The modern American right is preoccupied with being viewed as heroic, in particular with its self-conception as savior of the republic. Heroes, of course, require enemies. So throughout postwar history, right-wing ideologues have specialized in concocting them, supposedly dire existential threats to the nation spun into whole cloth out of tidbits of half-fact: Communists, Satanic occultists, New World Order overlords, cultural Marxists, antifa, Black radicals, adrenochrome-harvesting pedophilia rings—all have had their turns as right-wing bogeymen.
The latest is critical race theory (CRT), which seems to have appeared out of nowhere as the latest great threat to America. (On Fox News, as Matt Grossman notes, the issue was mentioned zero times in 2018; four times in 2019; 77 times in 2020; and so far in 2021, 626 times.) Despite the issue having received zero attention until this year, Republican-controlled state legislatures in places like Idaho, Tennessee, Texas, and Oklahoma have passed laws outlawing its use in their public classrooms, while school boards around the country have been besieged by right-wing ideologues demanding it be excised from their curricula.
The whole campaign against CRT, in fact, appears to be primarily the work of a handful of astroturfing “dark money” right-wing organizations. And its central figure is named Christopher Rufo, a longtime right-wing think tank activist with a history of promoting various kinds of spurious enemy concoctions
First, exactly what is critical race theory anyway? As Marisa Iati of The Washington Post explains, it’s an academic framework based on the idea—one well-grounded in factual history—that racial discrimination and inequality are built into the American systems of law and governance as well as its culture. Most of this framework emerged in the 1970s and afterwards, with the first academic workshop on it occurring in 1989. For the most part, this framework is considered something of an academic niche.
But over the past year, thanks largely to the factually dubious rantings of a cadre of right-wing ideologues online and in the media, it has come to be synonymous with “cultural Marxism,” another far-right bogeyman concocted as an existential threat to Western civilization. So the term is on the tongues of the mob of Republicans propagandists appearing on right-wing media, and the legislators who then sponsor new laws prohibiting teachers from discussing CRT—none of whom in fact can actually describe what it is in real terms or provide factual examples.
As Laura Clawson recently noted, one Republican lawmaker from Alabama named Chris Pringle was asked by a reporter to define the term. He said that CRT “basically teaches that certain children are inherently bad people because of the color of their skin, period.” Who was teaching that? “Yeah, uh, well—I can assure you—I’ll have to read a lot more.”
Pringle insisted that the threat was real, apparently because he had seen a video with a conspiracy theory: “These people, when they were doing the training programs—and the government—if you didn’t buy into what they taught you a hundred percent, they sent you away to a reeducation camp.” Say again? “The white male executives are sent to a three-day re-education camp, where they were told that their white male culture wasn’t their—”
In fact, Pringle appears to have been regurgitating something Chris Rufo described to Tucker Carlson on Fox News, even if he couldn’t quite get the story straight.
What they all can tell you, though, is that CRT is some kind of attack on American capitalism and white people. One political action committee dedicated to backing anti-CRT school-board candidates, the 1776 Project PAC, claims that CRT advocates are trying to remake the United States to reject capitalism and the nation’s founding principles, and that CRT is “hostile to white people.”
One Missouri legislator explained why they sponsored an anti-CRT billed there: “Over the past several years, there have been many attempts to fundamentally change our traditions and our rich history.”
Another claimed: “I think CRT, and in particular the 1619 project, does in fact seek to make children feel guilt and even anguish, not because of anything they’ve done, but solely based on the color of their skin. I think that is a definite issue and a problem because I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about the way God made them.”
One member of Utah’s state school board offered a long list of words that she said were euphemisms for critical race theory, including “social justice,” “culturally responsive,” and “critical self-reflection.”
“Let me be clear, there’s no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a March news conference. “Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.”
Educators, at least, understand the score. The Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers noted in a late-May statement that anti-education rightists “want this to be a wedge issue” with the public: “The bill is part of a national movement by conservatives trying to sow a narrative of students being indoctrinated by teachers. Our members rightfully have expressed outrage against this insult of their professionalism to provide balanced conversations with students on controversial issues.”
Even some of the participants are surprisingly upfront about the dynamic at work here: At the end of the day, it’s a way to whip up the voting base by hijacking their amygdalas, whipping the footsoldiers into line and into a froth—all for the sake of making a buck and a media rep.
One lawyer for parents suing their child’s school district over alleged CRT-fueled discrimination was frank with NBC News: “Some people are treating it like a gold rush,” Jonathan O’Brien said. “This is a new area where people think they can either become famous or make money on the issue, and they’re probably right.”
O’Brien, in fact, later joined a group of attorneys focused on CRT that was organized by Rufo, who is a senior fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute think tank. Rufo has a long and colorful history promoting a menu of right-wing causes du jour—especially wedge issues designed to undermine mainstream support for liberal politics.
In a March Twitter exchange with another CRT-hysteria promoter, James Lindsay, Rufo explicitly outlined their cynical marketing strategy to make their concocted bogeyman the repository of all things the public dislikes:
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.
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.
Rufo and Lindsay, in fact, have been explicit in connecting critical race theory with “cultural Marxism.” Lindsay has argued that while, yes, it’s true that the notion of “cultural Marxism” and its spread into the public discourse in fact was largely the concoction of antisemitic white nationalists who were fabricating another bogeyman for public consumption, the very same term could somehow be applied more broadly now to critical race theory and social justice theory with no extremist connotation whatever.
Rufo spent a number of years in Seattle as a fellow at the Discovery Institute, a creationist organization that specializes in promoting “intelligent design” as an education wedge issue. It also has promoted the “cultural Marxism” nonsense, while Rufo’s disquisitions on Marxism there have helped build the new branded narrative around critical race theory.
Rufo also was a prominent figure in the right-wing narrative that “Seattle is dying” that circulated in right-wing media from 2019 to 2020, particularly in his attacks on what he called the “politics of ruinous compassion” and the “homeless-industrial complex,” which he claims is a “billion-dollar industry.” Rufo also ran for Seattle city council, but performed poorly in local polling and dropped out, claiming he and his family had been subjected to threats. (Rufo later tried to substantiate the claim by producing an email from an interlocutor who told him to “get bent.”)
But after drifting through a number of right-wing causes, Rufo—who moved out of Seattle to take up residence in rural Kitsap County, where he set up a studio for peddling his propaganda—the “critical race theory” brand has clearly caught on for him. Have Grift, Will Travel.
At the New York Post, Rufo’s prose explaining the subject is both abstruse and inaccurate, but laden with the red-meat appeals to right-wing Trumpian sensibilities:
During the 20th century, a number of regimes underwent Marxist-style revolutions, and each ended in disaster. Socialist governments in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Cuba and elsewhere racked up a body count of nearly 100 million people. They are remembered for gulags, show trials, executions and mass starvations. In practice, Marx’s ideas unleashed man’s darkest brutalities.
… But rather than abandon their political project, Marxist scholars in the West simply adapted their revolutionary theory to the social and racial unrest of the 1960s. Abandoning Marx’s economic dialectic of capitalists and workers, they substituted race for class and sought to create a revolutionary coalition of the dispossessed based on racial and ethnic categories.
… When I say that critical race theory is becoming the operating ideology of our public institutions, I am not exaggerating — from the universities to bureaucracies to K-12 school systems, critical race theory has permeated the collective intelligence and decision-making process of American government, with no sign of slowing down.
The upshot of the rant, however, is to fabricate the bogeyman of a nefarious Communist cabal pulling the strings on American culture to ensure its destruction: “Identity is the means; Marxism is the end,” Rufo writes.
As Alex Shephard observes at The New Republic:
Rufo and his fellow travelers hold that sinister forces are at work whenever students are exposed to real American history. It may seem good to educate yourself about racial injustices and the institutional structures that have propped them up for centuries, but that’s just a cover for a more fanciful threat: the takeover of American institutions by a cabal of Marxist-Leninists and social justice warriors.
He also correctly identifies the primary reason the controversy, such as it is, even exists—namely, because the American Right is desperate to create some kind of enemy, any kind of enemy, as long as they can make it sound plausible:
Much like their recent obsessions with “lab leak theory,” conservatives’ fixation with critical race theory can best be understood as a useful proxy villain filling the vacuum left by their failure to uncover a more substantive way of attacking Joe Biden during the first six months of his term—a vacuum that mainly exists because of the Republican Party’s retreat from policy debates. The fact that critical race theory is always so hazily defined—and also so completely malevolent—makes it the perfect catch-all malefactor for a culture-war-obsessed right that’s desperate to end conversations around corrupt policing and structural racism. It is everywhere and nowhere at once; a spectral threat forever lurking in the shadows that’s just nonexistent enough to ensure that it can never be defeated.
Of course, we should also never overlook their need to make a buck off their grift-loving voter base. That’s always at work too.