GIG HARBOR, Wash. Christopher Rufo appears so often on Fox News that he turned a room in his Pacific Northwest house into a television studio, complete with professional lighting, an uplink to Fox in New York and an “On Air” light in the hall, so that his wife and two children do not intrude during broadcasts.
“I make ‘Tucker’ and then I jump out and have dinner,” said Mr. Rufo recently at his home in Gig Harbor, Washington, thousands of miles from the country’s media and political capitals.
Sir. Rufo is the conservative activist who probably more than any other person turned critical race theory into a cry on the right wing – and who for some on the left wing has become an agitator of intolerance. As a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank, he has emerged at the forefront of yet another explosive cultural clash, one he sees as even more politically potent, and which the left considers equally dangerous: the fight for LGBTQ restrictions in schools.
Mr. Rufo has targeted opponents of a new Florida law that bans teachers for some years from discussing LGBTQ issues and what critics call “Don’t Say Gay.” He declared “moral war” against the statutory most prominent opponent, the Walt Disney Company. And he has used the same playbook that proved effective in his crusade on race issues: a leak of insider documents.
On “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Mr. Rufo shared a video last month of an in-house Disney meeting in which a producer talked about adding “queerness” to an animated series and mentioned, with his tongue on the scales, her “not at all secret” gay agenda “.”
For conservatives, the video was evidence that Disney was sexualizing children.
“We have caught them on tape and the evidence is judgmental,” Mr. Rufo. History ricocheted through the conservative media ecosystem. Fox News alone ran dozens of segments that were critical of Disney.
Last Friday, Mr. Rufo up with Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida at the signing of a bill known as the Stop WOKE Act, which prevents teaching in workplaces and schools that someone is inherently biased or privileged because of race or gender. Mr. Rufo, who consulted on the bill, warned Disney that an internal program it had run that called for discussion of systemic racism “was now illegal in the state of Florida.”
The signing was the culmination of Mr Rufo’s long campaign to short-circuit corporate and school efforts for diversity and inclusion training. He has acknowledged distorted racial issues in order to achieve his goals. “The goal is to get the public to read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory,'” he wrote on Twitter last year.
Friday was also a milestone in Mr. Rufo’s latest fixation. While watching, Mr. DeSantis signed another measure that would abolish Disney’s special tax status in the state.
The revenge action against Disney arose after its opposition to the law on parental rights in education, signed by Mr. DeSantis last month, which bans classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity for children in fourth grade, and limits it to older grades. The anti-LGBTQ statute is part of a political brawl that takes place in an election year as both parties try to stir up their bases. Republican lawmakers in several states have proposed measures similar to Florida’s.
Mr. Rufo is convinced that a struggle over the LGBTQ curriculum – which he calls “gender ideology” – has even more potential to spur a political backlash than the debate over how race and American history are taught.
“The reservoir of feelings about the issue of sexuality is deeper and more explosive than the sentiment about race issues,” he said in an interview.
Critics of Mr Rufo and of the broader right-wing push for LGBTQ issues say the attacks represent a new era of moral panic, an era echoed by slanders from decades ago that gay teachers were a threat to children. Some advocates of Florida law, including Christina Pushaw, Mr. DeSantis’s press secretary, has branded their opponents as “groomers” – adults who want to sexually harass children.
Donald Moynihan, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, said conservatives had mistakenly and deliberately linked child sex predators to opponents of Florida law. Mr. Rufo, he said, had provided fuel for their arguments.
“This is the inventory of Rufo’s brand of activism – to create these very negative brands and then connect things that could have much more popular support, with these brands to put people on the defensive,” said Dr. Moynihan. “That’s the consistent line you see between the CRT stuff and the current ‘groomer’ effort.”
After Mr Rufo released the Disney employee videos, he shared mug pictures on Twitter of Disney workers who had been accused in cases of child sexual abuse over the years, based in part on 2014 CNN reports.
He failed to note, in an article he wrote about the arrests for the City Journal, a publication from the Manhattan Institute, that none of the cases in the CNN report involved children in Disney parks. Nor did he include Disney’s response to CNN that the arrests were “one hundredth of one percent of the 300,000 people we have employed during this period.”
In another City Journal article, Mr Rufo claimed that American schools were “hunting grounds” for teachers and that “parents have good reason” to worry about “grooming” in public schools. “
He cited data from a decades-old study in a study for the Education Department, but he omitted the study’s statement that “the vast majority of schools in America are safe places.”
Charlie Sykes, a founder of The Bulwark, a political website for anti-Trump conservatives, said Mr Rufo’s affiliation with the Manhattan Institute provided “intellectual coverage” for deficient and inflammatory work.
“It gives him this veneer of being a conservative scholar,” said Mr. Sykes. “He basically says, ‘Everything you dislike about race becomes CRT.’ Now all your worries about sexuality or gender become nurturing.”
Reihan Salam, president of the Manhattan Institute, defended Mr Rufo’s work to address parents’ concerns about the “ideological climate in public schools,” specifically a “lack of transparency in the teaching of controversial topics.”
Mr. Rufo denied that he had broadly equated opponents of Florida law with groomers. “It is wrong, factual and moral, to accuse someone of being a groomer without foundation and evidence,” he said.
“It has become a strong word that should be used with great responsibility,” he added. Nevertheless, some LGBTQ people have reported an increase in harassment as the use of the term has increased online, repeating the fixation of the QAnon conspiracy theory on a solitaire of “deep state” democratic pedophiles.
Mr. Rufo, 37, lives and works in Gig Harbor, a picturesque sailing town on Puget Sound south of Seattle. A former documentary filmmaker and briefly a failed candidate for Seattle City Council, he burst onto the scene in 2020 by publishing examples of diversity training in government that seemed to have gone astray, such as asking bureaucrats to investigate their “involvement in the system of white supremacy. ” Diversity training, which has long been a fixture in government and business America, typically supports the idea that people’s unconscious inequalities involving race and gender can create hostile work environments.
His reporting in the City Journal and posts on social media electrified readers, who leaked him several documents from anti-bias and diversity seminars.
Understand the debate on critical race theory
By perusing footnotes, he discovered the field of critical race theory. Originally an academic dissertation at the graduate level, before conservatives turned it into political shorthand for a variety of doctrines about race, it argues that racism is systemic in American institutions, not just a matter of individual bigotry.
When he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show in 2020, Mr. Rufo President Donald J. Trump to abolish critical race theory training in government.
The next day, he said, he received a call from Mark Meadows, the White House Chief of Staff, telling him that Mr. Trump had seen him on Fox, and asked him to consult on an executive order. Framed in his home, Mr Rufo has the pen that Mr Trump used to sign the order, and a handwritten card from the White House: “Who says one person can not make a difference ?!”
Although President Biden quickly withdrew the order, critical race theory became a fleeting political issue when Mr Rufo and allies accused school systems of indoctrinating K-12 students.
The evidence was often thin and typically focused on diversity training for teachers. But even when critics on the left called the attacks a diversion intended to exploit white complaints, the messages resonated with many parents who were already angry at school administrators over pandemic closures.
Critical race theory – and a broader “parenting rights” movement – helped drive Republican victories in school board elections and the Virginia governor’s race last year. Seventeen states have passed laws or issued orders to limit critical race theory or limit how elementary school teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to Education Week.
“Taking this issue and educating 175 million American adults in a very short time, it’s an amazing thing,” said Mr. Rufo.
His advocacy business has been financially rewarding. In addition to his position at the Manhattan Institute, he has a newsletter with 2,500 paid subscribers, and he runs a nonprofit unit to support his work, which he said had received over $ 500,000 in donations since the end of last year.
Mr. Rufo said he thought a lot about choosing the right language to define what he was against. He is a fan of postmodernist thinkers and refers to the importance of “meta-narratives.” He said that in order to maximize voters’ concerns about gender issues, he plans to write a series of articles on classroom practice that he considers scandalous.
“You have to give people a vocabulary to talk about” gender issues, he said. “When that happens, it’s going to be explosive.”
State Senator Shevrin D. Jones of Florida, a Democrat who opposed the state’s classroom law, called the Republicans “the buzzwords party – they use words like ‘groomers’ to rally their base.”
In January, Mr Rufo urged people to leak to him “documents, PDFs, audio-video and training material related to gender, care and trans-ideology in schools.”
Three months later, as Mr. Rufo is working on several projects, including a book, his classroom series is still in its early stages. On Thursday, he published his first article.