Conservatives have a ‘cancel culture’ of their own

For as long as I can remember, conservatives have been denouncing the intolerance of the left. I was decrying “political correctness” as a student columnist at the University of California at Berkeley 30 years ago. Now the catchphrase is “cancel culture.” In his Mount Rushmore speech last week, President Trump decried a “new far-left fascism” that is “driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.”

It’s true that some leftists try to repress viewpoints they find offensive. A group of intellectual luminaries has even faced a backlash for releasing an open letter decrying this trend. But here’s the thing. The right has little standing to complain about the left’s cancel culture, because it has its own cancel culture that is just as pervasive and might be even more powerful.

Trump’s hypocrisy is glaring. As my fellow Post columnist Catherine Rampell pointed out, he is trying to intimidate critical media organizations, stop the publication of books that he doesn’t like, and purge the executive branch of anyone who disagrees with him. To cite but one egregious example: Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was fired from the National Security Council and now has been forced into early retirement, without a peep of protest from Republicans, because he testified truthfully about Trump’s impeachable conduct.

The rest of the conservative movement can be just as intolerant of dissent. I learned this the hard way when I was the op-ed editor of the Wall Street Journal from 1997 to 2002. As I recount in my book “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right,” I was nearly fired for trying to run an op-ed critical of supply-side economics by Paul Krugman, a future Nobel laureate in economics. The editorial-page philosophy was that it would run one liberal column a week; if readers wanted more, they could turn to the New York Times.

In more recent years, I have been dismayed to see conservative organizations purging Never Trumpers. There are practically no Trump critics left at Fox News save for Juan Williams,whose liberal views probably have little resonance with its conservative audience. Never Trump conservatives such as Steve Hayes, George F. Will and Bill Kristol are long gone at the network. Fox’s prime-time programming is wall-to-wall Trump idolatry.

Something similar happened at National Review. The conservative magazine ran a cover article in January 2016 “Against Trump,” but it has since become noisily pro-Trump. When it does gingerly criticize Trump, it typically asserts that his opponents are way worse. Two of its leading Trump skeptics— David French and Jonah Goldberg —decamped to a new website called the Dispatch. Another new website, the Bulwark, was started by refugees from the Weekly Standard, which had been the most anti-Trump conservative publication until it was shuttered at the end of 2018 by its owner, a major Republican donor named Philip Anschutz.

These are hardly isolated examples. Sol Stern, a former fellow at the Manhattan Institute and longtime contributor to its influential magazine, City Journal, has just published an essay in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas recounting how these New York-based entities were Trumpified. (The Manhattan Institute’s director of communications declined to comment on Stern’s article.)

Initially, City Journal, like other conservative organs, was quite critical of the reality TV star. But once it became clear Trump was going to be the Republican nominee, criticism of him all but vanished from its pages. When Stern pitched an article about “Trump’s hate-filled campaign rallies,” he was told, “We’re steering clear of that now.” The pressure to toe the Trump line only intensified after his election, because, Stern writes, the Manhattan Institute’s major supporters include Trump donors such as Rebekah Mercer and Paul Singer.

Stern resigned in protest in October 2017. He hoped that his letter of resignation would spark an “internal conversation about City Journal’s political direction in the Trump era,” but, he writes, it never happened. “The historical validation of Trump thus became our magazine’s default position. For a journal of ideas, this was a dereliction of duty.”

Not even Trump’s catastrophic mishandling of the novel coronavirus has altered City Journal’s approach. While the magazine has blasted New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s performance as a “daily exercise in justification, accountability denial and self-aggrandizement,” it has hardly mentioned Trump’s scandalous role. Stern notes: “Only one piece, written by an outside contributor, cited the President’s slow response to the crisis. Yet even that minor criticism was rendered moot when the writer falsely claimed that Trump’s performance was no worse than that of any other world leader.”

All organizations have the right to tell their audiences what they want to hear. But when it comes to a diversity of opinions, the right doesn’t practice what it preaches. It (rightly) demands conservative representation in universities, corporations and mainstream media organizations, but it shuns liberal views in its own sphere of control — which now extends to the entire federal government.