There’s a common thread in some of the biggest battles of the Republican culture war over the past year and change—beyond the bigotry and dishonesty that is their bedrock. The specific common thread is Christopher Rufo. From critical race theory (CRT) to grooming, math textbooks to Disney, Rufo is on Fox News so often he has his own in-home studio, issuing the talking points of the moment. And all of his talking points are aimed at promoting a vision of the United States based on the cultural politics of the 1950s combined with the rampant privatization and lower taxes on corporations and the wealthy of the 2020s. Rufo wants the racism and gender norms of the 1950s, minus the public schools and government revenue.
Rufo hit big in 2021 with his promotion of a false version of critical race theory as a danger to white children everywhere. Like a Bond villain, he even explained what he was doing as he was doing it. “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category,” Rufo tweeted in March 2021. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
And yet, despite laying out his strategy right there in plain sight, he got many in the traditional media to bite, covering the critical race theory panic that Rufo created as if it were an organic grassroots phenomenon. Now he’s back, leading the charge against Disney and propelling “grooming” as an accusation to be used in a broader attempt to drive LGBTQ people out of public life. That work earned him a puff piece in The New York Times over the weekend, and a spot on the stage as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the “Stop WOKE Act.”
RELATED STORY: A look inside banned Florida math textbooks suggests Republicans simply lied about what's in them
After weeks of bashing Disney for “grooming” and highlighting mug shots of past Disney employees who have been charged with child sexual abuse unconnected to their employment at Disney, Rufo told the Times, “It’s wrong, factually and morally, to accuse someone of being a groomer with no basis and evidence.” About that:
But as Moynihan, a political scientist at Georgetown University, wrote at his Substack, it goes deeper. In Rufo’s usage, “this language is largely not about sexual abuse of children. Rufo is much more likely to describe ‘grooming’ in the context of kids being exposed to ideas he dislikes rather than actual sexual abuse. In other words, sharing certain political beliefs — usually centered around recognizing the status of historically marginalized groups — are treated as interchangeable with child abuse, its perpetrators akin to child abusers.”
Listen to Jennifer Fernandez Ancona from Way to Win explain how Democrats must message to win on Daily Kos' The Brief podcast with Markos Moulitsas and Kerry Eleveld
“The reservoir of sentiment on the sexuality issue is deeper and more explosive than the sentiment on the race issues,” Rufo told the Times. In translation: He thinks he can ride anti-LGBTQ bigotry even further than racism.
Rufo’s overall message that institutions from Disney to the public schools are grooming children by exposing them to ideas he doesn’t like was a major factor in his participation in the banning of math textbooks in Florida because they supposedly contained CRT and other “prohibited topics or unsolicited strategies.” In Times coverage of that episode, Rufo explained his opposition to social-emotional learning, saying, “in practice, SEL serves as a delivery mechanism for radical pedagogies such as critical race theory and gender deconstructionism.”
”The intention of SEL,” according to Rufo, “is to soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of ‘repression,’ ‘whiteness,’ or ‘internalized racism,’ and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology.”
Don’t teach our kids to be kind. It might make them less racist.
Rufo is part of a broader Republican movement to end public education, something he’s strategically laying the groundwork for with each new campaign he wages. CRT, grooming, social-emotional learning—all of these are buzzwords intended to weaken support for public education. Disney came into it because of the company’s opposition to the Florida Don’t Say Gay law banning the teaching of anything that might imply to children that LGBTQ people are acceptable members of their communities.
Rufo laid out his approach in an April speech at Hillsdale College, titled “Laying Siege to the Institutions.” In it, he called for a “narrative and symbolic war against companies like Disney” in which “You have to be very aggressive. You have to fight on terms that you define.” On schools, he was explicit: “To get to universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.”
(When American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten slightly mistranscribed some of this, Rufo threatened legal action, so apparently he’s kind of sensitive here.)
Rufo is far from the only prominent conservative openly trying to dismantle public education. There’s Betsy DeVos, of course, the Trump education secretary whose only experience related to education was years of funding efforts to privatize it. Then there’s this:
Make no mistake: Republicans are coming for public education, in many cases looking for the government to provide vouchers that can go to unregulated religious and private schools. What they definitely don’t want is empowered teachers who can speak up for their students—all of them, not just the straight white Christian ones—and teaching that encompasses the racial history of the U.S., exposure to a wide range of experience, and basic social skills alongside of 2+2=4.
Citing 'humiliated' white people, Mississippi governor signs anti-critical race theory law
Forget CRT—new poll shows what Republicans really don't want taught in schools
Architect of 'critical race theory' panic previews the next wave of attacks on public education
Republican governor signs cruel 'Don't Say Gay' bill into law and sets a dangerous precedent