trump mount rushmore
Washington CNN  — 

It’s a topic that appears with exhausting regularity: cancel culture.

Regrettably, it’s here again.

The loudest critics of cancel culture tend to frame it as a sort of inquisition – as a campaign to quash someone or something that some person doesn’t like, often for petty reasons. But these condemnations distort the issue at the heart of the debate: power – who’s used to having it, who’s trying to be heard.

In 2019, the conversation was funneled through the comedians Dave Chappelle and Shane Gillis, who had landed in hot water for offensive material. In his Netflix special “Sticks and Stones,” Chappelle cracks jokes about Michael Jackson’s accusers, before he turns his attention to transgender people. Resurfaced material showed Gillis using racist language.

Chappelle faced backlash, and Gillis was fired from “Saturday Night Live” not long after the announcement of his hire. Yet lost in much of the cancel culture chatter at the time was the fact that neither man was, well, canceled, despite claims to the contrary. Power remains on their side: Chappelle released a well-received YouTube special, “8:46,” in June, and Gillis has done standup since he was fired. In other words, both still have a platform.

Also lost: how the criticism functioned as a corrective. It was in defense of groups that have long been kicked to American society’s fringes.

Fast-forward to 2020 for another example of how claims of cancel culture often warp reality.

“One of (the left’s) political weapons is ‘cancel culture’ – driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America,” President Donald Trump said in a July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore.

That’s a rich statement. Before Trump won the 2016 presidential election – that is, before he assumed the highest office in the country – he was a cancel culture acolyte. It’s only been since he entered the White House that he’s become one of its biggest critics.

“Trump has long railed against ‘political correctness.’ But he has also tried for years to get people and entities punished or banished for what he considers objectionable words and acts,” writes my CNN colleague Daniel Dale in a piece that itemizes some of Trump’s cancellation attempts. “Trump has explicitly advocated cancellations, boycotts and firings on numerous occasions – often simply because he doesn’t like something his target has said.”

This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t instances of overblown policing by those on the left.

Rather, it’s to appeal for a sense of proportion: Some are articulating righteous anger; others, such as the President, are just afraid of a bit of accountability.