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Chris Rufo’s dangerous fictions

The right’s leading culture warrior has invented a leftist takeover of America to justify his very real power grabs.

Chris Rufo, back by a red-washed American flag, faces a blurry blue outline. Vox; Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Christopher Rufo might be the future of the Republican Party.

A journalist and activist, Rufo is largely responsible for the rise of “critical race theory” as a major concern for the GOP. He has played a crucial role in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s attempt to transform Florida’s universities, spearheading the takeover and transformation of the New College of Florida, a small liberal arts school, as proof of concept for a new right-wing model for higher education.

Rufo has managed all of this before his 40th birthday. And he wants to go bigger: In recent essays, Rufo has argued for conservatives to treat authoritarian Hungary and Richard Nixon as models for a “counterrevolution” against the left.

This summer, Rufo published a book outlining the worldview behind his crusade. The book, titled America’s Cultural Revolution, argues that America has been quietly taken over by the ideological heirs of 1960s radicals. Ideas formulated by Marxist revolutionaries and Black nationalists, disguised in benign-sounding language like “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI), have completed a “long march” through America’s major institutions — starting from universities and emanating outward to government and corporate life. The book’s subtitle, “How the Radical Left Conquered Everything,” illustrates the sheer scope of the argument.

But the more I examined Rufo’s work, the weaker it started to look. His worldview is built on a foundation of exaggerations and misrepresentations — distortions that make it difficult to trust even his basic factual assertions, let alone his big-picture analysis of American society.

Rufo claims that the American system as we know it has been overthrown, subtly and quietly replaced by “a new ideological regime that is inspired by ... critical theories and administered through the capture of the bureaucracy.” Rufo’s “counterrevolution” is aimed at reversing this process; taking America back, starting with Florida’s universities.

Rufo is not alone in making this claim. Many others on the right, including leading political figures and intellectuals, believe in the book’s premise that liberals control the commanding heights of America’s institutions and that the most pressing task of conservative politics today is cleansing these institutions of the left’s corrosive influence. To Rufo’s credit, his argument for this position is among the most sophisticated and detailed I’ve read. It’s clear he’s read thinkers on the left and takes their ideas seriously. His documentation of the far left’s follies and violent excesses can be damning.

But many of his assertions, like the claim of secret regime change in America, are far less defensible. When pressed in an interview to defend some of his most extreme positions, Rufo ultimately claimed to be writing in “a kind of artful and kind of narrative manner” that does not always admit of literal interpretation. The retreat was necessary given the glaring lack of real-world policy evidence for what he had written and said.

The seemingly credible evidence Rufo presents of radical influence — the mainstreaming of once-radical concepts like “structural racism,” for example — thus ends up undermining his case. When radical language goes mainstream without accompanying radical shifts in policy, that’s not actually evidence of a radical takeover. If anything, it looks like a win for the liberal mainstream, which seemingly has coopted radical ideas and redirected them toward more moderate ends.

Radicals haven’t taken over mainstream America; they’ve been taken over by it.

It follows, then, that Rufo’s “counterrevolution” is not countering much of anything. His war on American institutions is not a defensive action against an ascendant post-Marxist left; it is instead an act of aggression against the liberal ideals he occasionally claims to be defending.

Rufo’s false apocalypse

I should say, at this point, that there are parts of America’s Cultural Revolution I really liked.

Unlike other books I’ve read recently by conservative thinkers, Rufo engages with left-wing thinkers on their own terms. The book’s best chapters are capsule intellectual biographies of prominent leftist intellectuals that illustrate their real-world influence on leftist political movements.

Rufo describes philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s critique of “repressive tolerance” in modern capitalist societies — the notion that formal tolerance serves to undermine true freedom by creating a false illusion of liberty that masks and enables continued oppression — and how his arguments influenced the student revolutionaries who populated the 1960s “New Left.” He engages in similar efforts for three other influential leftists: pioneering prison abolitionist Angela Davis, Marxist pedagogist Paulo Freire, and legal scholar Derrick Bell, one of the intellectual pioneers of critical race theory.

The book is at its strongest in criticizing the extremism of these thinkers and their acolytes. During the New Left’s ascendancy in the 1960s and 1970s, American radicals engaged in a wave of domestic terrorism, including bombings of government buildings and murders of police officers. Data from the University of Maryland’s Start project shows more domestic terrorism incidents in the United States in 1970 than in any year since. Rufo’s not wrong to argue that boomer radicalism had a body count.

But this brand of violent extremism has essentially been wiped out: a 2017 Start report found that there had been no deaths from left-wing terrorism in America since the 1980s. The radical fires of the 1960s and ’70s appear to have burned out.

The crux of Rufo’s argument is that this appearance is deceiving. After armed revolution proved to be a failure, New Leftists and their heirs adopted a different — and far more effective — strategy for accomplishing their ends.

Angela Davis speaking in front of a sign reading “Women’s March.”
Angela Davis attends the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Noam Galai/WireImage

“The most sophisticated activists and intellectuals of the New Left initiated a new strategy, the ‘long march through the institutions,’ which brought their movement out of the streets and into the universities, schools, newsrooms, and bureaucracies,” he writes. “Over the subsequent decades, the cultural revolution that began in 1968 transformed, almost invisibly, into a structural revolution that changed everything.”

This effort has been so successful, he argues, as to constitute a functional overthrow of the US government. While “the official political structures have not changed — there is still a president, a legislature, and a judiciary — the entire intellectual substructure has shifted.” A “revolution from above” has created “a new ideological regime” that rules through its influence over “school curricula, popular media, government policy, and corporate human resources programs.”

It’s certainly true that once-radical notions, like seeing racism as a core part of American national identity, have become more popular on the left in recent years. But this does not mean American democracy has been quietly overthrown and replaced with rule by DEI departments.

Rufo cites, as evidence of the influence of “critical theory” across America, diversity trainings at Lockheed Martin and Raytheon that used the term “white privilege” and similar concepts in their documents. This, he argues, is proof that “even federal defense contractors have submitted to the new ideology.”

But the notion that American arms manufacturers have been taken over by radicals is ridiculous. Lockheed Martin builds weapons to maintain the American war machine. It is not owned or controlled in any way by sincere believers in the Third Worldist anti-imperialism of the 1960s radicals; it is using the now-popular terms those radicals once embraced to burnish its own image.

Rufo is getting the direction of influence backward. Radicals are not taking over Lockheed Martin; Lockheed Martin is co-opting radicalism.

Lockheed Martin recruiters Alvin Johnson, left, and Kimber Hayes shake hands with job seekers at the Diversity Career Fair sponsored by the NAACP on July 14, 2009, in New York City.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

This might be a catastrophe for the radicals themselves, but for mainstream liberals it’s a (somewhat farcical) consequence of moral progress — of a liberal society changing itself to deal with changing circumstances.

Historically, liberalism has proven quite capable of assimilating leftist critiques into its own politics. In the 19th and 20th centuries, liberal governments faced significant challenges from socialists who argued that capitalism and private property led to inequality and mass suffering. In response, liberals embraced the welfare state and social democracy: progressive income taxation, redistribution, antitrust regulations, and social services.

Reformist liberals worked to address the concerns raised by socialists within the system. Their goal was to offer the immiserated proletariat alternative hope for a better life within the confines of the liberal democratic capitalist order — simultaneously improving their lives and staving off revolution. The New Deal, which was explicitly pitched as a means of defanging radical passions, is an especially clear American example of this pattern at work.

Rufo argues that the current “Great Awokening,” the public’s leftward turn on issues of race and gender oppression in American society, represents the quiet triumph of the radical “long march.” But under close examination, it looks as though liberals are absorbing the best part of the radical critique without adopting its conclusions.

The evidence that discrimination on the basis of identity persists, albeit in subtler institutional forms than things like Jim Crow, is statistically overwhelming. The fact that left-wing radicals developed a vocabulary for talking about it well before many mainstream liberals should redound to their credit. Liberals have belatedly recognized this and integrated radical insights into their politics. But this has not stopped them from being liberals any more than instituting progressive taxation did.

The liberal cooption theory is supported by the fact that the main pieces of data once used as evidence of the ascent of far-left radicalism — things like cancellations of conservative speeches on college campuses — show a decline from previous highs. These numbers, which were quite low even at their peak, simply do not support the idea that the country’s major institutions are succumbing to Herbert Marcuse thought (even in an attenuated form).

There are counterexamples: Rufo makes much of the “defund the police” movement, as well as 2020-era policy victories by radicals in cities like Seattle and Portland. But Joe Biden, a man who wrote the 1994 Crime Bill and campaigned in the 2022 midterms using “fund the police” as a slogan, is president. The most common criminal justice reforms after George Floyd’s murder weren’t police abolition, but rather chokehold bans and personnel reforms. Even in West Coast cities, mayors and city councilors are backing away from police defunding.

Liberalism, in short, has made “structural racism” safe for Lockheed Martin. Whether you like that depends on your politics. But it is not evidence of a radical regime change in America.

The slippery Mr. Rufo

At this point, I should confess that I hadn’t planned to write about Rufo’s book at all. His public comments and behavior had not suggested it would be an especially credible text.

In a series of 2021 tweets, for example, Rufo framed his writing about “critical race theory” as a form of political marketing.

“We have successfully frozen their brand — ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category,” he wrote. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

What he’s describing isn’t a journalistic approach to “critical race theory.” It’s the mindset of a dishonest political attack dog, one that seemed to validate criticisms that he had played fast and loose with evidence. Rufo’s involvement with Trump and DeSantis further suggested he was less of a serious interlocutor than an operative.

But in June, before America’s Cultural Revolution hit the shelves, Rufo reached out to me over email, offering a review copy of his forthcoming book and an on-the-record interview.

As a general rule, I think it’s good to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially if their politics differ radically from your own. Rufo is an important person on the political right; it was worth taking the call to see for myself if he was acting in good faith.

We spoke in early August, right around the time his book became a New York Times bestseller. In the conversation, I pressed him on whether the evidence really supports his wild claims of quiet revolution.

For example, Rufo claims in the book that America had recently experienced “a change in regime” best understood through Marcuse’s theory of “counter-institutions” — alternative sources of information and ideas, like leftist television stations and radio shows, designed (in Marcuse’s words) to “break the information monopoly of the establishment.”

In Rufo’s view, what were once Marcuse’s counter-institutions “have become, at least as a matter of public affirmation, the dominant institutions across every domain.” As a result, the government “no longer exists to secure natural rights, but to achieve ‘social justice.’” Even business “no longer exists to maximize profit, but to manage ‘diversity and inclusion.’”

This last line, in particular, struck me as absurd — even he couldn’t possibly think corporations cared more about their DEI departments than profits. When I pressed him, Rufo said the passage was intended to describe the ultimate objectives of Marcuse and his ideological heirs, not to depict reality.

“This is the movement toward which they’re fighting. They’re seeking to change the telos [purpose] of the institution,” he told me.

But in his book, just before his line about corporations putting diversity over profits, Rufo asserted that “the victory of the critical theories has displaced the original ends, or telos, of America’s institutions” — a statement about what he thinks the critical theorists have already accomplished.

Further pressing yielded the claim that his book couldn’t be read “literally” — that his “artful and kind of narrative manner” requires the reader to question whether “there was a kind of literary device at play” while reading.

But what he wrote didn’t seem like any recognizable literary device. It just seemed like an obvious exaggeration, meant to make his readers think the problem is much graver than his documentation suggests.

Exaggerations weren’t just a problem with the book’s big-picture premise. The more I fact-checked what he said, the clearer the pattern of exaggeration and factual missteps became.

When I argued that university faculties weren’t nearly as radical as he made them out to be, he pointed to his reporting on DEI departments in Florida and Texas — where, he warned, DEI departments were “training students how to participate in violent protests.”

I traced this claim back to a piece Rufo had published in City Journal on Florida International University, focusing on a DEI pamphlet titled “Grassroots Activism and Protest Safety.” The training contained advice like “bring a bandana to cover nose and mouth” and “download a messaging app that has end to end encryption.” Technically, if you squint, providing such safety tips is “training students how to participate in violent protests.” But his phrasing suggests the university is instructing students on how to engage in violence. What he said wasn’t literally false, but it’s profoundly misleading.

Student protesters hold signs that read “We’re here, we’re queer,” “DeSantis Can’t ban us,” and others.
Florida International University students, staff, and community members participate in the “Fight for Florida Students and Workers” protest against Gov. Ron DeSantis on February 23, 2023.
Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

Another example: his use of a 2020 paper by scholars Tanaya Devi and Roland Fryer. In the paper, Devi and Fryer examined the effects of what’s called “pattern-or-practice” investigations — federal and state inquiries into allegations of police misconduct — on crime rates. They found that such investigations didn’t cause more crimes unless they were triggered by a high-profile incident that drew significant public attention. In those situations, the crime rate did increase after the investigation — which Fryer and Devi attribute to the police choosing to work less under negative attention.

It’s an interesting (and debatable) paper supporting the idea that policing really does reduce crime. But that’s not how Rufo used it in our conversation. He claimed that Fryer’s work had shown, “in a bulletproof manner,” that progressive approaches to crime adopted by district attorneys and city councils in the wake of George Floyd’s killing had led to the deaths of “lower-income Black men.” The study showed nothing of the kind; it didn’t examine city-level initiatives of any kind, nor any actions taken at any level of government after 2020.

Rufo’s slipperiness in our conversation didn’t just extend to his book or underlying source material. When I suggested that racial affinity groups for minority students weren’t always bad, he asked me if I thought sometimes segregation could be good. I told him those groups were not the same as segregation, and he responded, “I think it is.” When I elaborated — that giving Black students a private space to discuss racism was nothing like a systematically unequal division of resources along racial lines — he said, “I didn’t say it’s akin to Jim Crow segregation” and that the groups were “segregating.”

When his hyperbolic claim was no longer defensible, he denied less than a minute later that he ever made it in the first place.

These distortions appear endemic to Rufo’s work.

In 2021, CUNY graduate student Sam Hoadley-Brill compared Rufo’s reporting on a series of race-related incidents to the actual source material Rufo was summarizing. Hoadley-Brill found exactly the kind of distortions and exaggerations I noticed in our conversation. For example, Rufo reported that a San Diego school district used a radical training document in which “teachers are told ‘you are racist.’” The training did not tell teachers they were racist; it asked them to reflect on how they would feel if someone hypothetically told them, “You are racist.”

Acadia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, an expert on campus free speech issues, has found a similar pattern in Rufo’s writing. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Rufo claimed that “critical race theory” bans in Tennessee and Texas did not restrict teachers’ ability to teach about left-wing theories of racism, but merely prohibited them from “compelling students to believe” said theories. Sachs looked at the actual text and found this was untrue: The bills in question contained explicit prohibitions on any classroom discussions of said topics. Rufo, he said, was “lying” — part of a general pattern of distortion in his work.

“Rufo is not a skilled rhetorician. He’s good at deception,” Sachs tells me. “He is not a deep intellectual. He’s a deep fake.”

Talking with Rufo and engaging deeply with his work leads to an inescapable conclusion: Exaggeration and hyperbole are not just incidental to his intellectual project. They are his project.

Destroying liberalism in order to save it

It is possible to make right-wing arguments without this kind of dissembling. Which raises an obvious question: Why doesn’t Rufo?

One can posit all sorts of unkind theories about his character, but a better answer lies in the nature of his political project.

Rufo ends his book with a stirring call for a “counter-revolution” against the left, one waged in the name of defending America’s traditional liberal order against its left-wing critics.

“While the revolution seeks to demolish America’s founding principles, the counter-revolution seeks to restore them,” he writes. “The principles of the society under counter-revolution are not oriented toward sweeping reversals and absolutes, but toward the protection of the humble values and institutions of the common man.”

Yet Rufo’s means for defending America sound a lot like tearing its society apart.

“While the revolution proceeds by a long march through the institutions, the counter-revolution proceeds by laying siege to the institutions that have lost the public trust,” he writes. “Its ambition is not to assume control over the centralized bureaucratic apparatus, but to smash it.”

Rufo has practiced what he preached at the New College of Florida, where he has used his appointment to the board to fire the university president, eliminate the DEI office, and abolish gender studies. Now over one-third of all faculty positions are vacant, decimating the university’s course offerings in the fall semester. While enrollment is up, an investigation by the USA Today Network found that average SAT scores, ACT scores, and GPAs were all down. Some students were told to live at an airport hotel.

When I asked Rufo about the chaos, he compared his approach to remodeling a kitchen: “You do the demo and then you do the build.”

It’s a metaphor that only makes sense if you believe that the existing university is so broken that it can’t be saved in its current form. Rufo is embracing an approach made famous by an anonymous US Army Major during the Vietnam War: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Rufo, wearing a suit, surrounded by police who are guiding him through protesters.
Chris Rufo walks through protesters on his way out of a bill signing event with DeSantis on the New College Campus held on March 15, 2023.
Thomas Simonetti/Washington Post/Getty Images

Both Rufo’s operation in Florida and his broader “counter-revolution” can only be defended if the system is so captured by the radical left that the only solution is to burn the entire thing to the ground and start over. Otherwise, you’re attacking the same American institutions you claim to be defending.

This, ultimately, is why Rufo must exaggerate the influence of the radical left. The only way to reconcile the yawning gap between his restorationist rhetoric and burn-it-all-down activism is to claim that America faces an unprecedented threat — a “cultural revolution” organized by the intellectual heirs of literal Maoists.

DEI departments, in this picture, cannot merely be glorified HR offices but rather the new commissars. Their trainings are not ineffectual exercises in corporate box-checking but rather “psychological conditioning program[s]” that inculcate hapless Lockheed Martin arms dealers into the teachings of Herbert Marcuse and Angela Davis.

Don Quixote needs his windmills.

If Rufo were to adopt a more measured perspective, he wouldn’t be able to justify what he’s calling for: a reactionary upheaval that aims to do what he falsely accuses leftists of having accomplished.

This is clear in his recent Compact magazine essay on Hungary, a country where democracy has been hollowed out and quietly replaced by a right-wing autocracy. In the essay, Rufo argues “there is a lesson here for American conservatives,” praising Hungary’s use of “muscular state policy to achieve conservative ends.”

Rufo singles out Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s treatment of media in particular: his “working with friendly oligarchs to purchase and transform media companies into conservative stalwarts; directing government advertising budgets to politically aligned outlets; consolidating a large number of print, radio, and television outlets into an independent nonprofit entity.”

This sure sounds like a government effort to seize control of what its citizens can hear. Indeed, Hungary is a country where (by one estimate) 90 percent of all media is controlled by the government and its allies. But Rufo claims “none of this is authoritarian,” in part because it’s a response to the left doing the same things first.

“Orbán and his allies operated on the principle that turnabout is fair play,” he writes.

This is less an accurate assessment of Hungarian politics than a revealing self-portrait. Rufo has serially exaggerated the phantom menace of a leftist cultural revolution because he seeks to justify its right-wing mirror: a wholesale assault on mainstream liberal institutions designed to indoctrinate the public into its preferred social vision.

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