Jake McPhail ’24 & Kash Jain ’24
On September 22nd, 2020, then-President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13950, “Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping.” On its face, the order may have appeared to be a fully benign move against racism and sexism, though federal law already bars gender and race-based stereotyping. Beyond the surface, however, was the beginning of something more insidious: a campaign against critical race theory (CRT), a framework known primarily by legal scholars and academics.
Twenty days earlier, a then-obscure conservative activist and former political candidate, Christopher Rufo, went on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” to decry CRT. He claimed that this legal framework had become the “default ideology of the federal bureaucracy” and that it was being “weaponized against the American people.” Rufo asked Trump to issue an executive order to “stamp out” this theory and, just weeks later, the President did.
This was just the beginning of what would spiral into a year-long campaign across the country, led by conservative activists and prominent Republican officials, to ban CRT from schools and workplaces. To the champions of this movement, it didn’t matter that they were completely misrepresenting the theory and the content of diversity training programs; it didn’t matter that they were outright lying about a legal framework being taught to children; and, it didn’t matter that this campaign led to attempts—sometimes successful—to ban content and books that had nothing to do with CRT. It was a talking point, a salient issue that got Republican voters fired up and concerned about what their children were being taught. Republicans could campaign on a vague notion of parental rights in education, claiming that children were being brainwashed and that parents should utilize the ballot box and public forums to attack this so-called “cult indoctrination.”
The campaign to mischaracterize and lie about CRT is a small facet of a much larger movement on the Right to shift public focus to social issues. In the absence of detailed policy goals and solutions to issues that Americans face, conservatives have pivoted to campaigns supporting vague notions of “traditional values” that are often little more than thinly-veiled attacks on expanded civil rights and societal progression.
Since late 2021, CRT has largely fallen out of the public discourse, in no small part by a deliberate move by conservatives to target other issues. Many prominent conservatives have shifted to a new campaign against the discussion of LGBTQ+ matters in schools. Following similar lines of reasoning to the anti-CRT campaign, conservatives have pushed for legislation to bar mention of sexual orientation or gender identity from classrooms, often falsely claiming that any mention of LGBTQ+-related topics was an attempt by teachers to “groom” students.
Christopher Rufo has become a prominent member of this campaign, promoting Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and similar legislation that have been decried by legal scholars and LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations alike. His rhetoric—and that of many conservative thinkers, really—has been particularly insidious, and it helps explain what the aim of conservatives is with this campaign.
In a series of tweets on June 17th, 2022, Rufo laid out how conservatives could construct a false argument to antagonize LGBTQ+ individuals in order to “win” the debate. First, he stated that conservatives should refer to drag queens as “trans strippers” to establish a “more lurid set of connotations and shift the debate to sexualization.” Rufo continues to argue that this would turn these falsehoods into an “unstoppable argument.”
The fact that he is twisting reality doesn’t really matter to the success of his campaign. Rufo argued that anyone opposed to his campaign would end up focusing on language and would have to defend “concepts and words that are deeply disturbing to most people.” Instead of pointing at the fact that there aren’t drag queens in schools, opponents would instead point out Rufo’s mischaracterization, allowing conservatives to continue to invent a problem.
Rufo laid out his ultimate goals earlier this year: he wants to claim that there are ideologues dominating public education and force these individuals to publicly define and defend their views. However, these individuals don’t exist; despite Rufo’s claims that there are many well-placed academics and public officials supporting pedophilia and trying to brainwash children, there simply aren’t. But, as he has continuously pointed out, it’s a salient argument to make, even if it has no real basis in reality. Parents don’t want their children to be brainwashed or harmed, a perfectly rational instinct that can easily be weaponized for nefarious purposes.
Conservatives like Rufo have laid out a clear plan of attack when it comes to social issues; it’s carefully worded, aggressive, and effective. They hide between linguistic arguments and technicalities, fueling a deliberately misleading campaign. Rufo is an expert in this; he constructed the anti-CRT campaign and is now using that framework against an LGBTQ+ “ideology” that he calls “Radical Gender Theory.” What he refers to is nothing more than a rejection of the gender binary and homophobia by scientists and academics, but Rufo has turned it into a demon.
Rufo takes something innocuous, such as anti-racism training or mentions of same-sex attraction, and transforms it into something morally egregious. He pulls on a strand of truth, weaving a tapestry of schools overrun by ideologues hell-bent on corrupting and harming children. For the most part, he won’t say anything that is completely false; but, through carefully-chosen words and added connotations, he can claim that something as benign as storytime in a library is a coordinated effort to groom children in schools across the nation.
This campaign has an end goal: pushing children into private and charter schools in hopes that this will turn the tide against what conservatives view as the degradation of American society but is really just broadened acceptance. They want a return to “traditional” views and values and will resort to fearmongering and misrepresentation as a way to achieve that goal.
Rufo is not a one-man show: he is a part of the conservative orchestra creating a distorted song to sour the American public’s view on education. For the last half-century, conservatives have decried the progression of American thought, values, and rights. When searching for a source, the Right’s finger-pointing has been sporadic and unyielding; now, they’ve turned their gaze to education. Conservatives like Christopher Rufo will continue their attacks by warping reality and stoking fear, carefully building a false story to stifle progress and further malign marginalized communities.