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How a Seattle conservative took down Harvard's Claudine Gay

caption: Documentary filmmaker Chris Rufo believes "ruinous compassion" is perpetuating the homeless crisis in Seattle.
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Documentary filmmaker Chris Rufo believes "ruinous compassion" is perpetuating the homeless crisis in Seattle.
Sasha Komatsubara

As scandal involving now former Harvard president Claudine Gay unfolded on the national stage, Seattleites may have recognized a name at the heart of the effort to oust her: Christopher Rufo.

Rufo, who now lives in Gig Harbor, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a national conservative think tank, and conservative activist who cut his political teeth while he was a Fremont resident arguing Seattle’s liberal policies on homelessness were exacerbating the problem.

Today, he’s the face of the conservative movement against “critical race theory” and what he frames as the leftist ideologues at the head of key institutions, like Claudine Gay.

Rufo celebrated the victory on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“Today, we celebrate victory. Tomorrow, we get back to the fight,” he posted. “We must not stop until we have abolished DEI ideology from every institution in America.”

David Neiwert, an author and journalist who has covered far-right extremism in the region for more than 40 years, described Rufo’s particular brand of conservatism as “incredibly cynical.”

"That's the thing that strikes me the most is just how cynical his whole operation is,” Neiwert said. “He knows that he's manipulating the media. He tells them he is manipulating them. And then the media go, ‘Okay, manipulate us.’”

In fact, Rufo was quite clear about the playbook for the campaign against Gay and accepted at least some of the credit for it in an interview with POLITICO: “I’ve learned that it never hurts to take the credit because sometimes people don’t give it to you. But this really was a team effort that involved three primary points of leverage,” Rufo said in the interview.

“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.”

Rufo personally knows the power of public pressure, as he’s folded under its weight, too.

He once briefly ran for a Seattle City Council seat but dropped out, at the time blaming attacks from the left.

“I was prepared to take the heat, but unfortunately, they have focused their hatred on my wife and children. They’ve made vile racist attacks against my wife, attempted to get her fired from Microsoft, and threatened sexual violence. They've even posted hateful comments on our 8-year-old son's school Facebook page,” he wrote in 2018 in a letter to his supporters. “I know that as the race progresses, the activists will ratchet up their hate-machine and these attacks will intensify significantly.”

Gay reported similar harassment in the wake of Rufo’s campaign against her in an op-ed she wrote for The New York Times: “My inbox has been flooded with invective, including death threats. I’ve been called the N-word more times than I care to count.”

“Those who had relentlessly campaigned to oust me since the fall often trafficked in lies and ad hominem insults, not reasoned argument,” Gay went on. “They recycled tired racial stereotypes about Black talent and temperament. They pushed a false narrative of indifference and incompetence.”

Asked whether the campaign against Gay was fueled by “racial animus,” Rufo told POLITICO, “It was absolutely not fueled by racial animus. It was fueled by Claudine Gay’s minimization of antisemitism, her serial plagiarism, her intimidation of the free press, and her botched attempts to cover it all up. It had nothing to do with her race or sex and everything to do with her merit, her competence, and her failure to lead.”

In the same interview, Rufo said, “My primary objective is to eliminate the DEI bureaucracy in every institution in America and to restore truth rather than racialist ideology as the guiding principle of America.”

He was given a clear path to do so in Florida last year.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Rufo to the New College of Florida Board of Trustees. DeSantis targeted New College in Sarasota, previously a progressive liberal arts school, as part of a broader effort to give Florida’s higher education institutions a conservative makeover.

Rufo, who in the past has lamented the effects of “government by ideology,” celebrated the appointment in a tweet: “We are now over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within" – with the help of conservative ideals, which both DeSantis and Rufo have framed as a “classical” education.

“Ours is a project of recapture and reinvention,” Rufo wrote in a Substack post last January. “Conservatives have the opportunity finally to demonstrate an effective countermeasure against the long march through institutions.”

Seattle journalist Will James covered Rufo’s background last year for KNKX in a detailed look at how Rufo became the conservative figure he is today.

In his piece on Rufo, James — who is currently on staff at KUOW — asked this question: “How did Seattle, one of the most liberal metro areas in the U.S., incubate one of the country’s most powerful conservative influencers?”

The fact is Rufo isn’t the first such influencer-type to come out of the liberal bastion much of the country believes Seattle or the Pacific Northwest to be.

Consider Ethan Nordean, the former Proud Boy leader now serving an 18-year prison sentence for seditious conspiracy. Members of the far-right Proud Boys, under Nordean’s authority, were among those who stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. Nordean is from the Auburn area.

Venture further back in the region’s history to the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan had a significant presence in the region, and to 1936 when far-right “Christian Party” presidential candidate William Dudley Pelley appeared on the ballot in Washington, the only state to include him. Pelley was the leader of the fascist Silver Shirts.

David Neiwert has covered this history extensively, following its evolution right up to Christopher Rufo.

“What I think actually happens in a culture like Seattle's, where we're kind of monochromatically liberal, is that some people feel like they need to find a way to stand out in order to make themselves special," Neiwert said of conservative figures like Rufo, who has described himself as an “urban conservative."

“Their route to success is by being unconventional,” he added. “So, what they wind up doing is ... embracing far-right crap and then sort of dressing it up in pseudo-liberal language. Not many people are willing to do that. But Chris is obviously one.”

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