Chris Rufo is arguably the most important intellectual entrepreneur on the political right today. As a senior fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute, as a right-wing boogeyman, he is almost solely responsible for the rise of critical racial theory – an issue that dominated national political debate during the Virginia gubernatorial election.
On Tuesday, Rufo explained the project he has in mind in a little more detail: “It’s time to clean the house in America: remove the attorney general, lay siege to universities, abolish teachers’ unions and overthrow school boards.” he tweeted.
Confronted with unsavory parallels too militant fascist rhetoric against intellectuals made it clear to Rufo that he does not call for violence. “For those who love Godwin’s Law: overthrow the attorney general by resigning or impeachment, besieging universities by cutting federal subsidies, abolishing teachers’ unions through legislation, and overthrowing school boards through election victories,” he said tweeted on Tuesday evening.
Some of the clarifications are reassuring (there’s nothing wrong with voting in elections). But others, particularly the comments on universities and teachers unions, were troubling. Rufo calls for the use of the law as a weapon in order to weaken or even eliminate the social foundations of the political power of his opponents. It is a vision of politics in which power is not shared democratically but is exercised against its enemies.
He made that pretty clear. Speaking at the National Conservatism Conference in early November, Rufo argued that “reforms on the margins are not enough” to protect America from progressive “revolution”. Instead, conservatives should pursue a “defund the left” policy of “strangling new identity programs into bureaucracy” and “accelerating the Ponzi student loan program.” [and] Make the universities jointly responsible for failures. “
Rufo’s ruthlessness can best be understood as an applied version of a political vision that has spread among influential right-wing intellectuals. From demagogues like Tucker Carlson to high-profile thinkers like Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen, the emerging right-wing line is that America’s core institutions have been conquered by the left and must be seized if the country is to be saved.
That means going on the offensive when you have power – not just to achieve conservative political ends, but to crush the left and eradicate its cultural viability.
The “post-liberal” right wants to go on the offensive
The Postliberal Order is a new Substack publication by four right-wing Christian intellectuals: Deneen, Adrian Vermeule of Harvard, Gladden Pappin of the University of Dallas, and Chad Pecknold of the Catholic University. Its premise is that “the modern liberal world order is exhausted” – which means not just liberalism in the American political sense, but the broader philosophical one.
Liberal ideals of individual rights, the separation of church and state and free markets have, in her view, created a society that is “more and more lonely, more and more detached from ourselves, from our families, from our countries and our God”.
In an essay published Wednesday, Deneen essentially develops an intellectual framework for Rufoism – the high-level justification for using the state to smash liberals and their institutions.
Deneen believes conservatism has been in a “defensive crouch” – and it has been “since its ascent in the 20th century”. This may seem strange to liberals and leftists, who have seen a series of conservative victories over the past few decades: the extinction of the social safety net, the dissolution of unions, the proliferation of strict government abortion restrictions, and even the reorganization of the electoral system in favor of the GOP. But Denen’s view was that Supreme Court rulings on social issues during this era – abortion, same-sex marriage, and anti-discrimination protection for transsexuals – fueled progressivism.
“Many Conservatives have realized that despite apparent electoral victories that have been consistently achieved since the Reagan years, they have lost again and again, and in overwhelming ways against progressive forces,” he writes.
What is the reason for this failure? Deneen calls the mainstream’s conservative adherence to seven liberal principles – religious freedom, restricted government, “the inviolability of private institutions (e.
“Liberalism has become increasingly aggressive about extending each of these features to its logical conclusion – its own contradiction in the form of liberal totalitarianism,” argues Deneen. Liberalism inevitably creates “the dismantling of all institutions that were originally responsible for promoting human virtue: family, ennobling friendship, community, university, community, church”.
This so-called liberal totalitarianism – Deneen does not know exactly which current politics exactly resembles the Soviet or National Socialist repression – cannot be defeated by the conservative establishment for accepting basic liberal premises. In his view, mainstream conservatives play “a key role in propping up the regime” and act as “controlled opposition” to “the powers that be – the oligarchs, the corporations, the power elite”.
Deneen, a political theorist who likes to write on a high level of abstraction, does not explain the politics that follow from his diagnosis. He points out, however, that any progress requires the abandonment of fundamental liberal commitments to ideals such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion – that any new conservatism should not consider respect for the diversity inherent in a large and complex society as a determinant value.
“What appears to liberalism as a tolerant and decent regime seems to be nothing more than cruel indifference in the eyes of its predecessor tradition, which allows clear vices not only to multiply, but also to enjoy implicit public approval,” he writes and calls for one Return to pre-modern Christian politics in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas.
So what does it mean to actually pursue a policy that is no longer “indifferent” to “clear vices”?
Rufo gives an answer. There’s a reason both Rufo and Deneen highlight universities with particular anger: for all their shortcomings, they’re one of the main places where liberal cultural ideals thrive.
There are differences between the two: Rufo places more emphasis on left-wing racial politics, while Deneen is more dominated by debates about gender and sexuality. But what they share is a vision of conservatism on the offensive, wielding state power against its political opponents.
The right against America
Rufo and Deneen are part of a larger intellectual trend on the right – one in which America’s core institutions are described as hopelessly corrupted by liberal forces.
Take Tucker Carlson. His new documentation, Patriot Purge, is a conspiratorial retelling from Jan. 6 in which FBI agents pressured peaceful protesters into violence.
This is obviously not true. But think about what it would mean if it were so: that the FBI of all things was so closely allied with Democrats and Liberals that it would have orchestrated totalitarian crackdown on Trump supporters. It would mean that the entire building of the American state has become an instrument for the suppression of the Conservatives.
That is the more or less explicit statement of the documentary. “If Washington is willing to wage a second war on terror against its citizens in the long run, what are they capable of?” Asks Carlson. “They are telling you that it is necessary to destroy the civil rights of American citizens. … We have to spy on our political opponents, silence them, defame them, deny them work, take away their bank accounts, throw them into solitary confinement, shoot them in the neck. “
The Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank in California, is dedicated to developing a more sophisticated version of Carlson’s worldview – one in which American institutions and even citizens are the enemy of the right. Claremont is arguably the most radical pro-Trump of any major right-wing intellectual institution whose thinkers are ready to defend both his presidency and his false claims about a stolen election.
Claremont’s performance over the past year or two has been surprisingly radical, and almost openly called for regime change and rebellion.
On a May Claremont podcast, Michael Anton, professor at Hillsdale College and former Trump administration official, chatted with entrepreneur Curtis Yarvin – a self-proclaimed monarchist who wants to appoint a Silicon Valley CEO King of America – about their mutual desire to overthrow what Anton the American calls “regime”, a government that Yarvin describes in the podcast as a “theocratic oligarchy” controlled by a cadre of progressive “priests”.
During the episode, Yarvin ponders how an American strongman – whom he alternatively calls “Caesar” or frankly “Trump” – could take over authoritarian control of the US government by making the National Guard and the FBI his personal stormtroopers .
In a March article on American Mind, Claremont’s blog, writer Glenn Elmers states that “most of the people who live in the United States today – certainly more than half – are not Americans in the meaningful sense of the term.” If Trump voters and conservatives do not unite and lead “some kind of counter-revolution” against these “citizen aliens”, then “the victory of progressive tyranny is assured”.
And an August essay in the Claremont Review of Books by scholar Angelo Codevilla describes a country whose government is clinging to an “illusion of legitimacy” after “half a century of abuse of progressive rule” destroyed American society.
Views like these – rejecting America’s core institutions and ideals up to, and often including, its democracy – are becoming more mainstream on the right. They can be found at right-wing intellectual gatherings such as the National Conservatism Conference. They come from one of the leading right-wing backers, venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who once argued, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” They even have champions on Capitol Hill, such as Sen. Josh Hawley (R- MO), a critic of “lively capitalism” who has argued that the idea that a person should be free to “define their own values” is a kind of “heresy.”
It’s easy to dismiss this type of illiberal language as purely rhetorical: radical posing with little practical implications. But the past year of conservative politics, from the January 6 riots to the spread of electoral restrictions and extreme gerrymandering to Rufo’s war on the education system, has shown that the illiberal right-wing impulses are indeed shaping our reality.
In theory, conservatism is an ideology of preservation. But the current right is increasingly being shaped by a reactionary impulse aimed at the radical transformation – if not the utter destruction – of leading American institutions.