Members Only | March 6, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Why right-wing fetishes are never benign

Lindsay Beyerstein explains a relentlessly false GOP narrative.

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Half a million are dead, children are going hungry, and Republicans are hollering about the “cancellation” of Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head. It’s not surprising that a party that opposes a COVID stimulus favored by nearly 80 percent of Americans would be anxious to change the subject, but why is the GOP still playing with dolls? 

Chris Hayes, the progressive host of MSNBC’s nightly show “All In,” may have been looking for a silver lining when he tweeted on Wednesday: “Beginning to think the cancel culture discourse around beloved childhood brands is an ingenious heat sink for rage that would otherwise be directed in far more destructive directions.” 

L’Affaire Pomme de Terre is even more ridiculous.

These culture war battles aren’t a heat sink, they’re an accelerant.

Right-wing strategists are tapping into resentments and grievances. The GOP’s “cancel culture” narrative tells supporters that everything they love is threatened by out-of-control liberals who will stop at nothing to impose racial and gender equality. The more seemingly trivial the loss, the more emotionally potent it can be. Because if liberals will take the Lorax and Mr. Potato Head away from you, nothing is safe. 

Mass-marketed toys are a distillation of what our culture deems acceptable, normal and wholesome. Through play, children learn about everything from household objects to gender roles. Adults may feel deep nostalgia for the stuff they grew up with. Toys and books can feel like an enduring link between the generations. So it’s no wonder that people are emotionally invested in the toys they grew up with and concerned about what kind of toys their kids are growing up with. The Republicans have skillfully woven toy anxieties into their overarching “cancel culture” narrative. 

Last week, the estate of Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka “Dr. Seuss”) announced it is allowing six obscure titles to go out of print because they contain racist imagery

This was a gift for the GOP, and just in time for the annual Conservative Political Action Committee Conference (CPAC), whose theme was “America Uncanceled.” 

Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, falsely accused Democrats of “outlawing Dr. Seuss,” on the House floor. On Tuesday, Fox News spent nearly three times as long on Dr. Seuss as it did on COVID. As I write, the outrage cycle is well into its third day. 

In fact, neither Dr. Seuss nor his books have been banned. The estate just doesn’t want to sell certain titles anymore for certain reasons. The discontinued titles will still be available in libraries and used book stores, and of course you can keep the ones you already have. Classics like The Cat in the Hat and The Grinch are unaffected. 

L’Affaire Pomme de Terre is even more ridiculous.

Last month, toy-maker Hasbro announced that the Mr. Potato Head brand would henceforth be known as “Potato Head.” The company intends to start selling potato “family” kits with two large potatoes and one smaller doll that kids can build into whatever family structure they want. As they always could. 

“But rest assured,” Hasbro said in a statement, as if speaking slowly and clearly for anyone who might miss the point, “the iconic MR. and MRS. POTATO HEAD characters aren’t going anywhere and will remain MR. and MRS. POTATO HEAD.”

There was nothing to see here. A private company had made a free choice about how to sell toys. Nobody was censored or canceled. And it didn’t matter a bit. 

Fox News host Greg Gutfeld lamented that Mr. Potato Head was being “neutered.” Sean Hannity devoted a whole segment of his show to the fake controversy. Speakers at CPAC delivered extended riffs on the subject. D-list Republicans are vying to tweet the most overwrought synthesis off the GOP’s various cancel culture fixations.  

“The government cannot take my Goya Beans, my Mr. Potato Head, my Dr. Seuss books or my AR-15. Come and take it. This is America. I’ll eat my green eggs and ham on Christmas in my pickup truck if I want to,” wrote one Congressional Republican hopeful whom I won’t encourage by naming. 

The Republican obsession with culture war issues is anything but benign. It distracts from the Republicans’ unpopular policy positions. Moreover, this is a relentlessly false narrative about all the beloved, comforting, identity-sustaining joys that are being cruelly taken away by out-of-control liberals who need to be stopped.

When people feel threatened, they’re more likely to lash out.

Lindsay Beyerstein


Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist. She’s host of The Breach podcast (for the Rewire News Group) and a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation, which honors excellence in journalism in service of the common good.

Published in cooperation with Alternet.

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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