With days left until the election, a new breed of reluctant Donald Trump supporter has emerged: the professed liberal who finds Trump deplorable but thinks the so-called "woke" left, with its obsessive focus on identity and its hostility to freedom of speech, is worse. James Lindsay, an author with a large "anti-woke" online following, is one notable example. It’s hard to tell how much of a phenomenon this is outside the social media, and it’s very unlikely that it will make a difference in the election. Nonetheless, if you’re "anti-woke" because you think the modern left is bad for individual rights, free speech, and reasonable dialogue, a vote for Trump is not your remedy.
Unlike many liberals, I don’t think concerns about the illiberal "woke left" are overblown. ("Woke" is a popularized term, derived from African-American vernacular, indicating awareness of racial injustice.) Obviously, there are real issues of racial inequity and bias in policing and in other areas. But the "woke left" not only offers a crude and simplistic analysis of complex issues, it also tries to squelch conversation about them.
Especially in recent months, we have seen a wave of incidents in which universities, news media organizations, and cultural institutions have banished and punished people over perceived ideological transgressions. There are alarming reports of schools promoting bizarre ideas of "social justice" — for instance, that conventional teaching of mathematics reinforces "white privilege." Meanwhile, mainstream newspapers and magazines are lionizing extreme figures such as academic and anti-racism activist Angela Davis, a cheerleader for Communist dictatorships who is now pushing the abolition of police and prisons — utopianism with little Black community support.
While Democratic candidate Joe Biden is no one’s idea of an extremist, there are good reasons to worry about the extreme left’s influence in the Democratic Party. But there are even better reasons to worry about Trump if your chief concern is the preservation of classical liberal values.
While liberalism seeks to transcend racial and other divisions, Trump is himself a creature of identity politics: white identity politics, that is. (The birther crusade against Barack Obama and the immigrant-bashing are two examples.) So, when Trump moves against progressive racialism — for instance, issues an executive order banning workplace diversity training that traffics in stereotypes — it’s sure to be perceived as pandering to his racist base. It doesn’t help that he has no understanding of the issues beyond saying that these programs teach "horrible" things and encourage hating America.
As for free speech, Trump uses Stalinist rhetoric about the news media ("enemies of the people") and advocates jailing protesters who burn the U.S. flag. Some of his prominent supporters, such as activist Candace Owens, have suggested that anti-Trump journalists should be locked up.
Progressive activists with "woke" ideas will likely make inroads under a Biden administration and a Democratic Congress. More centrist Democrats (and Republicans) will have avenues to try to counter them.
Trump, on the other hand, constantly energizes "wokeness" by giving it an inviting target — not because he fights back against political correctness, but because he embodies the worst politically correct caricature of the white male in power: a race-baiting, empathy-free would-be strongman who says crude things about women and slings "go back where you came from"-type insults at immigrants.
Trumpism and "woke" progressivism are locked in a mutually reinforcing cycle of illiberal extremism, with each ideology spurring the other to more paranoia and hate. However flawed Biden may be, voting out Trump can stop or at least stem this vicious cycle.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.