After Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned on Tuesday, many on the left, center-left, center, center-right, and right have given credit to one man above the rest: 39-year-old conservative activist, writer, documentary filmmaker, and Ron DeSantis ally Christopher Rufo, who was also eager to give himself credit, though he could not be reached for comment on this article.
After all, Rufo (and Chris Brunet, a contributing editor at The American Conservative) published the first plagiarism allegations against Gay on December 10, which they seemed to have obtained via a tip. Nine days after they published those plagiarism allegations, Rufo posted on X: “We launched the Claudine Gay plagiarism story from the Right. The next step is to smuggle it into the media apparatus of the Left, legitimizing the narrative to center-left actors who have the power to topple her. Then squeeze.”
This tweet has now been cited in countless articles covering the episode to demonstrate that Rufo’s plan worked, that he made august media outlets, and Harvard itself, bend to his will.
The problem is that Rufo’s post on X (what we used to call Twitter) is not what happened. There was no smuggling “into the media apparatus of the Left” and no “narrative,” at least not one that the Harvard Corporation, whose board decided Gay’s fate, found compelling, just all-too-true plagiarism allegations. To whatever extent Rufo “squeeze[d]” or “legitimize[d],” it didn’t matter. The “media apparatus of the Left” is run by liberals, as is Harvard, and neither of them answers to Rufo or any other conservative activists.
This matters. The media and Harvard, despite their flaws, are good institutions run by intelligent people. It’s symbolic, significant, and good when a conservative activist, or anyone, surfaces evidence of plagiarism. In this case the evidence of malfeasance was neither tossed aside nor immediately parroted by these institutions. It’s good that Harvard eventually took the allegations seriously and Gay left the presidency.
That’s how it’s supposed to work, and that’s how it did work. No mythology and no puppeteering necessary.
Here’s what actually happened: Brunet and Rufo obtained evidence of plagiarism committed by Harvard president Claudine Gay, which Aaron Sibarium, a reporter at The Washington Free Beacon, expanded on. This evidence of plagiarism led to calls to resign from columnists at the Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Atlantic, some of them openly liberal.
Though the undeniable plagiarism, as defined by Harvard itself, had come to Harvard’s attention before December, what led to the demise of the first Black president of Harvard was that she had become an embarrassment among people whom the Harvard Corporation respects (and that does not include Rufo).
It was Gay’s testimony to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce that had kicked off the Embarrassment Tour. Harvard says speech on its campus must be “civil” and not show “grave disrespect for the dignity of others,” and yet has repeatedly sanctioned speech for much less. Despite these facts, Gay told Elise Stefanik that calling for the genocide of Jews would not necessarily be against the code of conduct, earning condemnation from the White House and 303 members of the House of Representatives. Harvard stuck by her then, but when it became public that Gay was also a serial plagiarist, the tide of elite liberal opinion had swung too far for the Harvard Corporation.
The Harvard Corporation, which runs Harvard and had hired Gay and then pushed her out, is not filled with conservatives. Its top role, Senior Fellow, is held by Penny Pritzker, Obama’s Commerce Secretary, one of his Chicago patrons, and a massive Democratic donor. In total, the 13 members of the Harvard Corporation donated over $1.5 million to political races in 2021 and 2022. $12,900 of that $1.5 million was donated to Republican causes, most to the dutifully anti-Trump Adam Kinzinger. Among the seven corporation members that didn’t give to Democratic causes this past cycle, there is Biddy Martin, a gender studies professor, Karen Gordon Mills, another Obama appointee, and Tino Cuéllar, a Jerry Brown appointee.
The Harvard faculty is 2.5% conservative, according to a survey from the Harvard Crimson. According to other such surveys, last year’s Harvard graduating class was 12% conservative, and its freshmen class is 8% conservative. Even Bill Ackman, the billionaire Harvard alum who put financial pressure on Harvard for months, is a longtime Democratic donor.
You can rest easy knowing Rufo and his conservative ilk do not pull the strings at Harvard.
The overwhelmingly liberal bunch who pushed Gay out were swayed by the truth of what Rufo and other conservatives unearthed and the outcry it caused among people they respect.
Conservatives did not take Gay down. Liberals did, persuaded by what the conservatives had said. That Rufo was the one to surface these allegations made Harvard less likely to take them seriously.
Rufo (and Brunet and Sibarium and anonymous people) had exposed plagiarism, which was coupled with a genuinely embarrassing testimony that revealed either indifference, incompetence, or hypocrisy.
To be clear, rather than “smuggle” narratives, this is exactly what Rufo does. Rufo obtains material that makes liberal institutions look bad and publishes it. Then he waits. There is no smuggling. There is no legitimizing. There is no engineering, and there is no masterminding.
And the media is not, as climate writer David Roberts puts it, “Rufo’s bitches.”
It’s instructive to look at what Rufo tells Ian Ward in a Q&A for Politico. When asked how much credit he deserves, Rufo says that he deserves credit but that it was “a team effort that involved three points of leverage. First was the narrative leverage, and this was done primarily by me, Christopher Brunet and Aaron Sibarium. Second was the financial leverage, which was led by Bill Ackman and other Harvard donors. And finally, there was the political leverage, which was really led by Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s masterful performance with Claudine Gay at her hearings.” But when Ward drills down on it, Rufo gives up the game. Rufo is not leading a team; there is no team; it’s not coordinated; and these groups of people have nothing to do with each other—they just agree that Claudine Gay shouldn’t be the president of Harvard, and some of them sometimes email each other. When Ward asks Rufo to explain the “smuggle” strategy, Rufo says that after “the left-wing media uniformly ignored the story for 10 days and tried to bury it,” he embarked on “a kind of a thoughtful and substantive campaign of shaming and bullying my colleagues on the left to take [it] seriously.” Within days of the shaming and bullying campaign (which I don’t think anyone distinguished from Rufo’s usual posting habits), the media chimed in to condemn Gay.
This is an exceedingly incoherent theory of change. If the media is so “left-wing,” why did it respond only to being bullied by Rufo, who is a famously conservative activist? In our actual world, the media, which indeed leans liberal, takes a few days (sometimes more than a week!) before piling on to the first Black president of Harvard using allegations that come from a conservative activist. That’s to be expected and lends no credit to the bullying tactics of the conservative activist. Instead, it lends credit to the finding-out-really-embarrassing-stuff tactic of the conservative activist. That’s the tactic that worked, and it’s one I encourage.
Rufo’s skill is obtaining embarrassing material, which, at its most damning, can even be taken seriously by people who usually do not take Rufo seriously. That’s not a skill most people have, and Rufo deserves credit for that. But he doesn’t earn credit for dictating what the New York Times publishes or what the Harvard Corporation does. That’s a different skill and not one Rufo—or any conservative activist—possesses.
Rufo spent most of his career as a documentary filmmaker, mainly for PBS, then got into writing and activism in Seattle and started working at conservative think tanks. He didn’t hit the national spotlight until he obtained material that made left-liberals at mainstream institutions look bad in 2020, the year many left-liberals at mainstream institutions underwent a messy, often unproductive racial reckoning.
The first set of these leaks was about diversity trainings the federal government had funded, which he presented to Tucker Carlson. On Carlson’s show, Rufo asked Trump to sign an executive order banning such trainings. Trump obeyed, banning trainings funded by the federal government if they included any number of “divisive concepts” enumerated in the order, like racial or sexual stereotypes or the idea that the United States is fundamentally racist (this is the same method that many red states used to “ban” CRT in schools the year later).
The executive order cites the documents that Rufo obtained, which revealed, among other things, that a federal entity, Sandia National Laboratories, did a days-long, white-males-only retreat as part of its diversity training, where the white males were instructed to write letters directed to women and POC about their privilege. Was this training dumb? Of course—it was extremely dumb! That’s why Rufo published it and why some people were outraged.
As one of the white male nuclear scientists put it when forced to list some of his concerns with the retreat at the outset: “Freaking long – missing 10-year-old’s birthday.”
If Rufo had leaked that a bunch of liberals in the Biden campaign had gotten together to discuss raising the top income tax rate, there would be no story. Rufo would not be a national figure, Trump wouldn’t have signed any executive order, and you (or I) wouldn’t know who he is. But in fact, liberals at mainstream institutions do outrageous things sometimes, like plagiarize or force a federal nuclear scientist to miss his kid’s birthday for a 4-day-long segregated diversity training, and Rufo is good at finding those things.
Rufo is also frequently accused of engineering the CRT-in-schools panic because he tweeted that he did, writing that “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
Yet again, this isn’t right. Rufo found leaks of left-liberals in education institutions acting poorly. Some of the public responded with outrage. In response to the outrage that the leaks themselves earned, America’s largest teachers union adopted a resolution committing President Becky Pringle to “make public statements across all lines of media that support racial honesty in education including but not limited to critical race theory.” That caused even more outrage! And yet, Rufo does not have a lot of sway at the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the United States. If people panic at what they genuinely did—defend critical race theory teaching in K-12 schools—Rufo doesn’t deserve the credit.
Time after time after time, we see the same thing. Rufo finds things that are often genuinely outrageous. Most of the time, only conservatives react. Every once in a while, he finds things so scandalous that centrists and liberals respond too. Does that mean Rufo pulls the strings? Not at all. It means he’s very good at finding things.
The people who pull the strings pull the strings. The Harvard Corporation runs Harvard. The New York Times runs the New York Times. Sometimes, they’re persuaded by things Rufo says and finds. Most times, they’re not.
Rufo is a smart, shrewd activist who can discern interesting leaks from total bullshit. In this case, it seems that there was a tip circulating that he verified and then posted—he deserves credit for that, since not every journalist knows how to handle such things.
Because Rufo is a former liberal, he knows which issues might strike a chord with more than just hardcore conservatives. But the 39-year-old is not a mastermind. He doesn’t control the New York Times or Harvard—he’d be a pariah at both—and at this point, he’s so coded as a conservative activist that he’s one of the least effective so-called smugglers of right-wing narratives into left-wing spaces out there.
But sometimes, he finds stuff that can’t be ignored, like the fact that the already-embattled president of Harvard is a serial plagiarizer, so she gets forced out into a professorship and a likely-to-be-retained salary of almost $900,000.
All ideas originate somewhere, including “the president of Harvard shouldn’t be a serial plagiarist.” The correct terms for when center-left people embrace an idea from the right are bipartisanship, depolarization, common ground, and unity.
That’s the story, not Christopher Rufo.
Author: Marc Novicoff