Meet the Man Driving the Right’s Culture War Panic

The Republican Party’s full embrace of the culture war as a political tactic — from drag queen story hour to critical race theory and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives — has been chiefly guided by activist and polemicist Christopher Rufo, author of the new book “America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything.” But is the effort fundamentally nihilistic? And is it overly obsessed with sex while claiming to uncover pedophiles everywhere in our midst? This week on Deconstructed, Rufo joins Ryan Grim to defend his approach and his philosophy.

[Deconstructed intro theme music.]

Ryan Grim: I’m Ryan Grim. Welcome to Deconstructed.

We are joined today by Christopher Rufo, who is the author of the new book, “America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything.” I know that a ton of our readers — a ton of my listeners, I should say — will be very excited to hear that the left has conquered everything. So, congratulations to us, but Christopher …

Christopher Rufo: Well done, chaps. Well done.

RG: There we go. Nothing to it. We’ll teach you how we did it.

For people who don’t know, Chris is a conservative activist. Bari Weiss, in fact, on the back of this book, calls him “the most important and effective conservative activist in the country.” The Atlantic calls him “one of the most gifted conservative polemicists of his generation.” We got The New York Times on here calling him “the country’s preeminent critic of critical race theory.”

But you also have a bit of an unusual backstory. It’s not like you kind of came out of college and got a Koch Fellowship, and then worked for a House Republican, and have been an operative ever since; you kind of had a winding path here. I think a lot of our readers, probably — or listeners, probably — understand, know you as the guy who made critical race theory a household name. The guy who’s really gotten drag queen story hour into the news over the last couple years …

CR: Yup.

RG: But who are you before that? How’d you wind up in this place?

CR: Yeah. Before that I was probably a more typical kind of The Intercept listener-type. I think that I was on the hard left growing up in my teenage years. I come from a long family of Italian communists, so my aunts and uncles in Italy are still card-carrying unreconstructed communists to this day.

Some of my formative political memories are visiting my family and then seeing my aunt — my favorite aunt, actually still my favorite aunt — her complete collection of the works of Lenin. Totally unironically, I mean really, truly, the Lenin, and they gifted me the Che Guevara flags as a kid.

So that was kind of my formative political thinking.

RG: A lefty friend of mine that read your book said he feels like a right-wing Gramsci. Were you kind of brought up around Gramscian thinking?

CR: Very much so and, actually, very directly, not even just derivatively. My father was born and raised in a small town in Italy called San Donato Val di Comino, and I used to grow up going back into the town in long summers. I spent a year there when I took some time off of college, and I’ve spent years and years there collectively over my lifetime.

In the main town square, for a number of years — although the last time I was there just after Covid, it had closed down — was the Antonio Gramsci cultural center. So it’s a very left-wing town.

My grandmother used to tell the story of — the fascists were running after World War II, they were seeking votes and they were giving out blankets, they were giving, essentially, material goods to bribe people.

Then the organizer, the party organizer came after the elections and said, you didn’t vote for us, you said you’d vote for us after we gave you all this stuff. And she says, “What do you mean? I voted for you.” He said, “No, we didn’t get one single vote in this entire town, so I know for sure you did not vote for us.” And she was embarrassed, and she was mad, she would tell that story. She was mad at everyone else. She was like, “at least one person should have voted for them to save me the embarrassment.”

So, yeah. I think it’s possible, and maybe your friend who read the book sensed it a little bit. I think, in a way, it’s part of the way I’ve been able to kind of flummox some of my critics, and some of my opponents. In a lot of ways, I know their own language better than they do, and so I bring a different sensibility. I think that even readers on the left that would disagree with me or, obviously, not reach the same conclusions, I think could appreciate the text, because it’s not the kind of condescending … It’s not the, look at all these awful people, conservative, you know, polemical book. I’ve read a ton of those books over the years, I don’t like them either. I just think that they do a total disservice, they underestimate what’s happening.

And so, it’s a different feel, and I have a different experience than, yeah, most of the college-republican-to-RNC pipeline kind of kids.

RG: No, I think that’s true. I think you do treat these kind of left-wing authors and thinkers that you write about with more care than in a typical kind of RNC-pipeline-type-produced book.

But, before we get to the flummoxing, I do want to ask you: what happened? Like, where did you go wrong? How did you go from the path of light to the one that you’re on?

CR: That’s right. Well, I’ll take that comment ironically, and I’ll say a couple of things. One is that I went to Georgetown, that was my top pick. I wanted to go to Georgetown to get involved in politics. That’s where I felt like the energy was.

I was a California public school kid, and so, I land in Georgetown, I got involved and got organized. I joined, at the time, the marches against the Iraq war, which I still feel like was the right decision, the right position on my part. But the more I got involved with the organized left, the campus left, institutional left, I just had had such a process of disillusionment, and I felt as if the people who were working on this project were totally inauthentic, in the sense that they were the sons and daughters of America’s elites, they were pushing a left-wing ideological or intellectual line but, really, it was always an attempt to bolster their own status and position, and actually offered very little for people whom they were claiming to be helping.

And so, it felt very phony, it felt very self-serving. Having entered that period of my life as a kind of political radical, I was disgusted by it. In a sense, the — I don’t know how you would term it. You would know better, you live in D.C. right now. But it’s the folks who kind of land at Georgetown, they come from their nice fancy boarding school. They’re wearing their pink shorts and the popped collars, and they’re going to get the jobs eventually. After they go through their fun phase in college, they’re going to be investment bankers and senior advisors to their dad’s office.

I just said, this is not an actual left that has any claim on authenticity, any claim on actual care for what they say that they are caring for. And so, I just took off. I took off, and I became a documentary filmmaker, I traveled around the world and, at first, tried to get away from politics altogether.

RG: I totally understand that sentiment. There is for sure an element of the left that is inauthentic in that way, that sees leftism as social branding, and then ends up kind of weaponizing it in defense, ironically, of the very privilege that they come from, but they say that they are kind of fighting against. There’s no question about that, I’ve seen plenty of that, and I think that people who have the most intimate experience with the deepest and most grassroots elements of the left sometimes come away from it and recoil. I’ve always wondered if Kyrsten Sinema, because she was so deeply involved with the left, that’s partly why she hates the left so much. Like, she might have much less animosity for the left if she had just come up through the typical kind of democratic pipeline, and might just be a normal center-left. Instead she’s —

CR: Why? What is her background? I’m not aware. She was a grassroots-organizer type?

RG: She was black bloc, she was Code Pink.

CR: Was she really?

RG: She was an anarchist protesting the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

CR: No way. 

RG: Yeah, yeah. She was a serious radical for several years and was a Green Party member for a while. And then she’s just been on the greased skids from left to right ever since then.

But so, that’s one response to it. The other response is, screw this, I’m getting out of politics, I’m going to do documentary filmmaking. The other response is somebody like me who says, I think this element of the left is wrong, and I’m going to argue with them, but I’m going to stay positioned over here on the left until I’m just completely beaten down and driven out.

But then, how did you go from, OK, I’m in documentary filmmaking, I’m out of politics, to being not just somebody with kind of conservative sensibilities, but an actual on-the-team conservative activist.

CR: Yeah, that’s an interesting institutional shift, for sure. It happened gradually and then suddenly.

And so, I was making films around the world, I directed documentaries for PBS, I sold a film to Netflix, I did some international television projects, I traveled all over. And, simultaneously, as I was working and doing that, I was reading a lot, just feeding my appetite for reading, and learning, and studying. And I still had the passion for politics. I think when you have a love for politics, it really never leaves you. There’s something that grips you and won’t let you go.

And so, it turned into this kind of invisible and silent period of study. And as I was reading all of these books, I started reading some conservative books, they started making more sense to me. I was always comparing my experience on the ground, whether it was in Europe, or Asia, or Africa, or Latin America, or the United States, I was always comparing my observations on the ground to what I was reading. And the conservative philosophy, and then my ground level observations started to really move very closely together, and it seemed as if they were more accurate reflections of one another.

And then I decided that I wanted to shift my filmmaking practice a little bit. I had kind of a rough patch in my mid-to-late twenties, very difficult. You know, the documentary business is brutal. I was kind of getting tired of it, getting a bit burned out. And so, I said, oh, you know, I’m going to make a film on social and political issues. And so, I directed this film called “America Lost.”

I highlighted and spent, really, three years of production in three of America’s poorest cities. Conducting interviews, talking to experts in the communities, flying all around the country, interviewing some of the top scholars, left, right, and center on these issues, and burrowing into the lives of these families in these extremely distressed cities.

Youngstown, Ohio, Memphis, Tennessee, and Stockton, California. So, a kind of predominantly white working-class, or white formerly working-class industrial city in the north. Memphis, obviously, it’s kind of the tip of the Mississippi Delta, kind of Black inner city community. And then Stockton, which is Latino, multiracial, out west.

And so I had this, this incredible education talking to scholars, reading dozens and dozens of books, spending years on the ground. And the process of making that film convinced me of the accuracy, the correctness, and the utility of these conservative scholars and thinkers.

And then, what happened is, I’m in a pickle, right? So, I’m in a pickle because the documentary world is very far left. I mean, it is a left-wing cultural institution that has one set of priorities, and that’s it. It’s a small business, so there’s a lot of people that are hungry for the grants, and film festival slots, and fellowships, and broadcast deals.

And so, as people were whispering that Rufo has kind of gone rogue, politically, I just lost all of my business, my documentary business. PBS ended up airing the film after kind of delaying and fighting with me for a number of months, but it was very clear that that was going to be my last documentary.

And so I was, I don’t know, 30? Early 30s? You know, married, child. My career is kind of winding down in the documentary world, and so I decided, I’m going to try to see if there’s other opportunities to get back into politics; full circle. I applied for a Claremont fellowship, just out of the blue, not even really being extremely familiar with Claremont Institute, and I got a call from the president, Ryan Williams, and he says, “Hey, we’re interested. You’re a very unconventional candidate for a fellowship. You don’t have any track record in conservative politics, and I’m going to be very frank, you seem like a plant. I need you to look me in the eye and promise me that you’re not going to do a James O’Keefe-style send up of Claremont Institute, you know?” And I laughed. I said, “Oh man, I didn’t even think about that.”

And that actually happened to me a number of times. I got accused of being a plant probably two or three times as I was first getting into it, which is funny, now. And then I was really embraced and welcomed into this world, and made great friends, and had opportunities provided to me. I had some great mentors. George Gilder was an early mentor, and Bruce Chapman, and [they] really supported what I was doing and helped me open up this new field of work that has been just so rewarding.

And so, now it’s kind of odd. I identify, I tell people, hey, I’m a conservative activist, I’m fine with that, that label doesn’t bother me, but it’s not exactly the whole truth either, whatever my image might be in some of the press. It’s a little more complex than that.

RG: So, in hearing that story, the place where I would think that you went wrong is this.

CR: Tell me.

RG: So, you go to Stockton, you go to Memphis, you go to Youngstown, in these places that are blighted. And you’re seeing that they’re having a hard time turning themselves around because of the collapse of cultural values in these areas. And you’re seeing that the conservative movement is the one that’s taking that seriously and is willing to address that, whereas liberals are just kind of looking the other way, and offering some small amount of subsidies for people, and just hoping that they get back on their feet.

But what you’re also seeing is the result of neoliberalism, of deindustrialization, of the breaking of unions, of the offshoring of jobs, and the collapse of the economic base that allowed for the cultural strength that had kept those cities together before. And so, you then kind of paradoxically wind up aligning with the right, which really fueled — And it was a bipartisan effort, but the right is really driving this kind of Milton Friedman-style neoliberalism that is gutting these communities.

And so, it would be sort of like arriving at the scene of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and seeing the hospitals, and blaming the hospitals for how bad they are, rather than saying, well, what happened before that?

CR: Yeah. I mean, it’s an interesting point of view, and there’s some places with which I agree, some things with which I disagree. But I took that question very seriously, I actually spent most of my time thinking about that exact question.

And so, you’re left with this idea where — let’s trace the process of decline, and the story that you’re telling, I think there’s a lot of truth to it, in the sense that the flood grates of free trade were open, these industries were no longer competitive. But, actually, when you scrutinize it, it doesn’t hold up as well as you would think, for a couple of reasons.

One is that, I talked to a lot of these guys who were longtime Youngstown people, political observers — again, left, right, and center, actually mostly left in Youngstown — you know, old timers that worked in the industry. And the story that they told when you really pick it apart is something actually very different.

The problem in Youngstown was, in the sense that it was gifted this really rare and one-time position after World War II. Europe was devastated, Japan was devastated, China was still a kind of backwards economy. There was no industrial base in the entire world — Africa and Latin America had virtually nothing. The United States was the only industrial country, more or less, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, especially in the non-Soviet sphere.

We had a virtual monopoly over industrial production and, for Youngstown, steel production. We were producing steel for the whole planet, but that was never going to last forever. The Europeans started building factories, and then the Japanese started building factories, and the Japanese factories, for example, — and they lost a lot of business to these Japanese factories — it wasn’t necessarily because of trade liberalization, although that, certainly, you could have had more protectionist measures.

It was, in large part, because the Japanese were building their steel industry from scratch in the 50s and 60s, really taking off in the 1960s, getting government support, using really advanced modern Japanese engineering and production techniques. And then, by the 70s, these brand new, incredible Japanese steel factories are competing against these steel mills that were built 70, 80 years ago — they weren’t running very well, they weren’t efficient, they weren’t cost effective — and then you have this global competition that is entering after recovery from World War II.

And then, domestically, the story that they tell is also a little more complicated. You had extreme mafia activity that was smothering and really harming the steel industry in places like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Youngstown in the middle. And, at first, they actually started losing business to the bigger cities in the United States. And then it was the mafia, the unions were also an immense drag on their productivity, plus all of this new competition from new factories overseas.

The story that people tell when they’re honing in on the honesty is, yes, the free trade, especially in 1999, 2000, was the final blow. I mean, then the industry is done. But the industry was doomed decades earlier than that, and we were living off of the capital accumulation, we were living off the heyday, but we had significant problems that could not be resolved domestically and locally, really, as soon as the global recovery from World War II.

RG: Although, you also have, at the time, a revolution in tax policy going on, the biggest marginal tax rates being brought down. And even as you have productivity continuing to increase throughout the 80s and 90s. Despite everything you’re saying, because I think that’s true, America was in this unique place of being the only one that wasn’t completely destroyed by World War II. But you do have a situation where the economy’s still moving along, but all of the gains, all of a sudden, are now, instead of being spread around, are flowing up to the top. Which I think produces its own cultural rot, no?

CR: In a sense, you could maybe make that argument, but I would say that the standard of living for the median income household is still rising during that period. Yes, you have a more winner-take-all economy, but I don’t think that’s actually due to tax policy so much as it’s due to the nature of post-industrial and especially high-tech industries that are not capital intensive, they’re not resource intensive, and they are this kind of technological, creative and venture-backed industries that are winner-take-all, and they have global markets. Sometimes not China, etc., but more or less they have global markets.

And so, Tyler Cowen has written about this, and his idea is that we’ve transitioned to a winner-take-all economy. And yes, would I agree that that is, in some senses, not ideal? Does it create antagonisms and resentments?

But I don’t think that it is the case. The old Margaret Thatcher line is still somewhat true, even though I’m a critic of Thatcherism and Reaganism. But the old Margaret Thatcherism is true. Yes, the income for the top 1 percent has gone up, but the income for the median family has also gone up, if not in an identical proportion. And so, she asked very famously in a question time session, would you rather have everyone be poorer so that there’s more equality, or everyone be wealthier but having larger inequality at the top end?

And my view is that these are all tradeoffs, there’s no perfect system. But I would rather have, given the winner-take-all economy, I’d rather have everyone be better off. The paradox that you see in Youngstown and in Stockton and Memphis is, actually, the poorest people have a remarkable material standard of living. I mean, remarkable. The poorest people in Youngstown have larger houses, more cars, better appliances, and more disposable income than middle class people in Europe, for example, and certainly middle class people in any of the developing world.

And so, it isn’t simply the case that it is Great Depression-style poverty. It’s actually a very bizarre confluence of contradiction, really. It’s that this is material abundance relative to historical standards, and relative to even peer countries, but it is a poverty that is immiserating, and devastating, and horrifying, in a sense, beyond the Great Depression.

I talked to my grandfather about the Great Depression, and it was awful. I mean, like, your ribs are sticking out, you’re running low on basic necessities. But, in a sense, I would rather be in that condition under the cultural arrangements, and beliefs, and patterns, than being poor in Youngstown today, even if you have an old Cadillac, and a 2,000-square-foot house, and spending money.

I talked to one guy and his mother, and he’s back in prison, and another prisoner had sliced open his genitals and put a domino inside of it for some weird prison ritual. It’s like, the stuff happening today in the underclass and places like Youngstown is so horrifying that I think that, in some ways, you look at it, and you have to analyze it separate from a material analysis because, materially, you actually have abundance in any kind of historical context.

RG: Relative to the Great Depression. Right, for sure.

CR: No, I mean relative even to two generations prior. Relative to 1950. That’s the irony. Youngstown was one of the wealthiest cities in the world in 1950 but, even adjusted for inflation, the per capita or household income among poor Youngstowners is still higher than it was among middle class families in 1950.

And yes, of course, everywhere else it’s gone up much more, obviously. But you can’t simply say that this is a kind of dust bowl tragedy. That is an unselfconscious poverty. It’s a poverty where there was still a sense of nobility of spirit. The poverty in Youngstown is this just devastating poverty, in which people have all the material preconditions for human happiness but are racked with addiction, overdoses, prostitution, mental illness, anxiety and depression, family atomization.

If you really spend time, I think that you can’t simply say, well, if we got the old steel mill fired back up, everything would be fine. We’re beyond the point of no return on that kind of solution.

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RG: So, I didn’t mean to go this long without talking about the book, so let me get into that.

CR: Good. Yeah, sure.

RG: So, how does Herbert Marcuse fit into this? And give people a kind of quick thumbnail sketch of what the argument you’re making in this book is.

I said on the show, and I’ll say it again: I think it’s a well-written, well-researched, kind of well-crafted book. You know, I obviously disagree with its conclusion. We’ve talked about, and can talk more about, why I think some of it is nihilistic. While talking about the nihilism on the left, it has some of its own. But a very well done project overall.

But so, why is Herbert Marcuse kind of relevant here?

CR: The main narrative arc of the book, it tells the story of the so-called “long march through the institutions.”

So, this was the strategy adopted by the radical left theorists and activists that moved from the period of excitement in the late 1960s to a period of disillusionment in the early 1970s, and they concluded that their violent Marxist-Leninist revolution against the state had failed. It had been disrupted by Nixon, by J. Edgar Hoover. It had turned public opinion against them. Even The New York Times op ed page had really started just violently attacking or, rather, strenuously attacking the radical left at the time.

And so, they said the way forward for the left is to burrow within the established institutions, to bring our ideology in from the outside, and then slowly start to conquer these institutions from within, and bring our ideas, bring our theories, bring our values and principles into them. And so, I trace the origins; the book begins in 1968, to the conclusion, which is the summer of 2020.

The story is really how these fringe and radical ideas of the left wing at the time, with Marcuse, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire, and then, a little bit later Derrick Bell. [They] were outsider ideas that then became the conventional wisdom of all of America’s cultural institutions.

Not to say that the radical left — as you were joking in the beginning — well, we conquered everything. Great, we won. Of course, that’s not true, but the subtitle, “How the Radical Left Conquered Everything,” must be read in light of the title, “America’s Cultural Revolution,” and the cultural revolution is the left’s lowering of ambitions in some ways.

Well, we don’t want to take over the steel mills in Youngstown, but we do want to take over the HR department at the Steel Corp U.S.A., and then bring our ideas there with the hopes that it could soften the grounds culturally for an eventual total revolution, or economic revolution.

And so I really just trace the history of ideas, I tell the story of some of the key personalities, and then the argument is all implicit. And some of my left-wing critics have said, you’re not making an argument, you’re not making a logical case. And I kind of laughed at that critique, because it’s like, yes, this is a narrative nonfiction. The argument is implicit in the story and how I’m telling the story, which I think probably makes it more palatable to an audience. You know, except for analytical egghead types that might be looking for the logical proof in all of these things.

RG: To me, the hole in it comes — and we talked about this a little bit last week, but just to go over it again real quickly — let me read one piece from your book here.

You write, “The New Left’s language of subversion, which was authentically transgressive at its point of origin has created its own conformist and corrupted universe of political language,” un-quote. It was hardened into the new, “…armor of the establishment, defending the left-wing orthodoxy of the new elite, while exempting itself from the radical criticism of its own concepts, language, and power.”

And you talk elsewhere in the book about how corporations opportunistically use DEI and CRT, and public statements of allegiance to whatever cause to get themselves out of having to do anything of substance about those issues, to kind of let off some of that steam.

But so, rather than a kind of success, rather than the left conquering everything, that to me feels like the durability of capitalism and the capitalist class. That evidence of their ability to take challenges to them, and adapt them in ways that leave the status quo in place, much more than it’s evidence of a successful Marxist revolution.

Why should the left be satisfied with corporations adopting their language if nothing fundamentally has changed about the power structure?

CR: Yeah. I would agree with your analysis, and I think in the penultimate chapter, that’s really where the story ends.

And, certainly, I’m not suggesting that Fortune 100 companies have DEI, therefore this is communism, and you get some right-wing commentators that are saying these are all communist companies. I mean, that’s ridiculous, that is a total overdrawn conclusion. I don’t make that at all.

But the book to me ends, maybe, in this contradiction that I imagine you would agree with. It’s that: Because it’s America’s cultural revolution, the radical left conquered everything in the sense. That it has conquered the cultural language, symbolism, and principles, in that sense, in that cultural sense, so that every corporation is pledging loyalty to BLM. You know, you have DEI in every company in the United States. You have affirmative action policies that openly discriminate against disfavored groups according to the intersectional hierarchy.

You have all of these cultural practices, and yet, the basic economic function of these corporations is relatively undisturbed, let’s say. They’re still highly profitable, they’re still very innovative, they still control the commanding heights of the economy. Thank God, from my perspective.

So, what you have, and why I think the story of America’s cultural revolution is so interesting, is that you have to revive some classic Marxist terminology. The radical left has conquered the superstructure, so it has conquered the means of ideological and knowledge production. In the universities, in the K-12 schools, in the HR departments, in the federal bureaucracy, etc., etc. But it has not conquered, and really has no ambition of conquering anymore, the economic base.

And so, you have a revolution, in part, that has been completed, but cannot ultimately satisfy its Marxist ambitions. You have Marxism without Marx. There’s a certain hollowness and emptiness.

And so, as I conclude with the critical race theorists, my point is, critical race theorists have absolutely nothing to offer working class people of any racial background. They have absolutely nothing to offer poor inner city Black communities, like the one in Memphis, Tennessee, where I spent some time. And, in fact, their revolution is a revolution that is wholly cynical and self-serving, just like the people that I met in college.

They play the affirmative action game to gain prestigious academic positions. They play-act as revolutionaries to burnish their credential at dinner parties and lecture circuits and academic conferences. But, ultimately, they are not revolutionaries, they are not courageous figures of the left. And, in fact, when I went after the critical race theorists by name, and identified their discipline, and just launched artillery shells at them, rhetorically, they didn’t even defend their own ideas. They denied that they were calling themselves Marxists in the 1990s, they ran away from that. And, in fact, they denied that their theories were even influential at all.

And so, as I’m looking at the original theorists here — the Marcuses and Angela Davis, and Paulo Freire, even Derrick Bell, to a lesser extent — I circle all the way back with a begrudging but real respect for them. Because they had an authenticity, they had a desire, they had an idealism, that has really now just become kind of last-man style status seeking. Revolution, but a cynical revolution, that has no real ambitions.

It’s kind of a cheeky title, but the story as it unfolds, I think, should be very disillusioning for the left, but also very concerning for the right. I think, in a sense, no one is happy, right? You have a partial revolution, and neither side is quite satisfied.

RG: So, when it moves out of the academy and into pop culture, it becomes much more dumbed down, and you’re seeing, I think, a kind of dumbed-down version of it playing out in Florida right now.

You know, Ron DeSantis has been kind of the chief popularizer, I would say, and I think you would agree with that, of your theories of cultural counter revolution.

CR: Yes.

RG: And what’s big in the news lately is his new curriculum that Florida rolled out around African American history.

CR: Sure.

RG: The thing that the media has really fixated on is, teachers are supposed to instruct kids that slaves learned skills, that some slaves learned some skills that they could potentially use in other aspects of their life.

Setting that aside, I feel like that’s better understood in the broader way that the curriculum approaches the history, which is, it felt to me like some dorm room arguments I’d heard from conservatives back in college in the ‘90s. Like, you hear things like, well, look, you know, they had slavery in Africa, also, before they had — And then, well, look, actually slavery was worse in the Caribbean. Which, true, it was. And well, look, being a serf in Europe, that was really, really bad, too.

And like, all of it, coupled with the slaves learned some skills that they could use later, all of it brought together feels like saying, yes, obviously slavery was bad but, relatively speaking, maybe it wasn’t as bad as people say.

So like, is that where the conservative embrace of CRT ends up going? And why?

CR: I don’t think so. I mean, you still hear those arguments today, right? You’ve heard them, I’ve heard them. And many of them are based in facts, as you say, but I think they’re ultimately not —

RG: And that’s all in the curriculum. Those things that I heard in the dorm room, all of these things. Like, oh, there was slavery in Africa. It’s all true, but it’s like, why?

CR: But I think that, to take the point of this line that has caused controversy — And really, I think, you and I would both agree that the left-wing critique is that, oh, DeSantis is saying that slaves benefited from slavery.  It’s like, no, that’s not what it means.

And so, what I think the point is, and this is actually has a long lineage in African American, it’s really the kind of — Within American Black philosophy, and political theory, and activism, there is a strand of thinking that says, the solution, — and Thomas Sowell, you can bring it back to Booker T. Washington — but there is a strand of thinking that says, the attitude that should be prioritized is one of resiliency, is one of hope, is one of triumph over adversity. And yes, when you oversimplify it, it can be kind of a ridiculous Horatio Alger story. It can minimize some of the historical inequities, truly, really and truly.

But I think that that line was basically to say, these people who suffered under unimaginable brutality and evil conditions were resilient, they had capacities, they had talents. And even though they were smothered and held back under the system of slavery, which was evil and wrong, they were able to emerge from those immense difficulties and actually have capacities that they could realize once slavery was over.

I traveled in the deep south as I was making the film, and one of the things that really shocked me and was really quite inspiring was, in the Mississippi Delta, there was these free cities that were all Black, small cities and towns that were established by freed slaves. They had their own kind of thriving industries and economies in, still, some very difficult conditions. They had businesspeople, they had civic leaders, you can see all the old history, and I talked to folks about the history of these places.

And, to me, that was a triumph of spirit, and of ingenuity, and of resilience, and in courage. And I think that you can’t tell a story that is only that, right? You can’t minimize what these people faced, and we should confront it honestly and totally. But, also, you should not minimize these accomplishments, which are not trivial by any measure, and should not be covered over by people today, who see them as an impediment to their own left-wing politics. I mean, I think that that’s so — I mean, in the textbooks in places, even in the Deep South, those stories should also be highlighted. I think those stories are quite effective.

My opposition to, let’s say, on these issues, right? Race issues. My opposition to critical race theory, it’s been hashed out, anyone can go see my opposition. But for something kind of new: the opposition to, let’s say, even something like reparations, or something like affirmative action, stems from my observations in a place like Memphis, where I really saw [that] the more that the government and the state seeks to engineer social outcomes and on these crude measures, actually, the worse things get.

For me, after that long observation, I just feel very skeptical that these social engineering projects — You know, the government can do pretty good physical engineering, the New Deal taught us that. I mean, some of those bridges are still American landmarks. But social engineering is something quite different, and we’ve never been able to do it successfully. And so, I’m quite skeptical in that regard.

RG: If you’re still helping with the curriculum, if they’re still working on it, I’d suggest adding in something on Robert Smalls or, in general, talking about slave uprisings and resistance. To couple it with, OK, good that somebody became a blacksmith. But also talk about the kind of way that there was constant effort to overthrow slavery, you know? From the enslaved people themselves. Which I think is also I would …

CR: I would totally support that. I think that those stories are also very important.

RG: Picking up on DeSantis real quick, because I know you’ve got to go soon.  The fact that he is getting so rinsed in this Republican primary, you know, he had to reset his campaign.

In 2022, Republicans really adopted a lot of this drag queen stuff, a lot of the CRT narrative and, instead, Democrats picked up a seat in the Senate, did better than expected in the House. Like, there’s a disconnect somewhere, and I want to get your take on it.

My take on the disconnect: I think there’s a lot in the culture wars that you guys could argue and have 80 percent support and everybody being with you, for the most part, except, like, the most extreme elements of somewhere on campus. But you guys don’t stop there.

I think Roe being overturned kind of laid bare the broader kind of cultural agenda at work here. And so, you wind up having, you wind up going to the extreme so quickly, and you have so many people in the mainstream of the Republican Party just quickly calling Democrats pedophiles that I feel like you kind of lose credibility. And you guys start to seem like the ones that are obsessed with sex and bringing it into the culture war.

But I’m curious for your take. As you look back at 2022, and as you look at Ron DeSantis’ campaign, why has there been so much success, say, in state legislatures, and in dominating the cultural conversation, yet it’s not translating electorally?

CR: Well, I would dispute that. I don’t think that that is a fact.

RG: Which part?

CR: Governor DeSantis won by just a handful of votes in 2018. I mean, really, truly, less than 1 percent. And then he translated that into a 20-point blowout, winning all racial demographics, winning women by a huge margin, and even winning Miami Dade County, the urban county, the largest urban county in the state.

And so DeSantis is the example of taking these courageous positions, fighting very intelligently in the media, and then translating that into electoral rewards. I mean, a huge shift in his favor. I think that if you look at the other congressional candidates and the congressional races, I think you’re probably right, I think Roe had a drag on it. But I also think that President Trump, you know, the left made this all about Trump, and then Trump obliged, and said, yeah, let’s make it about President Trump. And I think that that was, obviously, it was also a drag.

But the governors that did quite well, even those who banned CRT, who fought on some of these issues, and Governor DeWine, and governors in Georgia and other states, they also won big 15-point victories, or more.

And so, the primary question is, I think, actually the same phenomenon. I think that Republicans love DeSantis. If you ask Republicans, they’ll say he’s the best governor. But Trump, again, is the dominant force in conservative politics. I mean, he really is, whether you would like that to be the truth or not. And I think that the flagging support for DeSantis so far in the primary is really just a strong, and loyal, and passionate base of support for President Trump, much more than it’s against DeSantis, which I don’t think it is.

And so, that’s the challenge. But even Trump, I mean, you know, Trump, of course, made CRT a big issue. I worked with him on CRT. And then, if you look at his video statements, the kind of scripted policy statements that he’s been doing. I mean, they’re very fire and brimstone cultural commentary.

And so, I think that if you look at it in this way, the top three candidates right now in the polling are Trump, DeSantis, and Ramaswamy. All of them are totally aligned with the narrative and program that I outline in the book, and they have 90+ percent of the market share. So, I think the best way to look at it is, actually,  the new right and the new culture war right currently now has a 90 percent market share, and the Reaganite or neoliberal right has found itself, I think, hopefully, in a generational position where they’re now being, uh, shuffled out.

RG: Last question, then, because I know you’ve got to go.

I think in the general election what you’re going to wind up with — I’m curious for your take on this — is a messenger problem. I mean, setting aside not just Speaker of the House Denny Hastert, who had his own pedophilia issues, you’ve got Donald Trump who bought Miss Teen U.S.A., and he’d saunter around the locker room and be gross. One of the heroes on the right today is Andrew Tate, whose literal business model is grooming.

CR: Oh, it’s horrible.

RG: I mean, if you go online, everybody is constantly defending the guy as this beacon of —

CR: That’s horrible. It’s such a mistake. I mean, I find him so disgusting. Yeah, so — Yeah. That shouldn’t be, and I’ll work on it. I’ll work on it, Ryan.

RG: Finally, the Catholic Church. Like, every state that probes, whose attorney general probes the Catholic Church history finds just horrifying levels of abuse. And so, when you see so much focus on one side, but not the other, it feels like a messenger issue. Like, how serious is this?

So, do you agree? Do Republicans have some cleaning up to do here?

CR: Of course. And, obviously, any kind of abuse should be condemned and rectified and prosecuted.

And something like an Andrew Tate: I mean, Andrew Tate is not a hero or a model, or should get any support from the right. I think it’s a reaction, where, oh, the left hates Andrew Tate, therefore conservatives like Andrew Tate. That kind of thinking is a total disaster, and so, you’ll find no support from me for anything like that.

RG: Alright. Christopher Rufo is the author of “America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything.” Thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.

CR: Thank you.

[Deconstructed end-show theme music.]

RG: That was Christopher Rufo, and that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. The episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s editor-in-chief, and I’m Ryan Grimm, D.C. Bureau Chief of The Intercept.

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