Understanding Gig Harbor’s Christopher Rufo, Right-Wing ‘Brawler’

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The takedown of Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard University, is a cultural event of the first order. And the man behind it, conservative journalist and activist Christopher Rufo, lives in deep blue Washington, in Gig Harbor.

For deposing Gay, Rufo has poked the progressives in a soft spot. In The Atlantic (“American Universities are Post-Truth” Jan. 12, 2024), Josh Barro writes, “What seems to be happening here is they are suffering from Christopher Rufo Derangement Syndrome. That is, they know conservative activist Christopher Rufo is a bad guy, and therefore the only way they can analyze a question on which he has opined is by assuming that the opposite of whatever he said was true. If Rufo says Gay plagiarized, then she must not have plagiarized, regardless of whatever near-duplicate paragraphs we can see with our own eyes.” (The Atlantic takes its article from a Barro piece on Substack.)

Here’s another example from The Guardian. Gay’s resignation, writes its U.S. columnist, Moira Donegan, “had nothing to do with plagiarism.” She goes on: “There is the fact that rightwing propagandists, prominently the anti-education crusader Christopher Rufo, openly admitted the pretextual nature of their plagiarism smear against Gay, and frankly spoke of their intention to manipulate the national media into creating a baseless controversy that would drive Gay, Harvard’s first Black president and only the second woman to lead the university, out of her job.”

The terms “smear” and a “baseless controversy,” imply that the plagiarism is not real, or not real enough. But it was real. Barro writes that in Gay’s dissertation, “She copied paragraphs of text nearly wholesale, without quoting the scholars whose text she used, and sometimes without even citing them. Anyone who went to college knows you’re not allowed to do that. It’s not just a rule—it’s a rule that universities beat into students’ heads.”

When Gay was named to that post in 2022, academic bigwigs anointed her with effusive praise. Paul Choi, president of Harvard’s Board of Overseers and a member of the search committee, said, “She is intensely focused on intellectual excellence and rigor.” Penny Pritzker, chair of Harvard’s presidential search committee, praised Gay for her “respect for enduring ideals.” Former Harvard President Larry Bacow said, “Claudine is a person of bedrock integrity.”

Granted that her dissertation was decades ago. Still, she presented other people’s words as her own, again and again in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated at Harvard in an undergraduate. It wasn’t racist to point that out; it was holding Gay to the same standard as other university presidents. (Robert Caslen, the president of the University of South Carolina, was brought down in 2021 for plagiarism in a commencement speech. And there have been others.)

The Guardian columnist was right when she asserted that plagiarism isn’t what Christopher Rufo cares about. Rufo is on a crusade against Critical Race Theory and its administrative creation, the bureaucracies of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Rufo takes the classic American position that people should be judged and treated as individuals, and that DEI judges and treats them as members of a race, and that it’s wrong to do that. Rufo picked on Gay because she was both a champion of DEI and an example of it, being an academic with a thin record of actual scholarship — “a paltry set of articles, no book, a trivial and methodologically silly research program,” writes Stephen Cox, professor emeritus of literature at the University of California, San Diego.

“Opposing DEI, in part or in whole, does not make one racist,” argues linguist John McWhorter in the New York Times. But for a white guy (RUFO) to say what Rufo did takes real cojones. This is not the 1920s, or even the 1960s. In public life, an accusation of racism is kryptonite, so Rufo was certain to be so accused. That he was willing to take it doesn’t mean he’s right, but it does make him an unusual guy.

Rufo, 39, does not fit the stereotype of the insular nationalist. He was born in Sacramento of an Italian immigrant father and Scottish-American mother. He married an immigrant from Thailand. Rufo earned a bachelor’s degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University in 2006 and spent much of his life abroad. In his twenties he worked making documentary films. A notable one was “Diamond in the Dunes,” about a Uighur baseball player in China’s Xinjiang Province.

His family’s politics leaned left. In an interview with Jordan Peterson, Rufo said his relatives in Italy were “old-school, working-class Marxists.” As a young teen, Rufo had a Che Guevara poster in his bedroom. The left, he said, offered “an attractive narrative,” a sense of mission.  “When you’re 13,” he said, the conservative idea of restraint and obligation “is not something that’s going to inspire you.”

Because of his early attachments, he said, “I know how the left thinks — intimately. My opponents don’t know how the right thinks. They look at us like we’re barbarians at the gate.” He’s not wrong about that.

Rufo’s rightward turn came with a project he began in 2015 to make a PBS documentary, “America Lost,” on poverty in three socially eroded cities: Youngstown, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; and Stockton, California. In each town, he followed people struggling to cope —  men who had been unemployed for years and had given up, a mother on welfare whose husband was in prison, and so on. Only in his final segment, on Stockton, did a young man he followed finally secure a factory job. The man was notable for the fact that he had accepted responsibility for his pregnant wife and young child.

What Rufo saw in these places was “not a simple economic story” about class struggle or “greed” — or about race, either, he recalled in the Jordan interview. Youngstown is mostly white; the Memphis neighborhood where he filmed was mostly black, and Stockton is a mix of races, largely Hispanic. In each place, he concluded, the story was about broken social connections — failed schools, absent churches and, particularly, broken families. “All you get is individuals and the state,” he said. The state is remote and bureaucratic, and has the wrong kind of power.

 The left, he said, looks at America’s sore spots and prescribes a redistribution of wealth. “We already have redistribution,” Rufo said. He recalls seeing “huge groups of people partying and fighting at 1 am” after the government checks came in. Money alone cannot solve the poverty problem. “It has to be money that is earned, and in the context of a culture that has values that holds it together.”

Rufo had seen poverty abroad — in Nigeria, in China, and elsewhere. In material terms poverty in those places was worse there. He saw that as a social disaster, but the experience of poverty was worse here.

Rufo had become a conservative. “I burned all my relationships in the documentary world” — a world, he said, in which “no one says anything new” — and sought out conservative institutions. They welcomed him. Away from the “punishing political orthodoxy” of the left, he said, “I felt like I had the freedom to think for the first time as an adult.”

Rufo went to work for Seattle’s Discovery Institute, the religious-right think tank founded  by Bruce Chapman, who had been on the Seattle City Council in the 1970s. Rufo took over Discovery’s Center on Wealth and Poverty, which had been under supply-side-economics thinker George Gilder, another man who had moved to the right after a study of the urban poor.

Rufo produced a paper on homelessness called, “Seattle Under Siege: How Seattle’s Homelessness Policy Perpetuates the Crisis and How We Can Fix It.” In it, he argued that four groups — the “socialist intellectuals,” the “compassion brigades,” the “addiction evangelists,” and the “homelessness-industrial complex” — were funding their projects out of taxpayers’ money, and that their approach wasn’t solving the problem. What needed to be done, he wrote, was to build emergency shelters and enforce the laws against public camping and drug use.

The year his paper came out, 2018, Rufo announced a run for the Ballard area’s seat on the city council. That made him a target for the Seattle left.

Leftists in Seattle can be really, really nasty. Rufo’s wife, Suphatra — who has worked at Microsoft and Amazon — described the experience on Facebook: “I have been harassed, cyberstalked, and intimidated. Activists in the housing and bike community have sent me messages saying that my husband is a white supremacist and sending us links to white supremacist sites. We have been called white nationalists, fascists, alt-right, and right-wing extremists…

 “I was once part of [the Seattle] narrative,” she wrote. “I worked for NPR, PBS, and was actively involved in the social justice community here in Seattle. But over the past few years, I’ve watched as some activists have weaponized our common values of diversity, tolerance, and compassion to bully, intimidate, and silence people with different beliefs and ideas.

“Since we started this [City Council] race, we have received messages from Seattleites who have told us we are not welcome here… People have said that we deserve this level of harassment and it’s just part of what we must endure.”

 “That experience,” wrote her husband, “opened my eyes to the real nature of left-wing politics. It radicalized me.” Instead of backing down, Rufo decided to up his game. From homelessness, he shifted his efforts to attack critical race theory (CRT), the doctrine behind employer efforts for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

 On their face, the words “diversity, equity and inclusion” are innocuous. Who could be against them? Their dictionary definitions suggest nothing sinister — but they had been weaponized. What they involved was judging people by their race and gender, and in a highly prejudicial way.

When Rufo wrote about this, people responded. Afraid to speak against DEI at work, they sent him material from indoctrination sessions. A City of Seattle employee sent documents that named perfectionism, individualism and objectivity as part of culture of “white supremacy.”

To Rufo, this indoctrination was worse than goofy. It was an effort to impose “group-based guilt” — a new institutional racism. He denounced it on the internet, and his words went viral. In 2020 he was invited onto Fox News’ Tucker Carlson show, where he suggested that President Trump could expunge the practice from the federal bureaucracy. Trump was watching — and Rufo was quickly invited to Washington, DC. Trump did issue an executive order, but it was late in his term, and a few months later the order was rescinded by President Biden.

In the words of a 2022 New York Times profile, the now-notorious Rufo had “burst on the scene” of national discourse. By then, he had fled Seattle, moving his family out of their 729-square-foot condo in Frelard, the industrial zone between Fremont and Ballard, to a five-bedroom house in Gig Harbor, Pierce County. There he put together a studio where he could appear on Fox News. He was also writing for City Journal, the magazine of the right-of-center Manhattan Institute, where he became a senior fellow.

Appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show again, Rufo showed an internal Disney video in which a producer spoke of her “not-at-all-secret gay agenda” in adding “queerness” to a cartoon show. And that hooked up Rufo with Florida’s hard-pushing Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who took off after Walt Disney World for awarding contracts to businesses on the basis of their owners’ race and gender. A year ago, DeSantis appointed Rufo as one of six conservatives to the board of trustees of the New College of Florida in Sarasota. In August, New College’s board voted to end gender studies, which had such courses as Women’s and Feminist Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Queer and Trans Studies, and Masculinity Studies.

New College also dropped the contract of Erik Wallenberg, an assistant professor of history. In a tweet, Rufo had written, Wallenberg “will not be returning to the campus. I wish Professor Wallenberg well and hope his work on ‘radical theatre and environmental movements’ finds a more suitable home.”

The American Historical Association objected to this. “The United States has been through this before, seven decades ago,” wrote the AHA’s executive director, James Grossman, in a letter to the college. “What came to be called ‘McCarthyism’ was unacceptable then, and it is unacceptable now.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which is largely funded by conservative and libertarian donors, agreed with the historians’ protest. “By non-renewing faculty with views they personally disfavor—or purporting to do so,” wrote FIRE in a letter to New College, “Rufo and New College … [are] replacing one orthodoxy with another.”

Canadian psychologist and motivational speaker Jordan Peterson challenged Rufo about the state’s actions at New College. Was that not a dangerous precedent? Rufo’s reply was that civil-rights law and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which promises “equal protection of the laws,” require a state institution to be race-neutral. At New College, he said, there was “explicit race and sex discrimination in service of left-wing ideology.”

Rufo takes a harder line for the public schools: “In the K-12 environment,” he says, “the state has an absolute right to create the curriculum. Public school teachers are state employees and they do not have First Amendment rights in the classroom. These are kids, not adults. In higher ed, it’s a different story. But we have an absolute right to reshape the bureaucracy.”

Peterson agrees with Rufo about Critical Race Theory and DEI, but he’s an academic who has fought political interference in universities in his home country of Canada. He didn’t argue against Rufo, but he didn’t assent to Rufo’s argument, either.

Rufo doesn’t play a gentle game because, he says, the left has not played one, either. If you hold out for the rule that governments should be neutral in the governance of state universities, then the left wins. And he’s not willing to concede that. He wants to fight. “These days, I’m a brawler,” he told Benjamin Wallace-Wells, who interviewed him for The New Yorker.

His “brawling” is rhetorical. Part of it is substituting new names for old ones that don’t carry enough weight. “Political correctness,” he says, is outdated, “cancel culture” is vague and “woke” is too easily denied. He wants people to think “Critical Race Theory.” In his interview with Wallace-Wells he said, “Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.” To Rufo, Critical Race Theory “is the perfect villain.”

His critics have pounced on his words, charging him with being insincere. His retort is that it’s not insincerity; it’s rhetoric, and that they do it, too. The left has largely replaced the concept of “racism” with the concept of “white supremacy” — a not-too-subtle shift that serves their purposes. Rufo is doing the same. Rufo has set out his case in a new book, America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything. As the subtitle suggests, this is a book of polemics; there is not a whiff of neutrality in it. It is implicitly addressed to the right, and it is a call to battle.

And that’s how he operated in the takedown of Harvard President Claudine Gay. Speaking to Politico, Rufo described what he’d done:

“Christopher Brunet and I broke the story of Claudine’s plagiarism on December 10. It drove more than 100 million impressions on Twitter, and then it was the top story for a number of weeks in conservative media and right-wing media. But I knew that in order to achieve my objective, we had to get the narrative into the left-wing media. But the left-wing uniformly ignored the story for 10 days and tried to bury it, so I engaged in a kind of a thoughtful and substantive campaign of shaming and bullying my colleagues on the left… CNN, BBC, The New York TimesThe Washington Post and other publications started to do the actual work of exposing Gay’s plagiarism, and then you see this beautiful kind of flowering of op-eds from all of those publications calling on Gay to resign. Once my position — which began on the right — became the dominant position across the center-left, I knew that it was just a matter of time before we were going to be successful.”

And the reason for doing it: “My primary objective is to eliminate the DEI bureaucracy in every institution in America and to restore truth rather than racialist ideology as the guiding principle of America.”

 And there you have it. And all done from deep-blue Puget Sound country.

 

Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Are ”diversity statements” required by any local public agencies in hiring new staff e.g, City of Seattle? UW? Sound Transit?

    If they are used locally it would be nice to see the exact language used in requesting such statements in job applications.

  2. A fair, balanced, thorough and even-handed piece, Bruce. More journalists should give similar coverage to Rufo. He’s a better reporter and writer than many of them, that’s for sure. They disagree with his views so they disparage him personally. It’s one reason why trust in the mainstream media is so low. And who holds them publicly accountable? Sadly, no one.

    • I read one of his screeds a few years ago, and haven’t paid much attention since. I didn’t just disagree with his views, I disagreed with the twisted rhetoric he used to present them. It’s possible that he is notwithstanding doing the country a service by knocking off some of the fluff that has sprouted from the liberal scene, but his is not a voice for honest, responsible policy.

  3. An interesting article, Bruce, although I fear that you’re far too generous in assessment of Rufo. Don’t forget that he is an outspoken admirer of Victor Orban of Hungary, an authoritarian regime where 90 percent of the media is controlled by the government. Nor that, upon appointment as trustee of the New College of Florida, he partnered with other DeSantis appointees to fire the university president (a woman, incidentally) and essentially drive one-third of the college faculty to quit.

  4. Rufo would probably be worried if a respectable number of Seattleites didn’t find him dyspeptic. I sure don’t like everything he does or ever did, but I understand what he does and why. Appearing as a Tucker regular does him no favors on my dance card, but I guess a pundit’s got to dit. And heaven hath no devotion greater than that of the convert, in this case from Left to Right. One can almost see him bowing before Steve Bannon: “Make me one of your council, Dark Lord!” But I digress — and just want to say thanks to Post Alley for posting well-written pieces on all sorts of topics, from different POVs, argued in seeming good faith. Sorely lacking in our civic square.

    • “Rufo’s role” as opposed to the far more important issue of dealing with racial disparities.

      Thanks David as I rarely listen or look to KUOW anymore — too predictable— so I would’ve missed that very forgettable article which doesn’t (totally typically) grapple with critical race theory, and DEI, etc. but merely attacks Rufo’s tactics.

      That’s a pretty good way to deal with an opponent when one doesn’t have much to say substantively.

      It’s really too bad we can’t have a fact-based discussion on DEI, etc. The whole issue of diversity statements as a requirement in the job application process is a good example.

  5. Rufo began his right-wing career, with funding from the evolutionary biology-denying “Discovery Institute,” as a critic of homeless encampments. (BTW: Jonathan Choe, fired from KOMO-TV for promoting the Proud Boys, has succeeded Rufo as Discovery’s homeless basher.) Then he drifted (or grifted) into the culture wars — race, gender, sexual orientation. Along the way, Rufo has proved to be a master of propaganda, or what Ramsey calls “rhetoric.” This wily wordsmith invents phrases or concepts that agitate under-informed citizens. Thus, public and non-profit services to help unhoused people amount to nothing more than a “homeless-industrial complex.” Various efforts to educate Americans, including (God forbid!) white kids, about racism are repackaged and sold as sinister-sounding “critical race theory,” even though Rufo (no dummy) knows that the works of Crenshaw, Bell etal are available only in Law School. The provocative term “groomers” is deployed to attack educators, librarians and authors who think young people should be able to learn more about queer folks, including (in many cases) themselves. Finally, academics at the New School in FL become dangerous “ideologues” simply because they don’t share HIS and Gov. DeSantis’ Far Right ideology.

    At the very end of this puff piece, Ramsey kinda sorta comes around to recognizing what Rufo openly acknowledges: He didn’t really care that much about plagiarism, initially the subject of this essay. No, Rufo had a loftier goal, and the allegation of plagiarism against Harvard’s Claudine Gay was simply a tool to achieve that goal. Gay had to be sacked not because she failed to include citations in a dissertation. Nuh-uh. She had to be sacked because the first black woman to became president of Harvard represented, in Rufo’s brain, “the DEI bureaucracy.”

    Could we be a bit more honest about dishonesty?

    • C’mon, he’s a good German who just trying to make the trains run on time.

      OK, he’s really just a Nixonian Ratf****r, but still….

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