Illustration courtesy of the author.

Cancel Culture Is Just Another Dog Whistle for White Supremacy

Just like free speech, law and order, or states’ rights, the newest Republican catchphrase is nothing but racist doublespeak

The modern incarnation of the Republican Party was born during the 1968 presidential election. In the wake of the Civil Rights Act, Nixon saw the rising popularity of segregationist candidate George Wallace in the Deep South and capitalised on it through what GOP strategists dubbed the Southern Strategy. They had understood that to win elections in America, a right-wing party needed to be on the side of white supremacists but couldn’t say it outright. The times they were a-changing, and the language too.

Expert in semiotics and linguistics tend to analyse the world and our relation to it through core tropes, or fundamental figures of speech that characterise the public discourse of an era. As a matter of progression, societies tend to move from metaphors to metonymies to synecdoches and end up with irony.

What Republicans saw in 1968 that nobody else did is that the era was moving away from past metaphors and into the age of irony. Irony happens when the speaker voluntarily creates a disconnect between a signifier (a word, a sentence, a whole speech) and a signified (the true meaning of the words). Contrary to a metaphor, irony is based on the notion that the signifier is the opposite of the signified. Irony is not a lie if the speaker's intention isn’t to deceive, but the line between the two concepts is blurry, and this is what David Foster Wallace perceives to be the great danger of irony.

The Democrats absolutely missed the boat on this societal shift, allowing the Republicans to build an entire vocabulary to signify, discreetly, to their base that their main concern was and would remain white supremacy. Using irony as a communication strategy has the added benefit that the speaker can always claim they weren’t aware of the double meaning. Authenticity and genuine remorse are perfect and unassailable defences for irony.

As proof of this shift in fundamental figures of speech, let’s look at a few presidential campaign slogans from the end of WWII to more recent times.

1944 Election

Roosevelt: “Don’t swap horses in midstream” (a metaphor)
Dewey: “Dewey or don’t we” (a terrible pun)

1948 Election

Truman: “I’m just wild about Harry”/ “The buck stops here” (both metaphors)
Dewey: “Dew it with Dewey” (another terrible pun, seriously)

The 1952 and 1956 elections, held amidst the post-war economic boom, only gave us slogans based on puns or rhymes. The 1960 election is interesting, however:

1960 Election

Kennedy: “A time for greatness 1960” (a metonymy, greatness implying economic success, political dominance, social peace and prosperity)
Nixon: “Peace, Experience, Prosperity” (a first-degree slogan without depth)

The Republican party would learn the lesson. In 1964, the party fielded Barry Goldwater. His open position against the Civil Rights movement led to LBJ’s landslide victory. Goldwater, however, understood that a shift in tone was necessary. His slogan was “In your heart, you know he’s right,” a direct appeal to the voters’ emotions.

In 1968, everything had changed. The Southern Strategy was in the works but hadn’t been fully mastered yet. Wallace won the Deep South state, the last time a third-party candidate would score so well in the general election. The GOP had started its transition to dog-whistle politics and full-blown irony, but it wasn’t there yet. Nixon decided to play the fear card head-on. While his slogan could be interpreted in the Vietnam and Cold Wars context, his underlying message to the Southern white supremacists is obvious.

1968 Election

Nixon: “This time, vote like your whole world depended on it.”
Humphrey: “Some People Talk Change, Others Cause It”

In 1972, the Southern Strategy had been fully integrated into the party platform, and irony was the day's language. While his official slogan was “Nixon Now,” Nixon’s supporters favoured “They can’t lick our Dick” which is as obnoxious as it is in line with the targetted voter demographic. Another popular slogan was “Don’t change Dicks in the midst of a screw.” While both phrases aren’t fully ironic per se, the irony of using such vulgar language to promote a presidential candidate is indicative of a fundamental shift in public discourse.

Reagan, in the 1980 election, brought the irony to the centre of the stage. He ran with “Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?” clearly implying that the country wasn’t. He also used another, infamous slogan: “Let’s Make America Great Again.” The transition to full-blown ironical and doublespeak discourse had been operated.

From Nixon to Reagan, Republican dog-whistles evolved from directly targeting white supremacists in the South (law and order, free speech, states rights) to triggering the Evangelical and Christian votes (the moral majority, pro-life). All these phrases, all these euphemisms bring us back to the race question and white supremacy.

“Cancel Culture” is the latest, trendiest incarnation of this phenomenon, namely weaponising irony and hypocrisy against American minorities. When Eric Trump says, in the wake of his daddy’s Twitter ban:

We live in the age of cancel culture, but this isn’t something that started this week. It is something that they have been doing to us and others for years.

What he means isn’t “we’ve been cancelled for years,” what he means is: “the white people of this country have lost their preeminence for years.” He intends to say that whiteness is under attack.

On the House floor during the impeachment debates, Jim Jordan said that the Democrats were moving to impeach to “cancel the president.” Once again, what is meant here is “they want to impeach a white president for supporting white people defending white people’s rights.” When his book deal fell through, Josh Hawley attacked the “woke mob,” stating that “the left [is] looking to cancel everyone they don’t approve of.”

As I have already argued, conflating the left, BLM, the woke mob, SJWs, and Antifa poses a grave threat to American democracy. The mixing up of political choices and inherent traits in political discourse leads to social and racial violence in the streets and has led the world to atrocities.

Let’s not be mistaken here. Cancel Culture is nothing but the latest racist, white supremacist dog-whistle in the GOP’s vocabulary. To those who are reasonable and who believe in free speech while condemning white supremacy and racism: beware! The “cancel culture claim” shouldn’t be defended. It is not what it looks like.

Cancel culture, like every other Republican talking point, is a way to promote white supremacy.

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