So a reporter finally managed to pin down Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on the meaning of his favorite word, “woke.”

NBC’s Dasha Burns approached DeSantis in Iowa, where the governor is campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination. Former president Donald Trump, currently leading that race, had dismissed unnamed competitors for their embrace of the nebulous term. Burns therefore asked DeSantis about it.

“We know what ‘woke’ is,” DeSantis replied. “It’s a form of cultural Marxism. It’s about putting merit and achievement behind identity politics. And it’s basically a war on the truth. And as that has infected institutions, it has corrupted a lot of institutions. So you’ve got to be willing to fight the woke.”

While it is useful that DeSantis at least offered a definition of some sort for the word, a break from past practice, his response demonstrates the fundamental issue. “Woke” is this papier-mâché construction involving layers of flimsy material. His response prompts a natural follow-up question that Burns didn’t get a chance to ask: What do you mean by “cultural Marxism,” exactly? And, more importantly, are Republican primary voters expected to understand the application of a term rooted in class conflict in this context?

Let’s step back. There are two elements at play, two elements that have been at play since before Trump announced his entry into the 2016 presidential contest eight years ago. The first is that conservative older White Americans have a sense that the nation is changing in unsettling ways. The second is their belief that this is a function of nefarious activity by some combination of Democrats, rich people, the media, Black people, the federal government, immigration advocates and other non-White actors. Trump’s presentation of a coalition of elites acting against the interests of hard-working average Americans — meaning, here, those older conservatives and their allies — was a relative reflection of this impulse. But he also hinted at deep-seated intentionality.

Over time, this overlapping fear was more explicitly articulated. Evidence that the elites were trying to change the nation were visible everywhere: corporate statements of support for Black Americans in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in 2020, college students exhibiting left-leaning politics (no doubt due to leftist professors), Pride Month. The causality here was drawn either as these things spreading some perceived deviation from American norms or as the emerging cultural force bringing traditional institutions to heel.

Left generally unconsidered: that younger Americans who hold different political views and are more heavily gay or non-White were spurring shifts in workplaces, schools and marketing just as their White, baby boomer parents and predecessors had.

There’s research showing how White Americans, particularly on the right, see different racial groups as a unified threat against them. From 2015 to 2018, New York University’s Eric Knowles and others asked Americans to evaluate statements measuring the extent to which they viewed the collective non-White American population as acting in unity against Whites — an idea the research team called “minority collusion.”

“What we ended up finding,” Knowles told me last year, “was that there was a marked increase in agreement with the idea that minority collusion is happening over the course of the survey.” The increase, he added, “was driven only by an increase in this minority collusion belief among White Republicans.”

It’s not hard to see how that idea would extend beyond issues of race, particularly given the fights that have emerged since Trump left office.

What was the fight over “critical race theory” (CRT)? It was ostensibly an uprooting of a duplicitous effort by the left-wing elites to inculcate a hostility to Whiteness. The idea that American racism survived the civil rights movement in part by being embedded (not always consciously) in systems and practices was elevated as part of the Back Lives Matter movement. But the widespread and overwrought opposition to “CRT” was largely aimed at discussions of race in general, with the term being used not as an accurate descriptor of how this academic theory manifested in the real world but just as a point of reference for the perceived coordinated effort to subvert the traditional presentation of the world.

(It was with the fight over CRT, incidentally, that a connection to Marxism was first drawn, a useful pejorative for an older White population raised during the Cold War.)

Over and over, this is the pattern. People choosing to show their support for nonbinary Americans by identifying the pronouns they themselves use are framed as being engaged in a concerted, widespread effort to force their views onto others. Businesses looking to sell products to Black or Hispanic or gay people are framed as being part of the plot to overthrow Traditional America.

More recently, DeSantis and others have targeted other three-letter abbreviations, including DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and ESG (environmental, social and governance-focused business practices). It’s all the same idea; these are vehicles the broader left are using to reshape America in a dangerous way. And the reality is also the same: Given the more-liberal views of a less-densely White working-age population, companies and academic institutions are responding to market demand, rather than shaping it.

All of this gets dumped under the “woke” umbrella, useful because it captures the full range of perceived left-wing insidiousness without boundary. It’s CRT and it’s pronouns and it’s DEI and it’s books that might allow a middle school student to read about a same-sex relationship. All of it is “woke” in that all of it is part of a culture that older conservative White people find foreign and hostile.

Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley was also asked what “woke” means during a CNN town hall on Sunday. Her answer was more concrete than DeSantis’s — but similarly revealing.

“There’s a lot of things. I mean, you want to start with biological boys playing in girls’ sports,” she said. “That’s one thing. The fact that we have gender-pronoun classes in the military now. I mean, all of these things that are pushing what a small minority want on the majority of Americans? It’s too much. It’s too much.” She added that having “biological boys playing in girls’ sports” was “the women’s issue of our time.”

It’s stuff that the Republican base doesn’t like and finds unsettling, framed in hyperbolic terms. That’s what “woke” is. It’s anything that “corrupts” institutions, as DeSantis put it, in a way that doesn’t comport with the narrowly drawn allowances of the political right.

It is fundamentally nothing more than a foil, a word that leverages disparate, real anecdotes to suggest a broad conspiracy against a political group energized by a sense of embattlement.

It is meaningless as anything but a pejorative. And that’s why Republican politicians love it.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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