Why the GOP is fascinated with “woke”—but can’t explain it 2023

Right-wingers have adopted “oke” as their catchphrase of choice. Republican politicians can’t get together more than a sentence or two without throwing the word “woke” in there somewhere. If you turn on Fox News, you will hear the term “awake” repeated over and over again for hours, like a record skipping. Banks are the epitome of “woke” culture. Books aimed for kids. The armed forces. Disney. M&M’s and the Super Bowl halftime show. In the year 2023, if you’re a Republican, you’ll spend every waking minute fuming about how “wake” is ruining everything and how its wokey tendrils will slither their way into your brain and woke-ify you.

Even while Republicans universally despise the term “awake,” they can’t seem to agree on a definition for it. The conservative author Bethany Mandel delightfully illustrated this point in a popular video clip in which she utterly loses it when asked to describe “woke,” a term she has written an entire book against. Mandel was unable to complete the task.

She stutteringly attempted to explain “awake” as “the concept that, um…” before finally settling on “is something that’s really hard to define,” and came nowhere near.

Keep in mind that no progressive journalist was squeezing Mandel for an interview. She appeared on a reactive program with two kind presenters who went out of their way to give Her time to explain the meaning of “awake,” encouraging her to “take your time.” While she tried, she still couldn’t figure out how to describe “awake.”

Several people found this amusing, as they should have. Yet there should be no misunderstanding; the lack of a precise definition for “awake” is an intentional design choice, not a flaw. That “woke” is not easily defined is by design. Its effectiveness as a propaganda phrase lies in its very hollowness. To be “woke” is to be both fully aware and completely unaware. You may give it whatever meaning you choose, or pretend it doesn’t mean what it clearly does. The value of being “awake” lies in its transience. For a right-winger, “woke” appears out of thin air whenever they feel the need for moral indignation, but vanishes at the first sign of a reasonable inquiry.

Because of its equivocal nature, the term “awake” is frequently used by those on the right who want to be racists but don’t want to be called out for it. When Republicans label someone or anything as “awake,” they are able to communicate a hateful notion to their fellow travelers while maintaining that they did not mean anything by it.

This term’s effectiveness as a propaganda tool stems from its very hollowness.

Say you’re a trollish Republican congressman from Georgia who wants to vent to her fans about how upset she is that the Super Bowl halftime show featured a performance by a Black musician. During halftime, your grandparents’ generation would convey this sentiment by whispering racist obscenities to their pals over chicken wings. But nowadays people label you as a racist if you say something like that. You basically tweet that everything performed by anyone who isn’t white is “woke,” right?

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