Chris Rufo on his Activism, fighting Critical Race Theory, the Future of the Gender Movement, and more
Christopher Rufo is an American activist, journalist, and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Raised by Italian immigrants in Sacramento and educated at Georgetown and Harvard, Rufo spent the first part of his career working as a documentary filmmaker. His film projects include a documentary on American poverty, during the course of which his views became more conservative. He also reported on the issue of homelessness in America and ran for the Seattle city council in 2018.
In 2020, his life took a consequential turn when an employee of the city of Seattle documented a “whites-only” anti-bias training session and sent him the evidence. Rufo thus began his work as an activist, collecting and publishing evidence on diversity training conducted by US government bodies, schools, as well as corporate America. He’s often credited with having single-handily convinced then-President Trump to issue an Executive Order which prohibited federal agencies from spreading such doctrines – after reportedly being noticed on Fox News‘s Tucker Carlson – and has been at the forefront of the legal fight against Progressivism ever since.
Over the past year and a half, his efforts focused mainly on pushing legislators to enact State bans on the teaching of Critical Race Theory and radical gender indoctrination in American schools, with significant success on both fronts.
As part of our series of interviews with ‘dissident’ figures, we decided to reach out to Christopher for an interview, to learn about his strategy and plans for the battles ahead. What follows is a written exchange between IM—1776’s editorial team, lawyer Techno Fog, and Christopher Rufo.
— The Editors
“We have to realize that the game is not to debate the epiphenomenon of ideology, but to relentlessly unearth, attack and dislodge the broader structural phenomenon that underpins it.”
— Christopher Rufo
Daniel Miller: Over the past couple of years you’ve emerged as arguably the most effective opposition activist in America. How and why did you first decide to get involved in activism, and how has your thinking evolved over the course of your experiences?
Christopher Rufo: I’m an activist by accident. I never intended to become one, but through my reporting at City Journal on homelessness and then Critical Race Theory (CRT), I discovered that the missing link to so many political problems was not knowledge, but action. I wanted my reporting and policy work to lead somewhere constructive — to move people, reshape narratives, and transform into law. So, through a process of trial and error, I developed my own very unique form of political activism. In many ways, I am an unlikely figure for shaping public policy. I live in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, far away from the powerbrokers in New York and D.C. I detest attending meetings and decline most invitations to speak with groups or political leaders. I generally do not participate in rallies, campaigns, protests, or public demonstrations. But I have figured out how to build narratives and shift public opinion, which are the two essential preconditions for political action. I built a studio in my house that connects directly with the satellite desk at Fox News in New York as well as a network of sources, partners, and publishers that has generated billions of media impressions per year. And, on the back end, I have a great team that manages relationships with legislators, so that we can advise on public policy. The biggest lesson I have learned is that the secret to successful activism is not muscle, but information. 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.
Mark Granza: Getting parents to unite in order to achieve political goals is an unusual strategy. Where did you get that idea?
Christopher Rufo: It happened, again, by accident. I did a series of reports on CRT in education that sparked a lot of discussion and then I started noticing these incredible clips circulating on social media of parents speaking it at school board meetings. It was totally spontaneous at the beginning. Then I put together a Critical Race Theory Briefing Book and worked on model policies, which gave people the language they needed to succeed and a template for policymaking at state legislatures. 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. 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. In the most recent generic ballot polling, parents with children in the home support Republicans by a 28-point margin. This is a political sea change. It drove the success of Glenn Youngkin and school choice initiatives across the country. The impact is undeniable.
Daniel Miller: One of the persistent issues faced by opposition activists is the problem of defining the contemporary regime. You’ve successfully popularized the term Critical Race Theory to characterize the current regime ideology, but how do you see the relationship between this ideology and the big corporate and political forces promoting it? Do you view them as motivated by sincere ideological commitments?
Christopher Rufo: There are the true believers, but for most people, it is a rationalization. The executives at Xerox and Walmart are not sincerely committed to CRT, but the entire incentive structure that surrounds them creates an enormous pressure to adopt these beliefs, at least as status markers or reputational insurance policies. It is much easier to bend the knee for George Floyd and write a $10 million check to BLM than to say “no.” For conservatives, we have to realize that the game is not to debate the epiphenomenon of ideology, but to relentlessly unearth, attack and dislodge the broader structural phenomenon that underpins it. This means attacking it on moral, aesthetic, financial, legal, and bureaucratic grounds, in addition to the more straightforward style of intellectual debate. Governor DeSantis understands this better than anyone. He demonstrated in his fight against Disney that conservatives have leverage against corporate power, as long as they are willing to use it. The trick is to replicate that strategy across multiple domains and to shift incentives by changing the law.
Techno Fog: Many of your critics argue that courts are the proper place to challenge CRT or radical gender instruction, not schools. What do you think are the limitations and deficiencies of that strategy?
Christopher Rufo: It’s like telling a boxer, “Fight with your right fist, but not your left fist.” There are three branches of our government — executive, legislative, and judicial — and an activist who doesn’t look for angles in all three domains is simply incompetent. Or, in the case of people like David French, they aren’t actually on your side and don’t want you to win. It’s best to ignore, marginalize, and repel those people. They can invent all kinds of sophisticated rationalizations, but at the end of the day, they have a kink for losing. That’s it.
Mark Granza: Some on the Right, most notably Curtis Yarvin, have questioned the idea that banning or opposing CRT in schools actually works. The gist of the argument is that, since the administration in charge of enforcing the bans is itself woke, progressive teachers could safely avoid the bans by simply changing CRT’s language, thus technically complying with the law while still pushing the doctrine. What do you think are the limitations of banning CRT in schools?
Christopher Rufo: Curtis is a man who prefers the distant to the near. He is entirely too pessimistic. Of course, I concede that simply passing anti-CRT legislation is not enough in itself; but policymakers have a range of solutions, including overhauling teacher training, eliminating DEI bureaucracies, and providing universal school choice, so that every family can take their children’s education dollars to any institution of their choosing, including private, religious, and homeschool programs. There is a strand of dissident thinking on the Right that believes the republic is hopelessly corrupted and that we must transcend it. I disagree. There is a lot of good in this country and most of our institutions can be renewed, reformed, or abolished and replaced, as necessary. 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. There is a spiritual longing in this country to renew the foundations of America. There was a television image that symbolized this for me. 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.
Techno Fog: Is there a scenario where you or your organization pursue legal action against teachers who flout the law?
Christopher Rufo: I helped organize the first round of lawsuits against CRT, but now there are much more capable people who have taken the lead, including Kim Hermann at Southeastern Legal Foundation and Nicole Neily at Parents Defending Education. They are doing great work setting legal precedent. I expect that they will have significant success in the next few years.
Mark Granza: In an infamous interview with BNC News, Marc Lamont Hill asked you to name “something positive about being white” to which you answered by effectively avoiding the question and its implications, listing instead a series of practices and concepts the Left deems to be “white supremacist.” Is there any way you wished you had answered differently?
Christopher Rufo: Douglas Murray has a passage in his new book, War on the West, in which he tells the story of my interview with Marc Lamont Hill and says that I took the polite and respectable route in my response. Murray argues, however, that if the Left keeps pushing the racialist narrative, people of European descent will stop being polite and begin to argue that their ancestors have created “a tradition that has given the world a disproportionate number, if not most, of the things that the world currently benefits from.” There is obviously truth to the latter. The West has an extraordinary legacy spanning three millennia, from philosophy to the arts, to representative government, modern economy and technology. But I still believe we should approach this with humility. 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. And furthermore, as 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.
Mark Granza: You’re often credited with single-handedly convincing President Trump to issue an Executive Order against CRT. Many Trump supporters today wish he would have been harsher against the Left during his time in office. Where do you think the next Republican candidate should improve on Trump’s policies with regard to the larger fight against Progressivism?
Christopher Rufo: President Trump was a wrecking ball to American politics. This was salutary. It shook conservatives out of an old consensus and opened up new possibilities for public policy. Trump listened to my call on CRT in the federal government and took immediate action against it. Unfortunately, this was in the final months of his term and President Biden reversed it on his first day in office. But more importantly, Trump changed the precedent and validated bringing the culture war to the federal bureaucracy. I have spent the past year thinking about how to expand on this campaign for the next time a Republican assumes the presidency. As we approach 2024, I will be publishing a policy paper on “eliminating left-wing ideologies in the federal government,” using the power of the presidency to fundamentally reshape the bureaucracy with a six-part program targeting budget, content, personnel, grantmaking, and oversight. The idea is to centralize ideological control over the federal agencies in the White House and create a team at the Office of Management and Budget to enforce it. We could easily wipe out a significant portion of the infrastructure for the left-wing ideologies within the federal bureaucracy and within the network of federal grantees and contractors, which would shift American politics in the right direction.
Techno Fog: Back in my day, a health instructor putting a condom on a banana was controversial in high school. Nowadays distribution of condoms is approved to fifth graders, puberty blockers are assigned to children, and minors can undergo sex-change surgery. How far do you think is the radical gender movement likely to evolve in the next few years if it isn’t stopped?
Christopher Rufo: 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. This, obviously, is absurd. Human beings have a specific, fixed nature that includes human sexuality; there are inherent limits that cannot be surpassed through ideology or surgery. 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. You can see this manifest physically, for example, at many protests in favor of gender ideology: the people are ugly, unhealthy, and deranged. But rather than adjust, the Left always insists on plowing forward, rejecting criticism as another “ism” or “phobia,” and re-doubling their efforts. The same pattern applies to schools. The more extreme elements of gender ideology are a good way to make kids miserable, which, to the minds of proponents, only justifies a deeper intervention. It won’t be stopped without a firm hand.
Techno Fog: Your recent victories against Disney have inspired a lot of confidence, but the DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) system remains in position. How do you understand the battles ahead, the key next objectives, and the strategic position more generally?
Christopher Rufo: It’s a two-step process. First, set the preconditions: do the reporting, drive public opinion, and prime the politicians. Next, take action: change the law and shift the incentive structure. On so-called “diversity, equity, and inclusion”: this will require some fundamental reforms to the bureaucracy in public and private institutions. In a way, the solution to public institutions is simple, even if it is not necessarily easy: pass legislation to abolish these departments in public agencies, universities, and schools. The voters, through their state and federal legislators, have the power of the purse and can choose to spend taxpayer dollars on other priorities. In the private sector, the key is to reform the legal mechanisms around anti-discrimination law; specifically, ending disparate impact and affirmative action as valid bases of decision-making and legal enforcement. That would change the incentives within legal and human resources departments in large corporations, which use a lot of the DEI programs as legal and public relations protection. The goal in both cases is to move toward a system of equality, merit, and colorblindness — that is, a rigorous and fair process that respects individual rights and treats people equally under the law. Most Americans support this kind of system, but most politicians are still too fearful to take it on. My sense, however, is that the politics might be shifting and we could see good reforms in legislatures and the Supreme Court in the next few years.