You need to know Chris Rufo’s name

The shadowy right-wing operative wants the glory for bringing down Harvard's president. So let's give it to him.

Chris Rufo

Almost immediately after the October 7th Hamas massacre in Israel and the subsequent leveling and mass-killing in Gaza ensued, attention snapped to college campuses across the nation where a handful of incidents were used as a brush to paint all universities as antisemitic. Three university presidents—all women, two white, one Black—were hauled in front of Congress and asked Yes or No questions without Yes or No answers by Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik who is openly friends with the antisemite Donald Trump. 

And once the three presidents had been successfully branded as Hamas sympathizers, Chris Rufo went in for the kill.

On Tuesday, Harvard President Claudine Gay announced her resignation after a weeks-long pressure campaign which she says she was “subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus.” Top news organizations sent push alerts about the resignation, conservatives celebrated, and regular folks who’d been led to believe that an administrator at a private university had any impact on our current world felt like something had been accomplished. Another head had rolled.

If you arrived in the United States for the first time yesterday, you would think Gay was President of the United States—and you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking so. The scope of coverage over her job performance and its impact on domestic and global politics befits a major geopolitical player. In the past month, The New York Times published 63 different articles about her. But that didn’t happen out of thin air: it was, in large part, because of a coordinated campaign launched by one man. That man is right-wing activist and operative Christopher Rufo.

You may not know him by name, but you’re probably familiar with his work. The national outcry over “Critical Race Theory” meant to target progressive educators of color? That was Rufo. The attacks on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs as a means to hurt LGBTQ+ students, students of color and progressive school board members? That was Rufo. The writer and conservative think tanker has continually called the right wing shots, but has received little widespread credit. Until now. 

Rufo first wrote about Dr. Gay in a December 10th piece on his Substack called “Is Claudine Gay a Plagiarist?” The piece, co-authored by fellow conservative Substack publisher Christopher Brunet, purported to have “exclusive documentation demonstrating” that Gay had plagiarized parts of her dissertation. 

A week later, on Dec. 18th, Rufo made a plea for paid subscriptions, writing, “Please help fund my high-risk, high-reward reporting on Harvard and other institutions.” And the very next day, he tweeted exactly what the crusade against Gay was really about all along:

And squeeze he did, resulting in breathless media coverage painting Gay as a symbol of both rampant antisemitism and the moral rot of progressive university presidents. 

When news of Gay’s resignation broke, Stefanik tweeted, “TWO DOWN,” referring to Gay and the recent resignation of University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill. And shortly after, Rufo tweeted this troubling announcement:

He also said in a subsequent tweet that the best way to contribute to the fund is by becoming a paid subscriber to his Substack. Because Substack takes 10% of every paid subscription, they’ll be directly profiting off bounties on academics. (But they’ve made their stance on that known.)

Rufo’s explicit call for “hunting” people with ideological differences and Stefanik treating them like trophies gives away the game. It was never about plagiarism or ethics in higher education or respecting a revered university: It was about punishing a Black woman in power.

Rabbi Jay Michaelson, writing for Forward, helped put the allegations of plagiarism in perspective for those (like me) who have zero understanding of academic writing:

Yes, the immediate pretext for Gay’s resignation was a plagiarism controversy. I can say — as someone who holds a doctorate and has written a handful of academic articles as well as a book based on my doctoral dissertation — that Gay’s use of “paraphrases” that are really unattributed quotations with one or two words changed around is a significant offense. Everyone in the academic world knows this kind of non-citation is an ethical violation, and Gay did it in at least five of her 11 scholarly articles.

Of course, scholars can quote, but they have to cite as well. That’s how it works.

Then again, it’s also true that Gay, whose research focuses on government and African-American studies, is primarily a quantitative scholar, not a literary one. She didn’t steal anyone’s research, and she didn’t take credit for anyone’s ideas beyond a few phrases here and there. This was an infraction, but it’s more like a speeding ticket than a criminal offense.

And yet she’s being treated like a criminal—in large part because Rufo convinced credulous media that she was, in fact, a criminal. 

For those who are thinking, “well, it turns out she did actually commit an infraction, so the ends justify the means,” I invite you to reflect on what you’re actually saying. It’s like police searching a person’s car because they look suspicious, only to discover drugs inside. Mere pretense is not a good enough reason to invade someone’s life. Yes, Rufo and his ilk found a shred of something on Gay, but why was he searching in the first place? Because he saw an opportunity and exploited it. 

Progressive activist Max Berger said it well:

I can assure you that allowing fascist operatives to get black women fired from academic jobs is not going to fight antisemitism. In fact, it's hard to imagine anything worse for the Jews than a situation in which far-right activists can successfully target racial minorities they deem a threat.

And therein lies the point: Whether or not you’re happy with the outcome for Gay is immaterial. Rufo, Stefanik, billionaire Bill Ackman, and their willing co-conspirators in government and the media do not actually care about who leads the students at Harvard, and they sure as hell don’t care about Jews. They care about consolidating power and perpetuating white power, the hallmark of the conservative movement.

Today Ackman, an alum who helped ramp up the attacks on Gay, reflected on how his investigation into antisemitism at Harvard morphed into a crusade against DEI for Bari Weiss’s right-wing publication The Free Press. He wrote, “The techniques that DEI has used to squelch the opposition are found in the Red Scares and McCarthyism of decades past. If you challenge DEI, ‘justice’ will be swift, and you may find yourself unemployed, shunned by colleagues, canceled, and/or you will otherwise put your career and acceptance in society at risk.”

And no, that’s not followed up by any recognition of the fact that the “justice” of which he writes is exactly what he, Rufo, and their henchmen did to Gay.

I’ll let writer Adam Serwer have the last word here: “At some point we just need to acknowledge that nothing will satisfy other than the near-total resegregation of elite and governing institutions in the United States.”

A follow-up note on Substackers Against Nazis:

Last night, Platformer, one of Substack’s most popular and profitable publications, made an important announcement regarding our efforts and the subsequent response. 

“Rolling out a welcome mat for Nazis is, to put it mildly, inconsistent with our values here at Platformer,” Publisher Casey Newton wrote. “We have shared this in private discussions with Substack and are scheduled to meet with the company later this week to advocate for change.”

Newton went on to say that the team at Platformer will be building a database of extremist Substacks, with help from my co-organizer . He also said that if Substack refuses to reverse course on the issue, he’ll be leaving the platform and escalating the issue to Stripe, Substack’s payment processor. 

Since the founders made their position about Nazis on their platform known, I and others from the group have been exploring other newsletter platforms. Yesterday we had an intro session with one called beehiiv, and tomorrow we have one with Buttondown. Some publishers already chosen to leave, others have chosen to stay, and others (like me) remain in flux. These info sessions coupled with how Substack reacts to Platformer’s meeting will inform how we decide to move forward.

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