The prevailing message that emerged from last weekend’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference wasn’t that Joe Biden is a bad president or that Donald Trump is great (although both speakers and attendees voiced those sentiments).
It was that Mr. Potato Head had been canceled.
“Look out, Mr. Potato Head, you’re next,” said Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz said in his speech. “I’m sorry, I think now he’s going by Potato X. He can’t be Mr. Potato.”
Donald Trump Jr., the eldest son of the former president, also referenced Hasbro’s decision to change the name of its children’s toy from “Mr. Potato Head” to simply “Potato Head.” (Hasbro explained its decision this way: “Hasbro is making sure all feel welcome in the Potato Head world by officially dropping the Mr. from the Mr. Potato Head brand name and logo to promote gender equality and inclusion.”)
The alleged canceling of Mr. Potato Head was not just consistent with the dominant theme of the CPAC gathering – a banner proclaiming “America Uncanceled” was prominently displayed on stage – but also with where Republicans (and their conservative media allies) have gone, in terms of messaging, in the immediate post-Trump era.
That message? Liberals are trying to cancel long-cherished cultural touchstones – solely because it doesn’t comport with their preferred vision for America.
“For the next four years, the brave Republicans in this room will be at the heart of the effort to oppose the radical Democrats, the fake news media and their toxic cancel culture, something new to our ears, cancel culture,” said Trump in his own CPAC speech. And then later, this: “We embrace free thought. We stand up to political correctness. And we reject left-wing lunacy, and in particular, we reject cancel culture.”
If you look back at what has truly animated conservatives in the months since Trump lost the election, it’s consistently been less about policy and far more about this idea that Democrats are trying to rid the country of our cultural icons.
Take just the last week (or so) as evidence.
The announcement by Disney in late February that it had added warnings to some episodes of “The Muppet Show” that contained “negative depictions” and “mistreatment of people or cultures” brought outrage from conservatives. “KERMIT NEXT?” tweeted Fox News’ Sean Hannity. Added Trump Jr.: “Apparently The Muppets have now been canceled. There’s nothing these psychos won’t destroy. Liberalism is a disease.”
Then came the Potato Head mashup.
Now, on Tuesday morning, comes word that six Dr. Seuss books would no longer be published by the company that owns them because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Trump Jr. immediately seized on the news; “There’s nothing they wont destroy,” he tweeted. “If you don’t think leftism is a disease you haven’t been watching close enough!”
North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn, in an interview on “Fox & Friends,” said that he “actually laugh[s] trying to think about” whether or not Dr. Seuss is racist.
You get the picture.
What’s remarkable about these attacks on so-called “cancel culture” is that they don’t even fit the description.
Take the Muppets. Yes, Disney put a warning on some episodes of “The Muppet Show.” But they did so while making all 120 episodes of the show available to stream for the first time. How is it canceling the Muppets if you can now watch more of the Muppets than ever before?
Or Potato Head. Hasbro isn’t removing the plastic potato that you can put all sorts of funny eyes, noses and shoes on from shelves. To the contrary, the reimagining of the Potato Head brand will be part of a relaunching of the toy this fall. And, as Hasbro recently tweeted: “MR. POTATO HEAD isn’t going anywhere! While it was announced today that the POTATO HEAD brand name & logo are dropping the ‘MR.’ I yam proud to confirm that MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD aren’t going anywhere and will remain MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD.”
Or Dr. Seuss. While six of his books will no longer be published, the remaining three dozen or so will still be on bookshelves. That isn’t a cancellation.
What is happening – in all three of these most recent instances – is that the culture is changing. Changing to incorporate more views from more varied perspectives – not just the opinions of what White people (and mostly) men think is acceptable or not.
Change is, of course, scary. One of Trump’s most successful tactics as a politician was to weaponize peoples’ fear and anxieties about the changing world with promises of returning to a simpler and better time. (The olden days were better and simper for white men. They were far less rosy for women or minorities.)
Change ≠ cancel. Change and evolution in our culture and our society is both necessary and unstoppable. The idea that we have always had everything right or that we can’t always be growing closer to a more perfect union is not only narrow-minded but fundamentally anti-American.
Painting cultural change with the overly broad brush of “canceling” may enliven a Republican base grappling with a political world with Trump as president. But it doesn’t make the “cancel culture” argument any more right.