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What Trump's claim that he's over the term 'woke' reveals

A rare moment of insight from the former president.
Donald Trump with red tape over his face
Leila Register / Getty Images

In a curious turn of events, former President Donald Trump said Thursday he doesn’t like the term “woke” anymore. His remarks may have been a swipe at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, but in the process he gave away exactly why so many on the MAGA right — including him — constantly use the term.

Trump’s surprising comment came as an aside during a rambling set of transphobic remarks at the Westside Conservative Breakfast in Urbandale, Iowa, during which he referred to trans identity as “sick” and deliberately misgendered people. He then detoured into why he is wary of using the word "woke."

It was also one of those rare moments in which Trump said something true.

“It’s gotten sick, and I don’t like the term woke, because I hear woke, woke, woke. You know it’s like just a term they use half the people can’t even define it. They don’t know what it is,” Trump said.

It’s not exactly clear who was he referring to when he said “they,” but it’s likely he meant people on the right who use the term to discredit or fearmonger about any policy vaguely associated with the principle of social equality or inclusiveness. It could even be a jab at DeSantis, who has made opposing “wokeness” one of the animating principles of his presidential campaign.

It was also one of those rare moments in which Trump said something true, and maybe even slightly introspective. The term “woke” dates back to at least the early 20th century, and was originally used by people who positively affiliated with the term as a shorthand for awareness of social injustice and bigotry. But in recent years, the right has appropriated the term and rendered it unintelligible. First, right-wing users of “woke” used it to discredit any attempt at social inclusion as extremist ideology. Over time it evolved into a catch-all culprit for anything that conservatives view as a social problem. The right has blamed “wokeness” for everything from the collapse of banks to military recruitment underperformance to mass shootings. DeSantis’ 2024 campaign launch last week was so packed with jargon tied to the anti-woke crusade that it was hard to understand what he was really saying. Trump is right: The term doesn’t mean much anymore when used by the right.

But that’s precisely why he and his political movement deploy the term so often. It’s advantageous for a bad faith movement to make use of language that evokes a strong emotional response from its audience but isn’t bound by pesky little things like definitions. Every week there’s a new story on the right detailing a new instance of “woke extremism” to help keep the political base angry and mobilized; even basic corporate diversity initiatives that were uncontroversial in the pre-Trump era provide fodder for the right-wing fear machine. Leaders of the MAGA right wants the base to believe that phenomena like bank collapses and the military’s recruitment woes are all tied to “wokeness” because it directs their attention to the chief villains of the white nationalist imagination: people from marginalized communities and their allies. Instead of thinking about issues in policy-specific terms, attention is directed to culture wars and demographics.

Trump’s alleged disregard for the term shouldn’t be taken particularly seriously. He’s used the term many, many times over the course of his career. He’s sold merchandise using it. On Sunday he slammed Disney for being “woke.” In fact later on the same day that he said he wasn’t a fan of the term, he called the military “woke.” It's just too tempting of a weapon for him to forgo entirely. And even if Trump doesn’t use the actual word as much as DeSantis, opposing social equality will remain a core pillar of his worldview. But for a moment he admitted that the whole thing is a bit of a scam.