The manufactured panic over public acknowledgment of racism in U.S. history, institutions, and culture is being promoted across the massive right-wing infrastructure of media, think tanks, and political groups. From pro-Trump “prayer warriors” to anti-public education activists, hard-right commentators and politicians are misappropriating the academic term “critical race theory,” or “CRT,” to feed the narrative of white grievance on which the Republican Party hopes to mobilize conservative voter turnout in 2022 and 2024.
Christopher Rufo, a denizen of such right-wing institutions as the Discovery Institute and the Manhattan Institute, is credited with launching the war on CRT with an article in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. A rant about his objections to CRT on Fox News last year caught the attention of then-President Donald Trump, who responded with an executive order banning diversity trainings by federal agencies and contractors. (President Joe Biden dismissed Trump’s order when he took office.)
The right-wing reaction includes state laws to, in the name of resisting CRT, limit teaching about systemic racism in U.S. history and the present day. And this week, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., introduced federal legislation to “defund” CRT. The legislation targets funding for K-12 schools and colleges and would “prohibit the federal government and federal contractors from using trainings inspired by critical race theory,” which a press release from Cotton’s office says would codify the rescinded Trump executive order. Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., has introduced a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Rufo delights in the ruckus he has caused, saying that in CRT he discovered “the perfect villain” and bragging on social media about having created a narrative that right-wing activists can use to discredit policy ideas and “cultural inanities” they don’t like.
In March, Rufo appeared on the podcast of Jack Murphy (a pseudonym used by writer John Goldman), author of “Democrat to Deplorable.” Murphy is an associate of conspiracy theorists, right-wing online personalities, and so-called “alt-light” characters including Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, Laura Loomer, Cassandra Fairbanks, and Tim Pool.
Murphy is intensely critical of feminism. “Hillary Clinton’s vagina was the centerpiece of her campaign,” he wrote in his 2018 book. Murphy has identified the notoriously misogynist blogger Daryush Valizadeh, the former “pickup artist” known as Roosh, as an inspiration. Murphy has created a group called Liminal Order that is designed to mold men into his model of masculinity. “The world always needs a villain and today, that villain is the white straight male who knows what he wants and is unafraid to get it,” Murphy writes in the “About Me” section of his website.
On his “Jack Murphy Live” podcast, Murphy admiringly referred to Rufo as an “all-around bomb-thrower.” Rufo elaborated, saying that he is building a database of “raw material”—stories people send him about CRT supposedly running wild in educational settings—that he can “translate” into a “coherent story” that pushes people’s “emotional buttons.” Rufo described himself as dropping “bombs” to create an “air-war narrative” against public schools.
Rufo gloatingly recounted an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that he portrayed as proof that a professor’s worst nightmare would be Rufo getting his hands on class materials and giving them to Tucker Carlson. The article described a wildly misleading propaganda attack on a professor by anti-CRT zealots. The professor’s “crime”? Sharing with her students a CNN article about the impact of big tech algorithms on racial inequality. But Rufo declared that it is “phenomenal” and “a great sign” that professors might be having nightmares about him.
In a recent profile of Rufo for New York Magazine’s Intelligencer, Sarah Jones reported that many of Rufo’s stories are false or misleading. “What Rufo and his ilk really object to isn’t critical race theory at all but the ugliness of history,” Jones wrote. “When an educator exposes the racism that lurks within this nation, they often find themselves at the mercy of an onslaught from the right.” In the Trump era, Rufo’s carelessness with the truth has not stopped him from being a powerful promoter of white racial grievance.
When Murphy asked him about criticism of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by some right-wing and left-wing activists, Rufo said the law was an important step in fighting racism but that there is tension in how the law is interpreted and works in practice. He claimed that CRT is “anti-white” racism and asked whether the landmark law—which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, and sex or national origin in a number of arenas—will be enforced to protect white men. He noted that Republican state legislators are now using the Civil Rights Act to justify bans on “anti-whiteness trainings.”
Murphy was fired from his job at D.C.’s public school charter board in 2018 after exposure of some offensive online writings about women and immigrants, including the assertion that “feminists need rape.” Murphy portrays his exposure and firing as an experience of persecution and “character assassination.”
“So I said some crazy stuff,” he wrote in a Twitter thread about his years as a blogger. “True stuff, but outlandish nevertheless.”
Murphy has denounced white supremacy and white nationalism and publicly sparred with alt-right figure Richard Spencer, who led the tiki-torch march on the University of Virginia the night before the 2017 far-right melee in Charlottesville. This year Murphy was named a “Lincoln Fellow” at the Claremont Institute, which former Right Wing Watch reporter Jared Holt described in 2019 as an “increasingly white nationalist think tank.” Claremont Institute President Ryan P. Williams wrote in a 2019 essay titled “Defeat-America—Defeat Multiculturalism” that “today’s multiculturalist enforcers seek to erase and replace America,” a turn of phrase bearing echoes of the white supremacist “great replacement theory,” which claims that the growth in the share of the U.S. population claimed by non-white people is an attempt at cultural genocide. The essay launched a Claremont Institute project to defend “American greatness.”