Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist most responsible for bringing down Harvard president Claudine Gay, was once a libertarian. In 2016, which was before many people had heard of him, he voted for Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson. Now that he’s a national figure, he says that his libertarian phase is “an embarrassment to me now.” On Twitter, he replied to a Reason article that criticized him, “The thing I hate is libertarianism, and thankfully I have not become that.”
As a journalist, and as a subject of interviews, he has laid out his reasons and the story of how he arrived at them.
Rufo, 39, grew up in Sacramento, California, in a family whose politics leaned left. When he was 13, his aunt gave him a flag of Che Guevara, which he hung in his bedroom. The Left, he said in an interview with Jordan Peterson (whose early beliefs also leaned left) offered “a sense of heroism, of drama, of the romantic” that appealed to youth. He also visited relatives in Italy who were “old-school, working-class Marxists” who expounded on the ideas of Marx and Lenin, as well as Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci. “They approached it from a theoretical basis that engaged me mentally,” he said.
After ten years of doing documentaries, his belief in the Left “totally fell apart.”
The value of that, he said, is that “I know how the left thinks, intimately.” He said, “In many ways I can make arguments on their behalf better than they can. I don’t think that’s true for my opponents. I don’t think they know how the right thinks. They look upon us as if we were barbarians at the gate.”
Rufo earned an undergraduate degree in foreign service from Georgetown University in 2006, and began his career making documentary films, with much of the work abroad. Most notable one was the film “Diamond in the Dunes,” about a Uyghur baseball player in China’s central Asian province of Xinjiang.
After ten years of doing documentaries, he says, his belief in the Left “totally fell apart.” By 2015, when he started work on “America Lost,” he told Mother Jones, he was no longer a leftist. “I started the film as a libertarian,” he said, “and I finished the film as a conservative.”
“America Lost,” which aired in 2020 on PBS, is about Americans trying to cope in three cities hard hit by unemployment and social breakdown: Youngstown, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; and Stockton, California. In Rufo’s mind (but not in the film) he began comparing his subjects to the poor he had seen in Africa and Asia. It was not a happy comparison. The Americans had more income but were also more demoralized.
Poverty in America, he concluded, was not the “simple economic story” offered by the Left. It was not mainly about race, class, and gender, either. It was about the breakdown of families. Rufo was talking to fathers who had left the mothers of their children and mothers whose men were in prison. Welfare was keeping people alive, but also enabling a lifestyle of dependence, drugs, and irresponsibility.
Rufo cut his ties with the video documentary world and signed on to the Discovery Institute, a Seattle thinktank that has long had George Gilder, author of Wealth and Poverty, as a senior fellow. Rufo went to work on the problem of homelessness in West Coast cities, including Seattle. His report, “The Politics of Ruinous Compassion,” challenged the line of the Seattle Left that homelessness had been caused by the growth of Amazon and the other tech companies, which had forced up the cost of housing. “The reality is,” he wrote, “that there are more than 1 million people in King County [Seattle] below median income and 99 percent of them manage to find a place to live and pay the rent on time.”
It was not a happy comparison. The Americans had more income but were also more demoralized.
“Homelessness,” he concluded, “is a product of disaffiliation. . . . As our family and community bonds continue to weaken, more and more of our most vulnerable citizens fall victim to the addiction, mental illness, isolation, poverty, and despair that almost always precipitate the final slide into homelessness.”
In 2018, the year the report came out, Rufo announced that he was running for Seattle City Council against one of the left-wing incumbents. He hadn’t a prayer of winning, but he and his Thai-born wife Suphatra, who worked at Microsoft, were harassed until he dropped out of the race.
“That experience opened my eyes to the real nature of left-wing politics,” he wrote. “It radicalized me.” He also moved his family out of Seattle to Gig Harbor, a town on the more moderate side of Puget Sound.
Rufo had become a critic of the institutional push for “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” the fight against “white privilege,” and the reason given for that fight, “systemic racism.” He wanted to attack the whole thing, but what to call it? For a long time, people had talked of “political correctness,” and more recently, of “woke,” but those terms didn’t have the edge that he wanted. He pulled out one of the Left’s own terms — “critical race theory” — and announced that that was what he was against.
He was quite open about what he was doing. “We have successfully frozen their brand — ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions,” he posted on Twitter in 2021. “We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.” And to Benjamin Wallace-Wells of The New Yorker, he said, “Critical Race Theory is the perfect villain.”
Some libertarians piled on Rufo. DeSantis was using the power of the state to shut down his opponents, and Rufo was his willing tool.
The magazine headlined Wallace-Wells’ story, “How a Conservative Activist Invented the Conflict Over Critical Race Theory.” To Rufo’s opponents, he was making stuff up. One such critic was social-justice columnist Naomi Ishisaka of the Seattle Times, who called Critical Race Theory “political shorthand for any education about our country’s history of structural racism and racial inequality.”
Words matter. Substituting one term for another can be seen as duplicity to one side and clarity to the other. For example, the Left, which argued that “structural racism” applied only to the dominant race, has replaced the term “racial prejudice” with “white supremacy.” For a long time, the Right tried to replace “affirmative action” with “racial preferences,” which I thought was a more descriptive and honest term. Years ago, environmentalists replaced the old phrase “virgin timber” with “ancient forest,” which had a stronger connotation of value.
Rufo’s attack on Critical Race Theory propelled him onto Fox News. He told Tucker Carlson that President Trump ought to stop the indoctrination sessions in the federal bureaucracy. The next morning Rufo got a call from Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows. Rufo was called to Washington DC, and worked on an executive order, which Trump issued. It didn’t last; in January 2021 Joe Biden rescinded it. But Rufo had emerged onto the national scene.
In another appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show, Rufo showed a clip of a Disney producer speaking of her “not-at-all-secret gay agenda” in adding “queerness” to a cartoon show. That got the attention of Governor Ron DeSantis, who brought Rufo to Florida. In early 2023, DeSantis appointed Rufo as one of six conservatives to the governing board of the New College of Florida in Sarasota. DeSantis’ aim was to replace the overweening culture of wokeness with a traditional liberal-arts curriculum, which the board undertook to do. Last August, it voted to cancel gender studies. It also declined to renew the contract of Erik Wallenberg, an assistant professor of history. Tweeted Rufo, “I wish Professor Wallenberg well and hope his work on ‘radical theatre and environmental movements’ finds a more suitable home.”
“The public school, the public university, and the state — are not marketplaces at all. They are government-run monopolies.”
That prompted a response from the American Historical Association, which compared it to McCarthyism. And the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which is supported by many libertarians, agreed with the historians, arguing that “by non-renewing faculty with views they personally disfavor — or purporting to do so, Rufo and New College . . . [are] replacing one orthodoxy with another.”
This is when some libertarians piled on Rufo. DeSantis was using the power of the state to shut down his opponents, and Rufo was his willing tool. Rufo fired back. On the conservative web page im1776, he wrote:
“Following a libertarian line, the conservative establishment has argued that government, state universities, and public schools should be ‘neutral’ in their approach to political ideals. . . . In reality, public universities, public schools, and other cultural institutions have long been dominated by the Left. Conservative ideas and values have been suppressed, conservative thinkers have been persecuted, and the conservative establishment has deluded itself with impotent appeals to neutrality.”
Appealing to “the free marketplace of ideas” makes no sense, Rufo wrote. “The public school, the public university, and the state — are not marketplaces at all. They are government-run monopolies. In truth, the hand that moves culture is not an ‘invisible hand’ but an iron hand clad in velvet — that is, political force.”
He concluded his essay:
Nineteenth-century liberalism is dead and cannot be restored. The activist must begin with status quo reality: the institutions which today shape public and private life will exist for the foreseeable future. The only question is who will lead them and by which set of values. The New Right must summon the self-confidence to say, ”We will, and by our values.“
One of the new commissioners, Matthew Spalding, is also a dean at Michigan’s Hillsdale College, probably the most prominent conservative (formerly libertarian) college in America.
When asked about the new commissioners’ intentions, Rufo said, “The goal is not to create a right-wing monoculture.” His assurances have not mollified his critics, who include libertarians. In a tweet, Rufo said, “Libertarians are unable to practically confront the political status quo — America has and will continue to have a large state bureaucracy for the foreseeable future — and abdicate all responsibilities of governance in favor of college dorm-tier abstraction.”
He has a point. It makes no sense to judge every action in the real world by comparing it to the ideal world in your head. But what is the right response to the reign of wokeness at public universities?
I asked Liberty editor Stephen Cox, who is professor emeritus of literature at the University of California San Diego. He responded:
“What is the appropriate function of a state university? Surely it isn’t empowered, by law or public consensus, to preach politics, religion, or morality except to the extent that some of the Ten Commandments must be enforced if you’re going to have libraries and classrooms. Since so-called DEI programs and rules are manifestly a moral and political intervention going way beyond the function of keeping the campus open and safe, I don’t see any moral problem in a state declining to mandate or pay for them.”
A public university should have a wide band of freedom from micromanagement by elected officials. But every institution has boundaries.
If the legislature starts telling university professors what they can’t teach, that’s different. Cox says, “Most state universities have adequate rules, which courts condone if the rules are applied, about what to do about [a professor] if he’s supposed to be teaching chem and keeps teaching communism instead.” That answers part of the question — the easier part. But what if all the professors in the history department, or the sociology department, are teaching from a Marxist or other political point of view? And in the case of gender studies, what if the professor is teaching from the point of view that the university has long approved of? Shall state officials intervene to satisfy the opposing views of voters who elected them?
For the state government to issue rules on what professors can say about the fields they are supposed to teach, Cox told me, “could in practice soon destroy the value of free inquiry that is necessary for the function of the university.” A public university should have a wide band of freedom from micromanagement by elected officials. But every institution has boundaries. In the case of a public university, some person or small group of persons has the power to decide that a nontenured professor should be dropped, or that a certain class is not wanted. In normal times, the power is not used to abolish a whole arm of university administration or a department of study. You can argue that these are not normal times — that the wound is so deep that you have to operate. But most of the time, people who use that argument are wrong.
How different is Rufo’s position from that of a classical liberal? Economics professor Bryan Caplan of George Mason University, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, argues in an interview with Rufo that the difference is not much.
In the interview, Caplan tells Rufo that he’s read all his tweets, and agreed with 90% of them. “Color-blind meritocracy? Sign me up!” Caplan enthuses. “Call me crazy, but it seems that your critique of libertarianism seems more like bad blood with a few libertarians.”
It is happening. The dispute has moved from theory to reality.
Rufo nods that this may be so — a notable concession by a man who is not inclined to concede anything to his opponents. Rufo says, “There are libertarians, and I think they are totally wrong even on libertarian grounds, that have very vocally opposed all of the work that I’m doing . . . I feel like I’m an unrecognized benefactor.”
In a followup post, Caplan writes, “I have spent over a year telling libertarians to appreciate Chris Rufo.”
How much appreciation will depend on how it turns out — because it is happening. The dispute has moved from theory to reality. In August, news stories portrayed New College of Florida in chaos. Forty percent of faculty members had resigned, as well as many students. The New York Times reported “an influx of athletes” at the college, prompting one of my liberal friends to accuse DeSantis of turning New College into a “jock school.” The candidly leftist New Republic reported that “Ron DeSantis’ multimillion-dollar overhaul of the New College of Florida is rapidly turning into a disaster.”
If that’s true, and true on a much larger scale than New College, Florida, DeSantis’ reforms will not be repeated in other states. But if any students who left are replaced by others, and professors likewise, and the new ones are as academically strong as or better than the old ones, and the college maintains or improves its academic standing, that’s a different story. The thought that minority students don’t need DEI has been taboo. If a respectable percentage of minority students make it solely on observable academic merit, the publicly attractive rationale for DEI crumbles. If a reform works in one university, other universities will think of doing the same.
And you can thank Christopher Rufo for setting up the test case.