Chris Rufo is a journalist, film director, and political activist. He is a contributing editor at City Journal, a director of the Center on Wealth & Poverty at the Discovery Institute, a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute, and a Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. In September, he helped the Trump Administration draft an executive order banning critical race theory in government diversity training. Victoria Marshall sat down with Rufo to discuss his work.
How did you get involved in exposing critical race theory?
It all started by accident. I got an anonymous tip that the city of Seattle — where I was living at the time — had been conducting “internalized white supremacy trainings” through their Office of Civil Rights. This tip piqued my interest. So, I filed a public records request and then forgot about it. But about two and a half months later, I got an email from the city of Seattle Office of Civil Rights, responding to my records request with a PDF of all of their trainings on internalized white superiority and whiteness. And reading the PDF, my jaw hit the floor, and I realized that I had, in a way, hit gold. I mean, I knew immediately that this story was going to be explosive. At that time, I had no idea how explosive it would truly be and that it would lead me in a whole new direction in my reporting and intellectual work. It’s been a great journey of discovery: learning about the ideology, learning about the history of it, doing the field work, reporting, running public records requests, and just digging up the truth on all of these programs.
How would you define and describe your movement? Now it’s not just you writing exposés about different school districts and governments across the country; rather you have a whole team of people around you.
It’s a dissident movement. It’s a countercultural movement. It’s rock and roll. And the team that we’ve put together is loose, it’s decentralized, it’s ready to adapt at any moment. And we are just running white hot, with stories, with legislation, with lawsuits, all in this really beautiful, organic movement that’s involving people who aren’t traditional — reporters and attorneys and political operators who really believe in this fight — and who want to win. That is really what differentiates what we’re doing, from what so many other groups are doing. We’re playing to win. And we know what victory looks like, and we are not going to stop until we achieve it. And we’re having a lot of fun. And I think that optimism and excitement and sense of fun is infectious for people.
So what is the alternative to critical race theory?
America. That’s it. It’s really not complicated. It’s not that we need to come up with an alternative theory that is better than critical race theory. We’re not trying to make a better automobile or, you know, develop a toaster with more slots in it. The alternative to critical race theory is the American ideal. This is something I’ve seen over and over in my reporting where immigrants from formerly totalitarian regimes — from the Soviet Union, from Communist China, from communist Cuba, from theocratic Iran — they’ve told me that they are fighting against critical race theory because it reminds them of the totalitarian regimes that they escaped, and that it violates their deepest beliefs in what America is and should be. I think their testimony is exactly right, and I grew up here. So I think sometimes people who grew up here take for granted how exceptional and extraordinary the American system is, and sometimes we don’t even conceptualize that there are American ideals because they are background. But in talking with these immigrants, it brings a new freshness and also it shows that critical race theory is just microwaved, reheated Marxism and I don’t like Marxism.
How much did your following grow after the death of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement?
All this stuff just exploded at the same time — critical race theory and Black Lives Matter and then what some people call anti-wokeness. They’re all part of this organism. They’re all responding and reacting to each other. And George Floyd was like a lit match into gasoline. It just took all of this latent energy and latent desire from all these different factions and pushed it to the limit, and it played into the left’s narrative construction about white supremacy, systemic racism, and police brutality. Then the COVID-19 lockdowns increased the pressure on everybody in America. There was also a sense that things were spiraling out of control and conservatives were looking at all these trends and saying, “nobody is here to defend us.” Because the traditional conservative institutions weren’t speaking to any of these issues persuasively. And it created this gap, this void, where people were calling out for new voices and new ideas and new defenses — a new language. It emerged in strange places. I mean, I’m not even a lifelong conservative. James Lindsay is a center-left liberal. Coleman Hughes, I don’t know what he is, he’s somewhere in the center. Yet, somehow they’ve been embraced. We’ve all been embraced by conservatives who realize that the old defenses and the old structures were no longer protecting their values. And that’s that’s what we’re trying to do.
Where does the conservative movement go from here?
There’s a sea of change happening right now, among conservatives, among establishment organizations, and, generationally, among baby boomers. Trump smashed Reagan orthodoxy. And now that Trump is gone, people are realizing that you can’t put back together the thing that was broken. There’s going to be a major restructuring of the conservative movement both intellectually and politically. And I think that the problems we faced in the 1980s were very different. We had economic problems, primarily. Today, we have cultural problems, primarily. A new conservative movement would orient itself toward a series of cultural values, present itself as a defense of those values on behalf of the majority of Americans, and then would operate as a counter-revolution against the revolution of the state that is being led by progressives, neo-Marxists, and critical race theorists. And it’s going to be an uncomfortable evolution for conservatives, because the country club, chamber-of-commerce conservatives of 50 years ago are no longer in charge. But they operate under the illusion that they’re still running the institutions of this country. For the first time, I think they’re starting to feel that they aren’t anymore. They’re starting to realize that the institutions they inherited are no longer in their cultural domain. Conservatives need to shift from a temperamentally conservative and more establishment-oriented and business-oriented movement to a culturally-oriented and people-oriented movement. Ultimately, we’re here to defend and protect and inspire people. And that’s something that has been lost, in my view, and has to be recaptured.