DeSantis’ Culture Warrior: ‘We Are Now Over the Walls’

SARASOTA, Fla. — Looming over the room was Chris Rufo. Beaming via Zoom into last month’s meeting of the reconstituted and newly politicized Board of Trustees of New College of Florida, Rufo sat more than 3,100 miles away, a little less than an hour south of Seattle, in his home office that’s a makeshift media studio. Set against his standard stark gray backdrop, Rufo leaned forward toward his thousand-dollar microphone — to my eye palpably eager to administer this key piece of the mission of Governor Ron DeSantis.

“Do we have,” said the chair of the board, “a motion to approve — ”

“Yes,” Rufo said.

“— the implementation,” she continued, “of DEI changes?”

“Yes,” Rufo said.

Rufo is the youngest, the most widely recognized and certainly the most overtly provocative of the half a dozen novice members of the body DeSantis appointed in January to nearly instantly alter the character and curriculum of New College, the small, progressive bastion within the state’s university system. Prompted by the chair, Rufo made a motion to eliminate all “diversity, equity and inclusion” initiatives on campus and to authorize the just-installed, DeSantis-aligned interim president to make the “necessary or appropriate personnel decisions” — in other words, to start firing people.

Rufo, 38, is interesting and important in his own right. Not even three years ago, he was known, if he was known at all, as a short-lived Seattle city council candidate and a more or less middling maker of documentary films. Now he is, he says, a policy scholar and a political combatant, an activist and a polemicist — a journalist. He’s “a right-wing propagandist,” in the words of Rep. Jamie Raskin, the Democrat from Maryland. He’s “a hired gun for the information wars,” in the estimation of rhetoric expert Jen Mercieca. He’s the only child of two attorneys who worked in Sacramento, the son of a father who immigrated from Italy, the spouse of a wife who immigrated from Thailand, a parent of three half-Asian children — and the biggest single reason critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion have been turned into the toxic, ubiquitous and politically potent acronyms of CRT and DEI.

But what might make Rufo matter most at this moment in American politics is what he says about DeSantis — as a governor, and as a potential president. DeSantis is “an operational ideologue,” said a former aide, who like many former DeSantis aides was granted anonymity to speak freely. “He looks,” this person told me, “for people” — even “fringe players” — “to operationalize his ideology.” Distrusting to the point of paranoid with an inner circle that’s really only his wife, anti-establishment but not anti-intellectual and not so much instinctual as systematically calculating, DeSantis over the last couple years has come to rely on less conventionally credentialed operatives to enact his chief policy and political aims. “New talent” that is “like-minded” but “non-traditional,” said Brian Ballard, the powerful Florida-based Republican lobbyist. A different former DeSantis staffer described them to me as “outside-the-box knife-fighters.”

Rufo is the latest iteration of a certain sort of person in the DeSantis orbit and operation — sicced at the governor’s behest to pick a point-scoring fight that generates headlines and left-of-center outrage while simultaneously riling and feeding the most vociferous groups of the GOP’s red-meat wings. Christina Pushaw, who has been an unlikely mouthpiece for DeSantis and his interests, was unleashed to clash with the press in extraordinary, hostile and hyper-public ways. Larry Keefe, a former Panhandle trial lawyer and Donald Trump-appointed United States attorney, has been as the governor’s “public safety czar” the executor of his Martha’s Vineyard migrant flights as well as his contentious suspension of the top prosecutor in Tampa. “But Rufo,” Tallahassee fixture Mac Stipanovich told me, “is currently the principal example.”

Part mercenary and part emissary, a mix of a think-tank wonk and a social-media troll, Rufo for the last year and a half has been a main source and surrogate for what DeSantis has sought to make his signature — school boards and higher ed, Disney and issues of teaching and tolerance of gender and sexuality, the overarching palette of policies that DeSantis describes as “anti-woke” and that has been the primary political fuel of his post-pandemic ascent. Rufo has shared stages with DeSantis around Florida. He has been a participant in one-sided roundtables of ideologically simpatico speakers to create content that can double as ammunition and bait. Now, though, he has his most formal role to date — at the fore of DeSantis’ New College offensive, which is part of a broader statewide effort, all of which is very much a linchpin of his everything-but-announced 2024 presidential campaign. DeSantis in his recent book to seed his expected White House bid not only namechecked Rufo but cited his work in 11 separate bullet points across portions of three pages. Rufo has his own book coming out in July. They share a publisher. They share an editor.

Rufo of late has been “the bellwether for DeSantis,” said Nicole Hemmer, a historian of conservative media and the author of Messengers of the Right. “The decision to use Rufo’s activism as a kind of scaffolding for passing pieces of legislation that draw a lot of media attention and frame DeSantis as a culture warrior shows a kind of political intelligence,” she told me. “Rufo has figured out which buttons to press,” Hemmer said, “so by tapping into Rufo, DeSantis has a shortcut to tapping into that base.”

“It’s sort of like using a person,” said a person who has worked with both Rufo and DeSantis who was granted anonymity to speak freely, “as a dog whistle.”

“It’s a very well-thought-out and purposeful strategy,” GOP strategist Slater Bayliss told me. “From my perspective, I think the governor and his team deserve credit for putting all this together,” Bayliss added. “If you’re a moderate and don’t particularly care for Governor DeSantis, it’s still a super interesting story to understand the way that he’s running this.”

And so Rufo had hovered above the much-publicized struggle on the campus of New College well before he and his Neumann TLM 103 microphone appeared here last month in grayscale on the conference room screen. Among Rufo’s fellow DeSantis-tapped trustees are longtime professors at Hillsdale College and Claremont McKenna College and Emory University — a seventh selection is a political philosopher with a doctorate from Notre Dame — but it is Rufo who has been the subject of a special type of ire from students, faculty, staff and others around the state and beyond who see these DeSantis machinations as a proto-fascist takeover reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s or Hungary of today. Outside before the meeting, during only the most recent of boisterous protests, mothers of students had worn the red gowns and white bonnets of the handmaids from The Handmaid’s Tale. One of them silently held aloft a poster with the face of a villain of the dystopian account juxtaposed with that of Rufo. Chalked on walkways were a variety of messages meant for the members of the board. One, though, packed a particular focus: “FUCK RUFO.” Inside, the meeting underway with the consistent anti-DeSantis, anti-Rufo sentiments expressed in the public comments, Rufo had listened, some might say smiling, some might say smirking. Waiting.

His motion drew a quick second. It easily passed. From the get-go, Rufo had promised an utter revamping, and fast, a quick strike that marked quite a contrast to academia’s typically more measured pace — “a top-down restructuring,” he had forewarned, and academic departments that were “going to look very different in 120 days.” Four months. If anything, this felt ahead of schedule. Ousting the previous president had taken one meeting. This took two.

“BREAKING,” he tweeted mere moments after the vote. “New College of Florida has become the first university in the nation to abolish its DEI bureaucracy, ban coercive ‘diversity’ statements and programming, and prohibit identity-based preferences in hiring, admissions, and other procedures.”

He returned a couple hours later to poke his most committed critics. “I would have been mortified if my mom came to my university dressed in a costume, screaming about ‘fascism.’ Bizarre,” he wrote. He said their “Nazi references” were “ludicrous.” He called their pushback “hysterical.”

On the screen or not, in the room or not, but ramping up and at the ready, perhaps for other people in other places, or for DeSantis in Tallahassee or maybe eventually Washington, D.C., Rufo seemed intent to continue to loom.

‘A complete lie. Total B.S.’

He wanted to tell me how he does what he does. I was sitting with Rufo one recent morning in the cramped office he’s turned into a television and video studio in his five-bedroom house in Gig Harbor, Washington, a small town on the south side of the Puget Sound to which Rufo moved in 2020. He took his time describing basically a three-step process: first reporting, then amplification, then actualization — in the form of real-world legislation or other policy-related success. This involves Substack and Twitter and semi-regular hits on Tucker Carlson’s show or other primetime programs on Fox News, and City Journal, too, the in-house publication of the conservative Manhattan Institute, where he sports the title of senior fellow. “You create a mass media line,” Rufo said. “I mean, that’s essentially what is, to borrow from kind of the Chinese Communist phrasing, right?” I nodded.

The Manhattan Institute also is underwriting for Rufo a boosted emphasis on the use of YouTube. When I visited, he was readying to tape another lengthy video. “A-cam is rolling. B-cam is rolling,” said one of his two assistants on hand. “Ready when you are.” Rufo started talking and kept talking continuously for the next almost 30 minutes about President Joe Biden and DEI. “Fuck,” he said when he stopped. “Was I yelling again?”

I suggested it was mildly ironic YouTube was becoming such a conscious feature of his burgeoning multimedia operation given what he had said about the platform in some of his earliest public comments. “My idea of YouTube,” he told a reporter from the Sacramento Bee in the summer of 2007, “is 16-year-olds farting on each other.”

“Maybe,” he said to me with a laugh, “I’m regressing.”

Depends I guess on one’s perspective. But what’s totally true is that the first chapter of Rufo’s post-college life started with a lie.

After growing up “upper middle class” and Catholic — his father was heavily involved in their Jesuit parish, his mother was for a time the coordinator of professional standards for California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and he spoke Italian at home, played Magic: The Gathering and once won an award at the Monterey Jazz Festival for playing the guitar — Rufo moved for college to Washington to attend Georgetown’s school of foreign service. He had, an English professor who taught Rufo once recalled, “a remarkable ability to make a complex statement in a single powerful image.” By the time, though, he was to graduate in 2006, Rufo was feeling “a bit rudderless.” That’s when he met in the Wisconsin Avenue Whole Foods (of all people) the Clintons-connected fixer and filmmaker Cody Shearer. “We started talking about movies. He says, ‘I’m a producer, and I’m looking for a cameraman. We’re going to Lebanon and Cyprus.’ So I said, ‘That’s funny, because I’m a cameraman and have won cinematography awards,’” Rufo told the Bee. “A complete lie. Total B.S.” he said. “I had never turned on a video camera in my life.” (“I would definitely not do something like that now,” Rufo told me, “but I admire the chutzpah of my younger self.”)

But it kickstarted a career. He checked out of the project with Shearer and kept moving east — and while DeSantis was a Navy lawyer and then largely a lesser-known loner in Congress plotting his path, Rufo in his 20s and early 30s made movies. The first came out in 2008 and was a spirited but inexpert travelogue from Mongolia the New York Times termed “self-involved.” (Shearer told me Rufo shot it with a camera he stole, which Rufo denies, and called him “a con man.”) The second was about elderly athletes. The third might have been his best — deft, empathetic treatment of ethnic and political tensions through the compelling lens of a Uyghur-Han baseball team playing in western China. And the fourth, which he worked on for five years and released in 2019, was called “America Lost” — about the “forgotten American cities” of Youngstown, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; and Stockton, California — an immersive exploration Rufo says contributed to his own political conversion. Government programs, he concluded, hadn’t worked and never would. The answer was more along the lines of family and faith. “The far-left kind of politics is incompatible with reality,” he told me in his living room now. “That’s the big lesson of the movie.”

At Georgetown, Rufo marched against the war in Iraq. For a stretch, he thought of himself as something like a libertarian. In 2016, he voted for Gary Johnson (before voting, he says, for Trump four years later). In 2018, as DeSantis in Florida ran for governor and won, Rufo ran for city council in Seattle — as an independent. Self-identifying at the time as a “centrist” — “fiscally conservative” but “socially liberal” — he nonetheless was increasingly angered by the city’s intensifying homelessness crisis. He campaigned against what he dubbed the “activist class” — “the socialist intellectuals,” as he put it, “the compassion brigades, the homeless-industrial complex, and the addiction evangelists” — before dropping out because of mounting menacing internet threats against him and his wife, who was a computer programmer at Amazon, and their children. “I plan to spend the next few months reflecting on this experience and charting a way forward in a series of essays,” Rufo wrote.

And so he wrote. He wrote more and more for one conservative think tank in Seattle (the Discovery Institute) and another in New York (the Manhattan Institute) — often cross-posted, with titles like “Seattle Under Siege” and “Progressives Gone Wild” — and the tenor of this work throughout 2019 led to a consequential tip in the summer of 2020 defined by Covid-spawned lockdowns and the murder of George Floyd. A Seattle city employee told him about its Office of Civil Rights inviting “white City employees” to a training session called “Interrupting Internalized Racial Superiority and Whiteness.” Rufo requested public records to learn more about similar sessions. He noticed these sessions cited anti-racist authors Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, and he noticed they cited sources tracing back to something called critical race theory. Critical race theory often is described as a graduate-level academic discipline, and it is, with roots in the 1970s and ‘80s mainly in law schools, but at base it’s a worldview — that the United States from its outset was and remains to some extent holistically racist. And it’s a worldview that’s by nature also activist. The people who believe the racism that exists in this country is not individually aberrant but baked into its institutions also believe that needs to change. They don’t simply argue for the acknowledgement of this reality but advocate for a bold remedy as well. Rufo, though, saw in those three words a powerful political weapon.

What he wrote about his research led to invitations to appear on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” He said on the show that August that critical race theory was “spreading like wildfire through our public institutions.” He called it “more dangerous” than “nuclear weapons.” He said on the show in September critical race theory was “an existential threat.” And he spoke through the screen straight to Donald Trump. “I call on the president,” he said, to issue an executive order to “stamp out this destructive, divisive, pseudoscientific ideology.” Trump, of course, was watching, which led to a call from Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff at the time, which led to an executive order signed by Trump, which led to more and more hits on Fox News and a speech at Hillsdale College and ultimately to stories in the New Yorker and the Washington Post.

“One of the things that I think about a lot is how much of our political discourse is actually about controlling the political discourse, and I think Chris Rufo really understands that,” Mercieca, the rhetoric expert, who teaches at Texas A&M, told me. “In a way,” she said of Rufo, in part because of the air of self-satisfaction she senses, her suspicion that he thinks he’s playing a game and thinks he’s playing it well, “he reminds me of Edward Bernays” — a 20th-century master of his craft, the man who wrote the book called Propaganda.

Rufo himself has made it plain. “We have successfully frozen their brand — critical race theory — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions,” he wrote on Twitter in March of 2021. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think critical race theory.” This strategy is “so obvious,” he has said. “If you want to see public policy outcomes you have to run a public persuasion campaign.”

And critical race theory, as Rufo saw it, was “the perfect villain.” The same way a young Newt Gingrich in Congress started the Conservative Opportunity Society because it was to him the three-beat opposite of the “Liberal Welfare State,” Rufo identified an opening all the more ripe due to the fact that he was co-opting a term that was not even his own — with “connotations,” he assessed, “all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’”

That summer he flagged to a reporter from the New Yorker what was next. He aimed “to politicize the bureaucracy.” He said the debate over critical race theory was a way for conservatives to “take some of these essentially corrupted state agencies and then contest them, and then create rival power centers within them.”

He heard from the DeSantis team shortly thereafter.

“Not from him personally,” Rufo told me, but from staff. “They said,” he said, “‘We’re putting together this policy, we’d love to have you advise, we’d love to have you come out and help announce it, we’d love to have essentially your support in pushing this concept through.’” Rufo obviously obliged. “I said, ‘That sounds great. I’m very excited.’” And if Fox News had given Rufo a platform, DeSantis put him on the physical, literal stage.

“So first,” said DeSantis in unveiling his so-called Stop WOKE Act at a ceremony in The Villages in December of 2021, “I’m going to bring up from the Manhattan Institute someone who really has done more than anybody else in our country on exposing CRT in education and in corporate America …”

“Governor Ron DeSantis is laying a marker,” Rufo said to the gathered crowd. “And he’s not only protecting all of the employees and students in the state of Florida. He’s providing a model for every state in the United States of America.”

“Getting it done,” Rufo tweeted at Pushaw that afternoon.

He was back last April for the signing ceremony in Hialeah Gardens. And whereas Rufo in The Villages had been near the rear of the stage, snapping pictures, looking boyish, looking somewhat fannish, looking pleased to be present, now he was directly to the left of the governor.

“And so I give you,” said Ron DeSantis, “Chris Rufo.”

‘Working in a bureaucracy is very unappealing’

Rufo burst out of the building at New College.

“No violence!” he barked at the crowd of mostly critics that had gathered outside in the blue-sky, west-central-Florida warmth and sun this past January 25.

Rufo, wearing a trim navy suit and holding an iced Americano from Starbucks, referenced a death threat he said had been made against another of the new trustees — the trustee about to join him for meet-and-greets and question-and-answer periods with faculty and staff in the morning and then students in the afternoon.

“No bullshit!”

Not quite three weeks prior — January 6 — Rufo had been the first name listed (and the longest bio) on the announcement about New College from DeSantis’ office. The news elicited a smattering of comments from the governor’s aides in Tallahassee — it was the hope of the DeSantis administration, his chief of staff told the Daily Caller, that New College would become “a Hillsdale of the South” — but Rufo effectively and swiftly had become the most front-and-center spokesman, wasting no time putting into motion the mission. The very first day, for instance, he pointed on Twitter to a speech he had given at Hillsdale. “Laying Siege to the Institutions,” it was called. “We are now over the walls,” he said. The plan was to “reconquer public institutions,” he told the Times. “And so,” he wrote for City Journal on January 23, “we will plunge into a period of inevitable conflict and controversy.” And now it was two days later. The first actual meeting of the board with the new trustees wasn’t even for another week. But here Rufo already was.

“No violence?” somebody said from the crowd.

“Yeah!” Rufo said.

“No bullshit?”

“Yeah!”

“Are you an official?”

Yeah!” he said, his face brightening, his stern expression giving way to a grin, as if even he was still a little surprised and adjusting to this new post and power.

I called Hemmer, the conservative media historian, after one of my recent trips to Florida. “I don’t think Rufo’s ideas are novel,” she told me, “but the way they have been empowered by the state, both through DeSantis’ legislation but then also this appointment, seems like an important development.”

“The governor is smart enough to engage people in certain situations that can help further what he wants to accomplish,” said Nick Iarossi, another prominent Tallahassee lobbyist with close DeSantis ties. “Even though Chris Rufo is new to the Governor’s orbit, Rufo’s research on DEI programs within the state university system and placement on the New College board of trustees will further the governor’s agenda.”

“What that tells us,” a third former aide to DeSantis told me, “is that Ron will be happy to put partisan ideologues in places in the government.”

“He’s an operative,” said Democrat Anna Eskamani, a state representative from Orlando and an especially vehement and consistent DeSantis detractor. “With a fancier title — the Manhattan Institute — but he’s an operative.”

Rufo is an operative, though, who has been deployed in this quite specific way. “Whereas Trump’s thing was he had, like, six loyal people and he just used them wherever he needed anybody,” the person who has worked with both Rufo and DeSantis told me when we talked, “DeSantis is much more, like, ‘What is the exact shape I need in this spot? And I’ll just get that person.”

And what that looked like here on January 25 was this: After Rufo had emerged to call for “no violence” and “no bullshit” — inside the building in the foyer to a gaggle of reporters, on the stage talking to faculty and staff and then the students, in semi-private scrums after the sessions — Rufo made it clear the reason he was here.

“I’ve worked with the governor,” he said. “I think he trusts me,” he said. “I think he is really a once-in-a-lifetime leader,” he said. He called DeSantis “a transformational political figure.” He called himself and the other new trustees “political appointees.”

“We have a mandate, and a vision, to transform this institution,” he said, an implicit nod to DeSantis’ overwhelming, 19.4-point re-election margin last year.

“He makes policies that are beyond the spectacle,” Rufo told me. “He knows how to use the spectacle — that’s the world that we live in — but then when the dust settles, and then you look at what he’s actually moving forward, he’s changing laws, he’s changing curricula, he’s changing institutions, he’s changing leadership, he’s changing governance,” he said. “And I think that if you contrast that with other, you know, executives — presidents maybe — you can fill in the blanks — you have a kind of model for a successful legislative style.”

Less than a week later, on January 31 and after appearing in the morning in nearby Bradenton on another stage with DeSantis, Rufo by that afternoon was back at New College — for the first official meeting, at which he and the other appointees voted to fire the president they subsequently replaced with the DeSantis-approved Richard Corcoran.

On the Friday before the trustees’ meeting on the last day of February, Rufo was back in Florida — for a retreat with DeSantis in Palm Beach of some 150 donors, elected officials and “influencers” ranging from Ann Coulter to Mick Mulvaney to the lady from “Libs of TikTok.” A few days later, though, he was home — getting rid of DEI via Zoom.

Since then, New College’s top diversity officer was fired and the provost has stepped down. “The new trustees and president at New College,” DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said in a statement, “are committed to refocusing the institution.” The next step? “Overhaul the academics,” Rufo told me. He, meanwhile, has been in California for a Manhattan Institute panel. Right now he’s in … Hungary — as a visiting fellow at the Danube Institute to “headline an in-depth look at critical race theory and how this ideology is” — as the right-of-center think tank sees it —“infecting Western institutions on both sides of the Atlantic.” He told me he’d be there a month.

“I’m doing a number of public events and then I’m also meeting with government officials and think-tankers on kind of understanding what they’re doing here, giving some sense of what I’m doing and also learning from what they’re doing,” Rufo said Thursday when I reached him in Budapest. I asked if one of those meetings with government officials was going to be with Prime Minister Viktor Orban. “One’s in the works,” he said. “I’m also meeting with some of the higher education administrators.”

Back at his house in Gig Harbor, Rufo to me had sounded already like he thought his involvement at New College was set to recede somewhat. “The thing that I offer to the board kind of has already been done,” he said. “My big value addition to the board was the P.R. rollout of the New College takeover.” To wit: the Times, the Post, The Bulwark, The Atlantic, on and on, not to mention his own Substack and YouTube and Twitter with a (growing) following better than half a million strong. “It’s always about amplification—social media, earned media,” the former DeSantis aide who told me about his utilization of “partisan ideologues” explained. “What he ultimately hopes, I’m sure, is Chris Rufo will go on TV and explain why DeSantis is a better choice than Trump if you care about, you know, protecting your kids from CRT and whatever else.”

I asked Rufo if he might be working in the future in additional capacities for DeSantis, or any other politician, for that matter.

“I would certainly consider it, but I would say that for my own personality, my own character, working in a bureaucracy, having a lot of meetings, showing up at some office somewhere every day, is very unappealing to me,” he said.

“I’m doing the New College trustee appointment because I really believe in it. I want it to be successful, I think it can demonstrate some of the ideas that I’ve been working on the last year or two, and so I feel like I’m willing to serve. But if that were my full-time style of work, I don’t know …”

“So I shouldn’t look for you,” I said, “at the White House in a few years.”

“I mean,” he said, “depends who’s there.”

He smiled.

“I’ll — I’ll be — I’ll be around,” he said.