In America, the term “woke” means to be aware of racial prejudice and by extension to gender prejudice and other forms of discrimination and inequality. Being woke has been a badge of honour, conferring enlightenment and the need to judge people on their own merits – as the US constitution and legal system demand.
More recently, in the Trump era, the term has been used by many prominent Republicans to chastise Democrats and others as hopelessly naïve. Woke politicians, they say, are keeping average (read Caucasian) people down – having big government create an unfair playing field in which special rights are granted to minorities, immigrants, women, and especially the LGBTQ community in the US.
Throughout modern American history, especially since the Civil Rights era, some politicians have drunk from the poisoned chalice of divisive politics to appeal to racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia. Traditionally these appeals have been made by using “dog whistle” tactics – in other words, rhetoric and policy positions that while divisive by design were not so on the surface, giving plausible deniability.
A dog whistle is one at a pitch only dogs can hear but that others largely miss. At a minimum, it can be explained, even if implausibly, as neutral. What has changed in the Trump era is that the dog whistle has now been replaced by a megaphone. There is little subtlety to the positions espoused by some of the Republican leaders in the US, including several of the candidates currently seeking the presidency.
Running for president in 1968, Richard Nixon adopted a “Southern Strategy,” which emphasised a defiance to fully implementing the Civil Rights-era laws supported and adopted by former president Lyndon Johnson – full legal rights, equal access to public places, voting rights, fair housing, and an expansion of government services – including education and health care – to poor and middle-class people of all races in all areas of the country.
Nixon’s Southern Strategy did not overtly espouse racism, but it talked instead of law and order and states’ rights – meaning that the formerly racially segregated states of the South would be allowed to implement laws as they saw fit.
Interviewing longtime Democratic Congressman and former US defence secretary, CIA head, and Office of Budget and Management director Leon Panetta in 2021, I asked what was the proudest moment of his long and illustrious career. “That’s easy – getting fired by Richard Nixon,” noted Panetta, who explained at the time that he worked for the Office for Civil Rights.
Panetta defied the president by insisting that Civil Rights laws in education be enforced in the South.
Dog-whistle tactics were also used by other Republican candidates, and some Democrats, hoping to gain (or retain) political strength in the formerly Democratic-leaning “solid South” – including presidential election candidates Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
But compare that more subtle era to the era of Trump. In August 2017, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, saw neo-Nazis and extremists chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans attempt to take over the University of Virginia campus. Ostensibly they were opposed to the removal of statues honouring Confederate War heroes – who waged war against the US primarily to protect slavery.
When violence flared, resulting in the death of a young woman opposing the alt-right, Trump blamed “both sides” and noted that there were “good people on both sides” – suggesting a moral equivalency which shocked many Americans. This is one of many examples of doing away with the dog whistle and outright suggesting a place at the decision-making table for racists – long excluded as extremists from polite society.
WAR ON WOKE: What has transpired in Florida in recent years is illustrative of the change.
Florida Governor and current Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis has implemented a fully-fledged war on woke – attacking educators, public-health officials, private businesses, climate-change advocates, the LGBTQ community, those concerned with civil rights – especially the Black Lives Matter Movement – public prosecutors, and other citizens who oppose his draconian, conservative view of contemporary society.
More recently, such criticism has even led to attacks on the FBI and Justice Department, as well as the Armed Forces.
DeSantis was first elected governor of Florida in 2018 by the narrowest of margins. During his first term, he implemented a conservative, but hardly radical, agenda. The term coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic, and while he initially supported efforts by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and medical professionals to close schools and businesses, mask, and vaccinate, he abruptly recalculated his positions.
DeSantis advocated doing away with masks at an early stage, reopening schools and businesses, and quickly championed the anti-vaccination movement – including by appointing a State Surgeon General synonymous with vaccine scepticism and worse.
DeSantis credits his Covid-19 policy for changing his political fortunes. He was reelected in 2022 in a landslide. Upon his victory, many saw DeSantis as the likely Republican presidential frontrunner, which was supported by high poll numbers in a presumptive race against Joe Biden and in the primary against other Republicans including Donald Trump.
He also did not stop with Covid-19. Instead, he fully embraced a war on woke – attacking diversity and inclusion programmes in schools and businesses; criticising the education system for teaching wokeness; assaulting higher education as a bastion of woke-liberalism; supporting book banning; gerrymandering the lines of state legislative and congressional districts to reduce minority representation; cracking down on immigration; restricting voting rights; and firing government officials – including elected prosecutors – who had not implemented the law as he deemed appropriate.
In reworking the elementary education curriculum in Florida, DeSantis supported a sanitisation of history so that white people do not feel stigmatised by such things as slavery. While included in the new curriculum, it noted that slavery in the US provided “job training” to slaves – an outrageous distortion of history.
His higher-education policies have resulted in many professors in Florida universities quitting. His opposition to inclusive policies in the workplace has led to high-profile feuds with the business community, including an ongoing battle with the state’s second-largest employer, Disney.
Disney opposed a key DeSantis law, and he retaliated. In turn, Disney delayed a massive new $17 billion investment in the state and has taken the governor to court. His policies have caused conventions to relocate, and a boycott from Civil Rights groups. Many of his policies are being tested in court and are likely to be deemed unconstitutional in part or whole. In short, the policies have economic consequences.
DeSantis is not considered a people person like former US president Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or George W Bush. And while he parrots Trump, he is seen as lacking his charisma. This is bearing out in the polls, and it seems the more the governor is exposed to the public, the more his numbers crater. It should also be noted that his policies, in and of themselves, are not popular nationally – perhaps not even in Florida, where he is ineligible to run for re-election.
His calculation, however, that the war on woke is key to winning the Republican primary and possibly the White House itself is being adopted in various forms by all the other Republican candidates with the exception of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie – who seems to be running primarily to needle Trump, DeSantis, and others and in so doing aiming to return the Republican Party to a more traditional platform based on economic growth and moderate social policies.
At this point, DeSantis is seen as spiralling to oblivion, but the anti-woke crusade – even if unpopular to the American public at large – is still key to winning the Republican nomination.
The writer is executive director of the University of Central Florida Office of Global Perspectives & International Initiatives and a distinguished visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly