July 6, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
How critics of ‘cancel culture’ are koshering Trump
Subtle ways of making it OK to vote for a white supremacist.
The president delivered a breathtaking speech last week at the foot of Mount Rushmore that most people did not hear. He spoke on a Friday. It was, moreover, a Friday before the Fourth of July. Most people had something better to do than listen to Donald Trump use language amounting to an unofficial declaration of a civil war.
It wasn’t for you, anyway. It was for them. By “them,” I mean people who inhabit a wholly imagined nation-within-a-nation, a confederacy of the mind and the spirit, in which “real Americans” are oppressed by the slow roll of majority opinion and whose freedom to humiliate others is violated by the founding ideals of equality and justice. This “nation,” for those geographically minded, is predominantly southern, but, like the Confederate flag, is seen wherever “real Americans” hang their MAGA hats.
What’s a fascist president compared to political correctness?
This is my way of understanding properly the president’s speech and its appeal to the hardest of his hardcore supporters. Liberals, socialists, city-dwellers, intellectuals, atheists, LGBTQ people, Black people and Americans of color—they are all the same essentially as our-way-of-life-threatening foreigners. They live here but don’t belong here. They are an enemy that must be destroyed by any means, including betrayal, sabotage and collusion with foreign conspirators. The target of their fury has indeed shifted from “illegal” immigrants in 2016 to citizens in 2020. Is anyone truly surprised?
I don’t think the president has any doubt about losing virtually all nonwhite voters this year, so he does his best to prevent white voters from bolting, especially white voters who did not watch his speech, because they had better things to do on a Friday before a holiday, but who are invested in some way in the idea that they are not racists. They already know that Trump is a white supremacist, but they can’t quite bring themselves to vote for a Democrat, because the Democrats, thanks to years of GOP propaganda and intellectual fraud among “respectable” pundits, seem almost to be anti-white.
One way the president holds onto this cohort of “moderate” white voters is by portraying the Democratic Party as full of terrifying boogeymen—communists, violent anarchists, mobs of radical leftists and so on. More important to Trump, I think, is portraying Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, as being as corrupt as he is. This seems like hypocrisy—a transparently corrupt president who lies at the rate in which he breathes is accusing Biden of corruption?—but it’s more cynical than that. In pulling Biden down to his level, Trump is making the choice between them appear morally relative. In doing so, Trump is betting the bonds of whiteness will make it OK for “moderate” white people who do not want to vote for a racist to vote for a racist.
The president’s methods are blunt, but there are far more subtle means of achieving the same goals. Instead of bringing Biden down to Trump’s level, thus turning the public square into a brownfield, one could worry about “liberal mobs” tearing down statues, trying to “erase history” like totalitarians of yore. (Protesters are in fact tearing down paeans to slavocracy and genocide, actions related to the mass demonstrations demanding justice for George Floyd’s murder, but I digress.) Instead of inventing boogeymen that are easily debunked, one could worry, as the Times’ Bret Stephens did this weekend, about “thought police” emerging out of a growing “cancel culture.”
I’m not going to say much about “cancel culture” except that it’s almost entirely make-believe. Critics do not generally take into account actual arguments made by social reformers but instead fabricate arguments in order to undercut them. The point that I want to make is that Stephens and other dishonest intellectuals comprising maybe half the pundit corps are in effect, to borrow from the late Philip Roth, koshering Trump. In the novelist’s The Plot Against America, Charles Lindbergh, renown for antisemitism as much as aviation, defeats Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 with the help of a rabbi who “koshers” him—that is, makes clear to non-Jews who do not want to vote for an antisemite that Lindbergh’s antisemitism is fine. It’s OK to vote for him. (Many thanks to Seth Cotlar for bringing this aspect of Roth’s novel to my attention.)
Koshering, I hope it’s clear, shouldn’t be limited to minimizing or whitewashing antisemitism. Diamond and Silk, a pair of Black grifters, kosher Trump when they make clear to white people that the president’s racism is OK. But again, this is only an obvious form of koshering. When “moderate” pundits write columns worrying about “cancel culture” or “political correctness” more than a literal fascist president coming very close to declaring war on other Americans—when they fret about Confederate statues more than the mountains of evidence pointing to institutional racism injuring and murdering Black Americans; when they fixate on the norms of language more than the norms of socially acceptable sadism; when they talk about a white backlash more than they talk about the crimes of history—that’s a kind of koshering, too.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.