Ryan Holets, an Albuquerque police officer who adopted the baby of a pregnant person dealing with a heroin addiction whom he met on the job.
But Gonidakis also found the cancel culture emphasis relevant to the party’s message for the general election.
“The average American might not understand what the term cancel culture means, but they look at what happened to Nicholas Sandmann, they look at what happened to the St. Louis couple, and they say, ‘That could be us,’” said Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, an anti-abortion group. “When people speak from a conservative perspective, they’re browbeaten, they’re ridiculed, whether it be on social media or otherwise, and I think people are sick and tired … because when a liberal viewpoint is espoused, you don’t hear a tsunami of criticism.”
Trump himself, though, has dabbled in cancel culture — and quite recently. On Twitter last week, the president urged a boycott of Goodyear tires, following a report that one of the company’s locations in Kansas had banned MAGA and other political attire.
The attack carried political implications: Goodyear is headquartered in Akron, Ohio, a state Trump can’t afford to lose in November. And it illustrated the kind of circular argument that as much as anything else animates Trump in his reelection campaign: Who cancels the cancelers?
“I personally would not have gone as far as to say boycott buying their tires,” said Gonidakis, an Akron native. “But you have to say something shocking to counteract something as shocking as that.”