Discover more from The Bulwark
Chris Rufo’s Dreams of an Anti-Woke Revolution
His new book offers a badly flawed account of real problems—and proposes illiberal solutions.
IF THERE IS ONE PERSON whose name is most strongly associated with the Republican crusade against “wokeness”—be it race and gender studies at public universities, antiracism education in public schools, or “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” (DEI) efforts at both public and private institutions—it is 39-year-old filmmaker-turned-activist Christopher Rufo. Three years ago, Rufo’s exposés of apparently anti-white and anti-American sensitivity programs at federal agencies, which he discussed on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, prompted then-President Donald Trump’s September 2020 executive order directing federal agencies to halt such training. Rufo—at the time affiliated with the Discovery Institute and the Heritage Foundation—went on Twitter to celebrate his victory and promise more:
Once Trump was out of office, Rufo shifted his focus to state-level efforts, particularly to Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis was launching his own multipronged war on “woke.” In particular, Rufo—who since 2021 has been a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute—played a major role in the state takeover of New College of Florida, the struggling, experimental liberal arts school DeSantis picked as his test lab for an anti-woke overhaul. (Since then, some 40 percent of the faculty have fled, reportedly leaving the college with a denuded curriculum and with a host of other problems.) Rufo discussed this takeover in unabashedly militaristic terms, talking about “laying siege to the institutions,” being “over the walls,” and arriving on campus with a “landing team.” While this is partly grandstanding, it also reflects Rufo’s stated views: that American institutions, and not just ones of higher learning, are so permeated and corrupted by far-left ideology that the only solution is war—and specifically, the use of state power to crush the entrenched and powerful enemy.
Last month, Rufo published a book that can justly be regarded as his platform. America’s Cultural Revolution is a mélange of intellectual history and political manifesto. It documents what Rufo regards as the hostile takeover of American institutions by the “woke” left and makes the case for an aggressive effort to take them back, using the government as a blunt instrument.
The book has sold briskly and received gushing praise from reliable partisans like Hugh Hewitt. But even the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood gives Rufo some faint praise for shedding his “carnival barker” persona and documenting some genuine problems in American education. In Vox, Zack Beauchamp admits to liking Rufo’s often “damning” profiles of the figures he regards as progenitors of “wokeness”—from German radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse to Harvard Law professor and critical race theory forefather Derrick Bell—and compliments him for “engag[ing] with left-wing thinkers on their own terms.” Both Wood and Beauchamp, however, argue that Rufo wildly overhypes and oversells the woke peril.
I approached America’s Cultural Revolution with mixed expectations. I think many of Rufo’s liberal and progressive detractors have a tendency to downplay the problems posed by left-wing ideologies and by the social justice revolution of the last decade. I think Rufo has done some good reportage on DEI programs run amok. I also think Rufo is an unprincipled political hack so untrustworthy and prone to bending facts when it suits him that it takes away much of the value of that reportage.
America’s Cultural Revolution, like the rest of Rufo’s work, contains some valuable information.1 But it has a badly flawed premise and a tendency to skew facts—and, unsurprisingly, arrives at a bad conclusion that is the book’s raison d’être: the justification of the heavy-handed use of state power to crush what Rufo sees as the crushing power of the left.
RUFO’S CENTRAL THESIS is that the “Great Awokening” that began in the late 2010s—the cultural shift toward an intense focus on racial and gender oppression and “marginalized” identities—is nothing less than the triumph of the Marxism-driven New Left of the 1960s and ’70s, achieved over a half-century via a “long march through the institutions.” The phrase, a reference to the Chinese Red Army’s “Long March” across China in 1934–35, was coined around 1967 by Marcuse’s acolyte and comrade-in-arms Rudi Dutschke; both Dutschke and Marcuse believed that the most effective strategy for subverting capitalism was not violent revolution but the infiltration of academia, the media, and the professions and the training of cadres who would transform those institutions from within. In Rufo’s view, critical race theory is a direct descendant of Marxism, with whites and blacks substituted for the capitalists and the workers; intersectionality, the general theory of interlocking identities and oppressions, is Marcuse’s grandchild via his student Angela Davis; and Black Lives Matter is the modern incarnation of the Black Panthers.
This thesis, which has a strong whiff of conspiracy theory about it, is crudely reductive and contains major omissions. For instance, while the oppressor/oppressed, class-warfare framework of Marxism does have some things in common with the modern progressive analysis of race and gender oppression, the shoehorning of identity in the place of class is often an awkward fit. Indeed, a number of commentators who are self-identified Marxists, from political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. to essayist Fredrik deBoer, have been among the harshest critics of identity-focused “social justice.” Meanwhile, figures who have been hugely influential in the development of modern “woke” progressivism but cannot be easily connected to Marxism or the New Left, such as feminist law professor Catharine MacKinnon and “queer theory” founder Judith Butler, are absent from Rufo’s narration. (For that matter, his overview of the social justice movement almost entirely omits feminist and LGBT activism.)
Rufo is also prone to bold assertions backed with little evidence. For instance, he claims that the Marxist lineage of critical race theory can be uncovered “in the paragraphs and footnotes of the discipline’s original texts, which appeal to Marx, Davis, Freire, and the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary movements”—but, as they say on Wikipedia, “citation needed.” He argues that Kimberlé Crenshaw, the critical race theorist whose 1989 law review article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” can be seen as the beginning of intersectionality, was continuing the work started by Davis in the 1981 book Women, Race and Class; but Crenshaw’s essay has only one Davis reference in the footnotes—and four citations from another 1981 book examining feminism’s fraught relationship with racial issues, Ain’t I a Woman? by bell hooks, who was not a Marxist. It is also worth noting that the third part of Davis’s triad, class, is almost entirely nonexistent in Crenshaw’s work.
Or take the claim that, while Davis’s quest for revolution may have failed, the radical curriculum she once demanded as a graduate student at the University of California San Diego “has become the standard humanities program in the American university.” Yes, critiques of Western capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism have largely been mainstreamed. But Rufo undercuts his own case when he notes that Davis “wanted a reading list of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, and Che Guevara.” I’m willing to bet, for all the gains of academic radicalism, that John Locke still appears on more syllabi than Vladimir Lenin and that Martin Luther King Jr. is assigned more frequently than Che.
We keep up with the culture warriors. You can keep up with us by signing up for a free or paid subscription:
Rufo’s assessment of Davis as an odious figure is basically correct. Her loathing of American capitalism led her to praise the Berlin Wall and dismiss imprisoned Eastern-bloc dissidents as deluded subversives. (Rufo repeats Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s account in which some Czech dissidents approach Davis in person to ask her to intercede for political prisoners and get blown off with “They deserve what they get.” This anecdote appears to be unconfirmed by any other sources, but its likely real-life basis—a request via open letter and a rebuff via a spokeswoman who said on Davis’s behalf that Communist regimes only jailed people for “undermining the government”—is hardly better.) Davis’s justified anger at racial injustice once led her to proclaim that a black female Internal Revenue Service employee who fatally shot her white female supervisor was “not guilty” because “it is racism that pulled that trigger.” One could go on and on, and the lionization of Davis by the current social justice movement is certainly not a credit to twenty-first-century progressivism. But Rufo fails to make his case on a claim that is key to his narrative: that Davis has been a major influence on progressive academia and social justice activism.
Likewise, Rufo is essentially on target in his analysis of Derrick Bell, whose bleak vision of race relations in America negates progress and is generally hostile to liberal values, including freedom of speech. But after quoting scathing critiques of Bell in the 1990s from three distinguished black scholars—Randall Kennedy, Leroy Clark, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.—Rufo writes: “One by one, Bell and his disciples dispatched their black critics through smears and character assassination.” But what does that mean, exactly? Kennedy, Clark, and Gates were hardly “dispatched” or canceled; none suffered any professional or reputational damage, and Kennedy and Gates remained far more prominent than Bell on the intellectual and academic scene. Such verbal sleight of hand is typical of Rufo’s approach to his material, in which valid facts and claims keep getting spun into hype.
WHAT’S MORE, ONE MAY OBJECT to a lot of aspects of the “Great Awokening,” or of modern social justice progressivism, without seeing it as a deliberate and insidious effort to seize power by a neo-Marxist cabal. In that sense, Rufo’s grand theory of everything is a bit like the oppression theory he despises which holds that institutions in twenty-first-century liberal societies are deliberately rigged to disempower and harm minorities, women, gays, and other groups. The social justice activists see white supremacist patriarchy “baked into” every interaction and every sociocultural pattern that may have complex and multidimensional causes (such as racial disparities in victimization by police violence). Likewise, Rufo and his fans see Marcuse’s invisible hand in cultural developments that have complex and multidimensional causes.
In fact, the dramatic shift toward social justice progressivism that began about a decade ago was partly the result of a new generation of young people who had imbibed radical values in college (e.g., feminist bloggers who had learned their intersectional feminism in women’s studies courses), but it was also born from a host of other factors: a general leftward shift caused by the war in Iraq and the financial crash of 2008; frustration at the persistence of racial inequality after the election of America’s first black president; the rise of social media, which created vast new opportunities for grievances to be aired and for previously marginal groups to gain visibility, congregate with like-minded people, rally support, and sometimes exert pressure on mainstream institutions.
To this, one can add the 2016 election of Donald Trump, which not only galvanized progressive activism (tellingly, the Women’s March is entirely absent from Rufo’s account despite featuring Davis as a speaker) but looked to many like a validation of everything progressives had claimed about racism and misogyny in American culture. (I think that’s much too crude and reductionist an analysis, but again: so is Rufo’s “long march” narrative.) Trump is only briefly glimpsed in America’s Cultural Revolution as the president bravely standing athwart this revolution. And there’s not one word about the emergence, around the same time, of openly white supremacist and misogynistic far-right groups.
Rufo’s discussion of Black Lives Matter is a good illustration of his blinkered narrative. In his telling, the movement is basically a reincarnation of the Black Panthers of the 1960s and ’70s, led or even orchestrated by a cadre of committed Marxist activists. These activists, Rufo argues, inflamed passions by hyping a few police killings, touting dead criminals as sympathetic victims—he cites Michael Brown, the teenager shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 while apparently trying to grab a gun from the cop who was attempting to arrest him on suspicion of robbing a shop—and weaving a false narrative of the systematic slaughter of black Americans by white cops. The figurative and literal conflagration that followed the tragic death of George Floyd was, according to Rufo, the inevitable result.
But this account leaves out some genuinely terrible cases: Eric Garner, choked to death during a 2014 arrest for illegal sales of cigarettes; 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot dead by police while playing with a replica gun; Freddie Gray, fatally injured by his rough confinement and transportation in police custody.2 Yes, police killings of unarmed black people are much rarer than most BLM supporters assume, and white victims of such tragedies are hardly unknown; but a black American still, compared to a white American, faces more than twice the risk of such a death. The extent to which this disparity stem from racial prejudice versus other factors indirectly related to the legacy of racism (such as the fact that black people are more likely to be poor and to live in low-income neighborhoods where crime is generally higher and policing more aggressive) is hotly debated. Yet it’s hardly surprising that police killings of blacks would inflame passions more—especially given the extensive history of racist policing in the United States.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean it’s racist to criticize BLM. But even strong BLM critics such as author John McWhorter have noted that police harassment disproportionately directed at black men is a major and valid cause of resentment in the black community. Without those grievances, not even the smartest Marxist organizers could have made any headway. Rufo’s failure to acknowledge this fact detracts from one of the strongest sections in America’s Cultural Revolution: his critique of police abolition activism and the account of the devastating real-life consequences of radical depolicing in the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” in Seattle during the 2020 racial justice protests. In a tragic irony, the experiment in anarchy cost two young black men their lives.
That said, the question of depolicing also highlights the dubiousness of the claim, boldly stated in the subtitle of Rufo’s book, that “the radical left [has] conquered everything.” The abolition or even drastic reduction in policing is not a part of the mainstream Democratic agenda. Most Democrats, including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, condemned rioting during the summer of 2020. Rufo himself reports that “on the day of Biden’s inauguration, teenage radicals marched through the streets of Southeast Portland, smashing the office windows of the state Democratic Party,” and carrying banners with such slogans as “We don’t want Biden, we want revenge.” These aren’t exactly the actions of a movement in power.
RUFO’S DRAMATIC CLAIMS about the triumph of the neo-Marxist left are even shakier when it comes to corporate America. Vox’s Beauchamp is correct when he points out that just because, say, Lockheed Martin incorporates “woke” jargon about white male privilege and intersectionality into workshops and seminars doesn’t mean the firm has gone full Marxist, or any kind of Marxist. (Anticapitalism is still a pretty foundational part of the Marxist agenda, and something makes me think that defense contractors, banks, telecom companies, and restaurant chains falling over each other to declare their commitment to DEI haven’t exactly renounced capitalism.) As Beauchamp says, in some ways, radicalism is being less mainstreamed than coopted by these programs. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for diehard “class first” lefties to suggest that “wokeness” is a faux leftism intended to give capitalism a pseudo-progressive rainbow façade, preempt multiracial solidarity among the oppressed, and divert progressive energies from the class struggle to battles against gendered language and “cultural appropriation.”
Indeed, some of the corporate trainings Rufo denounces aren’t nearly as radical as he makes them sound. For example, he reports that in 2019, Sandia National Laboratories, which designs nuclear weapons for the U.S. military, “sent a group of white male employees to a three-day reeducation program in order to expose their ‘white privilege’ and deconstruct their ‘white male culture’” and that the training was designed so as to “humiliate, degrade, and disintegrate the participants.” But the source materials on Rufo’s Substack don’t really support this charge: for instance, they include a handout on “leadership skills” and a participant-generated list of expected benefits from the retreat, including “deeper connections with other white men.” Rufo also tells us that as part of this ritual humiliation, the hapless white males were told to “make a list of associations about ‘white men’”; the responses included “white supremacists,” “KKK,” “Aryan Nation,” “MAGA hat,” “privileged,” and “mass killing.” Sounds awful! Except that a look at the actual list of “assumptions about white men” brainstormed at the retreat reveals that it also included positive things like “successful,” “inventive,” and “dependable,” neutral ones like “country music,” “meat and potatoes,” and “football,” and words suggesting vulnerability: “stressed” and “heart failure.”
Likewise, Rufo does some heavy cherry-picking when he claims that the men, who were asked to write letters addressed collectively to white women and “people of color” to discuss what they learned from the retreat, sounded “exhausted and apologetic” and were “pledging to atone for their whiteness.” He quotes from two letters, one saying, “I’m sorry for the times I have not stood up for you to create a safe place,” another talking about learning to see one’s privilege as a white male. But there were also other letters: “We should have mutual agreement that it is OK if we disagree with each other”; “The meeting helped me see different perspectives on diversity and helped give me tools and leadership skills to be a better ally, mentor, employee, & friend.” (It sounds like boilerplate corporate-workshop talk spiced up with a bit of social justice lingo.)
That said: I think Rufo’s critics underestimate the noxiousness of many of the DEI programs Rufo describes, and documents with sources posted on his Substack. The materials from the Lockheed Martin “white men’s caucus,” for instance, include lists of white and male privilege statements that often seem dubious, dated, or mired in stereotypes. “Male privilege,” for instance, includes, “My weight, hairstyle, and fashion sense don’t negatively impact how my competence or work is valued.” (True for mild excess weight, maybe, but definitely not for obesity.) And, under “white privilege,” “I can do well in a challenging situation without being called ‘a credit to my race’” sounds like something time-warped from circa 1960.
Overall, the trainings at Sandia and Lockheed Martin (carried out by the same outfit) encourage people to see each other almost entirely through the prism of race, gender, and sexuality. Meanwhile, a “racial equity” training at Walmart promotes a specific ideological perspective on American history—one that focuses almost exclusively on racial oppression and elides or dismisses progress—and posits that such traits and values as logical thinking, individualism, and objectivity are characteristics of “white culture.” The training also encourages race-segregated “affinity groups.” And it teaches employees that they suffer from “internalized racial superiority” if white and “internalized racial inferiority” if nonwhite—surely a disservice to everyone. (That said, a grain of salt is in order: the book asserts that the Walmart program is mandatory for executives and is also routinely taught to rank-and-file employees, but Rufo’s own October 2021 Substack post on the subject notes that Walmart only confirmed “a number of training sessions since 2018.”)
This isn’t a quasi-Communist takeover, nor is it “the end of the [American] constitutional order” as Rufo contends. It is, however, a worrying trend. It’s even more worrying in K-12 education. Yes, there really is a large contingent of educators who believe that their task is to train students to become activists working to “disrupt” or “dismantle” often ill-defined “systems of oppression.” Yes, there are real-life examples of genuinely terrible social justice-infused curricula, such as a “Math Ethnic Studies” program in Seattle which apparently indicts Western culture of “appropriating” mathematical knowledge from nonwhite countries (though it’s unclear how much of this curriculum, first proposed in 2019, has actually been implemented). Yes, schools have conducted ham-handed lessons on “power” and “privilege.” An “antiracism” curriculum in Buffalo, New York, described by Rufo with confirmation from a local news site, not only tells students that all white people play a part in perpetuating systemic racism but asks them to “reflect on the impact of privilege in [their] own life” and “identify the effects of privilege on the daily activities of others”—exercises that easily open the door to shaming, guilt-tripping, and judging other people’s lives. And while school-sponsored discussions of racism in racially exclusive “affinity groups” are certainly not “segregation” in the Jim Crow sense, as Rufo suggested to Beauchamp only to backtrack a moment later, they are still a very bad idea. (They are also probably illegal, according to federal guidance issued last month by the Biden Department of Education.)
While it’s difficult to assess from Rufo’s reporting how common these practices are, it does seem clear that there are real problems worthy of attention.
ACCURACY OF DIAGNOSIS ASIDE, Rufo’s preferred cure—muscular government that enforces its own ideological mandates and strong-arms public and even private institutions into submission—is worse than the disease. Rufo tends to sneer at “centrists” (like me) who have concerns about left-wing illiberalism but don’t want to use the power of government to fight it as sanctimonious weenies who are “allergic to victory” and who see the problems but have no solutions.
But this is nonsense. “America’s Cultural Revolution” is not China’s; it is taking place in a free society and is an aggregate of multitudes of personal choices—as well as social pressures we can resist without risking death, labor camp, or severe violence. Parents can push back against race-obsessed school lessons and programs, and often do. (It’s too bad their pushback often takes equally absurd and illiberal forms, such as trying to have historical books about racism banned from school syllabi and libraries.) Organizations that advocate for intellectual freedom, from the Heterodox Academy to PEN America to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, can stand up to enforced groupthink in academic and cultural institutions. As for DEI zealotry, it may already be going out of style, with some diversity advocates acknowledging that politically charged trainings don’t work, and with corporations reportedly eliminating DEI positions and programs as they start to shift to less confrontational, less ideological initiatives that acknowledge individual variety and promote relationships, not revolution.
Rufo, however, has no patience for the incremental and persuasion-based approach; he prefers the tactics of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, which says a great deal. In an article in Compact magazine in July titled “What Conservatives See in Hungary,” Rufo wrote, with obvious admiration, that the Orbán government has used its authority not only to “disrupt the socialist left’s soft-power hegemony” (among other things, by using its parliamentary supermajority to rig the Constitution in a way that further increased the ruling party’s power) but to “reshape the institutions in both public and private life to create an enduring conservative counter-hegemony” through “far-reaching reforms in schools, universities, nonprofits, media, and government.” According to Rufo, “The goal is to strengthen Hungary’s cultural foundations—family life, Christian faith, and historical memory—and to create a conservative elite capable of maintaining them.”
Rufo is quite upfront about the fact that this strategy has included a power grab to wrest media outlets away from “liberal-internationalist” owners and transform them into “conservative stalwarts,” as well as pressure state-owned media (nearly 40 percent of the market) to provide more favorable coverage to the government.
In his recent Vox piece, Beauchamp took Rufo to task for holding up Orbán’s Hungary as a model for American conservatives. “This is nonsense,” Rufo retorted in City Journal, indignantly pointing to his remark in Compact that “the state controls too much media” in Hungary. It’s true, Rufo did write that one phrase in his 4,500-word Compact article—but that line targets only state control of the media, not control by Orbán-friendly oligarchs. And in that same article Rufo explicitly writes, discussing Hungarian conservatives’ decision to use big government to pursue their social agenda, “There is a lesson here for American conservatives.” The lesson is that a large state exists, and “conservative political leaders are abdicating their responsibility if they don’t employ it to advance conservative aims.” Also, he says with obvious admiration, “Orbán and his allies operated on the principle that turnabout is fair play.”
Rufo acknowledges that the Hungarian model cannot be exported to America wholesale. Even so, one can only wonder what his plans are for a possible new Trump presidency.
If you don’t know much about Paulo Freire, the Brazilian Marxist educator, activist, and Chairman Mao fanboy whose 1968 book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, has become a standard text in American schools of education, Rufo’s book offers a decent primer.
Rufo mentions the Garner and Gray cases, but only in passing—to mock how they were talked about in the press.