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Propaganda, Spectacle, and the Joy of Politics

There is nobody in politics quite like Chris Rufo. Other than Trump, it’s hard to think of many on the right who in recent years have done more to single-handedly change the discourse and expand the realm of what is possible in the policy arena.

Last week, I reviewed his new book, America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything. This week, he joins me on the CSPI podcast to discuss it. A transcript of our discussion is provided below.

This wasn’t simply a conversation about his book, but an opportunity for me to ask Rufo questions about how he thinks about engaging with the discourse, changing minds, and ultimately winning political battles. While liberals have attacked Chris for being a “propagandist,” the truth is that, as he points out, everyone in the world of ideas is trying to sell something. The only question is whether you are honest about that, and Chris is extremely thoughtful and candid regarding how he sees the intellectual and political landscape.

If you’re not familiar with just how much influence Chris has had in recent years, I recommend checking out this profile in Politico.

Finally, make sure to buy his book, and also pre-order mine, as they complement one another well. You wouldn’t study the rise of Christianity or the triumph of Bolshevism from just one perspective if you were hoping to develop a sophisticated understanding of what happened. Engagement with both the ideas and the laws behind the rise of woke are necessary to understand the current moment. And through knowledge comes the power to bring change.

As always, the transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.

Richard: Hi everyone, welcome to the podcast. I’m here today with Chris Rufo. He’s got a new book out called America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything. I mean, if you’re watching this on YouTube, you could see his, Chris, why don’t you hold up the book so people can see it? It’s a very nice cover.

Chris: Here it is.

Richard: Yeah, that’s the advantage of having a fancy publisher. So yeah, it’s going to be out. We’re recording this on July 11th. The release date is the, what’s the release date again?

Chris: The 18th.

Richard: Okay, so by the time this is out the book is going to be out. And Chris, it’s great to have you here. I mean, we’ve talked a little bit. We’ve talked on the phone, we’ve sent messages back and forth, but this is the first time I’ve seen your face and been able to talk to you. And the first thing I want to ask is where did you come from? Because I think I started noticing you 2019, 2020, but I looked into your background and you had been a filmmaker, you had done some other stuff too. So can you give people just a little summary of how you got here?

Chris: Yeah, so I started my career after I graduated from college as a documentary filmmaker. I produced films, directed films, edited films. I was really in the documentary world for more than 10 years. And the documentary world is its own little artistic and creative ghetto. It’s a small industry, it’s a prestige economy, meaning that there’s not a lot of a financial economy in the documentary world. And so it’s really been captured by all the institutions that we think of as woke today, dating back many years. And so I went through my own political transformation during that time, found myself leaning more and more right to the point where I directed a film for PBS that was I guess conservative in its political orientation, and that was the end of my documentary career. And so around 2019, I made a transition to doing journalism, reporting, some think tank work, and then it really picked up in 2020 when I started reporting on Critical Race Theory.

Richard: Yeah, and what kind of documentaries did you used to make?

Chris: I did a bunch of different films. I did some travel films early on. I did a film in China on the Uyghurs. I did a film about athletes up to 100 years old that compete in all these Olympic sports. And then I did a film on American poverty, surveying three of America’s poorest cities and trying to kind of tease out some social and political lessons from that experience.

Richard: And so how did you make the transition? So you’re in documentary, you’re in some social circle, some professional circle when you’re making films. How did you sort of transition into political writing and activism?

Chris: Yeah, I mean it really happened actually… I started reaching out a little bit in the political sphere as I was making that last movie and started building a little bit of a network. I went to some conferences. But what really took me out of one world and into the next world was the relationship with a guy named Bruce Chapman, who’s the founder of the Discovery Institute. He worked in the Reagan administration. He ran the Census Bureau, which is kind of an interesting job, in the 1980s. And he watched an early version of the film that I was directing on American poverty and he said, hey, I was living in Seattle, his institute is in Seattle, and he said, hey, use your experience, what you’ve learned about American poverty making this film, and I’m going to commission you to write a report on homelessness and homelessness policy in the city of Seattle. And so that initial report that I wrote for Bruce, really was the first thing that I was able to do that was purely in journalism, policy, think tank world. And then once that came out, my documentary cred was burned forever. So I had to sink or swim. I was something like in my early 30s and said, all right, well, I guess we’re going to gear up for a big career transition. So I plunged in headfirst and really started doing this full time.

Richard: Yeah, I mean, and it’s amazing. I mean, I think I knew about you before. So I mean, like, so I’ve been interested in conservative politics forever. I haven’t been a public figure for that long. I think I popped up around the same time as you, around 2020. And I remember knowing about civil rights law and all the problems with it back in 2011, 2012, when I was a law student. And I was just sitting around for a decade, like I wish somebody would write about this. I wish somebody would talk about this. It’s such an easy case to make. I would actually know people who were writers. And I’d be like this is very interesting. You should write about it. And nobody ever did. And then finally, like a decade later, I do it. I’m like, oh, okay. It should have just been me the whole time.

And with you, I think that you came on the scene, and what I was frustrated about was just, there’s so much complaining on the right about these cultural issues, right? And you just came and you were on TV, you went on Fox News and you just said, “executive order, ban critical race theory.” And it happens. It happens within a week, right? [laughs] And so, do you just ever stop to think, what have conservatives been doing all this time, right? With all these election victories, all this money, why did it take so long for them to focus on these cultural issues? Because this stuff has been around forever.

Chris: Yeah, I do think about that a lot and I think there’s a few problems. One is that you don’t get what you want unless you ask for it. That’s first and foremost. You say what you want, you ask other people to do it, it’s in their self-interest as well as in your interest. You provide them a narrative, evidence, argument, whatever they might need in order to make it successful for them. And then you do it. It seems in some ways very simple.

But I think part of the problem is that the right has come off this hangover from the Moral Majority days. The culture war of the Moral Majority era, Republican politicians, has at this point lost all of its currency. I mean, it’s basically vanished. I mean, you and I follow this stuff really closely. I can’t think of a single person who embodies that kind of argument or that kind of style that has any purchase in modern culture. And so the political class is really a lagging indicator of all these trends. I had a lunch, a congressional breakfast rather, sitting down with all these Republican congressmen, trying to explain to them Critical Race Theory. And it really hit me, these guys are from suburban or exurban red states, they may own a car dealership or some sort of like poultry processing plant. I mean, they’re old-school business, conservative guys, free market guys.

And it was very difficult to explain it to them. And I sensed that there was even a discomfort for them in the discussion. And I say, oh, wow, we have to rapidly get our politicians to catch up with those of us in the intellectual world or the policy world. And so there’s a disconnect as one generation’s power and influence wanes and as our generation’s power and influence waxes. And so I think part of it is a generational question. And the other part, and I think that in your experience looking at 2011 to now, people were scared to talk about these issues, but after George Floyd, after the Critical Race Theory debate, which we won resoundingly in my opinion, I think the fear has dissipated and people are very much willing to speak openly about these issues. And then certainly the Supreme Court by chipping away at affirmative action recently, they felt like they had the political and cultural opening to push the boundary there. And so I think that it is time for pushing a lot harder and I think our books coming out with the same publisher in roughly the same season, I think it’s good and I hope they both lay down a marker for what’s to come.

Richard: Yeah, I think about it the same way. You’ve talked about the generational differences. Oh, it also seems to me like there’s just a sort of class or regional thing. So you look at the left, their intellectuals are like the same people as their politicians, right? They’re from the same places. I wrote an essay not that long ago, about things conservatives have won on. And I’ve been thinking about what explains the pattern. So abortion and guns are the two big ones where there’s been big change on policy to the right in the last 30, 40 years. And those are issues that religious rural people tend to care about. Me and you, we think, I don’t know what your opinions on those things are, but we think a lot about universities and Critical Race Theory.

And I’m just thinking if you’re representing some rural Georgia district, you care about babies and you care about guns, you don’t care about Critical Race Theory. You never see Critical Race Theory. You don’t care about affirmative action. You’re a small business owner. You’re not Walmart, you’re not going through these trainings. So part of it I think is just like, it’s just sort of the geography and sort of like where people are placed. And yeah, that seems like something we’ve needed to overcome, but I’m glad we’re doing it.  

Chris: Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s a town and country problem in some ways. So you have conservatives, those of us, I mean, you’re in LA. I’m in the Seattle area. A lot of our colleagues are in New York. So we’re in an interesting position where our political base is quite different in geography, in demographics even, than the conservative intellectual class, which is embedded, for better or for worse, in largely blue areas with blue cultures and blue policies. And so I think it gives us an advantage. We can anticipate and see much earlier than conservative political leaders that are more tied geographically to the political base.

But then we have this problem. We have this gap or this chasm between conservative intellectuals and the conservative political class. And so what I’ve really tried to do is bridge that gap very consciously, very deliberately, and very strategically. I want to see policy victories. I want to see conservatives achieve power and wield power effectively. And I know that requires me to do some things, emphasize certain things, deemphasize other things, speak in a certain way to different audiences on different media, and I’m trying to always figure out how I can bridge that gap because my idea of success personally is when my ideas attain power, when my ideas become public policy. And so that’s the game that I’m playing and I’m trying to figure out in a very unique way, very different than our colleagues on the left for the reasons you describe. How does that work? How does an idea… You know, get written in Times New Roman font, on the legislative website or whatever? That’s kind of the translation that I’m looking for. And I’ve been fortunate enough to have been successful a number of times recently.

Richard: Yeah, I mean, that’s one thing I’ve admired about you is that you are — the leftists will take quotes out of context. Oh, he’s just a propagandist. He’s giving the game away. Oh, he’s just manipulating people. And no, you’re doing — look, first, there are dishonest political actors out there. There are all these people who lie and just make things up, right? They are out there. You’re not one of them. You’re grounded in the facts. Obviously, you’re trying to sell your ideas, but without lying to people. And actually what a good marketer or what a good seller does is you connect, you sell it to people in their own terms and make what you’re selling seem like something they want because often it is something they want. They just don’t know that they want it yet, or they don’t know that they could benefit from it yet. So like, so you didn’t invent this backlash to wokeness. You didn’t invent a lot of America looking at our elites and saying these people are out of their minds.

Chris: I mean it’s ridiculous right? It’s like, I have a small team in Gig Harbor, Washington. The idea that I could somehow manufacture mass movements out of my small office, I mean, thank you. I take it as a compliment. Even though it’s not true, I’ll extract a compliment out of it. But no, what I was able to do is I was able to synthesize a feeling in the public, report on it, and substantiate it in fact, and then create the language and narrative that then the public could rally behind and say, oh yeah, this identifies my feeling. And so I’m a firm supply-sider in this way. So one of my mentors, George Gilder, often says, politics is also a supply-side economy. Political entrepreneurs come up with ideas, they sell them, and then they fall or they rise in the political marketplace. And so, that’s the business that we’re all in. I’m actually very honest about it, to the point where I will say, hey, here are my strategies, this is what I’m going to try to do, and you can then judge whether I succeed or fail. And so they say, oh, it’s propaganda. “Propaganda,” of course, is a word, I mean, they use it in a sense, kind of an anti-Catholic sense, the word is originally from Catholic doctrine, the propagation of the faith. So it’s the propagation of the truth, not of lies. That’s a very modernist kind of twist on the word. But in the sense that I’m a propagator of the truth with an interest in making it policy, I’m happy to take that charge right away with no hesitation.

Richard: Yeah, and when they do come after you, I’ve read a couple of the anti-Rufo pieces, it’s never like, here’s some practice of some transgender… I just was listening to your video this morning on Substack with the nullification, what was it called, where they give them genitals that are not male or female? Is that called nullification? Is that the right term?

Chris: Yeah.

Richard: How many of these are done, by the way? Do we have any idea?

Chris: The numbers are not clear, but some of the individual practitioners claim that they do a lot of these procedures. In Oregon, the hospital that I profiled, they can actually do two of these castrations per day because they’re using robots to perform these trans castrations. And all of this is publicly funded, by the way. I mean, in Oregon at least, they’re using taxpayer money to build robots to castrate people to create trans identities. I mean you almost feel that you’re being set up, and then you look at the documentation, you look at the evidence, and then they say it. I mean, they’re not hiding it, so.

And I think your point, though, is that my critics, invariably, never address the substance of my work and my reporting. They never address all of the reports I did on Critical Race Theory in schools. They just attack me personally. They never grapple with the substance. As such, I feel justified in really dismissing their personal criticism because implicit in their argument is, by being unwilling to engage in the substantive debate, they’re conceding defeat because they’re not even trying to confront the facts and the real arguments.

Richard: Yeah, exactly. So this stuff is indefensible. I mean and they won’t defend this crazy Critical Race Theory training. They won’t defend a lot of the trans stuff. You’re right. The argument seems to be along the lines of Rufo is a bad actor because he is a propagandist or, you know, the anti-democracy thing, you’re doing something undemocratic. Like, maybe this is a bad thing, but to do something about it, we won’t be a democracy if they do that. Let me ask you this, do you have hope that you can reach leftists? Because you’re mostly preaching to the choir, you’re talking to fellow conservatives, you’re saying, look at this crazy stuff, hey, Republican politicians, do x, y, z. That makes sense, so that would be your audience. Do you have hope of winning over leftists to just show them this stuff and say, look, it actually is crazy?

Chris: Yeah, well, I mean, yes and no. And this is something that I’ve learned that I think is really important. One of the lessons that I’ve learned is that oftentimes people will tell you, and even people in politics that should know better, they say, oh, you really need to preach beyond the choir. You need to reach out to leftists. You need to modulate your tone in order to convince The New York Times op-ed page to agree with you. You need to make sure that your argument is always couched in left-liberal therapeutic terms, etc.

But the problem with that is that you are asking people to agree with you that have no interest and no incentive to agree with you, and you’re making your argument as a kind of request. You’re actually in some way kind of on your knees begging them to agree with you. You’re framing the debate in their terms, which means, to be honest, that you’re losing the debate because the person who sets the frame has a tremendous advantage. Like the David French types, the conservatives who appeal to The Atlantic audience, in Atlantic audience terms, look at their records. Have they ever successfully moved the needle on any issue, any legislation, any public policy? The answer is almost invariably no. So the question is, well, why is that? What I’ve found, and with Critical Race Theory as a perfect example, this is where I really learned this lesson in practice, the left only responds when you force it into a response.

So the first thing is that they ignore it. They say, oh, we’re not going to report on Critical Race Theory, we’re going to hope it blows over. Then we revved it up into Fox News, where Fox News for about three, four months was just doing CRT wall-to-wall coverage. Thousands of stories on CRT. Then, The New York Times and others said, oh, CRT is a right-wing boogeyman, right-wing myth, it’s right-wing propaganda. It’s all a lie. There’s no CRT. They denied. Then legislators in conservative states started passing laws banning it. Then The New York Times engaged. They invited me on their podcast. They were writing articles denouncing me. The whole apparatus started engaging in the debate. And then when you have them engage in a debate, then you can actually really fight them kind of trench by trench, blow by blow, nail by nail. And then you’re actually in the political process.

And then you’re wrestling with the political question and then they lose or you lose. So you actually have then the makings of a binary political choice. And in this case, we won, I think, on CRT definitively, especially in red states. And I think even as a matter of public opinion, we won. But the lesson is that the left only responds when it has to. You can never persuade people on the left by asking them. You can only persuade people on the left by setting the frame, forcing the condition, and then making it so uncomfortable that they have to change their opinion. And then once you create that space, once you create that zone of possibility, that zone of neutrality even, kind of a DMZ, then the center-left liberals will come out like The New York Times has and said, well actually maybe DEI trainings are not so good after all. They’ve published a number of op-eds along those lines. That would have never happened unless we forced the debate at the early stages, and so I always think that you have to actually go with the most aggressive, right-wing message, you have to rally your base, you have to force political change, and only then do you have the negotiating leverage to start changing minds in the center.

Richard: That is, yeah, that’s interesting. So I was thinking along the lines of, okay, you say the left does this, the left does that. Usually when people talk like that I tend to think maybe we’re painting with too broad of a brush. Look, I know people who write for The New York Times, you probably do too. Some of them are very sensible people. Some of them are very reasonable people, The Atlantic, all these publications. I think what you’re saying though, and I think that you’ve given me something to think about, I think this is probably right. That okay, you imagine the left, you imagine they’re half good people, half bad people, whatever, or 70/30, whatever portion you think, of The New York Times journalists, right? In either direction. It seems like what you’re saying is that the bad faith actors just have a natural advantage on the left. Like if you get The New York Times editors and journalists in a room, the craziest leftists are going to win the argument. Why? I don’t know, because they say I’m a woman, I’m a black woman, I get credibility, whatever, whatever it is. It’s just there’s something within the left where the worst people just sort of are able to control institutions. And what you’re sort of saying is like play in this other, it’s like the NBA playoffs, like play in the Eastern Conference first, play in the conservative division, get to the finals. And then you’re in a strong position and then maybe these good people can have a little bit more of an influence. Are you sort of helping the good liberals become themselves [laughs] in a way by adopting this strategy?

Chris: Yes, and I think that it functions really in two ways. One is that you make it so uncomfortable that the distribution of pain and pleasure changes, right? And so, for example, in the city of Seattle, if you make a critique on homelessness ruining the quality of life, or in Los Angeles, or in San Francisco, from a conservative perspective, and it gets enough public support that it starts pushing the center to say, oof, I think actually these conservatives have a better case than the defund the police people, you shift not only your own territory within your own coalition, the kind of minority of conservative voters and public in those places. But you create enough of an annexation of the center and center-left liberals that then they have a bit more power to push back against their own flank. And there’s another secondary element to that that’s kind of entertaining, is that what happens as you shift the debate, you put pressure on the center, and the center can put pressure on the far left, you become the scapegoat for the whole kind of ecosystem on that side. And what I found is that for conservatives, you have to figure out, and you have to really be willing to play the villain in your opponent’s own narrative, right? And so there’s almost a way in which you can cultivate your own kind of alter ego or your own character in someone else’s story. And you can think of it not as your own life or your own most authentic self, because it’s a construction of people who fundamentally don’t like you. But you can deploy it strategically as a method of persuading people, either through repulsion, repelling people, or through attraction, drawing people in. And so I think, in a way, it’s a little weird, it’s a split personality that you have to have, but I actually think, ultimately, it’s something that’s quite healthy, because if you take the press personally, the press has a lot of power over you. And I know you’re kind of the ultimate example because you court it in some ways. But if you don’t take it personally, you have much greater freedom. And I think that you probably more than most understand what that means. [laughter]

Richard: Well, Chris, yeah, you’re courting it in, I think, a very strategic way. I think it’s funny when people say to me “oh, you’re being strategic.” I’m the least strategic person ever, and I’m just sort of courting it for my own enjoyment. But yeah, I think we have that sort of, we have that in common. And we’re just, we sort of we, I like, I mean, I like it. I do like sort of, I don’t want to say getting people mad, but I do sort of, I enjoy it. I mean, I like political debates. I like the campaign season. I like watching Trump engaging in his goofy antics, right? Is there a little bit of that in you? It’s like you’re a little bit of just, you’re a serious person trying to do things, but you’re also here for the spectacle.

Chris: For sure, yeah. I mean, I think that fundamentally at heart, it’s quite a serious enterprise for me, certainly. And I think that comes across in the book. Anyone who reads it would understand that immediately that it is a serious thing. But politics is also a gladiatorial sport. And I just find it so bizarre, some of even our colleagues broadly that are in politics but don’t actually seem to enjoy the theatrics of politics, the drama of politics, the combat of politics. And to me, I don’t see any, really any division or any contradiction between enjoying politics as sport, drama, combat, and politics as a serious intellectual enterprise. I think the people that I’ve met that are the best at politics have a mastery of both of those domains and that’s something that I really admire.

Richard: Yeah, right. I mean, I think some people do like the drama of politics, but they have a different aesthetic sense. So I think about John McCain, when John McCain was alive, I think he had a sense of drama and enjoying politics, but it was more of a kind of like we’re all good people, and we’re going to always have that kumbaya moment at the end of the day. And it was something like we’re all going to be friends, right? I think that’s like the John McCain thing. And so I think there are some people who are just attracted to a different kind of aesthetic.

Chris: I’m curious what you mean by the change in aesthetic sense. Are you speaking basically of the pre-Trump, post-Trump shift in conservative aesthetics or something different?

Richard: I think it’s more than pre-Trump, post-Trump. I think by the time of the Tea Party, it had become more combative. But I do think that there is an aesthetic of the establishment. It’s not that they are just people who just want to be like the CCP and just go into a room and just have a technocracy and not have any kind of civil culture or anything that people get inspired by. I think it’s more along the lines of, it’s a sort of a Hallmark movie or something. You know, we’re going to go with the Democrats. We’re going to work something out. We’re going to overcome the extremists on each side. We’re going to overcome bigotry and hate and we’re going to hold hands and we’re going to have that kumbaya moment. Now conservatives these days aren’t having that [laughs] for obvious reasons, right? But I do think that the aesthetics, it seems to me the aesthetics sort of follow the prognosis, right? Of what’s going on in the country.

Chris: Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean, post-Tea Party, I wonder, I mean, it’s hard to trace the difference, but I think that you have to acknowledge the rupture in aesthetics with Trump. I mean, Trump broke all of the rules of polite discourse. He violated taboos, even on the conservative side, politically. And then I think it was really the first election in which Twitter and social media played a really outsized role. You had Howard Dean who was raising money. You had Obama who I think was using social media and his really charismatic presence. But ultimately Obama was a televisual character. I mean, he was the soaring oratory, the prime-time speeches, the large crowds. His tweets weren’t off the cuff, him there on his phone tweeting. And Trump took it, in some ways he coarsened it, but in other ways, he made it more authentic and he created some more space for the theater to change. And I think that one of the interesting things that I think about in this question is that for many years, Republicans and Democrats agreed on the basic principles of discourse. You would have all the cable news shows, you’d have a voice on the left, voice on the right that would debate. That’s really separated out. There are now two separate rules, two separate realms of discourse. And I do wonder though, if that is also changing, if there’s a way where things are going to start to converge again, and if left and right can engage. One of the things that was, as we were kind of springing onto the scene in 2020, one of the things that still actually bothers me in a certain way is that the most prominent left-wing intellectuals, I use that term very generously, of the George Floyd era were Robin DiAngelo, Ibram Kendi, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. Very famously, Coleman Hughes challenged Ibram Kendi to a debate. Ayaan Hirsi Ali challenged Robin DiAngelo to a debate. Less famously, but I think just as on the same parallel construction, I challenged Kimberlé Crenshaw to a debate, and Joy Reid. And those main figures. Crenshaw, Kendi, DiAngelo, never once engaged in a debate. Never once. That’s something that is, I think, whether you’re looking at it intellectually or looking at it theatrically, I think it’s such a disservice to the public that these people are not even willing to engage.

Richard: Yeah, I think you’re right. And me and you are just old enough to remember when it was different. I remember during the George W. Bush administration, we used to be taught in school, the Nazis would march through Skokie. It was just a thing in the culture. And if someone brought this up, they were usually on the left. It was like the Nazis can march through Skokie. We’re such a culture that is committed to free speech that like we allow that, and liberals would use this as a cudgel. Like if Bush did something that seemed like anti-free speech or anti-freedom, the Patriot Act or something like that, it was just so much emphasis on individual liberty. And you’re right. I mean, the right changed. I mean, I think some of the populism, I’m not a huge fan of. That being said, when you literally just don’t even rhetorically believe in free speech, right? Like maybe the right doesn’t completely believe in free speech, but they say they believe in free speech. They say they believe in freedom, right? That’s something, that’s some principle, when you’re just like, when you just come out there and you just say, we don’t stand for that anymore. What else is there to do? What else is there to do other than say f-you, we’re going to go into our corner and we’re going to plan and we’re going to try to overcome you, right? I mean, that’s sort of the basis that holds the country together.

Chris: Yeah, I think that’s right. And obviously, we have legislative protections, constitutional protections, cultural protections, we have a decentralization of the media that is greater than it’s ever been in American history. And so at the same time, well, obviously, censorship, collusion between the government and the social media companies, we obviously oppose that. That’s not great. I think we still do have to remember, though, that there is more ability today for individuals to reach an audience, to influence public debate, to get their points across, than at any time ever. I mean, even for the two of us, Twitter is, I would say, I’m almost certain you would agree, the most powerful tool that we have available.

And pre-Elon Twitter, I was a little nervous, especially towards the end, that I was going to get booted or restricted. I’m grateful that those fears are no longer important considerations. But even with that fear and even with that old Twitter, it’s still better than having to send a print newsletter to 10,000 people every month or whatever you’d have to do in the past. And so I’m optimistic about it. I’m even optimistic in the sense that the left is coming back to the table. I sense that people are opening to debate. And even The Atlantic wrote a piece of criticism about me that was like an implicit compliment that they couldn’t say because they knew it was too naughty. It says “my qualified endorsement of Christopher Rufo,” and it was 95% qualification you know, but there was 5% of, “yeah, maybe this guy has a point, maybe we should really engage.” And so I think there’s an opportunity and what we have to do on the right though, is always think, how can I use this to advance our priorities, our principles, our policies? The great danger of the left-wing media ecosystem is cooptation. To say, oh, I’m getting I’m getting love from The Atlantic, therefore I should conform my opinions to The Atlantic. I mean, you see that over and over. You know exactly who I’m talking about. I’m sure you can think of four or five names immediately. My position is quite different. How can I get something like whatever publication, x, y, and z, to conform to my opinion? And when they are independently conforming to what I have laid out a year prior, two years prior, that’s kind of when I know I’m doing my job, even if it’s unacknowledged. And so that’s kind of the game that I like to play, and I find the most interesting.

Richard: Yeah, that is beautiful. I think a historical perspective, and I actually agree with your optimism. You’re absolutely right. I mean, I did a lot of research for my book on civil rights law. I went back and I looked at the debates that were going on in the 1970s and the 1980s. You wanted to know about a major debate in Congress over some aspect of civil rights law, the only thing in the media you’d have is The Washington Post or something. And you’d go to The Washington Post, you’d go to the archives, and it’s just like, oh, “Reagan wants to do x, NAACP says it’s racist.” That’s all the information in the world that you had, right? And you can see the conditions under which these people were operating in a previous generation. I’m not too hard on conservatives in the 80s and, well, the 90s is a little bit different. But I think Reagan did as much as he could. And they were just in a difficult, difficult situation back then. And you’re right, pre-Elon Twitter is still better than just whatever Taylor Lorenz or whoever at the Washington Post writes or whatever ABC says. And so yeah, I am optimistic here, just as you are. So you know, on that, I mean, let’s talk about the book now because you know, I’m fascinated by Rufo as a propagandist. I think this is just an underrated sort of feature of your thought and your work. But the book is great too. You know, so it’s centered around four activist intellectuals, right? You have Marcuse, Angela Davis, Derrick Bell, and what’s the other guy?

Chris: Paulo Freire.

Richard: Okay. And let me ask you this, when I spend a lot of time reading about someone…like I can read about Stalin or Hitler or something. Like Stalin, I can sort of like him as a person. I could sort of just, it’s hard for me to spend a lot of time with someone and not like them. How did you feel personally? Reading your book, I did not like these people. Did you have any kind of emotional, positive feelings for them after spending so much time with them?

Chris: Yeah, that’s funny. You sent that to me earlier in the notes, and I found it so interesting. I had the opposite reaction that you did. I spent a lot of time with these four people, reading everything from their main works to their articles and interviews and correspondence and notebooks, these huge volume sets, or actually going into the archives at their collected papers and seeing what they were doing. And I actually came away with this kind of, not even a grudging respect, but a kind of respect of mutual recognition at least as far as my own interpretation, feeding back and engaging with their work. It felt as if I gained a deeper understanding of these people and the reason why I spent so much time in the book kind of telling their story, a bit weaving in their biography, is that ultimately these are people I think all of whom were idealists at one point in their lives. And for me, their stories are the story of the modern left, or maybe the perpetual story of the left is idealism and disillusion. And so I understood why they believed what they believed. I grew to respect them even as intellectuals. I mean, these are all very bright people, people that had courage, in some cases, physical courage, which I think is admirable. But ultimately their ideology that they had grabbed onto was false, it was poisonous, and it destroyed not only their own, I think, well-being in many cases, but actually destroyed elements of society wherever these ideas touched. And so I look at them as tragic characters, and in a tragic character, part of it is some pathos, part of it is some emotional bond. And there’s a genre of conservative book that I really dislike. The sneering, look at these evil people, look at their stupid ideas, look at how bad these folks are, kind of wagging it in your face.

I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something that grappled with these ideas, took these people seriously. And then I don’t even really make, let’s say, an explicit argument in most of the book. I just lay out the evidence. And it’s an implicit narrative argument. But I really want not just conservatives, but people in the center, even the center-left to read the book and say, oh, wow, I learned something. Obviously, Rufo has an opinion. But I think he treated the subjects fairly. And he came down where he came down with good reason and on a good basis. And so I found myself interested. I would love to have spoken with them. Three of them are dead, Angela Davis is still living. I tried to talk to Angela Davis, didn’t get anywhere with that. But I would love to have talked and have been able to speak with all of these people, you know, one on one, I think that would have been really interesting. Much more than you’d want to talk with some kind of frivolous personality today.

Richard: DEI bureaucrat.

Chris: Yeah, then Ibram Kendi. It’s like would you rather talk with Angela Davis or Ibram Kendi?

Richard: I mean, I do have an appreciation for the courage thing. Angela Davis had the courage of a criminal, I mean, and a lot of these Black Panthers did too. And I can appreciate idealism, I can appreciate wanting to improve the world, but you look back and their arguments are not good… I mean, they should know, you should know by the late 1960s, 1970s that communism doesn’t work. You don’t need our retrospective view in 2023. Oh, it was a great idea. No, this was after Stalin. This was after Mao. And this was during Mao, during the Cultural Revolution and the information was out there. They were in a position to be some of the best-informed people in the world. The one part of the book you talk about when Angela Davis goes to Czechoslovakia or Hungary or something. And they’re like, could you speak up for some political prisoner? And she’s like, no, they all deserve to be in jail [laughs]. She doesn’t say exact words like that, but it’s basically something like that. And so a communist in 1880, okay, I can get that. In 1970, 1980, I mean, there’s got to be something wrong with you, something deeply wrong with you. Don’t you agree?

Chris: Yeah, I think that’s right. And one of the most interesting elements of the book was looking into the writings of these figures during that critical period, when the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution were becoming known. Certainly the atrocities of the Soviet Union were well established. And then watching them engage in this furious process of rationalization and denial. And you can just see it, you can feel it in their writing. They so desperately want to believe. But then what’s really interesting is that by 1972, this whole thing disappears, it vanishes. Nixon wins re-election, 49 states. Angela Davis is kind of sent into marginalia. I mean, she’s just in the side scribbles of the newspaper at the time. She can’t get any attention by the time she runs for vice president under the Communist Party USA. There’s maybe one or two minute pieces in The New York Times about her. And Marcuse himself says in 1972, the revolution is over, we’ve lost. The Panthers have been destroyed, the New Left is in shambles, our ideology has been surpassed by Richard Nixon and the fascist American state.

And so what’s really interesting is then they go into hibernation for 50 years. And then 2020, it feels like all these old ideas explode into all of our prestige institutions. And so that’s really the question that I wanted to answer with the book. How does this go from the kind of ridiculous, absurd evil in the case of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army? They were just assassinating police officers on the side of the road. How did it go from that, to totally discredited, to in my kid’s elementary school classroom in 50 years, so suddenly?

And to me, that was an interesting question, because it wasn’t just an intellectual question. It was a practical question of how do ideas gain power? And so that, to me, was the sustaining interest. I mean, you just wrote a book. It requires a lot of energy, a lot of interest. You have to sustain it over time. To me, that was really the big question, is how do these ideas go from the fringes to the center of American life over a 50-year period without any of us voting on them? They really achieved power anti-democratically. And the answer to that, I think, was the bulk of the research that I did and then the writing that I did for the book.

Richard: Yeah, and so one question, I mean, I agree with you that they had an influence and you could see sort of their fingerprints all over the DEI stuff and the Critical Race Theory. At the same time, and this is the focus of my book, so I think people really should read both books because this is like reading about how Rome became Christian, you need like, you have the ideas thing, but then you have the political thing too. I mean, this is not something you just read one book on and understand everything. But there was a sort of, I think a continuity with mainstream civil rights. So if you look back at the 1960s and 1970s, right? The court cases, right? There was no Critical Race Theory back then, right? But we get disparate impact in 1971. We get a doctrine that says, anytime you give any test or anything basically you do to hire people or fire them or promote them or whatever, if black people don’t do well as white people, you’re presumably racist and you as a business are basically guilty of this. You had school bussing stuff, you know the history of that. I mean, just crazy stuff. They’re shipping kids an hour across town just to achieve racial integration, which whites didn’t want to all go to the same schools, and blacks didn’t want to all go to the same schools.

They just force this on local communities. And people look back and say that was crazy. And so it was like, in America we didn’t need, and you know, the riots in the 1960s and 1970s, you look at some of the mainstream politicians. Democratic politicians, I think it might’ve been RFK who said, or Hubert Humphrey who said, if I was a young black youth, I would be out there throwing a Molotov cocktail. It was Humphrey or RFK, I’m not sure on that. I don’t want to, nobody quote me on that, but it was some major politician. And so, you had this madness already there, right? And the later decades weren’t as crazy. So I guess the question is, was it just we needed something to justify whatever else was going on or whatever else we were doing? And these old radicals were just there and we could grab their ideas off the shelves? Do you know what I’m saying? Like how much were they the movers and how much were they just, there was this craziness on race and sex and other issues, so that they just sort of filled the void maybe in 2020?

Chris: Yeah, I mean, I think to try to untangle that as a matter of cause and effect would be difficult. I think it’s mutually reinforcing. The dynamic at play is that, and as you outlined, so okay, you have in the early 70s, some of the civil rights interpretations that seem to be kind of anticipating the Ibram Kendi style anti-racism, disparate impact, disparate treatment. Yeah, but Angela Davis made the case for that in the mid to late 1960s. There’s a great speech that I quote in the book where she’s trying to free some of these absolutely awful prisoners. I mean, these guys that were doing all these horrible crimes, they were murdering prison guards. I mean, these guys were really the worst of the worst. And she says, well, African Americans make up x part of the population, but they have y part of the prison population. This disparity in the distribution of punishment means that the system is fundamentally racist and therefore these individuals who almost certainly, or in some cases absolutely certainly, committed heinous crimes, deserve to be free.

And so you have a prototype in Angela Davis’s language. She represents the radical left position. But then what happens is you have the establishment conforming slowly to Angela Davis and then changing the language, changing the specifics, abstracting it into legal language. And then all of a sudden saying, ooh, actually, yeah, disparity in outcomes, okay, maybe the Griggs decision, maybe other elements of civil rights law, maybe the EEOC bureaucrats need to start enforcing these things and investigating them. So you have this dance between the far left and the establishment left or the institutional left that has existed since the beginning. But what happened in 2020 is you had a moment, where all of the guardrails shut down, all of the institutional left’s defenses against their left flank disappeared, and then the radical left ideas that look, the BLM, the leaders of BLM, the women who lead BLM, Angela Davis was their personal mentor.

They have no new ideas. And so I think it represents the political dynamic, the relationship between the radical and institutional left, but also very importantly, the left’s ideology has been frozen in 1968. There is not one single proposal from the left on these issues that wasn’t already fully developed in 1968. I’m 100% committed to that argument because I haven’t seen anything that really disproves it on these issue sets. And so the left is really totally uncreative. They have to go back to the well of 1968. And as these moments like George Floyd come and go, they’re looking around and they’re trying to think, what can we do?

Defund the police. Angela Davis was talking about this 50 years ago. It’s not a new idea. And so we have continuity. And I think to your point, the institution and the ideology, the elite, the kind of intellect, and then the kind of deadening weight of the bureaucracy, mutually reinforce one another. And so if you pair our books together, you’re going to get a much more complete view of the progression of these ideas and the changes in our society.

Richard: Yeah, I think that’s right. Yeah, I mean, that’s one of the things that’s sort of depressing for me. I mean one of the things I do that I draw anger from people on our side for is I say, oh, the media, sometimes it’s honest and good. Sometimes you shouldn’t just take this kind of oppositional attitude towards them on everything. But then I look and I see I can read The Atlantic or New York Times and say, well… or an academic who does something interesting, right? And this is the, I can appreciate that and say, oh, we have these institutions that actually do produce a lot of good stuff. At the same time, they are just giving into the ideology of prisoners [laughs], criminals who just want to commit crime. And there’s just, there’s no, I mean, this is why it has to be conservatism, there’s no reforming liberals from within, because within every liberal institution, you might think there might be a smart, honorable writer at The New York Times who sees things reasonably, but he’s going to get bulldozed. We have 60, 70 years of these people being literal terrorists, right? Like the Weather Underground. Angela Davis. They’re getting celebrated by establishment institutions. It is a depressing thing. And this is the case for why it has to be conservatives who do this, because the dynamics on the left, something’s broken. And I think any smart liberal who’s looked at the history of the last 50, 60 years has to be able to see that by now.

Chris: Yeah, although I would say that there’s an interesting wrinkle, an interesting twist that I found in the research and I highlight in the book. The New York Times op-ed page, for example, and The New York Times even the news sections, was very unkind to Angela Davis. They were very bitterly critical and dismissive of Herbert Marcuse in the late 60s and early 70s. And then they were absolutely kind of vicious in their condemnation of the Weather Underground, even into the early 1980s. You read the contemporary, or the contemporaneous coverage of these people in The Times. The Times was, and conservatives again, would probably not like me saying this, but it’s true, so I will say it. It was kind of an establishment or left-establishment newspaper that had guardrails at that time. And it’s really a deep irony and kind of pathetic that The New York Times editorial leadership was unafraid to criticize the people who were literally planting bombs and assassinating police officers.

But for a spell in 2020-2021, they were afraid of people like Taylor Lorenz who is like the least intimidating person imaginable, unless you are susceptible to elite emotional manipulation and kind of feminine social strategies. I mean, it’s like, really? You guys were not scared of the Black Liberation Army who was sending pipe bombs to the NYPD, but you’re going to bow down to Taylor Lorenz? Give me a break, you know? And so I want some of those old salty working-class newspaper editors that are drinking pails of margaritas at lunch to just dismiss this stuff and get their courage back, but I don’t know if it’ll happen.

Richard: Well, it’s so connected, right? You go to civil rights law. Like you just want to drink margaritas and be a masculine male at work, that’s a lawsuit. I mean, you can’t even have the old kind of thing. And then, of course, the ideas take over because of the way the law is. It’s just so, so reinforcing.

Yeah. I just think it’s the same thing. A lot of good New York Times articles in the history, like with disparate impact, this came up during the debate over the Civil Rights Act. And the state of Illinois had something like a disparate impact case. And so Washington became up in arms about this. The New York Times ran a piece on it, and basically, with the tilt that this would be absurd to have this kind of standard in the Civil Rights Act. You know, everyone in Congress agrees. They all say there’s going to be nothing like a disparate impact standard. They put in a clause called the Tower Amendment, which explicitly defends tests.

It just ends up not mattering. And then in later decades, The New York Times is just on board with the left and everything else happens. You’re right, there is a thing where even if they are reasonable today, there is just such a… It’s like, slippery slopes aren’t everywhere in society, but it seems like on the left, on race and gender, you’re right, something happened in the 1960s and we’ve just been consistently getting more insane with fits and starts, but still, it just, there’s something wrong here.

So what’s your, I think we agree sort of on the history. So is your idea like, I guess what I want to say is like, I think you and I both have ideas about how conservatives, how Republicans can start sort of pushing back on policy, have some ideas on how this could actually change the culture, and actually we think it’s important, and it actually does matter. You know, what happens to, let’s say me and you win, they do everything Rufo wants, they do everything Hanania wants. What does The New York Times look like in five or 10 years? Are they with us stomping out the remnants of Critical Race Theory? Have we moved beyond this stuff? Maybe it’ll take 10, 20 years rather than 5 or 10. Do we just debate big government versus small government? Do you have any vision of where this is all going to lead to if you’re successful?

Chris: Yeah, I mean, I haven’t thought about that question specifically, but kind of spitballing it a little bit, I would say that, in a way it’s actually a kind of return to the mean, or a regression to the mean. If you look at the coverage in past decades, I mean, I think in the 1990s and early 2000s, these issues were not on the forefront of public discourse. I mean, they really, truly were not. They had been kind of suppressed in the interest of a post-communist world, certainly, and then this kind of liberal, “small l” liberal consensus. And so the question is, where does the new consensus settle? We’re in this period of turmoil. I’m pushing for a maximalist conservative position. I actually think that in the next year, I’d like to see us push much further. I think we’ve set something up with CRT, where now we can start talking about much deeper and more significant reforms, and push as hard as you can so when the consensus starts to form again, the baseline of it is in a very different place than it is today. And I’d like to see the kind of counter-revolution, pushing the far left back to the fringes, reducing the status of the far left, reducing the influence and prestige, so that that… You know, that honest, “small l” liberal that might have gone on Crossfire on CNN in 2003 can rule again, that would be kind of my idea. And then we can be really pushing and kind of leading the debate in our direction. That’s what I hope happens, and you know, we’ll see if that works.

Richard: Yeah. So what are these “undemocratic ideas”? You said we need to be pushing further. What do you have in mind?

Chris: Well, I mean, I think as you no doubt have studied in even greater detail, I mean, we need reform. I mean, first of all, we need to abolish DEI. We need to eliminate affirmative action in all of our institutions. We need to retool our federal government so that we shut down all funding and programmatic expenditures and policies that are aligned with Critical Race Theory and radical gender ideology. We need to break up all of the centralized institutions, return power back to states, localities, families. We need to have universal school choice so that families can send their kids to a school that reflects and affirms their values, not the values of the bureaucratic state.

And then I think we also need to do, and I’d be curious what your main takeaways are, we need to have reform to civil rights law. And we need to have a way where colorblind equality is, I think, the goal, but it’s also the operative policy. So that people are treated equally as individuals, people have equal individual rights, people have due process, and we get rid of any kind of racial spoils system or diversity, equity, and inclusion ideology as the guiding principle of our institutions. And in fact, anyone who adopts those policies is punished under law for violating the principle of colorblind equality. Maybe you tell me, what else should we be looking for as far as civil rights reform?

Richard: I love all of that. I love school choice. I mean, there’s people who want to move away from some of the conservative program and say we can’t have too much trust in it. I’m like, no, we haven’t had enough trust in markets. We still have a public education system. We haven’t tried the freedom thing yet. So I do love that. I think I see such exciting things happening at the state level. I hated school growing up, by the way, even before CRT and gender ideology [laughs]. So I just think I just want children to be free, to be able to do things that are more commensurate with their interests and abilities and sort of human nature. So that’s a great thing. Civil rights law, when you look at this stuff, it is really low-hanging fruit in the sense that Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and Rehnquist in some cases, have been writing these dissents for years. SFFA v. Harvard, Sotomayor pointed out in the dissent, why are you overruling stare decisis? You know, you’re a big radical here. It’s the exact same, nothing has changed from Grutter or Gratz or these arguments we’ve had before. The only difference is you guys are in the majority now and we’re in the minority. And she’s absolutely right. You look at the Grutter and the Gratz decisions, and the decisions, the concurrences, the dissents, they’re saying the same things, the conservatives just happened to be in the majority this time and they were able to do it.

And so there’s a lot of things like that. I mean, the disparate impact standard, the idea that everything you could possibly do is racist. Scalia and Thomas have been hitting on that for years. It hasn’t been that directly challenged, but whenever they get the chance, they would go off on it. I think that’s in trouble. It’s just about being strategic, bringing the right lawsuit. That’s Title VII. You have the Title VI stuff, which is like schools when you have the Obama administration in the second administration going after schools for different rates of school discipline. You know, we’ve got to get to the point.

I mean, David Bernstein, who’s a professor at GMU Law School, says this, we need to have separation of race and state. We have separation of church and state, obviously. And it’s interesting, part of my research in my book, they thought about doing affirmative action based on religion. During the Nixon administration, they were in the early days, they’re classifying, do Poles count? Do Italians count? Are they going to be their own race? Are they going to get affirmative action or whatever out of the government? And so they’re like, what about Catholics? What about Jews? There was a big discussion about Jews too. And then finally, they said, it’s the Establishment Clause. It’s hard to measure if someone is not following their religion anymore or whatever.

And they just ended up, the Nixon administration ended up quashing it, saying, no, we’re not going to do religion. And now, nobody cares. Are Protestants in jail more than Catholics? Nobody knows, nobody cares. We should be like that with race. White ethnic groups, some are in prison at much higher rates than others. We need to get beyond caring about this. And so, yeah, I think we can get to a point where, I imagine your typical red state governor or your typical congressman, just when he sees any racial classification anywhere in government, he sees red [laughs]. It’s like if the Department of Justice was like… I envy the gun people on this.

It’s like the HHS wants to study gun violence. The congressmen will say, we’ll cut off your funding. We don’t even want you to look at this. We know what you’re doing here, right? You’re calling gun violence a public health issue. This is just a plot. You shouldn’t even be in this area. You’re trying to push a gun control agenda. It should be just like that for race. From a conservative perspective, there’s basically, unless you’re distributing funds for health research or something. You know, there’s no reason to ever know like percentage of black of any program or percentage of white or who’s being disciplined, and these disparities are going to exist. They’re going to exist. You’re not going to get rid of them. We just have to get to the point where we stop caring. I’m optimistic we’ll get to that point.

Chris: Yeah, I am as well, and I think we’ll get there. And what I would even suggest to you is a paper that really influenced my thinking by a Heritage Foundation scholar named Robert Rector. And he does a statistical analysis of the disparities in white and black childhood poverty. And he controls for a few key variables. He controls for, I think this is in the early 2000s, he controls for mother’s math and verbal ability, mother’s participation in state welfare programs, and then mother’s, essentially, relationship to father of the child, so mother’s household structure. And he found that when you control for those three variables The entire disparity disappears, it goes down to zero. So I’d like to also see us get to a more sophisticated political conversation where we look at things in a multivariate way. We talk about some of those background variables that are so important and that we only measure race when it is absolutely essential, there’s a compelling interest to do so.

Not this kind of mindless to the point where … you post a picture. I mean, this has happened to me even. You post a picture of you’re hanging out with some of your friends and there’s no black friend present and then you get lit up like, oh, was this a Klan meeting? [laughter] You know, it’s like, what is wrong with you people? It’s like, these are my buddies, who cares what the distribution of race is, of this specific group of friends right now? It’s like, we have this unhealthy kind of obsession and it seeps into all of our thinking. And I just think it doesn’t serve anything. It’s actually narcissistic at heart. It’s really about your own kind of consciousness, you’ve been warped by unconscious bias training to just see it everywhere. But it’s not actually doing anything to help the people with those background variables that Robert Rector talks about. And so I don’t know, are we going to get there? Is the public at large capable of having a debate at that second-order level of effects? Probably not. That’s not going to be a top line narrative anywhere. Is everyone going to read their Thomas Sowell? For sure, no, they’re not going to. But the more that we can edge the debate in that direction, I think the better we’ll all be served.

Richard: Yeah, I mean, you’re right. I mean, you can control for these variables. I mean, you would think that, if you control for IQ, for example, blacks at the higher end of distribution do better than whites, obviously, because they do have the opportunity plus they have affirmative action, right? It’s just that these background variables are not equal. So you’re absolutely right. I mean, I think that the problem with, okay, we’re going to have like a conservative program to close the racial achievement gap or something, is you’re hostage to, what happens when it doesn’t work, right? Because we are, government is not good at … you can encourage people to say, look, out of wedlock births are bad. Like you should get married before you have children, you should teach your children not to commit crime. We should have tough on crime policies. You can make blacks better off and you can make whites better off that way.

But as long as you’re sort of worrying about that disparity, you’re sort of hostage. I think we have to get to the point where like, there’s going to be disparities. There’s a hundred racial, you could break America down into a hundred, two hundred different racial groups. If all we want to do is talk about a disparity between this group and that, I mean, we’ll have time for nothing else. So I think you’re right. I think we should have that discussion like people who want to talk about things like the black family and crime and how that keeps black people down. I think that those are great things to talk about at the same time. It should just be less of a focus on race overall.

Chris: Yeah, I think that’s probably true. And look, I think the other point of optimism and one that is important for everyone to understand is that the public is almost entirely with us on these issues. I mean, even in my home state of Washington state, and my birth state, California, when voters are asked, do you want affirmative action, race-based decision-making in government, they say no. And so it’s like, even in the most deep blue states, we have a public opinion advantage. The problem is, again, and this is something I think about a lot, the problem is that public opinion that is not shaped, concentrated, formed, and weaponized in a very clear political program means nothing.

Who cares if you have 80% of the public on your side? If you don’t operationalize that support into something real, you’re not going to get anywhere. And so I think conservatives are finally ready to say, let’s push on these issues. People want a colorblind society. People want individual equality. People want due process regardless of your background. People reject a society of DEI bureaucrats, micromanaging your speech and behavior in pursuit of a quixotic racial utopia. And so I think the moment is now, and I’m so glad that my book and your book are coming out. I really hope that the people who read it are engaged with the information that they need to make the case. And I hope that it has specifically an influence in elite circles, not just conservative elites who for sure need to know it, they need to dig deeper, but also our counterparts on the other side. I really wanted to unsettle them. I really wanted to create doubts in their mind. I really wanted to drive a wedge between the establishment and the far left. And I think if we can start getting that dynamic now, we can have some significant results in the years to come.

Richard: Yeah, I endorse all of that. That’s great. Conscious of your time, Chris, but I did want to talk about New College of Florida, because I’m fascinated by this. DeSantis basically gave you a college to run, is my understanding of this correct?

Chris: Not exactly. So DeSantis appointed a new slate of conservative trustees, of which I am one, and it’s all really heavy-hitting scholars and intellectuals and leaders in the conservative movement drawing from all over the country. And he gave us a very simple mission. He said, we want to take over this small, failing, left-wing social justice public university. We want to totally overhaul the programs, abolish DEI, bring in new leadership, recruit new professors, and restore the mission of a classical liberal arts education, which is coded and unfortunately kind of practically means you’re creating a conservative public university. Because of course the progressive left has abandoned the thousand-year tradition of classical liberal higher education. And so what we’re doing is quite interesting, and I think it’s already improved the college dramatically. We’re seeing the numbers, whether it’s budget, facilities, recruitment, quality of professor, we’re going to see increases in the coming months.

We’re making a better university that’s more successful on every practical metric, but more importantly, we’re also creating a counterexample, and we’re creating a blueprint for other conservative political leaders to recapture the institutions. You know, one of the things I outlined in my book is the 50-year long march through the institutions. The radical left said, we’re going to take over the institutions anti-democratically, we’re going to embed our ideology. And then the governor has given us this great gift, this great responsibility, to reverse the long march through the institutions using democratic political power. It’s this great experiment and I think that it’s already yielding results. We have an incredible president, Richard Corcoran, who is the former speaker of the Florida House, Commissioner of Education in the state of Florida. He’s not only dedicated to higher education administration, but he has the political skills, the political toughness, and the political savvy to get the job done. And so we’re basically saying that public institutions should reflect the values of the public. And for some people that’s too much. And for me, I think we’re just getting started.

Richard: How are the students reacting? So I saw some were taking it hard. I saw you were assaulted a day or two ago. I hope you’re okay. I hope you’re not traumatized. [laughter] Are the students uniformly hostile? Are some of them happy? Like what’s sort of the reaction?

Chris: There are some students that are very happy, but most of the students were very unhappy because this is the kind of social justice ghetto of the Florida university system. That’s how it’s typically been known. So it’s all the most kind of left-wing activist students. The estimates that I’ve heard are it’s two-thirds female and 50% plus LGBTQ+. So the demographics and the political ideology is very far left, very ideological. But you know, I told the students this quite plainly. This is the mission of the university. This is where it’s going. I hope that you find a great place here. And if not, you can always, we’d be happy to help you find another place that’s more suitable. So we’ve had some of the most activist students transfer, drop out. One of the students was upset during a speech that I gave with Governor DeSantis on campus. She spit on me, she’s now been charged with first-degree battery, or they/them has now been charged with first-degree battery.

Richard: [laughter] You have to ask what’s the biology, what’s the identity?

Chris: Yeah. The biology female, the pronouns, plural. But look, professors are not going to be happy, it’s looking like we’re going to lose some of the professors. Contracts have not been renewed, professors have quit. One professor threatened to burn down the campus. [laughter] He said, if I were more patriotic, I’m going to burn down the whole campus. He’s gone. So we have a beautiful self-selection process, a system of incentives that has changed. And the goal for a lot of these professors is to say, oh, we’re leaving and we’re going to have our 15 minutes of fame and isn’t that awful? And my response is, good. If you don’t agree with classical liberal arts education, you’re not aligned with the fundamental mission and vision of the university. You feel like you’d be better off somewhere else? Great, good luck. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. And so you’re going to see at the end of the summer a new cohort of really good and mission-aligned professors coming in.

You’re going to have a plurality of opinions on campus. You’re going to have expertise in the kind of classical liberal arts. And I think you’re going to see a university that is very different than all of its peers around the country. And the person who deserves the credit is really Governor DeSantis. And I say that not just because I’m a fan, I’m a supporter. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with him on these issues, but because he’s someone who really understands how institutions work, how power works, and how change actually happens in the real world. And so he is a really incredible leader of the state of Florida and grateful to be helping advance his mission.

Richard: Yeah, I mean, I’ve been watching DeSantis govern in Florida. People sometimes think I don’t like DeSantis because I’ve been hard on the campaign. I don’t think the campaign’s necessarily been the best run. But when I look back at what he’s been doing in Florida, just like really technocratic, getting in the weeds. The accreditation idea, I’ve never seen a politician who goes after the accreditation services. Now, usually I learn about something before the politicians do anything. This is like the only case I can remember where the politician did something. And then I went and then I read about it. I’m like, oh, that’s interesting. He’s actually ahead of me, which is very interesting. I mean, putting you on the board of a college. I mean, what more, what more could you ask?

Chris: I’ll tell you an interesting story. He invited me to give a speech with him introducing the anti-CRT legislation. And so I show up at the tarmac in Tallahassee. We get on the governor’s plane. We’re flying down to central Florida. I have my first chance to really talk to him. There’s only four people in the aircraft talking to him. And I start with small talk. He’s not that interested.

And then we start talking business. We start talking about policy. And the guy lights up and he just goes off. Bop, bop, bop. He’s talking about accreditation, about appointments, about the board of governors, about the board of trustees, about how the appointments are staggered, about how policy can change, about how to press this lever, about how to get new leadership here. I mean, I was just stunned. It’s like, oh, okay, this guy is a heavy hitter, not just on political matters and winning votes, this guy knows how everything works at a deep and detailed level. And that’s the moment where I said, okay, this is somebody, if this person gets into the Oval Office, is going to not just symbolically take a sledgehammer to the bureaucracy, but he’s going to actually have the detailed operational knowledge to do something that’s lasting and significant. And so that’s why I’m excited about what he’s doing.

And it’ll be to the wisdom of the voters. If conservative voters are smart and they are thinking long-term, they really should support him. I mean, he’s a really rare talent and a really rare intellect. Someone of that intellectual caliber being in political office is something you don’t see all the time.

Richard: Yeah, and it’s amazing. And you could imagine somebody going and burning the thing to the ground and then being voted out the next election because it was so politically harmful, but to do that stuff and then also make Florida more of a red state, either one of those alone would be incredible. Usually those things are at cross purposes, when you govern in a very right-wing way, usually there’s a backlash or something. Yeah, the fact that he did both. I mean, I’m impressed. You know, you say if Republican voters want someone who knows… Yeah, I think unquestionably, you’re right. If you’re looking for someone who actually wants to change the country on these social issues, I mean, DeSantis is sort of in a league of his own, although other governors and other politicians do seem to be learning.

So, there’s reasons overall to be optimistic. So what’s next for you, Chris? After your book is coming out a week from now, you’re going to do a book tour. You’re going to be talking about your book. What’s your future? College administration? More books? Have you thought about that yet?

Chris: Oh God. College administration, dear God, no. [laughter] If I have to sit through another subcommittee meeting, if that’s my day-to-day, no. Yeah, I’d like to write another book, absolutely. I really enjoyed the process. I’ll continue with some of the activism and reporting, obviously, the policy work. And I think you’d appreciate this in particular. I’m always trying to develop my own model for the work that I do, both kind of structurally, institutionally, personally, commercially, kind of making sure it’s a viable model.

And so I’m releasing some films just starting this week. We’re releasing some short films that we’re going to be doing once a month. And so I don’t know, experimentation, but in the immediate term, this week and next week is going to be book promo. I know that you’re probably getting those emails from our mutual PR team. “Hey, we got stuff coming up for you.” And I really enjoy it and I hope that everyone reads it. I hope that people can see the book, can love the book, can appreciate the book, and certainly can buy the book. And I think it’s hopefully going to be a marker. And then hopefully when yours comes out, it’’’ be a nice compliment and really set a marker for conservative politics in the years to come.

Richard: Yeah, I appreciate that. You said videos. Do you mean like the video you made on the trans stuff today, or do you mean like going back into the documentary space?

Chris: A bit of both, yeah. So I’m going to be doing some video essays, so similar to the one that you saw. And I’m also going to be doing some documentary content with interviews and footage and that kind of thing. So experimenting. Got a great team working on this. And this is the first one that is kind of highly produced. And we’re going to experiment over the next few months and see what we can come up with.

Richard: Awesome. Came back full circle, left documentary filmmaking because you know, you’re too right wing and then you come back and you’re bigger than them. So that’s awesome. Chris, I really appreciate it. You know, I recommend everyone get the book, America’s Cultural Revolution. And yeah, I mean, good luck with the promotional tour. Good luck with everything else.

Chris: Thank you, good to talk to you.


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