Donald Trump’s impeachment trial lawyers, amid their effort on Friday to recast Trump as a victim of Congress — rather than the president who sent his militant followers to storm the U.S. Capitol and stop the routine confirmation of an election he himself had tried to steal — deployed an evocative new term: “constitutional cancel culture.” Attorney Michael van der Veen introduced it as part of his angry diatribe against the alleged Democrat witch hunt targeting Trump. Then Bruce Castor used it again to dramatize his claim that Trump’s wild remarks on January 6 were protected by the First Amendment and squarely within existing political traditions.
This semantic development was probably inevitable. “Cancel culture,” a term originally associated with a sort of loosely organized boycott of offensive people in power, gradually gained use as an invidious description of any incident where people are pressured to conform their opinions. But then “cancel culture” was adopted by conservatives, for whom it has the same sort of function the equally abused term “politically correct” used to serve: a way for those wrong-footed by habits of prejudice and privilege to regain high ground by posing as victims. And it has caught on with Republican politicians in a very big way, as Vox’s Aja Romano pointed out during the 2020 GOP National Convention:
[D]uring Monday night’s lineup, several speakers mentioned cancel culture. Former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle portrayed it as a culture of “elites … who blame America,” and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) stressed that Republicans “don’t give into cancel culture or the radical and factly baseless beliefs that things are worse today than in the 1860s or the 1960s.” Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley described cancel culture as “an important issue. [Trump] knows that political correctness and cancel culture are dangerous and just plain wrong,” she told viewers. “You cannot cancel a culture that love its heroes,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fl) said, referring obliquely to the nationwide trend of toppling Confederate statues in protests against racism.
More recently, the term “cancel culture” has been used to convert some of the more egregiously aggressive and violence-prone conservatives into brave and persecuted dissenters, most notably freshman congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. Last week, House Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan wept crocodile tears for Greene, asking: “Who will the cancel culture attack next?”
On the principle that the most authoritarian of political figures are most likely to need the kind of moral switcheroo that attacks on “cancel culture” are designed to produce, it’s not surprising to find Donald Trump’s lawyers try to confer him its benefits. But it was devilishly clever to elevate it to a constitutional matter. Regardless of what you think of the arguments over the Senate’s power to sanction an ex-president, or the question of whether he met the definition of “incitement,” or whether the mob he spoke to on January 6 constituted an “insurrection,” it is indisputable that Trump was the aggressor against Congress in trying to disrupt an entirely routine electoral vote count. Earlier he was the aggressor against the states, both Republican- and Democratic-controlled, who sought to count and certify votes. And above all, for months and months, he maligned and assaulted the rights of voters who wanted the opportunity to vote by mail in order to reduce their odds of dying. He left office as he spent every day of his presidency: a bully who deeply and cynically believed in winning by intimidation and incessant lying.
Wrapping this man in the crimson robes of martyrdom is one of the most outrageous stunts of Trumpism, worthy of its object in shamelessness. Yes, Trump will be acquitted, and there are defensible grounds for that verdict. But he did not come to the events under debate in the impeachment trial with clean hands. The idea he deserves pity for the treatment he has been given, and the dignity of a constitutional doctrine to protect behavior like his, is simply unconscionable.