You Can’t Kill Woke Culture

Republicans believe Trump’s reelection would destroy ‘cancel culture’ and ‘political correctness.’ No politician can, or will.

The “Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” protest against racism and police brutality. Photo: Probal Rashid/Getty Images

With just under a week to go until the general election, embattled conservatives have seized on their closing argument for a Trump presidency: He’s the only man left who can own the libs.

Just look at Rich Lowry’s latest in the National Review. Trump, Lowry writes, is “the only way for his voters to say to the cultural Left, ‘No, sorry, you’ve gone too far.” While admitting that the president has no second-term agenda, no particular skill at either campaigning or governing, and an approval rating that has never topped 50%, Lowry nonetheless clings to Trump as “the foremost symbol of resistance to the overwhelming woke cultural tide that has swept along the media, academia, corporate America, Hollywood, professional sports, the big foundations, and almost everything in between.”

The “overwhelming tide” of which Lowry speaks is vague in its details — he invokes the Black Lives Matter uprisings of this spring with the same apocalyptic dread as he does online “cancellations” — but “wokeness” has become a familiar conservative bogeyman. There’s Nick Sandmann at the RNC proclaiming the evils of “cancel culture” (“Canceled is what’s happening to people around this country who refuse to be silenced by the far left… but I would not be canceled”); there’s Dennis Powell predicting that Trump will be propelled to victory by voters who hate critical race theory (“Free speech in America is on the ballot… zealots have been permitted to gain power to banish anyone who questions or denies progressive beliefs or policies”). Centrists are joining in on the act, mulling whether Biden or Trump would be the better candidate to quash “the illiberal left.”

These arguments aren’t new; Trump supporters in 2016 often claimed to be casting a protest vote against “forced diversity” or “political correctness.” But in 2016, political correctness and cancel culture seemed much more formidable than they do now. Four years after America voted to spit in the eye of woke college kids, 225,000 Americans have died of a virus that Donald Trump didn’t even try to stop. Is any serious person honestly basing their decisions on what will piss off Tumblr?

No — but lots of unserious people are, and they’ve gotten what they wanted. Trump has set back marginalized groups in real and painful ways. White nationalist and neo-Nazi groups have been mainstreamed, thanks to the president’s tacit approval. At the same time, he’s been relentlessly cruel toward immigrants and people of color; Muslim travel bans, family separation, and the vastly disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on Black communities are among his greatest hits. The Supreme Court appointment of Amy Coney Barrett foreshadows a dark future for queer and gender-marginalized people: Barrett is friendly with groups that favor criminalizing homosexuality, and there is very little doubt that she would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade or otherwise restrict reproductive rights. Transgender people — often the flashpoint for discussions of “woke culture,” due to being the most recent group to obtain widespread visibility — have been under legislative and cultural assault, and many trans people are afraid that gender transitions will be banned or criminalized. Laws to ban appropriate medical care for trans children have already been proposed.

But if any of this had actually killed off “woke culture,” grown men wouldn’t still be writing op-eds about it six days before the election. Instead, it appears to be louder and more threatening than ever. Conservatives are trying to impose a legislative framework onto a social phenomenon, thinking that the right candidate or law or Supreme Court ruling will somehow put a stop to a century of leftward cultural momentum. They’re trying to do exactly what they accuse all those woke college kids of doing: trying to make laws that tell people what they can think.

“Wokeness” is not a unified or coherent philosophy. It’s a grab bag of movements and phenomena — Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, antifascism, the advancement of feminism or LGBT+ rights, increased transgender visibility — unified by the fact that they advance civil rights. Those movements are picking up steam, not because of any nefarious conspiracy, but because of demographic shifts that give marginalized people a more prominent role in many communities or in American public life writ large.

You can’t make America white by voting, and within the next 30 years, white people will be too outnumbered to try.

White supremacy has always been a major part of American life, and it has never been acceptable, but it makes sense that it would be protested with particular fervor right now, given that white people are on track to be less than 50% of the U.S. population by 2050; there are simply more people of color speaking up. Increased trans visibility means that more people are exploring their gender identity and transitioning, and while those numbers are still small — for instance, about 3% of American teenagers openly identify as transgender, as opposed to 0.6% of adults — 30% of American adults now know someone who is transgender, and 87% know someone who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Straight people have long been more likely to support LGBT+ causes if they know someone from the community. The days when women could be defined primarily by their childbearing functions are long since past: Young people are increasingly electing not to have children, and conservative Catholic Rod Dreher is quaking in his boots at the news that 30% of women under age 25 are queer.

Unjust laws can make it harder for women, queer people, or people of color to live, but they cannot reverse the increasing cultural acceptance that is fueling these human rights movements. The Supreme Court can overturn Obergefell, but it cannot change the fact that 67% of Americans support gay marriage. They can overturn Roe, but they cannot change the fact that 61% of all Americans and 70% of Americans under age 30 believe abortion should be legal; in fact, since Donald Trump became president in 2016, those numbers have been trending up. You can ban “critical race theory” for federal contractors, but you can’t stop people from talking about it on Twitter. You can’t make America white by voting, and within the next 30 years, white people will be too outnumbered to try.

As a nun once famously advised the Catholic Church about the feminist movement, “you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube,” nor can you “make [people] caterpillars after we have become butterflies.” This is not a statement of hollow triumphalism. The Barrett appointment, in particular, means that Trump’s damage will linger for a very long time, regardless of who wins the election. Liberal democracies can and do crumble into fascism. But “woke” is not an organization or a politician or a piece of legislation. “Woke” is an idea, and you can never successfully ban an idea. Once people have the ability to imagine more for their lives, they tend to keep imagining. Once people see the humanity in their neighbors, they cannot go back to pretending their lives are the only ones that matter. Rail all you want at “woke.” Vote against it, legislate it, make court cases overturning it, and sign executive orders defunding it. Woke will win. It already has.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Columns published far and wide across the Internet.

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