Christopher Rufo’s Time Has Come
‘I have learned that the secret to successful activism,’ says Rufo, ‘is not muscle, but information’
Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who introduced American parents to critical race theory, convinced then-President Donald Trump to bar CRT from federal diversity trainings and flew to Florida for the recent signing of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “Stop WOKE Act,” is now one of the most consequential figures in U.S. politics.
Celebrated on the Right and condemned by the Left, Rufo’s rise to prominence has featured a new kind of political engagement that informs and empowers ordinary Americans, religious and secular, to push back against progressive agendas upending U.S. government, education and media.
Instead of railing against “cancel culture,” or “political correctness,” Rufo offers a more sweeping critique of ideological indoctrination, marshals explicit examples of policies and curricula that need to be removed, and then provides a playbook to make that happen.
“I have learned that the secret to successful activism is not muscle, but information,” Rufo said in a July 1 online interview.
“The man who can discover, shape and distribute information has an enormous amount of power. The currency in our postmodern knowledge regime is language, fact, image and emotion. Learning how to wield these is the whole game.”
An investigative journalist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Rufo
is the child of Italian immigrants, a graduate of Georgetown University, and a documentary filmmaker, who stumbled into national politics almost by accident.
In 2020, Rufo produced his Critical Race Theory Briefing Book, supplying evidence of alleged antiracism indoctrination in government and schools. He has crafted model policies designed to help lawmakers and parent-activists advocate for change in state capitols and school board meetings.
“The secret to good activism is not mass, but leverage. The narratives about CRT sparked an immense public response and politicians, who are always looking at the intensity of voter sentiment, started to deliver laws that protected their constituents and protected families from indoctrination,” he explained in the interview posted last week.
“The GOP then adopted a smart frame — ‘parental rights,’ ‘the parents’ party’ — that created a set of policies and connotations that is very appealing to families.”
Media fact-checkers often reject Rufo’s evidence as false, incomplete or exaggerated. But they have also acknowledged the apparent truth of specific accusations that he has documented.
“At its core, [the CRT debate] pits progressives who believe White people should be pushed to confront systemic racism and White privilege in America against conservatives who see these initiatives as painting all White people as racist,” noted a 2021 Washington Post story covering Rufo’s activism.
“Progressives see racial disparities in education, policing and economics as a result of racism. Conservatives say analyzing these issues through a racial lens is, in and of itself, racist. Where one side sees a reckoning with America’s past and present sins, another sees a misguided effort to teach children to hate America.”
In his first big win, Rufo took on the City of Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights. “Under the banner of ‘antiracism,’ Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights is now explicitly endorsing principles of segregationism, group-based guilt, and race essentialism — ugly concepts that should have been left behind a century ago,” he reported in City Journal.
White employees were asked to address their “implicit bias,” and “internalized white supremacy, including perfectionism, objectivity, and individualism,” he explained in a 2020 City Journal article.
Before long, government employees from across country, working remotely in their home offices during the pandemic, began sending him more evidence of questionable antiracism initiatives approved in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
And as Rufo drilled into these materials, he traced the antiracism terms and analysis to a once-obscure group of academics who described their work as “critical race theory.” This academic movement later got a boost from popularizers like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, who published bestselling books, gave seminars at powerful institutions, and hit the lecture circuit.
“‘Political correctness’ is a dated term and, more importantly, doesn’t apply anymore,” Rufo told the New Yorker in June 2021, as he attempted to explain why his anti-CRT campaign gained momentum so quickly.
“It’s not that elites are enforcing a set of manners and cultural limits; they’re seeking to reengineer the foundation of human psychology and social institutions through the new politics of race. It’s much more invasive than mere ‘correctness,’ which is a mechanism of social control, but not the heart of what’s happening.
“The other frames are wrong, too: ‘cancel culture’ is a vacuous term and doesn’t translate into a political program; ‘woke’ is a good epithet, but it’s too broad, too terminal, too easily brushed aside. ‘Critical race theory’ is the perfect villain.”
And as Rufo predicted, middle-class opposition to CRT quickly gained momentum because the allegations were concrete and accompanied by specific policy goals.
“Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American,” he told the New Yorker.
In early September 2020, after his first appearance on Fox’s Tucker Carlson Show, Rufo got a call from the White House and then traveled to Washington, D.C., to help the Trump administration draft an executive order that issued guidelines restricting discussion about race in trainings by federal contractors.
Since that first appearance on Tucker Carlson, Rufo has built a home studio with an uplink to Fox News. And he has advised a growing number of red-state lawmakers on the language for bills policing CRT and gender ideology. According to a 2021 Education Week analysis, “Seventeen states have imposed these bans and restrictions either through legislation or other avenues.”
More recently, Rufo played a significant role in the Florida legislature’s passage of two controversial bills. One addressed CRT in school curricula and the workforce. The other, the Parental Rights in Education bill, barred discussions about gender identity and orientation in K-3 classrooms, required parental permission for mental-health counseling, and allowed parents to sue school districts that violated these new policies.
Angry progressive and LGBTQ activists labeled the second Florida bill the “Don’t Say Gay” law, but the GOP’s growing focus on parental rights is expected to play a significant role in the 2022 midterm elections.
Partisan critics and media analysts have dismissed Rufo’s pivot from race to gender issues as a manipulative tactic designed to gin up parental “panic.”
“[T]he pivot from issues of race to those of gender — which combine the rhetoric of parental control with an old-fashioned sex panic — seemed to offer immense political promise,” observed a recent story in the New Yorker that echoed critiques from other media outlets.
But Rufo noted in last week’s interview that “recent generic ballot polling [found that] parents with children in the home support Republicans by a 28-point margin.”
This newly revived parental-rights movement is roiling U.S. politics just as other polling confirms the steady decline of organized religion amid both widespread acceptance of gay marriage and growing unease with the aggressive promotion of transgender rights by government fiat.
“Instead of an explicitly biblical focus on issues like school prayer, no-fault divorce and homosexuality, the new coalition is focused on questions of national identity, social integrity and political alienation,” Nate Hochman wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times. “We are just beginning to see its impact. The anti-critical-race-theory laws, anti-transgender laws and parental rights bills that have swept the country in recent years are the movement’s opening shots.”
Rufo, for his part, believes that the progressive habit of ideological overreach made the resulting pushback from parents and other groups inevitable.
“The animating spirit of the Left’s philosophy is the rejection of limits. The Left advocates simultaneously for the destruction of prior norms and for the realization of utopia, which is why it has always been so unstable. And so, for sexuality, there is a desire to dissolve all prior sexual identities and social structures, and replace them with a normless, sexless, completely plastic conception of sexual or gender identity.”
But most still believe that “human beings have a specific, fixed nature. … The Left’s sexual ideology will always lead to disappointment, and that’s because the attempt to surpass human nature always ends in human destruction.”
The sexual-rights movement has gained enormous traction, however, with social researchers tracing a “record” number of young Americans identifying as LGBTQ.
As a result, some Catholic and Christian conservatives now contend that the nation has lost its moral underpinnings and is beyond reform.
Rufo clearly disagrees with this judgment, though he has admonished GOP lawmakers who don’t want to rock the boat on sensitive issues like race and gender.
“Machiavelli writes that the Roman Republic was able to renew itself for centuries through the rule of good men and by returning to its beginnings,” he said in the July 1 interview.
“There is a spiritual longing in this country to renew the foundations of America.”
And during the darkest days of the COVID lockdown, he found himself inspired by the American “spirit.”
“During the height of the pandemic, the authorities in Los Angeles banned the use of fireworks. And yet, that night, there was specular drone footage of the entire city — millions upon millions of people — launching a beautiful bombardment of fireworks into the sky. These people, living in a blue city, enduring a pandemic lockdown, still had the spirit to defy the authorities and celebrate the birth of the country. It’s there. It is up to us to awaken it and marshal it for the greater good.”
But Rufo also leavened his endorsement of Western values and American optimism with a call for “humility,” and cautionary remarks about a dueling ideology of white grievance.
“There is a danger of simply replicating the frame of the racialist Left, which is a mistake in a complex and pluralist society like the contemporary United States,” he concluded in last week’s interview. “[A]s we learned from the European experience in the 20th century, adopting a totalizing racial identity as a basis for politics is a path to destruction. We should be honest and unashamed about the accomplishments of the West, but remember that our lives are ultimately not abstractions and that racial identity is not a substitute for a rich, individual life.”