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Reign of Error

Christopher Rufo’s Troubling Path to Power

His incoherent attacks on critical race theory are only one part of a much larger plan for counterrevolution.

As recently as 2019, the right rarely spoke of critical race theory. A furor erupted in the Southern Baptist Convention in June that year, when conservatives fiercely opposed its incorporation into church teachings. A year later, Fox News ramped up its use of the term as it covered the mass uprisings in June 2020 that followed the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Before then, mentions of the term were scant: Media Cloud, a searchable database of digitized U.S. news sources, shows that the phrase “critical race theory” appeared in few news stories between January 2016 and January 2020. Until September 2020, it typically appeared in no more than 10 per month.

But that month, the conservative activist and journalist Christopher Rufo helped catapult critical race theory to the center of national conversation. On September 1, Rufo appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight. From a studio in Seattle, Rufo told Carlson about his ongoing research, which purported to show that “critical race theory has pervaded every institution in the federal government,” becoming “the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy” as it seeped into training materials used at the Treasury Department, the FBI, and Sandia National Laboratories. He called on Donald Trump to issue an executive order abolishing CRT from federal agencies. Three weeks later, Trump did issue Executive Order No. 13950, taking aim at “blame-focused diversity training.”

America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything
by Christopher F. Rufo
Broadside Books, 352 pp., $32.00

Mentions of critical race theory were climbing up. The number of stories that used the term rapidly rose in 2021, from 139 in the month of January to 158 in February, 350 in March, 381 in April, and then 1,199 in May, 2,769 in June, and 2,200 in July. All told, between January 2020 and January 2023, CRT appeared in nearly 25,000 stories. And though critical race theory previously had a specific meaning—it referred to a framework developed by legal academics to explain the role of ostensibly “color-blind” laws and institutions in perpetuating racism—to the right it came to encompass a grab bag of other notions and initiatives. Elementary school lessons on U.S. history, deans of diversity and inclusion at elite universities, socially responsible investing—all, Rufo and others alleged, were expressions of CRT.

In interviews, Rufo has described his interest in the subject as a matter of expediency. In 2021, Rufo told The New Yorker that the term “critical race theory” was a “promising political weapon” for conservatives. “‘Critical race theory’ is the perfect villain,” he told reporter Benjamin Wallace-Wells. “Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans … the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.”

For someone so avowedly opportunistic, Rufo has taken some time to get his book out. Meanwhile, Fox News hosts Mark Levin and Pete Hegseth, evangelical minister Voddie Baucham, and academic hoaxer-turned-pundit James Lindsay have already published books attacking CRT that collectively sold well over one million copies. And by the end of 2022, federal, state, and local legislative and governing bodies had introduced 563 anti-CRT measures, almost half of which have been enacted or adopted.

Rufo tries to distinguish America’s Cultural Revolution by expanding its purview. While stressing his credentials as an originator of the anti-CRT panic, he also insists that CRT is about much more than CRT. Early on, Rufo promises to show “the campaign to embed critical race theory in American life was only one facet of the radical Left’s ‘long march through the institutions.’” He traces the left’s purported schemes to impose a “hideous” form of social control, from Herbert Marcuse’s youth in Weimar Germany, to Mao Zedong’s Long March to the caves of Yannan, to Angela Davis’s travels in the USSR. But the interest of the book does not lie in this scattershot history. Its main interest is as an exemplar of a popular genre on the right: the adversarial intellectual history animated by envy, as well as antipathy.

When Rufo told The New Yorker that the term “critical race theory” was an expedient enemy for conservatives, he noted the negative connotations that “most middle-class Americans” would associate with each of its component parts. These connotations have accrued for decades. In particular, they build on a long-standing conservative fixation on the school of thought known as critical theory—or, as its enemies often call it, “cultural Marxism.”

The term “cultural Marxism” echoes propaganda about “cultural” and “Judeo-bolshevism” that dates back to Nazi Germany. But contemporary narratives about the dangers of critical theory coalesced in right-wing think tanks in the 1990s. By the turn of the millennium, conservative writers had consolidated the following story: After World War I, when the Western European working classes failed to follow their Russian counterparts into revolution, Marxists in the West fell into disarray. A group of primarily Jewish intellectuals gathered around the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, in the 1920s to plot a comeback. What they came up with was a plan to attack capitalism by criticizing its culture. In the 1930s, when the Nazis came to power, members of the Frankfurt School fled to the United States, where they infiltrated government and academic institutions. After World War II, those who remained continued to undermine the country from within, by promoting anti-American philosophies like “political correctness” and disciplines like ethnic and women’s studies.

From the mid-1990s onward, William S. Lind, a writer at the paleoconservative Free Congress Foundation, spread this account through a series of speeches, publications, and even a documentary film. In 2004, Lind published a book that included a compendium of cultural Marxist “profiles” with entries for Georg Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Theodor Adorno. Versions of this pamphlet have circulated ever since, most recently through an edition self-published on Amazon in 2019. Other conservative pundits frequently offered the same narrative. Patrick J. Buchanan followed it closely in his 2002 bestseller, The Death of the West, and Breitbart founder Andrew Breitbart echoed it in his autobiography, Righteous Indignation, in 2011. Breit­bart alum Michael Walsh did, too, in his 2015 book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace.

For decades, claims about cultural Marxism ran in the background of more mainstream debates about multiculturalism and “political correctness” (which Lind defined in his pamphlet as synonyms), while also appealing to violent extremists. In 2011, when Anders Behring Breivik murdered 69 people, including 33 children, at a summer camp in Norway, he released a 1,500-page manifesto that began with a verbatim copy of Lind’s profiles and an argument about how cultural Marxism drove the “Islamic colonization” of Europe. (Breivik blended these with near quotations from Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s 1995 manifesto against technology and “leftism.”) Subsequent terrorists have cited Breivik as a strong influence. Brenton Harrison Tarrant, who killed 51 worshippers at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, wrote in his manifesto that he “took true inspiration from Knight Justiciar Breivik.” Payton Gendron, the white supremacist who killed 10 Black shoppers at a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York, in May 2022, scrawled Breivik’s name and the title of his manifesto, 2083, on the assault weapon he used.

America’s Cultural Revolution picks up where Lind’s, Buchanan’s, and Breitbart’s accounts of cultural Marxism left off. The book opens by drawing a direct connection between the summers of 1968 and 2020. The United States in 1968, Rufo writes, “endured a long season of student uprisings, urban riots, and revolutionary violence that has provided the template for everything that followed.” The effects did not manifest all at once but accrued over a long and stealthy process, culminating in 2020. A “new revolution patiently built itself in the shadows and then, after the death of George Floyd in the spring of 2020, exploded onto the American scene,” he writes. “Over the subsequent decades, the cultural revolution that began in 1968 transformed, almost invisibly, into a structural revolution that changed everything.”

Rufo unfolds his history of how the “critical theory of society conquered institution after institution” across four sections: Revolution, Race, Education, and Power. Each focuses on one of four “prophets of the revolution”: the German political theorist Herbert Marcuse, the philosopher and activist Angela Davis, Brazilian philosopher of education Paulo Freire, and professor and civil rights lawyer Derrick Bell, whom Rufo credits with establishing the disciplines of critical theory, critical praxis, critical pedagogy, and critical race theory, respectively.

To Marcuse, Rufo attributes two core ideas. The first is that, following World War II, it became more advantageous for activists to focus on “racial conflict” instead of “class conflict,” as they built an alliance between radical intellectuals and a new, racialized lumpenproletariat. The second is that, during the same era, radicals discovered that their most expedient way to power was to achieve “bureaucratic capture”: that is, by taking over the administration of elite educational, media, and government institutions and making those institutions serve their special interests.

Rufo does acknowledge that the phrase “long march through the institutions,” some version of which appears 31 times in this book, originated not with Marcuse but with the German sociologist and activist Rudi Dutschke. He goes on nevertheless to describe how Marcuse’s “descendants” came to constitute a new elite of “intellectuals, bureaucrats, experts, activists, and social engineers.” “All of them,” he remarks condescendingly, were “lesser minds than their master.” Rufo describes each of his other three “prophets” as having developed variations on Marcuse’s themes. Of Angela Davis, we hear, “Marcuse theorized about the black revolution. Davis embodied it.” Paulo Freire was “explicitly neo-Marxist” and initiated the “long march” of neo-Marxist ideas through public school bureaucracy, in accordance with Marcuse’s plan. After claiming that Derrick Bell only received job offers from multiple law schools because they were “feeling pressure to recruit racial minorities on to the faculty,” Rufo declares that “the elements of critical race theory are, in fact, a near-perfect transposition of race onto the basic structures of Marxist theory.”

The effect of these thinkers on society, Rufo argues, “was almost invisible.” The way their followers set about reshaping major institutions “was so gradual, so bureaucratic, it went nearly unnoticed.” But the results, he believes, have been extraordinary, with “a new ideological regime” dominating “the university, the media, the state, the corporation,” and through them enacting “the top-down management of private life.”

In universities, Rufo writes, his prophets inspired an explosion of administrators, who came to control the ideology of these institutions “from all angles,” by dictating decisions about hiring, funding, and tenure as well as admissions, designating funds for affinity spaces, and mandating diversity training for both students and employees. (A chestnut, for readers of conservative bestsellers: Rufo gives an important new supporting role to Marcuse’s third wife, Erica Sherover-Marcuse, who in the 1980s “designed a series of training programs that became the prototype for university [diversity, equity, and inclusion] programs nationwide,” with workshops on “‘institutionalized racism,’ ‘internalized oppression,’ and ‘being an effective ally.’”)

Rufo allows that, by the time Marcuse had immigrated to the United States, the New Deal had already “established the federal government as the great shaper of American life.” But, he says, critical theorists transformed the state into “the primary vehicle of revolution,” enforcing left-wing codes of speech and behavior and turning grant-making agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts and even the National Science Foundation into a “patronage machine for left-wing activism.”

The “long march through the media,” Rufo continues, “can be represented in miniature through the conquest of the New York Times.” Citing a “veteran reporter, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals,” Rufo claims that, since the Great Recession, a “faction of younger, ideologically driven employees” have seized control of the paper and used it to embed a set of “ideological phrases” like “systemic racism” or “police brutality” into the “public mind through the force of repetition.”

It is a source of particular outrage for Rufo that even “the corporation is no longer the domain of the conservative establishment”—that during the 2020 uprisings “the CEOs of the great companies announced themselves not on the side of ‘law and order,’ as they had in the 1960s, but on the side of the protestors and rioters.” Rufo mocks the donations that many large companies pledged to “racial equity,” as well as their public statements of solidarity—like McDonald’s declaring that George Floyd was “one of us” and JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon kneeling in protest of the national anthem. Alternately dismissing these as cynical attempts to stave off bad PR and discrimination lawsuits and lamenting the abandonment of the profit motive, Rufo likens corporate philanthropy to “protection payments”—with companies desperately giving money to keep “frivolous discrimination lawsuits” and left-wing outrage at bay.

The most generous thing one could say about this history, as history, is that it is confused. Rufo struggles to establish clear links between his four main thinkers, despite positioning them as part of a single conspiracy. He can directly tie Marcuse to Davis, who studied with Marcuse at Brandeis and, later, the University of California San Diego. Other connections, however, are flimsy. Rufo notes that when Freire arrived at Harvard’s School of Education in the fall of 1969, Derrick Bell was at Harvard Law School, only a few blocks away. But he offers no evidence that Freire and Bell ever met.

For the most part, Rufo relies on juxtaposition to imply connection and causality. One chapter opens with an anecdote about Joseph Stalin toasting a group of artists gathered at Maxim Gorky’s house as “engineers of the human soul.” Following this vignette, Rufo immediately asserts that “The Marxists in the West, such as Paulo Freire, held the same philosophy.” Rufo makes no stronger attempt to substantiate the association, despite having just leaped from the USSR in 1932 to Brazil in the 1960s.

It is not worth pointing out every one of Rufo’s misreadings of critical theory or critical race theory, not only because to do so is to fall into the trap of appearing like precisely the kind of scolding and divisive elite that he would say I am—but because Rufo does not appear to care. Rufo repeatedly avows that the particulars of the ideas that he is describing and the actual words their authors use do not matter. CRT’s prophets, he believes, concealed their real ambitions in the “linguistic shell” of “codes” and “euphemisms.” Rufo promises to “pierce through the shell” of their language and “describe its essence” so that his readers can “begin … seeing … with clear eyes.” This project creates ample room for reinterpretation and broad generalizations, which he justifies with phrases like “in other words.”

As his religious diction suggests, Rufo’s project here isn’t to trace an intellectual tradition through history; instead, he treats critical race theory as a shape-shifting, almost supernatural phenomenon that takes hold of people down the ages. He casts Black Lives Matter as a “reincarnation” of the Black Panthers. Protesters of 2020 are “unconsciously following” the teachings of Angela Davis; Davis herself has “put her faith in Black Lives Matter.” Of the relationship between contemporary social movements and Third World liberation movements of the 1960s: “The dream is still the same dream.”

The secular genre that is capacious enough to make these kinds of claims and accommodate these kinds of contradictions is the conspiracy theory. Like all successful conspiracy theories, Rufo’s story contains elements of truth. It is true that radical intellectuals have sought to change the world through their writing and teaching. It is true that a small number of elite universities educate much of the ruling class, who learn to think and speak in certain ways there, as it is true that the number of administrators at those institutions has exploded since the 1960s, and that they, like most bureaucrats, tend to perpetuate and aggrandize their roles. It is hypocritical for corporations and banks to publicly declare that Black Lives Matter, while continuing to exploit Black workers or borrowers or lobby Republicans for tax cuts.

What is not true is that the wide range of social changes that Rufo describes is the achievement of a single, nefarious plot. Nor is it clear, even to him, that these changes constitute a real “revolution.” Rufo’s criticism of corporate hypocrisy points toward a contradiction at the heart of his book. Its title and many individual passages suggest that the critical theorists and critical race theorists under discussion have radically transformed society. But elsewhere, Rufo suggests that they have, in fact, changed very little.

“The multinational corporation has a tremendous capacity for folding the contradictions into its own machinery,” Rufo writes. “The result, of course, is critical theory as farce: The ideology of the revolution passed through the human resources department.” Of Black liberation, he asserts, “In one sense, the movement has achieved its goals…. The goal of substantive equality, however, has remained elusive. The black radicals might have captured the institutions, but they have not yet overturned the basic structures of society.”

Rufo expresses scorn for leftists. It seems clear that for him certain kinds of people cannot make legitimate political claims—not through words and not through action. It seems equally clear that certain kinds of political change cannot take place—not really, because human nature is fixed under certain constraints, even if Rufo stops short of saying that those “constraints” include hierarchies of race and gender. The “invisible revolution,” therefore, can only be a cynical one. Instead of transforming society, “critical theories,” Rufo asserts, became “the new language of access.” The revolution, as he depicts it, is not so much a revolution as a slightly new set of people taking charge of the same old institutions.

In 2016, before QAnon took off and conspiracy theories became hot research topics, the political theorist Robyn Marasco published an essay on what she called “conspiratorial reason.” Scholars should attend more closely to the pleasures and satisfactions of paranoia, and not just the negative feelings it involved, Marasco argued. The conspiracy theorist believes that a strong, even omnipotent, enemy is acting everywhere. Amid social crisis and government dysfunction, Marasco proposed, the fantasy that the state could function that effectively was a source of comfort as well as outrage to those who bought it. “Conspiracy theorizing,” she wrote, “is a love affair with power that poses as its critique.” It follows that, by saying what he says about his enemies, the conspiracy theorist tells us what he wants.

Throughout America’s Cultural Revolution, Rufo heightens the stakes of the intellectual and institutional history that he is recounting by connecting it to scenes of violence—perpetrated by actors as various as the Black Panther Party and Weather Underground, the FBI and the Brazilian armed forces, and middle schoolers and high schoolers who joined protests in Portland and Seattle, whom he disparages as “child soldiers.” But, really, the terrain Rufo wants to fight for is bureaucracy. Conflicting attitudes to bureaucracy pervade America’s Cultural Revolution. On the one hand, Rufo condemns the left’s conquest of institutions in the strongest terms. “Shedding the trappings of political extremism and symbolic excess,” he writes, leftists became “more powerful than ever.”

Rufo compares contemporary BLM activists to the Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army, writing that “they didn’t need to engage in the messy business of stalking and assassinating NYPD detectives. Instead they could publish reports, replete with color-coded statistical illustrations, that demanded society-wide changes.” Of Derrick Bell, Rufo writes that he “wanted to bring the fight out of the streets and into the faculty lounge.” Rufo continues, “Bell was not a Huey Newton–style revolutionary, but something more dangerous: an institutional player who understood how to use the politics of race to manipulate the bureaucracy.” He and his students “did not want to assemble bombs and set them off in the US Capitol or assassinate police officers. They wanted to create a theoretical basis for undermining the American regime as a whole.”

Still, on the other hand, a strong current of admiration runs through these descriptions. Angela Davis, Rufo writes, was “shrewd.” “She understood that to change a nation’s metaphors is to have enormous power over its future.” Derrick Bell was “brilliant”; he pulled off a “stunning coup” by creating a “stew of critical theory, postmodernism, black nationalism, and Marxist ideology” and training a cohort of elite “student-activists-cum-critical-race theorists” to make it the “default ideology” of the major institutions that shape American life. Black Lives Matter activists “perfected the technique” of shifting public opinion. For all that Rufo disparages his prophets, he accepts what he says is their theory of social change. Rufo believes a long march through institutions does effect revolution, that creating linguistic codes in elite institutions does enable “once-radical ideas” to achieve “intellectual mass.” His condemnation expresses envy—and a conviction that he can adopt the tactics of his enemy.

He is doing just that. Rufo was recently appointed as a trustee of New College of Florida. The public liberal arts school in Sarasota has become a focus of national attention since Governor Ron DeSantis overhauled its board of trustees in January, replacing them with political allies—four of whom, including Rufo, were conservative activists from outside the state. The new board summarily fired New College president Patricia Okker, replacing her with Richard Corcoran, a longtime associate of DeSantis and former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

The new board proceeded to deny tenure to five professors who had already won approval from their faculties and the previous administration; in July, the school’s interim provost reported that 36 professors had departed over the past year. Rufo publicly crowed that the new board was “shutting down low-performing, ideologically captured academic departments and hiring new faculty,” and that “the student body will be recomposed over time: Some current students will self-select out, others will graduate; we’ll recruit new students who are mission-aligned.”

In another sign that Rufo is not averse to using the power of the state where it serves him, he brought criminal charges against a former New College student whom he accused of spitting at him during a protest in May. (Rufo later dropped the charges. The student disputes his version of events.) The student, like many others, has since left Sarasota—transferring, under an agreement, to finish their degree at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

How much does Rufo really abhor the top-down reshaping of public life? In the conclusion to America’s Cultural Revolution, Rufo describes the America he hopes his counterrevolution will bring: a “patchwork republic,” where “the common citizen will have the space for inhabiting and passing down his own virtues, sentiments, and beliefs, free from the imposition of values from above.” But it is clear that to get to this neo-Jeffersonian vision, Rufo thinks it will be necessary to follow the path of Lenin—to seize the commanding heights of culture, education, and government. For all his denunciation of the long march through the institutions, the desire that Rufo cannot quite name is the desire to carry out a takeover of bureaucracies from the right—and call it revolution.