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Why 'woke' and 'critical race theory' are the GOP's new favorite words

Don't ask them to define "woke." That's not the point.
Photo illustration: Three elephants raise their trunks up holding red and white sticks that read,\"Neo-marxist\", \"Critical Race Theory\" and \"Woke Corporation\".
Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

These are perilous times in America. This once proud country is in danger, threatened to be brought low. Neo-Marxists and the socialist left are trying to use critical race theory to indoctrinate our children into supporting antifa, all while woke corporations assault our free speech and cancel patriotic voices in the name of intersectional communism.

OK, before you close this tab, let me clarify: What you just read was complete gobbledygook, absolutely meaningless as standalone sentences, devoid of any connection to the actual words they use. But these buzzwords have become a sort of common coin of the realm in the right-wing’s fever swamps, minted to be freely traded for likes and retweets and other forms of virality. And in the absence of policies that have broad appeal, this is what Republicans now are left to rely on to connect with their voting base.

Former President Donald Trump understood that well, with his carnival-barker instinct to say whatever made people’s ears perk up. Remember when he told a crowd that he didn’t even like the phrase “drain the swamp”; it just got a lot of cheers? Yet it’s still being tossed around as shorthand for expunging liberals from the civil service. Every Republican you see parroting denunciations of “woke cancel culture” is out there chasing that high, trying to find the right combination of catchphrases to catapult them to a higher branch of power.

As a result, we have day after day of very serious commentators on Fox News giving their latest rendition of Gabby Johnson’s authentic frontier gibberish in “Blazing Saddles,” as the very serious anchors nod and praise them for their ramblings that “expressed a courage little seen in this day and age.”

I’m almost embarrassed for these middle-aged to elderly men railing against the things these kids today say. It’s especially cringeworthy when you see former Vice President Mike Pence announce that “we will CANCEL Cancel Culture wherever it arises!” Or 79-year-old Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., deigning to decry corporations acting like a “woke parallel government” in an official statement. Or this tweet from former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticizing a new CIA recruitment video that featured a woman declaring, "I am intersectional, but my existence is not a box-checking exercise.”

Yes, for the record, it can be funny that these clowns are tripping all over themselves to denounce criticism of Disneyland revamping a Snow White ride as the “woke mob” trying to “cancel” Prince Charming. When you’re aware of the gag, this vapid, cynical ploy to enthrall voters with whatever nonsense they’ve misconstrued based on what they’ve seen millennials and Gen Z say on Twitter is almost entertaining.

But this obsession isn’t harmless. We’re seeing cries of “cancel culture” used to shift blame and deflect from actions that might spur consequences. See: Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who, while promoting his new book, has claimed he’s been “canceled” for supporting Trump’s attempt to overturn the election. Meanwhile, legislators in Texas are the latest state-level Republicans using critical race theory as an excuse to block students from learning about America’s racist past, part of a rapidly expanding debate over how race is taught in our schools.

It’s the latest form of an old trick from the GOP and its supporters in right-wing media. A decade ago, the conservative zeitgeist was devoted to harnessing the racist suspicions of a country that was sure President Barack Obama was a secret Muslim, with Republicans rushing to be the loudest voice standing up against Sharia coming to the United States. Before that it was a shared abhorrence against being “politically correct.” Before that it was ghetto thugs and crack babies and activist judges and the Soviet Union and whatever else had become the vehicle of choice for harnessing their voters’ fears.

The words themselves may change, but they still serve as a lingua franca among conservatives, a shibboleth for like-minded listeners with a wink and a nod to the things unspoken. Be afraid of change, they warn. Be wary of what’s different. Things aren’t like they used to be and that’s unquestionably bad, especially for you, the white voter who’s being told that he lives in a racist country.

Be afraid of change, they warn. Be wary of what’s different. Things aren’t like they used to be and that’s unquestionably bad.

Those dog whistles and the harm they inspire in the real world can get lost in the digital noise today, particularly when accusing someone of being woke has become a fun way for conservatives to own the libs. The sputtering rage it can instill in liberals must be fun for some of the trolls out there, including those in Congress.

MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan, who I respect deeply for his willingness to speak truth to power, has challenged his fellow anchors to not allow guests to throw around these terms without defining them substantively. This has a certain appeal to it because it’s not as though these phrases exist in a vacuum or were crafted just to scare white baby boomers in Peoria, Indiana. And few of them when challenged will likely respond with a treatise on Kimberlé Crenshaw’s original use of the term “intersectional.”

The biggest problem, though, isn’t that conservatives can’t define these terms; it’s that they’ve already succeeded in redefining them, transforming what had been essentially blank slates for those new to the discourse into pejoratives in the minds of their listeners. You can tell their intended audience that critical race theory isn’t about diversity trainings or policing language all you want. They know what they were supposed to hear and are responding accordingly.