“So in Florida, we say very clearly, we will never ever surrender to the woke mob. Our state is where woke goes to die.”
Nikki Haley declares:
“Wokeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down.”
Donald Trump is more nuanced, preferring to simply say racist things aloud without using the DeSantis shorthand.
“I don’t like the term ‘woke,” Trump told an Iowa audience, “because I hear the term ‘woke woke woke’—it’s just a term they use, half the people can’t define it, they don’t know what it is.”
Trump notwithstanding, their competitors for the GOP nomination for president—along with Republican politicians across the country seeking their own re-election this year and next—are falling all over themselves to condemn “woke” and promise to be even tougher on “wokeness” than the last guy.
But what do they mean?
In 1938, Lead Belly sang a song about the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of young Black men and boys who were falsely charged with rape and sentenced to the death penalty in Alabama in 1931. In the song, he talks about meeting the Scottsboro defendants, saying:
“I made this little song about down there. So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there—best stay woke, keep your eyes open.”
The phrase had a major revival in the Black community, as NBC News notes, in 2014 after Michael Brown was murdered by Ferguson, Missouri white police officer Darren Wilson.
“Stay woke” meant “keep an eye out for white cops who want to kill you” and to stay alert to and aware of other aspects of structural racism in American society. More recently, the term has expanded to being aware of and trying to do something about homophobia, misogyny, and our nation’s social ills.
Woke, in other words, means being aware of these social crises and wanting to repair them, to make a more happy, loving, egalitarian society.
Which is exactly why Republicans are using “woke” as their latest hate-filled dog whistle.
While these shout-outs to white racists, fascists, and haters go all the way back to the founding of the republic, most people are familiar with their more recent incarnations.
In the 1968 election and for his 1972 re-election, for example, Nixon rolled out his “War on Drugs” and talked constantly about “law and order” to signal to white people that he was going to come down hard on the Black community.
It was integral to his successful Southern Strategy to bring disaffected Dixiecrats—racist white Southern Democrats pissed off that LBJ had signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts into law in 1964/1965—over to the GOP.
As Nixon‘s right hand man, John Ehrlichman, told reporter Dan Baum:
“You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. Do you understand what I’m saying?
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.
“We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.
“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.“
And it worked:
Nixon, as you can see, had considerable success in his generation’s version of today’s “war on woke.” Literally millions of careers were disrupted, people imprisoned, and lives brutally ended by his campaign to seize and hold political power. It echoes to this day, particularly in Red states where a joint can still get you years in prison.
Republican use of language to demonize people who aren’t straight white men have bridged America’s modern political history.
- Reagan referred to “welfare queens” and “young bucks buying steak” with food stamps.
- George HW Bush had Willie Horton, the “unrepentant rapist and killer” of white women.
- George W. Bush handily lumped all Muslims into the “radical terrorist” category as he ran illegal torture sites around the world.
- Donald Trump referred to “Mexican murderers and rapists” while throwing a sop to “good people on both sides.”
- And now the GOP has settled on the word woke as their way of shouting out to racists, Nazis, and hate-filled bigots.
The simple reality that every demagogue in history has known is that it’s more powerful to declare revenge and war against an enemy than to proclaim a positive vision for the future. It’s why Trump recently told his followers that he is “your retribution.”
Words have the meaning that culture and repetition give them, which gives us the key to using “woke” against Republicans.
While the openly Nazi and racist Republican base knows well how attacking woke is shorthand for hating on Black people, queer folk, and progressive allies, the word has a much more amorphous meaning for most of the rest of America.
And therein lies the opportunity for Democrats.
A week before the 1988 election, the front page of The New York Times carried a story headlined:
“Dukakis Asserts He Is a ‘Liberal,’ But in Old Tradition of His Party.”
Rush Limbaugh had started his show—and his relentless demonization of the word liberal—just four months earlier.
By the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton won, in part, by running away from the word. The New York Times headline for September 26, 1992 told the entire story:
“Clinton Says He’s Not Leaning Left but Taking a New ‘Third Way.’”
Running for re-election in 1996, The Washington Post’s headline highlighted Clinton’s continuity: “Clinton Says He Is No Liberal.”
It would be thirty years before a Democratic nominee for president could safely assert that he was a liberal (and Hillary continued to avoid the word right up to the day she lost in 2016).
Joe Biden, in 2020, came right out and said it:
“I was always labeled as one of the most liberal members of the United States Congress. … All during my career as a senator and as vice president—the things that we did in the United States—as president and vice president of the United States, I thought they were pretty progressive.”
Meet, in other words, the power of reframing a word.
Progressives and Democrats need to take a page from the old Limbaugh playbook and pound on the GOP’s use of the word “woke” as a slur.
Make it as simple as possible, whenever Republicans invoke the word:
- “If you’re anti-woke, that means you’re pro-bigot.”
- “By attacking people who are woke to our nation’s history, you’re saying you side with the Nazis and the Klan.”
- “I’m woke and proud of it. You’re a hater and should be ashamed of yourself.”
- “It’s another Republican proclaiming his bigotry by attacking woke.”
Republicans attack woke, in addition to shouting out to the racist base, because they’re trying to hide how deeply they’re in the pockets of fringe groups from the white supremacist movement to rightwing billionaires who disdain democracy.
- They don’t want voters to think they’re owned by the fossil fuel and weapons industries.
- It’s embarrassing to them when we point out that nine of the last ten recessions happened during Republican presidencies, or that their abortion bans are really about controlling the bodies and lives of women and have nothing to do with “saving the children” they’ll deny food or healthcare to the moment they’re born.
- They want their book bans framed as anti-pornography campaigns rather than what they really are: anti-intellectualism, attempts to whitewash history, and a fear of modernity.
Which is why they constantly talk about “woke.”
It’s a word that, at this moment, means different things to different people.
But, at its core, their effort to turn woke into a pejorative is about the politics of elimination, about erasing large swaths of American history, about pushing queer people back into the closet, about turning schools into indoctrination factories.
Rhetoric like this rarely turns out good. Hitler villainized Jews for years before he started killing them; Rwandan Hutus called Tutsis “cockroaches” before the slaughter began; Pinochet called union organizers “communists and parasites,” then started pushing them out of helicopters.
As we saw so vividly with Richard Nixon’s War On Drugs, language has meaning, impact, and the ability to transform societies.
Therefore, job one for Democrats must be to strip the GOP anti-woke message of its ambiguity. To call out their dog whistle of hate and bigotry for what it is. To do so in political campaigns and letters to the editor; in calls into talk shows and C-SPAN; in conversations with friends, neighbors, and even random strangers.
Turn on a light, the old saying goes, and the cockroaches will scatter. It’s time to bring honest and unflinching light to the Republican Party’s misuse of the word “woke.”
Republished with permission from Thom Hartmann
Thom Hartmann, one of America’s leading public intellectuals and the country’s #1 progressive talk show host, writes fresh content six days a week. The Monday-Friday “Daily Take” articles are free to all, while paid subscribers receive a Saturday summary of the week’s news and, on Sunday, a chapter excerpt from one of his books.