Earlier this week, the man who's been widely credited with single-handedly willing the "critical race theory" panic into existence (even if the truth is a bit more complex), laid out a new set of marching orders for the right: Defund public universities, discard academic freedom, remove credentialing requirements for K-12 teachers and generally foster so much anger against public schools that it drives a nationwide popular movement to privatize education.
The man in question is Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. Since he helped elevate CRT into a national culture war in 2020, Rufo has frequently been cast (or cast himself) as the new master strategist of the right, playing three-dimensional chess as he lays out his battle plans publicly and counts every media mention of them as a win. In the spring of 2021, he famously crowed on social media that he'd "successfully frozen" the CRT "brand" as the overarching ideology behind almost everything conservatives dislike. This January he tweeted about his new goal to "bait the Left into opposing [curriculum] 'transparency,'" in order to trigger conservative suspicions that public schools have something to hide.
On Tuesday, he broadcast his plans again in a speech at Hillsdale College, a small Christian school in southern Michigan that, as a three-part Salon investigative series described last month, has assumed a vastly outsized role in conservative movement politics, with its heavy Washington footprint, its dense web of connections to political and intellectual right-wing leaders, and its national network of charter schools that use taxpayer funds to teach conservative ideology. Rufo had spoken at the college before, when he delivered an early version of his anti-CRT arguments in a March 2021 speech subsequently adapted as an essay for Hillsdale's monthly publication Imprimis, which claims a circulation of more than six million. And for the last week, Rufo has also been guest-teaching a short-term journalism class at the college.
Now, speaking to a school organized around the idea that the political war will be won in education, Rufo issued a new strategy he called "Laying Siege to the Institutions." This means waging a "narrative and symbolic war" against both publicly-funded entities like K-12 schools and government agencies, as well as private corporations and the concept of academic freedom itself.
Rufo began his talk with a narrative that's become depressingly commonplace among the right: In the mid-20th century, leftists discouraged by the failure of the socialist revolution to spread worldwide shifted their aspirations to creating a top-down revolution of the elite, organized around cultural and identity politics rather than class consciousness. These days that narrative is often shorthanded as "cultural Marxism," which until recent years was widely considered a disreputable conspiracy theory strongly associated with antisemitism, alt-right web forums and the most marginal figures of the far right. But now, as with so much else, the idea has migrated into the conservative mainstream, as just a slightly harder-core means of expressing the right's sense that they "lost the culture" years ago.
Although Rufo has used the term in the past, he didn't repeat it Tuesday. Instead he offered a closely-related narrative: that leftists disillusioned after the social revolutions of the 1960s petered out had transferred their hopes to academia, hoping to spread their ideas more gradually by embarking on a "long march through the institutions."
In Rufo's words, leftists who realized the proletarian revolution wasn't coming instead dedicated themselves to "a revolution of the intelligentsia, a revolution of the elites, by seizing control not of the means of production…but through the means of culture and knowledge production." What followed, he said, was the repackaging of the radical ideas of 1968 into ideologies that have trickled down into nearly every institution in society, albeit often through "postmodern" euphemisms like "diversity" or "equity." Today, he argued, "every elite institution in the country that has dominance over knowledge, dominance over culture, dominance over, even, in many cases, material production, has converged on a unitary ideology."
The first stage for conservatives who want to fight back, Rufo said, lay in convincing the public that such a long-game infiltration had taken place, educating everyday conservatives that benign-sounding ideas like diversity and inclusion were actually codewords for radical leftist ideology, and offering a set of "moral" arguments and language in opposition. Now, he said, it was time for conservatives to move to a new stage of the fight, using the tools of popular outrage and government force to punish institutions that offend conservative sensibilities.
It's not an entirely new argument. On the first day of the Biden presidency, Rufo vowed to build a coalition to "wage relentless legal warfare against race theory in America's institutions." Last November, speaking at the highbrow National Conservatism conference, just before the CRT backlash he'd engendered helped sweep Glenn Youngkin into Virginia's governor's mansion, he urged conservative intellectuals to recognize that "politics is downstream from institutions," and that they should use government power to shape entities like public universities as a means of eventually crafting a more powerful conservative movement. The same month, Rufo told New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg that, having "unlocked a new terrain in the culture war," he was now "preparing a strategy of laying siege to the institutions" in part by promoting "school choice."
But over the last week, Rufo said, he'd pioneered a new application of the model. That was through his new crusade against the Walt Disney Company, the latest target of conservative outrage after the company publicly opposed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' "don't say gay" bill, which prohibits discussion, or even acknowledgment, of LGBTQ people in elementary school classrooms.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
In a series of posts and articles, Rufo used a leaked internal video to argue that Disney wasn't just making its employees take diversity training seminars but was inserting a covert agenda into its programming that sought to "fundamentally change the relationship between kids and sexuality in the United States."
When the resultant furor sparked a number of proposals for political retaliation from conservative officials, including threats to rescind the company's tax breaks in Florida or to reject its copyright extension applications in Congress, Rufo described it as a "perfect example" of how conservatives can do battle with institutions that lie outside their direct control.
Praising DeSantis for recognizing that "our corporations should ultimately be serving the common good, should be serving the country," Rufo called for deploying similar government penalties against other companies that anger conservatives.
"I think you also wield power, for example, against a company like Disney if Disney is actively undermining the families and voters of, say, Florida," he said. "There's a feeling right now that we can tap into…where we want to have free enterprise, we want to have free competition, but what we don't want is to have cartel organizations, ideological and economic cartels, dictating the terms from up on high down to the average citizen."
But aside from this perhaps-surprising conservative willingness to use government power to regulate private companies' speech, the primary institutions Rufo focused on were educational.
At one point, he suggested that much of his work to heighten public outrage around schools' handling of everything from U.S. racial history to the pandemic to gender and sexuality could serve a larger goal: "creat[ing] the conditions for fundamental structural change."
"For example," he said, "to get universal school choice you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust."
"To get universal school choice," Rufo told listeners, "you need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust."
That admission is remarkably similar to the diagnosis that progressive public education advocates have made. Last month, former Nashville school board member Amy Frogge told Salon that she saw "all the controversy about critical race theory" as a deliberate strategy to alienate communities from their local schools. The education privatization movement, she said, "is a billionaire's movement," and the only way it can "gain ground is to create controversy and distrust of the public school system. That's what all of this is about."
Rufo didn't stop with K-12 education, going on to describe public universities as a "monopoly" that has too long been handed a "blank check" by legislators even in conservative states. Conservative legislators who don't like what's happening at those schools, Rufo said, should use their budgetary power to enact the changes they want to see.
"These are public universities that should reflect and transmit the values of the public, and the representatives of the public, i.e., state legislators, have ultimate power to shape or reshape those institutions," he said. "We have to get out of this idea that somehow the public university system is totally independent entity that practices academic freedom — a total fraud, that's just a false statement, fundamentally false — and you can't touch it or else you're impinging on the rights of the gender studies department to follow their dreams."
While many conservatives have long conceded the importance of academic freedom, he continued, lawmakers in some states were beginning to reconsider that long-cherished ideal, mulling proposals like defunding public university "diversity and inclusion" departments, which Rufo cast as a "patronage system" to support "private political activism with public dollars."
In Florida, DeSantis signed a bill last year requiring the state's public universities to survey students and faculty on their political beliefs, to ensure students aren't being "indoctrinated," with the implication that schools where too few students or staff express conservative viewpoints might end up losing funding. In mid-February, after professors at the University of Texas passed a resolution in support of the academic freedom to teach CRT, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick vowed to end tenure for all new hires in the state, and to strip the protection from current faculty who do teach the theory.
Rufo also suggested dealing a more indirect blow to universities by having state legislators pass laws removing requirements for public K-12 teachers to hold advanced education degrees, arguing that masters programs only serve to expose future teachers to radical left-wing ideas. Bachelors degrees should be sufficient for public school teachers, he said, and while educators could opt into advanced training, such a choice should come to be seen as a red flag, with right-thinking hiring committees knowing not to "hire the ones with the masters, because those are the crazies."
"We need to have the courage and the intelligence and the tenacity to say, 'What the public giveth, the public can taketh away," said Rufo. "So we go in there and we defund things we don't like, we fund things we do like."
In terms of the latter, he suggested that conservative legislators use public funding to establish new, independently-governed "conservative centers" within flagship public universities, which could serve as "magnets" for right-wing professors, create a new track of conservative-minded classes and generally establish "a separate patronage system" for conservative thinkers and activists.
British writer Mary Harrington suggests that Rufo sees himself leading a conservative "vanguard" movement, at "the beginnings of a new right-wing Leninism."
In many ways, the principles Rufo laid out seem to mirror what's happened in Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's proudly "illiberal" government — a regime that's become a model to emulate for much of the right. In the late 2010s, as a means of consolidating conservative power and disenfranchising liberal and moderate critics, Orbán launched a campaign against Hungary's institutions of higher education. He drove the elite Central European University, founded by George Soros, out of the country; solicited students to inform on professors who delivered "unasked-for left-wing political opinions"; and defunded and revoked accreditation for university gender studies programs. At the secondary ed level, as The Atlantic's Franklin Foer reported, Orbán's government cut two years off the country's compulsory education requirements, centralized curriculum and instituted new standards for a "patriotic education," under which students learn, for instance, that ethnic homogeneity is a Hungarian value.
At Hillsdale, Rufo denied that he wanted to see conservatives enact their own "march through the institutions" — he couldn't imagine that many conservatives aspiring to run district diversity and equity departments, he joked. But much of what he suggested seems strikingly similar to the supposed progressive strategy of institutional infiltration he's waging a war against. Even his conservative admirers have noted as much.
In November, after Rufo, speaking at the National Conservatism conference, called for using government mechanisms to "cripple the critical [left-wing] ideologies," one of his fellow speakers, the British writer Mary Harrington, wrote that his suggestions might represent "the beginnings of a new right-wing Leninism."
When Rufo described his role, and that of other right-wing intellectuals at the conference, as "providing intellectual guidance, a new vocabulary of subversion, and a narrative that can direct the emotions and energy of the public against the right targets," Harrington diagnosed that as an idea borrowed "from the Leninist idea of 'vanguardism': the idea that an elite whose consciousness has already attained greater revolutionary heights should lead and mobilize the masses in transforming the world for the better." Under that model, Rufo seemed to propose that the only solution to an elite "cultural revolution" abetted by the state is an elite counterrevolution that seizes state power and wields it to fight back.
Read more from Kathryn Joyce on the far right: