Few of these new warriors on the right have been more effective marksmen than Christopher Ruffo, who devotes his life to fighting what he sees as the monsters of “critical race theory” and “gender ideology.” Rufo’s writings, social media posts, and TV appearances have garnered widespread attention and influence. He has written model legislation for several Republican states, inspired one of Donald Trump’s executive orders, and produced a guide to talking about culture. In one profile, the New Yorker described him as the man who “invented the conflict over critical race theory.” Another magazine, New York, accused him of being a specialist in moral panic. However, despite the heated anger he has caused, in our recent conversation he came across as a relatively happy warrior who enjoys the daily grind. (His neighbors are heavily armed Republicans, he adds, so he doesn’t fear for his safety.) He’s a lot less angry than Steve Bannon, who often gives the impression he has steam coming out of his ears, and a whole lot more. mayor than Ann Coulter, avoiding making outrageous statements except when attributed to the other side and happily debating serious thinkers.
Rufo’s initial targets were in the public sector. Trump acknowledged his influence by issuing an executive order banning programs that taught federal employees and military personnel that “the United States is an inherently racist or evil country, or that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil” (Joe Biden has rescinded the order) . Republican incumbent Glenn Youngkin unseated Terry McAuliffe as governor of Virginia in November 2021, in part because he promised that “on day one I will ban critical racial theory from our schools.” (A CBS News poll a month before the election found that 62 percent of likely voters said “school curricula about race and history” were an “important factor” in how they would vote.) Rufo helped shape DeSantis’ “Stop Our Children, Workers” (WOKE) Act and appeared on stage right after he revealed it.
More recently, he has added “woke capital” to his list of goals. He was at the center of DeSantis’ attack on Walt Disney Co. for promoting CRT and “gender ideology” and thereby tarnishing its brand as a family-friendly company, according to the governor. The attack plunged “the most vigilante place on earth,” as Ruffo called it, into crisis, driving down its stock price, alienating conservative subscribers and nearly ousting its CEO, Bob Chapek. Rufo’s other targets have included Walmart Inc., AT&T Inc., CVS Health Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., Raytheon Technologies Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., Bank of America Corp. and Amex Corp.
Why has a man who was an unsung film producer just a few years ago become so influential? The standard left-wing answer is that he is part of a vast right-wing conspiracy fueled by “dark money” and based on distortion. Rufo is certainly a right-wing hero, holding a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and appearing regularly on Fox. He’s also guilty of heavily influencing his findings—he told me he’s “an activist doing journalism, not a journalist.”
However, much of the Republican establishment was upset about sponsoring a self-righteous culture warrior with a preference for economic issues. His natural audience was the “petty bourgeoisie” who sensed something strange was going on and couldn’t explain it. In the Wild West of the Internet, Rufo made a name for himself long before the likes of Fox and the Manhattan Institute came calling. He told me that he was radicalized by the research process—he knew nothing about CRT, a somewhat abstract brand of theory developed by Derrick Bell of Harvard Law School and Kimberle Crenshaw of Columbia and UCLA, until he investigated it. footnotes of the documents received and began to read Kendi and others.
Rufo’s own answer to the question of his success is that he has invented a very effective business model. He receives advice from sympathetic sources in institutions the length and breadth of the country. The pandemic created a windfall, as so much business that once took place behind closed doors had to be done via Zoom meetings and email documents. He says he has about 5,000 sources, including contacts in half of the top 500 companies in the country.
He then publishes his best posts on social media — his goal is one big story a week — which is then picked up by the mainstream conservative media, including Fox News, and then trickles down to the rest of the media. “I have the easiest job in the world,” Rufo said. “I just need to find their information and show it to the world.”
All of this is self-reinforcing: the higher his profile, the more stories he gets. For example, during a dispute with Disney, an insider sent him a video in which the producer talked about injecting “queerness” into programming and announced his “totally openly gay program.” It’s also carefully managed: instead of just publicizing shocking stories (of which there are bound to be many in a country as large as the United States), he subsumes them into the ideological category of CRT and gender ideology. The aim is to increase the ‘negatives’ of obscure terms such as CRT and gender ideologies by associating them with a constant stream of disturbing revelations. He then tries to turn the outrage into legislation.
There is more than a hint of Marxism-Leninism in all this. Rufo admits to admiring the left’s discipline and patience. He also recounts lessons from leading leftists — notably the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who in the 1930s spoke of the “seizure of culture by infiltrating schools, universities, churches,” German student revolutionary Rudi Dutsch, who supported the “long march.” through the institutions,” and American community activist Saul Alinsky, who emphasized the power of popular agitation.
Ruffo believes the left has achieved most of its goals: the culture is saturated with progressivism, and institutions from the federal government to the human resources departments of large corporations have been taken over by progressive cadres. Now, the combination of the rise of social media and the birth of conservative populism presents an opportunity to change all that. Rufo wants to build an army of activists and outraged citizens who will show up at school board meetings or governors’ rallies and demand change.
Rufo has grasped two big things about today’s politics. The first is that the culture wars are back in a new form. Irving Kristol once famously told Joseph Epstein, “The culture wars are over. We lost.”
The second is that the widening gap between American institutions and the broader citizenry creates enormous political opportunities. Institutions are largely run by a credentialed elite who have imbibed progressive values along with their college degrees. This is increasingly true of corporations as well as public sector bureaucracies. Citizens are increasingly skeptical of these institutions, especially when they affect family life. Terry McAuliffe’s most likely defining moment for his campaign to retain the governorship was during a debate when he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach.”
What should companies do in the event of an increase in Rufo? Continuing business as usual is an increasingly risky strategy. The Conservatives now have a huge machine that has already humiliated one of the world’s most successful media companies and is ready for more fights. Although opinion polls about CRT and gender ideology are something of a methodological minefield, both issues are clearly red rags for Republican voters. Leading Republicans, including DeSantis, are toying with an anti-corporate strategy based on Teddy Roosevelt’s war on giant corporations, but this time the focus has been on concentrations of cultural power, particularly in the hands of media and technology companies, rather than concentrations of ownership. “The corporation has been chartered by the state. It has an obligation to serve the common good of the country,” says Rufo, in words that could easily have come from the left. It’s a brave company that takes sides on conflicting cultural positions at a time when living standards are squeezed and populism is boiling over.
The easiest response for companies is to declare neutrality in the culture wars. Rufo’s overall point in talking about “woke capital” is to make it clear that companies will pay a price for progressive political activism. “I want them to be afraid to violate political rights,” he says. Many companies have embraced activism, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, fearing antagonism to the progressive left. Hence the recent surge in diversity, inclusion and equity training courses. Now they are learning that they will also pay a high price if they don’t back down. Rufo points to Disney as an example. Since his fight with Disney, DeSantis has continued to speak out on CRT and LGBTQ issues. The Supreme Court has also overturned Roe v. Wade. Disney has kept a particularly low profile in response.
Rufo argues that many companies that choose progressive politics out of fear of the left and want nothing more than to be left alone would welcome neutrality. But what about companies that are genuinely concerned about promoting social justice, either for moral reasons (the plight of much of Black America remains a moral stain) or for strategic reasons (America cannot develop without utilizing the skills of all its citizens)?
The best advice here is to think more carefully about DEI policy rather than contracting with consultants steeped in critical theory parlors or activists within the corporation. It is true, for example, that racism is more than just an individual prejudice, as many conservatives would have it. Thanks to the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and red lining, African Americans have significantly less wealth than other Americans. But that doesn’t justify CRT’s claims that all whites are guilty of unconscious racism that requires an intrusive retraining program. This will only cause resentment. It is also true that the classical liberal formulas of open competition and non-discrimination need to be supplemented if they leave some ethnic groups permanently languishing at the bottom of society. But that does not justify supporting CRT activists who believe that racism cannot be cured without abolishing capitalism. This is how Venezuela is. Businesses need to remember that the best way to deal with culture warriors on both the left and the right is to embrace the grand meritocratic ideal of race and gender blindness, which strives hard to right past injustices but ultimately values people not as representatives of biological or social parts . categories, but as individuals.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adrian Wooldridge is a global business commentator for Bloomberg Opinion. Former Economist writer, recent author of The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Created the Modern World.
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