Three weeks after the Capitol riot, the U.S. Senate still hasn’t decided whether former President Donald Trump incited the mob and should be held accountable.
The free market made a much faster decision.
Within a week of the riot that resulted in the deaths of five people, Trump National Golf Club lost a prized PGA tournament, Deutsche Bank said it would stop doing business with Trump, and New York City canceled contacts with Trump’s business, among other economic repercussions.
Eric Trump, the former president’s son, told The Associated Press that his father was a victim of cancel culture, the trendy word used to describe the economic and social attacks that befall people who say unpopular things. Donald Trump himself excoriated cancel culture at Mount Rushmore last year, saying that its goal is “driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.”
“This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and to our values and it has absolutely no place in the United State of America,” Trump said.
But is what happened to Trump this month cancel culture, or is it simply the natural and even predictable consequences of his actions?
A polarized nation cannot agree. Americans remain divided on the question of whether Trump’s words to the crowd on Jan. 6 and in the two months leading up to the gathering caused the mayhem and deadly violence, according to Pew Research Center.
But the economic sanctions against Trump give the nation a chance to step back and assess what cancel culture really is, at a time in which accusations of canceling seem to be accelerated on both the left and the right.
Was Joseph Epstein, the writer of The Wall Street Journal op-ed that derided first lady Jill Biden for using the title “Doctor,” canceled when Northwestern University removed him from its website? Was Sen. Josh Hawley, the Republican from Missouri, muzzled when he lost a book contract? And was the treatment of Trump, from the economic backlash to the loss of his Twitter account, peak cancel culture for conservatives?
For these and an accumulating pile of cases, there is no definitive jury, like the one Facebook has set up to consider charges of unfair censorship. But analysts say a person hasn’t been canceled if they still have a megaphone, and that we ought to worry more about the cancelation of ordinary people than presidents and celebrities. Here’s why.
Watch the bottom line
The PGA’s decision to hold its 2022 tournament in Oklahoma instead of at Trump’s golf club in New Jersey likely stung the former president, not only because of the loss of revenue and prestige, but also because Trump loves golf.
He also likes making money, and in the wake of the riots, some actions seem designed to punish Trump personally, such as Shopify pulling Trump merchandise stores off its platform and Stripe announcing it would not process payments for Trump’s campaign website.
While seemingly punitive, businesses look after their own interests in a capitalistic society, said Lawrence Glickman, professor of American studies in the Department of History at Cornell University and the author of “Free Enterprise: An American History,” among other books.
The cancellation of golf tournaments at Trump properties, now expanded to include the British Open, could simply be smart business moves to forestall the loss of advertisers or to prevent protests that might take place. But such moves have tremendous power, Glickman said.
“This is one of the oldest forms of political activism in the United States, using the power of the purse to transform the political landscape,” he said.
Similarly, Helen Lewis, writing in The Atlantic earlier this year, said “the best way to see the firings, outings and online denunciations grouped together as ‘cancel culture’ is not through a social lens, but an economic one.”
Glickman, however, calls himself a cancel-culture skeptic, and says that the term is often used imprecisely to cover disparate situations. But it shouldn’t be applied to Donald Trump, he said.
“He can still certainly call into ‘Fox & Friends’ or other Trump-friendly programs; he could probably get an interview with almost any journalist in the country. If he wrote something, a lot of publications would be interested in publishing it. If he does choose to write a memoir, I think somebody will publish that as well,” Glickman said.
“Josh Hawley made a similar charge, that the woke mob was canceling him, but here we have a very powerful United States senator who gets a ton of publicity for everything he does and found another publisher within a week or so.
“I don’t really see that as cancel culture. I see that as a corporation deciding they didn’t want to be associated with somebody,” Glickman said. “We can differ about whether the reasons are justified or not, but that kind of thing happens a lot in American political and economic life.”
Glickman added that he has academic colleagues who haven’t been able to find publishers for their work, not because of cancel culture, but because the publishers don’t think they can make money off the books. In both cases, the bottom line is what matters.
While Republicans have emerged as the loudest critics of cancel culture, people on both the right and the left are being marked for cancellation. One recent example on the left occurred when the liberal comedian Jimmy Dore went on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” to argue that Trump should pardon WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Liberals were furious with Dore that he would appear with Carlson, whom they see as a political enemy, said Dan Kovalik, author of the forthcoming book “Cancel This Book, the Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture.”
Kovalik, who teaches international human rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said he became concerned about cancel culture after a friend suffered its effects. She posted a meme about nonviolence on Facebook that was seen as disrespectful in the aftermath of the George Floyd’s death and a nonprofit she helped to found severed its ties with her after community outcry.
It’s that kind of canceling that society should be most worried about, Kovalik said.
“What has to be distinguished is the difference between the person who is well intentioned but makes a mistake, and really ill-intentioned people. The difference, for example, between (his friend) and a white supremacist. They’re not the same thing. They shouldn’t be treated the same. And yet they are, quite often.”
Kovalik does not see Trump as a victim of cancel culture, nor even “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, even though he believes she has been treated unfairly.
“She has been attacked, and pretty viciously, for her concerns that some of the new gender inclusive language is erasing women. And she’s concerned that this is a disservice to women, which I think is a reasonable position to stake out,” he said. But, he added, “She cannot be canceled. She’s got like 14 million followers on Twitter.”
Trump had 88 million when he was banned, which is another reason that both Kovalik and Glickman don’t see the former president as canceled. He still has the respect of a large number of Americans and can communicate with them in other ways.
“I do think the loss especially of his Twitter account has been a serious blow to him; at the same time, there are other avenues he has to reach out communicate with the world if he so chooses,” Glickman said.
Kovalik, though he voted for President Joe Biden and identifies as a progressive, said he disagrees with Twitter’s decision to ban Trump, which he sees as the biggest danger of cancel culture: censorship of unpopular opinions.
“We have to allow for free speech and debate. It took me a while to come to this belief. I’m a leftist; I’ve been more focused on economic social justice than free speech, but now I do see free speech being threatened,” he said.
If cancel culture continues unabated, Kovalik said, all Americans will suffer its effects.
“Important voices — voices that need to be heard because they may be right or may at least have a point — are going to be crowded out. People are going to self-censor. News outlets will have less diverse opinions, and I think that in the end the truth will be squelched.”