Why the GOP is obsessed with “woke” — but can’t define it

“Woke” is currently the favorite word of the right. Republican politicians can’t go more that 5 or 6 words without peppering “woke” into their sentences. Turning on Fox News, you’ll hear the word “woke” repeated ad nauseam, like a record skipping, but for hours at a time: “woke woke woke woke woke.” Everything is  “woke”: Banks. Children’s books. The military. Disney. M&Ms. Super Bowl performances. To be a Republican in the year 2023 is to spend every waking moment outraged and terrified by “woke,” certain its wokey tendrils will snake their wokeness into your brain and woke-ify you into wokeitude. 

But the funny thing about “woke” is that, while all Republicans hate it, they don’t seem to have any idea how to define it. That was hilariously demonstrated in a viral video clip of conservative author Bethany Mandel falling completely apart when asked in an interview to define “woke,” a concept she wrote an entire book denouncing. Mandel couldn’t do it.

“So, I mean, woke is sort of the idea that, um…” she stammered before admitting it “is something that’s very hard to define,” and then failing utterly to get close. 

Mind you, Mandel was not being cornered by some progressive journalist. She was on a reactionary show with two sympathetic hosts who bent over backward to give Mandel room to explain what “woke” meant, coaxing her gently with, “take your time.” Yet she still couldn’t define “woke.”

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This made a lot of people laugh, as it should. But make no mistake: The inability to define “woke” is a feature, not a bug. “Woke” is very much meant to be a word that cannot be pinned to a definition. Its emptiness is what gives it so much power as a propaganda term. “Woke” is both everything and nothing. It can mean whatever you need it to mean, and you can deny that it means what it obviously means. The ephemerality of “woke” is what makes it so valuable. “Woke” morphs into being when a right-winger needs to feel outrage and evaporates into thin air should anyone try to ask a rational question about it. 

“Woke” is both everything and nothing.

Mind you, that wasn’t always the case with “woke.”

It wasn’t so long ago that “woke” was a slang term from Black America, and it meant something substantive and easy to define. To be “woke” was to refuse to be complacent about social injustice. This definition offended Republicans, whose very existence depends on complacency in the face of social injustice. So as an act of very racist revenge, they appropriated the term “woke,” turning it into a catch-all insult for anything that annoys them. 

In right-wing mouths, the term “woke” is very slippery, which is necessary for people who both want to be bigots but don’t want to be called out for it. Labeling someone or something “woke” allows Republicans to live in a liminal space, communicating a vile belief to their fellow travelers while maintaining that’s not what they meant at all. 

Its emptiness is what gives it so much power as a propaganda term.

For instance, imagine you’re a trollish Republican congresswoman from Georgia, and you want to commiserate with your followers about how aggravated you are that they let Black people perform songs at the Super Bowl. In your grandparents’ era, this would be expressed by muttering racial slurs to your friends over chicken wings during halftime. Now, however, that gets you called “racist.” So instead you just tweet that every performance not from a white guy was “woke.” 

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The beauty of “woke” here is how vague it is. If your critics call you “racist,” you simply say you aren’t mad at Rihanna and Sheryl Lee Ralph because they’re Black. You can say it’s just that they have an ineffable “woke” vibe that offends you. In the grand tradition of victim-blaming, Greene shifts responsibility to Rihanna and Ralph to somehow be less “woke.” But of course, that’s an impossible target to hit, even if they wanted to. (Outside of disappearing entirely, naturally.) Greene declines to explain what makes them so “woke,” if it’s not their skin color that so offends her. 

Or say you’re the pinch-mouthed Republican governor of Florida and you want to terrorize LGBTQ people back into the closet. Banning homosexuality, at least for now, is out from a legal standpoint. Plus, being proudly prejudiced against people based on sexual orientation is politically unpopular. So instead you redefine any behavior that offends you — being out of the closet, publicly supporting LGBTQ rights, writing a book about two male penguins in love — as “woke.” Now you can crush human liberty while pretending to merely hold the line against this elusive threat of “woke.” 

Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., is particularly keen on how the indescribable nature of “woke” makes it a perfect word for his favorite political ploy: gaslighting. For instance, DeSantis signed a law he bragged would keep “woke” books from schools. Of course, no one actually knows what “woke” means, so some teachers stripped their libraries bare to avoid a kid reading something someone else might call “woke.” Now DeSantis is pretending that he’s being misunderstood and that his book ban was narrow instead of broad. 

“Woke,” you see, expands and contracts depending upon the momentary needs of authoritarian figures like DeSantis. When teachers are stocking shelves, “woke” is a massive category, covering thousands of books, to the point where it’s easier not to let kids read at all. But when deflecting criticism, “woke” is minuscule, covering almost no books at all. The brilliance of “woke” is that it is Schrödinger’s cat as a political concept. A book is both “woke” and “un-woke,” depending on the moment. In the classroom, the book is “woke” and forbidden. Outside, when speaking to reporters, it’s not “woke.” Indeed, the victims are blamed for misreading “woke,” probably because they are too “woke,” but of course, they will never actually be told what it would take to not be “woke.”

This is hardly the first time that Republicans have latched onto deliberately amorphous terms to convey a sense of outrage while evading responsibility to define what exactly the hell they are on about. “Marxism,” “socialism,” “political correctness,” “demonic,” “sexualization”: The world of right-wing propaganda is rife with terms that have been appropriated and rendered meaningless, allowing conservatives to apply them to everything. A Republican loves an empty signifier. Specificity invites rational discourse. And rationality is the death of reactionary politics. 

As an act of very racist revenge, Republicans appropriated the term “woke,” turning it into a catch-all insult for anything that annoys them. 

The near-infinite flexibility of “woke” as a concept is why it was so useful to Republicans trying to deflect attention from their role in deregulating banks, which likely contributed to the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB). To charge “wokeness” for the bank’s collapse allows Republicans to both pin the blame on women and people of color while claiming they are doing no such thing. This became comically obvious in the Wall Street Journal article by Andy Kessler, in which he noted that SVB board is “45 percent women, they also have ‘1 Black,’ ‘1 LGBTQ+,'” and while, “I’m not saying 12 white men would have avoided this mess, but the company may have been distracted by diversity demands.”

One longs for old school bigotry, which is at least a little clearer in its arguments. You can hear Kessler’s yearning to say women aren’t smart enough to be bankers. But he can’t say that in 2023. Instead, the board is “woke.” It’s not that women are inherently “woke,” but you can tell the board is “woke” because of the women. He’s not saying only men are smart enough to be bankers, but you know, that people who disagree with that position are “woke.”

“Anti-woke” is the catch-all term for all the things Republicans wish they could say but can’t. You know what they mean, though, but of course, they will never admit it. 


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