After Trump?: Cancel culture and the new authoritarianism

After the failed insurrection at the US Capitol building, an event irreconcilably both absurd and frightening, Donald Trump, for so long a master of the attention economy, finally got ‘cancelled’. While many of his Republican colleagues made a last-minute decision (motivated by self-interest) to dump him, the real blow for Trump was the response by corporate America. Facebook and Twitter blocked the president’s social-media accounts, Shopify terminated stores affiliated with him, YouTube removed channels questioning the election, the PGA ended relations with Trump’s National Golf Course in New Jersey and so on. If the short-term opportunism of corporate America was transparent, the final days of Trump nevertheless forced the United States to register the disturbing connections between white supremacists and the police and the influence of largely unregulated social media. There were calls to create new laws for ‘domestic terrorism’, for increased media censorship and further surveillance of citizens so as to prevent a repeat of the Capitol events—in short, a transfer of 9/11 foreign policy into a domestic context. The shutting down of Trump’s media and corporate connections rapidly led to a desire to expel everything associated with him, suggesting that the practice of ‘cancelling’ could be a quick fix for saving democracy. 

This push for censorship and surveillance comes primarily from Democrats and others connected with progressive politics, though there are also some troubling alliances with figures from the former Bush-Cheney administration. Why is it that progressives are so keen to push for laws normally associated with the Right and state authoritarianism? While fears of racist violence and domestic terrorism are an obvious motivator, the intertwining of progressive culture with state and corporate power reflects larger shifts in the relationship between culture and politics. These changes bear examination. Superficially, the alliance between progressive politics and established power could forestall the threats that spectacularly manifested in the final days of Trump. At another level it entrenches the conditions that created them. The violent, reactionary impulses found in the United States (but also in parts of Europe) cannot be addressed by intervening to restore ‘normality’, as it is precisely normality—an adherence to neoliberal capitalism—that catalysed them. To understand this contradiction, we need to recognise the changed environment of cultural politics in the twenty-first century. 

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Trump’s presidency reinvigorated the culture wars. Through a continuous Twitter feed attacking the liberal media and political correctness, and a barely tacit encouragement of extremist elements, he created polarisation on just about every issue. Yet the way these wars played out in terms of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ were markedly different to previous generations. In the late 1960s culture increasingly became a means of engaging in political struggle. Strategies of creative chaos, subversive mythmaking, improvisation and moral transgression were the tools of the cultural left and counterculture movements, and succeeded in changing attitudes towards race, gender, sexuality, religion and the family. Legally, the institutionalisation of pro-choice legislation, affirmative-action policies, laws against discrimination, same-sex marriage and so on reinforced this liberalising trajectory. Within this frame the autonomy of the creative artist was celebrated; their capacity to transgress social and cultural norms was regarded as an inherent good, as either an exercise of freedom or a disruption of older assumptions and values. 

However, this disruption of norms and values was not achieved by culture alone. It was underpinned by larger processes, particularly the development of new media technologies together with the globalised economy. The emergence of digital media expanded choices around cultural consumption and meant that consumers encountered, at least in theory, a wider array of images and representation that in themselves contributed to social liberalisation. However, the sheer proliferation of culture and communication was beyond the scope of any individual, resulting in the customisation of content and the media ‘bubbles’ that now speak to larger divisions. As digital and media culture acquired an increasing prominence in work and social life, subjects were turned ever more into self-active/autonomous individuals via the very structure of network life. The public sphere became more diverse but more atomised. At the same time the rise of the global economy expanded the numbers of intellectually trained (or ‘knowledge’) workers, and simultaneously led to a decline in manufacturing and agriculture in the industrialised West. The disruption, flexibility and mobility created via the global market complemented the cultural disruptions initiated by the new Left—overturning old hierarchies and ways of life. Global capitalism provided the basis for cultural pluralism. It helped enshrine the value system of the new Left and progressive liberals, one that prioritised ‘liquid’ identities, social relations, and a general process of cultural flattening. The increased reliance on digital media and communication was due not merely to the enhanced capacity to make and distribute it but the need to compensate for the hollowing out of work and social environments. 

Those left out of or marginalised by this process have come screaming back into the world of politics and culture—a repressed energy that ‘Trumpism’ was able to harness. Significantly, the reactionary forces of the twenty-first century embrace the strategies of subversion and disruption that had once been the mainstay of the cultural Left, while progressives have become more ‘conservative’ regarding culture and communication, seeing them less as catalysts for disruption and transgression than as potential vehicles for harm. There are numerous reasons (as we shall see) that progressives increasingly shed their older libertarian politics and favour strategies to control communication and representation—one simply being that they ‘won’ the culture war and now occupy large sections of the media, public institutions and universities—and are engaged in the preservation of liberalised values. However, these attempts to protect the social and cultural gains of previous decades threaten to enhance the surveillance-carceral state that marks the United States and elsewhere.

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If the outlandish costumes of the QAnon insurrectionists and the proliferation of conspiracy theories signal the end of the public sphere and the authoritative hold of reason, they also reveal how transgressive cultural politics is increasingly the province of alt-right provocateurs. What are conspiracy theories if not a celebration of the unfettered play of the signifier and the détournement of images that the left counterculture celebrated for so long? The trending conspiracy after the Capitol insurrection, that Trump and Biden had received face transplants and Trump would remain, disguised as Biden, in the White House, is both compensatory and completely unhinged, but it reveals how imaginative possibilities found in the free flow of media and information now exhaust the liberal Left but energise the new Right. What’s more, the latter have fused these appropriated tactics with elements of conservative politics so that the new theatre of the Right has become integral with support for religion, gun ownership and fossil-fuel industries—these carnivalesque energies are no longer directed against the military-industrial complex but work to support it. The dominant images of the reactionary Right, such as skinheads and the KKK, have been replaced by anarchists and new intellectual leaders well versed in cynical manipulations of media and pop culture and spouting a loose philosophy around the ‘dark enlightenment’. If Trump was ill-suited to take full advantage of this alliance, a more competent figure may yet emerge to channel these new configurations. 

This reversal in the political use of culture and information is also evident in academia with the dethronement of postmodern/deconstructive modes of interpretation. The cultural-studies/literary-theory mode of reading that dominated the humanities for three decades, emphasizing irony, critical distance, multiple and contradictory modes of textual engagement and so on, has largely been supplanted by a more ‘fundamentalist’ mode of judging a text according to a binary logic that classifies culture as either progressive or harmful. The rise of ‘trigger warnings’ that alert students to potentially disturbing content is part of this larger shift, envisioning texts as sources of trauma rather than complex iterations of material and social forces. The recent (partly successful) call to remove Homer, Hawthorne, Conrad and the like from school curricula in parts of the United States is indicative of the trickle-down effect of this change in academia. General theories of ideology that dominated left and progressive wings of academia for decades—where speech and representation were related to a material base—have largely been replaced by the idea that representation is in and of itself material. The once hegemonic notion of the ‘death of the author’ has been flipped so that creative works are judged for authorial behaviour as much as for the content of their creations. These changes merely respond to the new framework of privatised and individualised consumption (and individual fragility) rather than represent any sort of theoretical or political advance. 

This new frame reveals a tension in the identity politics that goes hand in hand with this polarising approach to culture, texts and authors. On the one hand, the changes wrought though the media/information revolution have generated an environment of continual flow and ‘liberated’ subjects from narrow and hierarchical ways of knowing and being in the world. Yet the emphasis on ‘safe spaces’, now in the digital as well as the physical world, and the idea that harmful speech is a palpable threat to one’s identity indicates a fragility in the contemporary subject. It reveals that the impact of an expanded field of media and culture, the disembedding of subjects from more concrete settings though the workings of global capital—the very things that underpinned the hegemony of ‘theory’—are no longer simply enablers of freedom but of fragility, even for the groups that initially profited from them. The judging of texts as potential vehicles of harmful speech or trauma is more than simply the replacement of one mode of reading with another, one theory with another, but a response to the baleful effects of the information/culture revolution that underpinned the cultural victories of the new Left in the first place.

While this reductive mode of cultural consumption remains connected to traditions of radical politics (identifying and rejecting racist or sexist content, for example), it ultimately negates the possibility of politics altogether. What gets called ‘cancel culture’—digital activism aimed at removing power from political enemies, whether though ‘deplatforming’, online shaming or petitioning for an individual’s removal from their institutional speaking position—is indicative of this narrow frame of activism. Unlike older political boycotts, cancel culture focuses on individuals rather than institutions or structures. And while some argue that cancel culture does not really exist or, if it does, it fails to do anything, pointing out that Germaine Greer, J. K. Rowling and Stephen Pinker are all doing fine, such reassurances overlook its impact on those with less cultural power—witness the degree of online harassment and cancellation practices in Young Adult fiction ( Even in universities, academics are less confident in engaging in public communication, fearful that students or colleagues will demand their removal. The recent cases of Mark Crispin Miller over comments made about mask-wearing during COVID-19 and Kathleen Stock for criticism of some elements of trans-activism, reveal the divisive politics of cancel culture. That the former is a long-time critic of media concentration and right-wing propaganda and the latter a materialist feminist makes no difference. Even those sharing broadly similar politics face cancellation and intimidation, sometimes because of a single point of difference. Instead of the university being a site for the exchange of ideas and theories, it has become increasingly partisan—those holding ‘unacceptable views’ are not debated in the classroom or at conferences but undermined though social-media campaigns and online petitioning of campus administrators. US students are calling for an end to the practice of tenure, regarding tenured academics as holders of privilege, able to utter harmful speech without consequence, a demand that undoubtedly resonates in the ears of neoliberal university managers. 

If, generously, we regard cancel culture as an attempt to hold the ‘powerful’ to account, we should be concerned about the legitimisation of surveillance practices—practices often used historically against the less powerful—that track the speech and actions of the ‘problematic’ individual. Cancel culture appropriates the state’s traditional surveillance power and intervenes into digital civil society, itself now captured by surveillance capitalism, transforming it into a free market of shaming. If digital activists profit by cancelling individuals whose views they find offensive or harmful (ignoring any collateral damage), they uncritically accept the centrality of surveillance culture in order to do so, a practice that can easily be turned against those holding positions they might endorse.  

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Such destructive alliances notwithstanding, it would be wrong to simply dismiss cancel culture as instances of ‘woke’ keyboard warriors spruiking the latest version of political correctness. Indeed, much of the criticism of cancel culture from the Right is shallow and hypocritical, considering its long history of censorship and harassment. And the standard argument for free speech by liberal elites (evident in last year’s Harper’s letter) ignores the reality of entrenched hierarchies that undermine communicative freedom. So while we might see something in the negative energy of cancel culture—a sweeping away of the illusions of liberalism, perhaps a long-awaited reaction against the naive celebration of transgression and subversion as an end in itself (do we really need more boundary pushing in terms of violence, sex, taboo breaking without considering who loses in the exchange?)—its potential to seriously tackle oppression is limited, and not simply because of the tendency to create division rather than solidarity but due to the conditions though which its politics and practices arise. The values of contemporary progressive culture (pluralism, diversity, difference) align with older political struggles, such as the fight against colonial and patriarchal structures, but in crucial ways they are different. Often oriented more towards the ethical than the political, the values that frame cancel culture and related forms of activism are derived from a historical setting that is more complicated than many of its proponents realise. Such values reflect the habitus of the intellectually trained, whose formative conditions in the techno-sciences and media/culture industries make the world of heterogeneous association and fluid sociality appear natural (if also a source of continual threat). However, knowledge-work is a form of abstract labour and abstract sociality, whose methods—synthesising from disparate sources—inevitably privilege pluralism and difference over sameness and groundedness. The methods frame the world view. From the perspective of progressive politics, critiques of the destruction of older ways of knowing and being are dismissed as nostalgic or reactionary privilege, rather than potential sources of resistance against the ungrounding and nihilistic trajectory of the market.

The attraction of surveillance and state control to contemporary progressives, whether in the call for new laws against harmful speech or the curtailing of reactionary activity, is at some level a projection of power of this grouping, whose values, derived though intellectual work, are extrapolated to the rest of the populace. This is not the cynical power of the opportunist Right but the experience of customised media/information environments mistaken for a universal condition, where the robust exchange of views is no longer regarded as central to the democratic public sphere but potentially dangerous. Technological filtering reinforces this process: alternative views are kept at bay, so when they do surface their otherness is amplified. Moreover, the post-9/11 environment, with its continual reminders about threats of terror, and the fetishisation of security and safety, reinforces this political logic. 

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What we have seen in the past few years is the expansion of the desire for safe spaces and harm reduction from a small group of activists to that which frames left-liberal culture and politics more generally. Within this frame, state and corporate power is regarded as an ally, evident in the renewed demands to control social-media platforms and the alacrity with which new laws against domestic terrorism are proposed by liberal and progressive politicians, activists and commentators—and this in the most carceral state in the industrialised West. Since the 6 January riots, Facebook and Twitter have removed not only right-wing groups from their platforms but also a host of socialist groups, Palestinian-rights organisations, student human rights bodies, Antifa activists and the like. Already the Biden administration has used federal troops and chemical agents to suppress a protest outside an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facility in Portland. While many progressives now ask state and corporate actors to intervene against extreme speech, they forget the extent to which any substantial challenge to institutionalised inequality and oppression will be seen in the same light by those actors. Here it is worth remembering Biden’s promise to donors before the election—‘Nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living would change. Nothing would fundamentally change’—and consider whose interests any expanded laws against political dissidence would serve.

Indeed, the contempt by many progressives for figures such as Julian Assange, whose fate at the hands of the security state ought to trouble anyone concerned about abuses of state and corporate power, is indicative of how little the expansion of surveillance and control troubles those who wish to utilise it in the struggle against oppression. Since WikiLeaks and Snowden, we have seen an even cosier relationship between liberal/progressive media outlets and state intelligence and security services. In the United States ex-intelligence officers and ‘war on terror’ advisers from the CIA and the Pentagon now appear regularly as experts on CNNBC or in the New York Times—rehabilitated in the light of Trump’s sheer awfulness, but with agendas that are rarely questioned. The number of critical stories about intelligence agencies in the Guardian has substantially shrunk in recent years, as opinion pieces concentrate on smearing those who pose a threat to state power, such as Assange and Jeremy Corbyn. As Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis note in the wake of Snowdon’s revelations about surveillance, the Guardian ‘had gone in six short years from being the natural outlet to place stories exposing wrongdoing by the security state to a platform trusted by the security state to amplify its information operations’.  

If placing more power in the hands of the state and corporations is likely to undermine the capacity to combat racist, patriarchal and environmentally destructive forces in the longer term, there remains an equally important question about the nature of speech and communication itself with the frame of digital media. Are forms of online communication and exchange merely extensions of the ‘organic’ speech we have always used? Obviously not, and yet both progressives (with their emphasis on harm and trauma) and the Right (with its empty avocation of ‘freedom’) often act as if this is the case. If the modern public sphere (with all its faults, hierarchies and exclusions) is aimed at rational debate and exchange, the contemporary communicative sphere is dominated by affect, where friends and enemies are decided by emotional affinities. This transformation arises though carefully constructed algorithms that privilege extreme views or reactions, and that generate symbolic recognition via an increase in followers, likes and so on. The pathologies that infect social media are a direct result of the corporate business model that surveils the user, keeps them online as long as possible though targeted content (thus individualising them) and rewards incendiary speech acts that keep others using the platform. The largely indiscriminate targeting of extreme content conveniently masks how the very form of social media cultivates extremity to make a profit. Here, the post-Trump elimination of ‘networking service’ Parler might appear to be a blow to extreme speech, but it was equally motivated by the desire to protect the Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Amazon monopolies, whose generous donations to the Biden campaign make it unlikely that any serious attempt to break up such arrangements will occur, nor is it likely that the conditions that promote extremism on social-media platforms will be altered, as this is the very condition of their profitability.

Will a post-Trump world simply see the culture wars continue, escalating into sporadic violence? These conflicts might be ameliorated by new laws limiting the expressive capacities of a reenergised Right, but they will most probably be used against ‘dissidence’ more generally to prevent any serious challenge to the exercise of state and corporate power. Must we be forced to choose between Trump’s proto-fascist legacy and Biden’s ‘neoliberalism as usual’, buttressed by a domestic war on terror that traps us within the terms of this choice? Undoubtedly Trump energised white nationalists and proto-fascist groups, but the 70 million people who voted for him cannot be encompassed entirely within this description. Instead we might think of the divisions between those excluded by decades of global capitalism and those whose progressive culture and politics arose off the back of the same process of exclusion. These are not simply the ageing white working class but everyone marginalised though the disruptive forces of global capital, including the fragile subjects on campuses and in the knowledge economy, whose investment in ever more strident forms of identity politics provides a meagre bulwark against more profound destabilisations. When the forces of ‘Trumpism’ and the new Right appropriate the strategies of disruption it’s time for a rethink. Progressive identity politics has reacted, but it has generally not rethought the conditions of its own emergence: the forces of global capitalism that liberalised the West, and now make it unsafe. 

About the author

Simon Cooper

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.

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