Meet James Lindsay, the far right's "world-level expert" on CRT and "Race Marxism"

Once a "New Atheist" and Obama Democrat, Lindsay rebooted himself as the brains behind the far right's moral panic

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published February 17, 2022 6:30AM (EST)

Sebastian Gorka, James Lindsay and Glenn Beck (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Gage Skidmore)
Sebastian Gorka, James Lindsay and Glenn Beck (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Gage Skidmore)

In a Feb. 5 appearance on Glenn Beck's talk show — which Beck called "probably the most important podcast perhaps that we've ever done" — self-proclaimed critical race theory expert James Lindsay issued a dire warning. While discussing dark right-wing theories about "The Great Reset" and Democratic-run reeducation camps for the unvaccinated, Lindsay warned that a severe reckoning was at hand for the world's elites: "It's coming for them. They're going to lose all of their power. They're going to be exposed for crimes the likes of which we've never seen in human history." 

Beck, perhaps a close second to Alex Jones as the reigning conspiracy theorist of the right, seemed to glow with enthusiasm as the two agreed that a revolution was coming and "if they don't have us all in cages, they're in a lot of trouble." 

The appearance was one of many Lindsay has conducted in recent days, as he promotes his new book, "Race Marxism: The Truth About Critical Race Theory and Practice," published on Tuesday and, as of Wednesday, the top title in Amazon's "philosophy criticism" section. If his digression into fantasies of bloody revolt against a cadre of bankers, media and George Soros — what one Lindsay-watcher called "straight-up Hitler talk" — seems like an odd detour, it's one of many he's made over the years: an academic turned intentional academic fraud, a "new atheist" who now counsels Christians on heresy, a blue-no-matter-who Obama volunteer turned intellectual leader of the far right. So meet the man behind the man behind the right's most consuming contemporary moral panic. 

RELATED: The critics were right: "Critical race theory" panic is just a cover for silencing educators

In 2018, as a math PhD running a business that fused massage therapy with martial arts, and a supporting character in the foundering New Atheism movement, Lindsay became a national name by pulling off a deft hoax that made liberal academics look dumb. Along with two co-conspirators, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian, Lindsay drafted 20 fake research papers with outlandish premises — to research canine "rape culture" at dog parks, or a proposition that men use dildos on themselves to overcome transphobia — and submitted them to a series of often obscure scholarly journals. 

Around a third of the papers were accepted, and in 2018, the hoaxers, all of whom then called themselves liberals — although Boghossian was closely associated with accused white supremacist and "race realist" Stefan Molyneux, who has argued that Black people are "collectively less intelligent" than other races — revealed the experiment as an exposé on the terminal wokeness of academia, particularly the identity-oriented fields that the three called "grievance studies." 

The stunt received massive attention, including front-page treatment on The New York Times and airtime on Joe Rogan's podcast. When Vox reporter Zack Beauchamp asked Lindsay whether he feared their prank would become a "tool of the right," Lindsay took umbrage, asking, "Have you seen me go on Tucker Carlson yet? Do you think he hasn't asked?" 

RELATED: Godless grifters: How the New Atheists merged with the far right

Lindsay still hasn't done that, but Christopher Rufo, the Manhattan Institute fellow credited with sparking the right's obsession with "critical race theory," absolutely has. In September 2020, Rufo appeared on Carlson's broadcast with a direct challenge to Donald Trump, demanding that the then-president issue an executive order banning CRT from any federal training programs. The following morning, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows was on the phone with Rufo to sort the details out. 

But while Rufo has been heralded as the little man behind the big war, Rufo himself credits Lindsay. In a joint August appearance with Lindsay on right-wing personality Jack Murphy's podcast, Rufo said that he had relied on Lindsay's theoretical explanations of CRT in order to craft his more populist appeals. 

"James is really the theory expert," Rufo said. "I mean, James is an encyclopedia of theory connecting all the dots laying out the case…creating this giant content to guide all of us into this world. And then I think I come in as a complement to what James is doing, really following his lead with the praxis or the practice, which is translating the theory into the realm of practical politics and then translating this kind of esoteric knowledge that school moms and school dads can use at school board meetings and hammer their school boards with." 

RELATED: Meet Christopher Rufo — leader of the incoherent right-wing attack on "critical race theory"

Sam Hoadley-Brill, a fellow at the progressive think tank African American Policy Forum, which recently launched an initiative to defend the teaching of CRT against right-wing critics, has tracked Lindsay's evolving arguments for the past two years. These began with the anti-racism protests of the summer of 2020, which initially drew support even from numerous conservatives, but quickly prompted a right-wing backlash. And as corporations began responding to the movement by instituting or publicizing new diversity programs, Lindsay was ready. 

That August, Lindsay and Pluckrose published a co-authored book, "Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms Everyone," that was widely-discussed on the right and landed on several bestseller lists. 

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By the following spring, after the new Biden administration had reversed Trump's executive ban on CRT, Lindsay was tapped to narrate a Cliff Notes version of the conservative case against CRT for the right-wing media organization Prager U. In it, he argued that CRT "holds that the most important thing about you is your race"; that the theory was "not a continuation of the civil rights movement" but a "repudiation of it"; and that there hadn't been "a social movement so obsessed with race" since the Nazis or South Africa's apartheid regime. "Defend yourself," Lindsay concluded the video. "While you still can." 

Around the same time, reported Peter Montgomery at Right Wing Watch, a speech Lindsay gave at the Leadership Institute — a longstanding training ground for young conservative activists — was turned into an e-book that the Institute used to recruit potential candidates for a right-wing "school board takeover." On Twitter, Lindsay suggested that "Extra right-wing anti-Semitism is arising because lots of progressive Jews are nonsensically Woke."

And despite his long association with militant movement atheism — including co-writing three books about it — in the spring of 2021 Lindsay also waded into Christian communities' internal debates around CRT, warning that the best way to "end Christianity" is to "make [it] woke." As Bob Smietana reported in Religion News Service, Lindsay interjected himself into the Southern Baptist Convention's bitter 2021 feud over CRT, appearing in a documentary and a promotional video created by Founders Ministry, a conservative faction within the denomination that seeks to "return Southern Baptists to their roots." Lindsay also appeared on Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler's YouTube show, where Mohler praised "Cynical Theories" as an "intellectual tour de force."

Smietana's investigation also revealed that Lindsay's website, New Discourses, is owned by right-wing activist Michael O'Fallon, president of the Christian nationalist group Sovereign Nations, who believes that George Soros has bought off most Christian leaders and who seeks "to start a new reformation to counter the social justice movement in the church." 

This January, Lindsay followed up by calling on the SBC to oust leaders, including Mohler, who had failed to denounce CRT forcefully enough. "[W]e really don't want to see our large religious institutions taken over by a totalitarian ideology that's trying to infect and command everything," Lindsay said in a New Discourses podcast last month. "We want to have something that can stand up against it." 

Lindsay went on to call CRT, which a number of Black Southern Baptists have embraced, "an explicit and intentional act of heresy." Christians who incorporate elements of it or intersectionality into their practices, he continued, "can damn well bet, Christians — damned well bet, like condemned, like damned, like y'all demons — if you're doing this … you're falling for a demonic trick." 

In 2021, Hoadley-Brill founded a Substack to debunk anti-CRT claims, starting with Lindsay's. In reference to Lindsay's @ConceptualJames handle on Twitter, where he's an exhaustively prolific commenter, Hoadley-Brill named his website "Conceptual Disinformation." In it and elsewhere, he chronicles the sometimes ridiculous aspects of Lindsay's crusade: He described himself in a virtual New Hampshire legislative committee session as a self-taught "world-level expert in critical race theory"; or his frenetic participation in a Dr. Phil roundtable; or his recent confounding remarks to Beck about "Fasho-Communism." 

But Hoadley-Brill is motivated by a deeper concern: that as in the "grievance studies" hoax — whose success largely rested on intentionally and grotesquely misrepresenting nuanced academic arguments, even those that deserved legitimate criticism — the current anti-CRT movement relies on misrepresentations that most people outside the academic world will never even perceive. 

"That hoax was so successful is because the entire point was, 'Look, we'll do the reading for you. People aren't qualified to go in and parse all the stuff in these fields, so we went and immersed ourselves in it, and it's all a bunch of bullshit,'" said Hoadley-Brill. "That's what led me into pushing back against these people: because the attention and credulity that people were giving them is now fueling this right-wing backlash, and people are being manipulated." 

But since he started tracking the movement, Hoadley-Brill says Lindsay has continued to move rightward. "It was my perception that Lindsay was jealous of Rufo getting all this attention, and in response, he started to get more radical with his propaganda," he said. "With his messaging, the only further audience to capture is further to the right. So you start seeing him saying things like, 'CRT is just the tip of a 100-year long spear to infiltrate the United States with Marxist ideology,'" which Hoadley-Brill describes as "straight up neo-Nazi conspiracy theorizing." 

While Lindsay used to acknowledge on his website that "Cultural Marxism," a term embraced a few years ago by the alt-right, was associated with antisemitism and white supremacy, and warned people against using it, nowadays such caution has been thrown to the wind. In Lindsay's new book, Hoadley-Brill notes, he argues that "neo-Marxists" have successfully redefined Cultural Marxism to smear it by association with antisemitism. Last fall, Lindsay published an episode of his podcast entitled "Groomer Schools 1: The Long Cultural Marxist History of Sex Education," which argues that sex-ed classes aren't "just a fluke of our weird and increasingly degenerate times" but "a long-purposed Marxist project reaching back into the early 20th century." On Twitter, he responds to people concerned about the spread of "Don't Say Gay" bills with the pithy, "Ok groomer," effectively accusing anyone who believes children should learn that LGBTQ people are part of the human community of being a pedophile.

RELATED: A user's guide to "Cultural Marxism": Antisemitic conspiracy theory, reloaded

And in a Tuesday pub-day appearance on far-right commentator and former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka's livestream show on Rumble, amid ads for gold, silver or Mike Lindell's pillows, Lindsay argued that queer theory — which he sees as part of a grander suite of fields, alongside CRT, that comprise "woke Marxism" — was one aspect of a decades-old Cultural Marxist plot to wage "a war on objective reality" and "separate one generation from the previous."

"This goes back to the first Cultural Marxist, Georg Lukács," he said, referencing the Hungarian Marxist intellectual, "who became deputy commissar for education, and what did he implement? Comprehensive sex education. Exactly the stuff we see with the gender theory, the queer theory, these very perverted books in the school library teaching children to become sexually active and sexually aware. Why? Because what are they going to do? They're going to become, frankly, little perverts and they're going to go home, and their parents are going to say no, and they're going to use the rebelliousness of the teenage years — of the youth — to say you don't understand me." If you can thus "separate a new generation away from its parents," family, religion and culture, he concluded, they can be led wherever you want.

(It's true that Lukács, who is far better known as the author of dense works of Marxist philosophy and literary criticism, was deputy commissar of education and culture in the Hungarian Soviet Republic — an embattled Communist state that existed for about four months in 1919. It seems unlikely he had time to enact ambitious educational reforms, but a century later, he's become the face of right-wing narratives about "The Communist Sexual Agenda.")

Lindsay's conversation with Gorka wound up in similarly ominous territory as his talk with Beck, complete with insinuations of violence. 

"I've been screaming about this for years. It's like screaming into a hurricane," said Lindsay. "And now all of a sudden, the wind has changed. The wind's at my back now." As parents and the working class wake up to the "nonsense" of CRT, he said, and also to what he called "this radical agenda, especially with the gender and sexuality stuff and the pedophilia, that your children are genuinely in danger of groomers that the Marxists have brought in," parents are reaching the point where they'd "die for [their] kids." 

Lindsay claimed a political scientist had imparted this wisdom: "There are just a couple ways a cultural revolution gets stopped. One is you have a character like Putin come in and start killing journalists and take authoritarian power and stamp it out. The other is that parents wake up." In Lindsay's telling, those things sound eerily similar.  

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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