SARASOTA, Fla. — Looming over the room was Chris Rufo. Beaming via Zoom into last month’s meeting of the reconstituted and newly politicized Board of Trustees of New College of Florida, Rufo sat more than 3,100 miles away, a little less than an hour south of Seattle, in his home office that’s a makeshift media studio. Set against his standard stark gray backdrop, Rufo leaned forward toward his thousand-dollar microphone — to my eye palpably eager to administer this key piece of the mission of Governor Ron DeSantis.
“Do we have,” said the chair of the board, “a motion to approve — ”
“Yes,” Rufo said.
“— the implementation,” she continued, “of DEI changes?”
“Yes,” Rufo said.
Rufo is the youngest, the most widely recognized and certainly the most overtly provocative of the half a dozen novice members of the body DeSantis appointed in January to nearly instantly alter the character and curriculum of New College, the small, progressive bastion within the state’s university system. Prompted by the chair, Rufo made a motion to eliminate all “diversity, equity and inclusion” initiatives on campus and to authorize the just-installed, DeSantis-aligned interim president to make the “necessary or appropriate personnel decisions” — in other words, to start firing people.
Rufo, 38, is interesting and important in his own right. Not even three years ago, he was known, if he was known at all, as a short-lived Seattle city council candidate and a more or less middling maker of documentary films. Now he is, he says, a policy scholar and a political combatant, an activist and a polemicist — a journalist. He’s “a right-wing propagandist,” in the words of Rep. Jamie Raskin, the Democrat from Maryland. He’s “a hired gun for the information wars,” in the estimation of rhetoric expert Jen Mercieca. He’s the only child of two attorneys who worked in Sacramento, the son of a father who immigrated from Italy, the spouse of a wife who immigrated from Thailand, a parent of three half-Asian children — and the biggest single reason critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion have been turned into the toxic, ubiquitous and politically potent acronyms of CRT and DEI.
Rufo of late has been “the bellwether for DeSantis,” said Nicole Hemmer, a historian of conservative media and the author of Messengers of the Right. “The decision to use Rufo’s activism as a kind of scaffolding for passing pieces of legislation that draw a lot of media attention and frame DeSantis as a culture warrior shows a kind of political intelligence,” she told me. “Rufo has figured out which buttons to press,” Hemmer said, “so by tapping into Rufo, DeSantis has a shortcut to tapping into that base.”
“It’s sort of like using a person,” said a person who has worked with both Rufo and DeSantis who was granted anonymity to speak freely, “as a dog whistle.”
“One of the things that I think about a lot is how much of our political discourse is actually about controlling the political discourse, and I think Chris Rufo really understands that,” Mercieca, the rhetoric expert, who teaches at Texas A&M, told me. “In a way,” she said of Rufo, in part because of the air of self-satisfaction she senses, her suspicion that he thinks he’s playing a game and thinks he’s playing it well, “he reminds me of Edward Bernays” — a 20th-century master of his craft, the man who wrote the book called Propaganda.
Rufo himself has made it plain. “We have successfully frozen their brand — critical race theory — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions,” he wrote on Twitter in March of 2021. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think critical race theory.” This strategy is “so obvious,” he has said. “If you want to see public policy outcomes you have to run a public persuasion campaign.”
I called Hemmer, the conservative media historian, after one of my recent trips to Florida. “I don’t think Rufo’s ideas are novel,” she told me, “but the way they have been empowered by the state, both through DeSantis’ legislation but then also this appointment, seems like an important development.”