Redpilled, QAnon, Anti-Vaccine: Conservative versions of 'woke'

Part 2 of a multipart analysis of newest Republican weapon word

Redpilled, QAnon, Anti-Vaccine: Conservative versions of 'woke'
Photo by ANIRUDH on Unsplash

by Gil Duran and George Lakoff | FrameLab

In our previous post, “Time to Get Woke About Woke,” we analyzed the meaning of the term "woke" and how it has been co-opted by Republicans as a catch-all label for anything associated with liberal moral values. This post will delve into a more insidious tactic employed by Republicans, which involves denouncing perceived progressive radicalism while simultaneously promoting and glorifying their own version of radicalism.

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While Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are busy decrying “woke” politics (and labeling all Democratic policies as woke), they are also busily embracing their own versions of woke. The Republican Party fully embraces radical politics — as long as those radical politics reflect its own moral beliefs.

Many Republican leaders have been fully engaged in the radical politics of election denial, vaccine denial and unprecedented efforts to strip away the rights and freedoms of women, people of color and LGBT people. While condemning “ideological conformity,” DeSantis has simultaneously made it easier to ban books, has limited the discussion of gender identity and sexuality in schools and has forbidden the teaching of an Advanced Placement course on African American studies.

Last year, DeSantis signed the Stop Woke Act, which “prohibits in-school discussions about racism, oppression, LBGTQ+ issues and economic inequity,” according to The Guardian. This is quite extreme. It’s also clearly an effort to enforce, rather than prevent, ideological conformity — specifically, ideological conformity to a strict conservative moral worldview.

Politicians like DeSantis accuse others of embracing radicalism while they openly embrace conservative radicalism. The Republican Party, after all, is the party responsible for the violent insurrection at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. This kind of radical politics is far more dangerous and destructive than any other force in the United States today. But Republicans, experts at distraction, prefer to focus the debate on issues like gender pronouns and drag shows.

Redpilled: Woke Republicans

There’s even a word that describes the Republican version of woke: Redpilled. The metaphor of redpilled comes from the movie The Matrix, where the character played by Keanu Reeves must choose between a red pill or a blue pill. The red pill will awaken him to the true nature of reality, in which nothing is as it seems. The blue pill will allow the character, Neo, to remain blissfully asleep and unaware. He takes the red pill.

Take the red pill” has become shorthand for the process of converting to a reactionary and conspiracy-tinged Republican view of the world. In 2020, Elon Musk, who has been going through a very public meltdown into reactionary politics, urged his Twitter followers to “take the red pill.” This earned a cringeworthy response from Ivanka Trump, who tweeted enthusiastically that she had already taken it. (This, in turn, earned a memorable response from Matrix co-creator Lilly Wachowski, a trans woman, who tweeted: “F--- both of you.”)

The core of the Republican base celebrates and encourages conservative versions of wokeness/radicalism. The Fox channel and other extreme propaganda outlets churn out a constant stream of disreality to keep their audiences “awake” to a range of imaginary grievances and threats. Just look at the rise of QAnon, an outlandish and thoroughly debunked anti-government conspiracy theory believed by 25% of Republicans.

The Republican base has become an extreme radical movement, increasingly prone to violence and lacking in commitment to democracy. Republicans love radicalism — as long as it’s a version that serves their belief system.

Linguistic misdirection

It’s no accident that, at a time of rising Republican radicalism, Republicans are busy framing the Democratic Party as the true radical menace. Such misdirection serves an important strategic purpose.

First, it distracts from the true threat to democracy, which is the violent radicalism of the Republican Party.

Second, it divides Democratic voters, stoking internal conflicts and weakening its ability to unite in opposition to the Republican threat.

Finally, it motivates the radical Republican base by conflating the most ridiculous examples of radical progressive politics with the Democratic Party in general, forcing the Republican base to view mainstream Democratic governance as an existential threat (the salient exemplar strategy, also known as “overgeneralization”).

Yet today’s Republican Party thrives on radicalism. This hypocrisy is a feature, not a bug. In the Republican worldview, anything that serves Republican interests is good and anything that serves Democratic interests is bad. Once you understand this, you will be less confused about all the apparent contradictions in what Republicans say and do.

The woke trap

Since woke lacks a set definition, Democrats and progressives should avoid falling into the Republican trap and avoid using the term. Instead, they must do a better job of more precisely defining any critique of disruptive and divisive behavior on the part of radically-oriented groups.

Radical movements on both sides of the political spectrum share some negative traits. They demand the full acceptance of ridiculous ideas that tend to repel the mainstream. They ostracize or stigmatize or “cancel” those deemed uncooperative or unworthy. They adopt tactics and strategies that divide rather than unite. They become obsessed with purity tests, demanding full conformity to their beliefs and ideas. They are, in many ways, best defined by a radical intolerance for anything or anyone that resists or opposes their minoritarian zeal.

We must use precise language to push back against such behavior. On the progressive side, we must find a way to clearly express how divisive antics weaken the democratic cause at a time when Republicans have made clear their authoritarian intentions. We must do this using language that does not empower the Republican war against democracy, social justice and the progressive moral vision.

Woke, with its vague smear of all Democratic policies (in the tradition of other conservative attack terms like communist, socialist, globalist, cosmopolitan and politically correct) should be avoided anyone who does not plan to vote for DeSantis or Trump in 2024.

Reframe to focus on the real threat: Republican extremism and radicalism. The behaviors of certain elements on the progressive side often deserve critique. Their tactics, however, cannot be equated to the rising attitude of violence on the conservative side.

The fact that we see so much focus on wokeness is a testament to the Republicans’ ability to frame the debate. Through the creative appropriation of language and constant repetition, they excel at getting their message out and imposing their moral worldview on everyone else.

Thanks for reading the latest edition of FrameLab. We’re always interested in thoughtful  feedback from our readers. Please leave a comment or send us an email to inform our thinking as we formulate our further thoughts on this subject.

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