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How liberal Seattle created a powerful conservative influencer: Christopher Rufo

Photos: Ted S. Warren, Richard Drew, Rebecca Blackwell. Graphic via Canva

If you listened to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announce his presidential campaign on Twitter last month, you heard him in a friendly exchange with Christopher Rufo, who praised the governor’s use of state power to wage a culture war.

Rufo, speaking before hundreds of thousands of online listeners, credited DeSantis with establishing a “blueprint” for squashing leftist influences in Florida’s institutions. “What you’ve done over the last few years is really astonishing,” he said.

Rufo could just as easily have credited himself.

Over the past three years, the 38-year-old activist has risen to a position as one of the most prominent figures in U.S. conservatism — a leader of an ascendant “anti-woke” movement seeking to succeed Trumpism as the unifying force on the political right.

At the core of his movement is the belief that leftist ideology on race and gender has captured fixtures of American life — universities, K-12 schools, medicine, the media, corporations — in what Rufo calls “the long march through the institutions.” And it’s time for conservatives to take them back.

With appearances on Fox News, a half a million Twitter followers, and stature as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, he’s stoked outrage at trends he’s identified as symbols of that leftist march. Those include “diversity, equity, and inclusion” programs, gender-affirming care for minors, the normalization of drag queens. If you’ve heard these issues talked about in terms of “critical race theory,” “groomers,” or “trans strippers,” you may have felt his influence.

For some Seattle residents, this is all a little disorienting. Just five years ago, Rufo was a little-known documentary filmmaker living in a condo in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. A local commenter on the city’s homelessness crisis, he appeared on most residents’ radar as a first-time City Council candidate only to disappear a few weeks later when he dropped out of the race.

One moment, he was talking about homelessness at a Ballard senior living facility. Less than two years later, he was on Fox News directly addressing the president.

Rufo told the magazine IM—1776 last year that living in the Pacific Northwest, far from East Coast power centers, makes him “an unlikely figure for shaping public policy.”

But, he added, “I have figured out how to build narratives and shift public opinion, which are the two essential preconditions for political action.”

Now he sits at the precipice of power.

Rufo’s rise raises a 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? How did Rufo discover his winning formula in Seattle, a city that has seated a socialist on the City Council for the past decade and last elected a Republican mayor 59 years ago?

Rufo, through his assistant, declined an interview request and did not respond to a list of questions. But a review of his words across hundreds of articles, social media posts, videos, podcast interviews, and TV appearances shows how he rose to influence not in spite of Seattle but because of it.

It shows how, during a fractious chapter in the city’s history, his attempt to promote a conservative story about Seattle’s homelessness crisis laid the foundation for national influence and fame. It shows how, by studying Seattle’s brand of leftism and trying different tactics, he struck upon a winning formula for commanding the attention of conservatives.

Sometimes the most effective conservative communicators come from liberal places, said Reece Peck, an associate professor at the City University of New York who studies partisan media and populist rhetoric.

“I think this experience with leftist culture allows them to see the pressure points or weak or vulnerable areas for them to pounce on and exploit,” he said.

Urban conservative

Rufo, by his own account, has always lived among the left.

Born and raised in Sacramento, Calif., he’s spent almost all of his life in liberal, coastal cities. He graduated in 2006 from Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., and has mentioned living in New York, Los Angeles, and Berkeley, Calif.

He has said he was involved in “left-wing politics” from high school through college. But, by his own telling, conservative beliefs started tocoalesce in his twenties while he traveled the world as a budding filmmaker, witnessing authoritarianism up close in China — where he made a documentary about a baseball team made up of members of the Uyghur Muslim minority — and elsewhere.

When he moved to Seattle, around 2015, he was in the early stages of working on a documentary called “America Lost,” about the economic decline of three U.S. cities: Youngstown, Ohio; Memphis, Tenn.; and Stockton, Calif. Rufo and his childhood friend and filmmaking partner Keith Ochwat had built a nonprofit, the Documentary Foundation, and paid themselves $37,000 to $48,000 a year around that time, according to tax records.

People the filmmakers interviewed in Youngstown said they remember Ochwat taking the lead while Rufo seemed to fall into a secondary role. Dale Maharidge, one of their interview subjects, remembers Ochwat talked about themes of “self-reliance,” which struck him as “a little libertarian, but well-intentioned.”

The filmmakers and their subjects bonded during emotional days shooting in rust-covered shells of factories. Rufo was affable and not overtly political. “We went to this bar, this working class bar, and had some amazing interviews with guys who worked in the mill,” said Maharidge, a journalist whose own writings on poverty won him a 1990 Putlizer prize. “They seemed sincerely interested, both of them, on a human interest level in these people's lives. So my sense was, you know, ‘Okay, it's going to be okay.’”

Rufo, he said, was fun to work and hang out with. “Politics never came up in any sense that would reveal what he became,” Maharidge said. “That's what's so shocking to me.”

Then the filmmakers went silent for years, leaving Maharidge and others who talked with them to wonder what happened to “America Lost.” At some point, Ochwat emailed an interview subject from Youngstown, Paul Grilli, saying he had left the project. “It was a hard decision, but the right one for me,” Ochwat wrote.

In this May 7, 2018, photo with the Space Needle in the background, pedestrians walk near the Amazon Spheres in Seattle.
Ted S. Warren
In this May 7, 2018, photo with the Space Needle in the background, pedestrians walk near the Amazon Spheres in Seattle.

In 2017, Ochwat collected a big salary from the Documentary Foundation, according to tax records — $195,532, more than quadruple what he had ever received before — and then never appeared in the nonprofit’s records again. He did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Meanwhile, Rufo was building a public profile as a conservative activist. He joined a lawsuit against the City of Seattle seeking to overturn an income tax on high-earning residents. He told NPR he didn’t make enough money to pay the tax, but he wanted to save Seattle from the fate of the impoverished cities he was filming for “America Lost.” By 2017, he landed a fellowship at the Claremont Institute, a California-based, right-wing think tank.

He would later write on Facebook that his conservative activities threw “America Lost” into disarray. “When I first made the decision to engage politically, I had old funders refuse to return my calls and old friends refuse to work on the project,” he wrote, without naming those funders or friends.

Rufo’s early activism flowed from his identity as an “urban conservative.”

In a 2018 Facebook post, he wrote about his love for “cities, density, culture, and urban design.” In another post that year, he chided “rural and suburban conservatives who indulge in the ‘Big City X is a socialist hellhole’ rhetoric.”

Cities, he wrote, “are the primary engines of innovation in America” — “exciting, stimulating, and sometimes infuriating, but they will only increase their dominance in American life over the next decades.”

He’s described himself as “not a gun person at all” and “kind of Bohemian in nature.” As recently as five years ago, he called himself a “social liberal, economic conservative.”

The role of the urban conservative, Rufo wrote, was not necessarily to win power but to simply counterbalance the left, killing the most extreme ideas. “I've started to see America's two great political traditions — liberalism and conservatism — as complementary,” he wrote, “rather than competitive.”

Rufo would keep building on this philosophy, refining a brand of conservatism that exists to oppose the hard left, pushing back against “rapid economic, political, and social change.”

But his warm tone toward liberalism — and his ideas about wielding power — would change.

Shaping the narrative

Seattle’s left was on the defensive.

It was 2018, a volatile time in the city’s struggles with homelessness. The unsheltered population leapt by nearly 17% over the prior year in the government’s official count. The sight of thousands of suffering people sleeping in tents and alcoves dominated Seattle politics, with more residents calling for a law-and-order approach. A progressive-backed business tax meant to fund housing and services for homeless people fell apart amid drubbing by corporations.

“If I were to look at a zeitgeisty sort of a switch that was flipped, it would be that moment,” said Sara Rankin, a Seattle University law professor who advocates for the rights of homeless people. “The ‘head tax’ debacle was huge. I think that was something of a bomb that imploded a lot of progressive momentum in the city.”

Supporters, left, of a tax on large companies such as Amazon and Starbucks that was intended to combat a growing homelessness crisis stand in Seattle City Council Chambers and face off against people at right supporting the repeal of the tax on June 12, 2018, at City Hall in Seattle. Seattle leaders repealed the tax after a backlash from businesses.
Ted S. Warren
Supporters of a tax on large companies such as Amazon and Starbucks that was intended to combat a growing homelessness crisis stand in Seattle City Council Chambers and face off against people supporting the repeal of the tax, Tuesday, June 12, 2018, at City Hall in Seattle. Seattle leaders repealed the tax after a backlash from businesses.

It was the sort of contested moment, according to political scientists, alive with opportunity for someone looking to shape the narrative.

“You really have this moment for change, a change in common sense, when there's some kind of crisis in the current regime that there aren't competitors offering really compelling stories to make sense of,” said Anthony Nadler, who studies conservative news as an associate professor at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania.

At that point, Rufo was a fixture of Seattle conservatism. He had landed a fellowship focused on “wealth and poverty” with the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think tank mostly known for pushing the idea of “intelligent design.” It’s part of a cluster of conservative think tanks that hold fundraising and staffing advantages over their liberal counterparts in Washington, according to one analysis, in a state that’s otherwise dominated by Democrats.

He had also started writing regularly for City Journal, a magazine about urban affairs put out by a national conservative think tank, the Manhattan Institute.

He was primed to take advantage of what he saw as a newly awakened conservatism among Seattle residents, fueled by the homelessness debate. “There’s a limit to progressivism, even in America’s most progressive city,” he wrote in City Journal. “The backlash is coming.”

Rufo argued, in a flurry of essays, that homelessness was not economic but personal in nature, that it was driven not by skyrocketing rents but instead something harder to quantify: “disaffiliation” — alienated people dropping out of mainstream society. Progressives, he said, were not equipped to handle the crisis because they were blinded by ideology, an excess of misguided compassion. The solution, in his view, was not housing but stricter enforcement of laws.

To people who studied homelessness and advocated for homeless people, Rufo’s arguments were riddled with non-sequiturs, factual errors and ahistorical claims. He brushed aside decades of research making the case that stabilizing people in homes before treating any addictions or mental illnesses yielded better results and was cheaper than arresting and jailing people or allowing them to cycle through emergency rooms. He rejected data showing that rates of homelessness corresponded closely to rising rents.

“It’s probably the cleverest thing that you can associate with Rufo or that side, is the weaponization of compassion as something bad, something that we shouldn't be embracing.”
Sara Rankin, Seattle University law professor

He pushed a narrative of social breakdown driving homelessness even though the crisis spiked in Washington state at a time when family stability was actually improving; divorce, domestic violence, and teenage pregnancy were all going down; more couples were getting married and more children were growing up in two-parent households. He said drug use drove homelessness even though — while addiction is a thread in many individual stories of homelessness — Washington lagged most of the country in the growth of opioid use.

He cited data on the chronically homeless, a particularly disabled subset of the homeless population, to make sweeping claims about homelessness at large. He cited Houston as a city where a law-and-order approach to homelessness had worked, even though Houston had in reality embraced the same “housing first” approach that Rufo panned. (The reason Houston’s “housing first” efforts succeeded, according to one study by housing advocates: Unlike expensive West Coast cities, Houston had “abundant, low-cost housing.”)

And he ignored the fact that many of his proposals were already a reality in Seattle — regular “sweeps” of encampments and arrests of homeless people — to little effect. The number of homeless people Seattle police booked into jail had been rising steadily for years and, by 2018, one in five jail bookings were for people who were homeless, according to an analysis by Crosscut.

But Rufo also had keen observations on the dynamics of Seattle progressivism — and an ability to portray them in the worst possible light. Rankin, the law professor and homeless advocate, said Rufo took advantage of real weaknesses on the left. In her view, advocates failed to articulate a vision for what a non-punitive approach to homelessness would look like. And they relied too heavily on appeals to compassion.

“Homeless rights advocates have assumed that other human beings would find value in compassion,” she said. “And so we didn't see the weaponization of that phrase coming. And it's probably the cleverest thing that you can associate with Rufo or that side, is the weaponization of compassion as something bad, something that we shouldn't be embracing.”

Rufo’s depiction of homelessness resonated with disaffected Seattleites. That included the growing membership of the Facebook page Safe Seattle, a budding power center in the city where residents railed against the “homelessness industrial complex” — their term for the nonprofit contractors who staff the city’s homelessness response — vented their frustration at seeing unsheltered people, and sometimes shared cruel memes.

David Preston, the group's founder, called Rufo a "political prodigy" whose ideas were well-received on the page. "People wanted him to run for something," he told KNKX via email.

In this May 7, 2018 photo, with CenturyLink and Safeco Fields in the background, two people walk past a half-dozen tents set up along a sidewalk at the Seattle waterfront.
Ted S. Warren
In this May 7, 2018 photo, with CenturyLink and Safeco fields in the background, two people walk past a half-dozen tents set up along a sidewalk at the Seattle waterfront.

Entering, and quickly exiting, the fray

Rufo’s essays on homelessness formed the foundation of his brief bid for Seattle City Council in 2018. He ran in the district around Ballard, a trendy enclave of Seattle’s professional class that was hit particularly hard by the homelessness crisis.

“Chris had a natural base among those folks,” Preston said of moderate residents of the district who weren’t “strongly political but just want their city to be better run.”

Preston also perceived a telegenic quality that would later serve Rufo on Fox News. “He's young, good looking, intelligent, articulate... and conservative,” he said. “These are not typically qualities we associate with conservative icons, who tend to be grumpy old men, like me.”

In a polished campaign video, Rufo described himself not as a conservative but as a family man with “fresh” ideas about how to tackle the city’s problems. He cited his work on “America Lost” — which still had yet to come out — with teaching him how “bad policies can send a community into decline.”

“I’m not part of this city’s political establishment,” he narrated in the video. “I’m not wealthy or powerful.” He talked about living in a 729-square-foot condo in Fremont, near Ballard, with his wife and two sons. His platform included nods to liberal positions. “I stand with the pro-choice, immigrant, POC, and LGBTQ+ communities in defense of our civil rights,” his campaign website said.

Katie Herzog, then a writer for The Stranger, said on her podcast this year that when she met with Rufo in 2018 he described himself as a libertarian who voted for neither Trump nor Clinton in 2016, and brought along his campaign director, Mellina White, a conservative who is mixed race and identifies as queer.

Herzog had faced criticism from the left for her reporting on people who stopped identifying as trans. Rufo, she said, may have seen her as a writer who could be sympathetic to his campaign.

“I think that a lot of what he does is very strategic,” she said.

Preston said he volunteered for Rufo’s campaign even though “his chances weren’t great” in a city that almost never elected conservatives. “I saw him as a principled man who would promote conservative values (low taxes, responsive government, law and order) while being sensitive to the feelings of his constituency at large,” he said.

Rufo’s run for office lasted just seven weeks before he dropped out, citing online abuse by activists on the left directed at his family.

The role of the urban conservative, Rufo wrote, was not necessarily to win power but to simply counterbalance the left, killing the most extreme ideas.

In a statement about the attacks, Rufo’s wife, Suphatra Rufo, highlighted her identity as someone who came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant from Thailand and moved to Seattle ”for its culture of diversity, inclusion, and economic opportunity.” The online attacks, she said, sent the message that she was unwelcome because of her and her husband’s conservative beliefs.

In the aftermath, Rufo portrayed himself as a moderate who wanted “civil debate” but was caught off guard by the intensity of attacks from the left. It won him sympathetic coverage from Seattle’s conservative TV and radio commentators.

“I’ve had more than a thousand people reach out to me in the past week to offer me their support,” Rufo told the popular conservative radio personality Dori Monson. “We had a number of ex-military, ex-law enforcement offer protection if threats escalate.”

But even Monson expressed skepticism at Rufo’s reason for dropping out. “I get 50 of those a day Christopher,” the host said after reading a social media post calling Rufo “an absolute fascist” and a “sad excuse for a human being.”

Rufo’s professed surprise at the personal attacks struck Preston, his supporter, as “naive” for anyone familiar with social media. “When he dropped out, the heat wasn't even that intense yet,” he said. “But maybe he saw that it would get much hotter and it was better to cut his losses.”

Herzog, reporting for The Stranger, reviewed several dozen negative posts directed at Rufo and his family. While she thinks Rufo’s wife was genuinely upset, she now believes Rufo was “exaggerating to make himself look like a victim of crazy leftists” and wishes she was less credulous in her reporting on the attacks, she said on her podcast. The most egregious comment, Herzog said, was one telling Rufo’s wife to get “bent.”

Rufo, she said, “was doing the exact same, like, safetyism, ‘Woe is me, everyone’s out to get me’ shit that he constantly complains about leftists doing.”

But, in his retreat from the race, Rufo had found a new cause. He told Monson, the radio host, that he was pivoting from a political fight to a cultural one.

“I launched the campaign to fight for better policies in the City of Seattle,” Rufo said in the interview. “That was my goal. But since then I’ve learned that there’s this much bigger fight against this culture of intolerance.”

Counterculture of the right

Rufo emerged from the Trump years as the most successful example of a certain type of conservative influencer: those embedded in progressive strongholds, many in the Pacific Northwest, who send dispatches from liberal America to right-leaning audiences.

They portray themselves as part of a besieged conservative counterculture in a world now dominated by the left. The news they relay is always bad.

In Seattle, radio personality Jason Rantz frequently appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to frame local stories about homelessness and crime as symptoms of Seattle’s decline under progressive rule. He's now promoting a book on the same topic. In Portland, Andy Ngo fixated on anti-fascists as grave threats to the country in his writings for The Post Millennial, a conservative Canada-based publication.

The U.S. conservative movement “has a culture of entrepreneurship among activists where you have many, many hundreds, thousands possibly, of conservative activists who are trying to do similar stuff to what Chris Rufo is doing” with “varying degrees of talent” said A.J. Bauer, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama who studies right-wing media and conservative news.

They compete for the attention of media kingmakers, wealthy donors, and think tanks, he said. The most successful can get paid to essentially opine full-time.

Many followed a formula similar to Rufo’s: starting out commenting on homelessness and then graduating to broader “anti-woke” activism. It’s a strategy that has fed a thriving network of conservative celebrities from liberal cities who today command the attention of more than 2.6 million followers on Twitter and 140,000 on Facebook, according to an analysis by KNKX, plus millions on Fox News.

Ari Hoffman, a Seattle business owner, ran for City Council the same year as Rufo, channeling his anger about the effects of homelessness on a Jewish cemetery. Before long, he was writing regular pieces for The Post Millennial and appearing on Newsmax to discuss the scandals surrounding Hunter Biden. Hoffman today has a talk show with the Seattle-based conservative radio station KVI, where he promises “a current of common sense in a sea of insanity.”

Jonathan Choe was a reporter for Seattle’s Sinclair-owned local TV station, KOMO, known for walking into homeless encampments while filming images of despair. After he was fired over a Twitter post that some interpreted as promoting the Proud Boys, the Discovery Institute snapped him up, and his posts today frequently reflect right-wing views on trans people.

Michael Shellenberger, once an environmental activist in Berkeley, Calif., took a conservative turn and wrote the 2021 book “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities,” closely echoing many of Rufo’s themes about homelessness. He ran a losing race for governor of California last year as an independent. Shellenberger now uses his formidable followings on Twitter and Substack to argue that identifying as trans is a mental disorder and rail against what he believes is censorship of conservative views on social media.

David Ross amassed a local following in Olympia when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2019 as a former homeless outreach worker skeptical of progressive approaches to homelessness. He told KNKX that he was surprised by the pushback he faced from the left, which he experienced as “a lot of intellectual, holier-than-thou preaching and criticizing and attacking.”

As the left criticized him, the right embraced him. Today, on a Facebook page with 10,000 followers, Ross almost exclusively posts derogatory jokes about trans people and negative stories about antifascist activists. The edge to his posts, he said, comes from the feeling that, in progressive Olympia, he can feel “cornered” for his views.

“It's the idea that ‘We've got you over a barrel if you speak out, civilly, sincerely, we're going to brand you and wreck you culturally, economically for having different views than the view of the day,” Ross said. “There's a part of me that rails against that.”

Tents are set up inside Olympia's mitigation site, a homeless encampment sanctioned by the city.
Parker Miles Blohm
Tents set up at a mitigation site, a homeless encampment sanctioned by the city, in Olympia, Wash. on October 8, 2020.

But Rufo stood out.

He didn’t simply opine; he sought to break news. While other influencers tried to summon humor or outrage in the style of bygone figures like Rush Limbaugh, Rufo used data, government records, academic studies, and other tools of mainstream journalism. At one point, he compiled public data on trash complaints and built an interactive map for a story arguing Seattle is “overwhelmed by garbage and filth.”

He read widely, sprinkling his essays with the names of thinkers such as Christopher Lasch, Émile Durkheim, Nassim Taleb, and the 18th-Century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

He quickly graduated from niche conservative publications to more widely read outlets such as The Wall Street Journal. “The Seattle homelessness crisis is national news,” he posted on Facebook after one of his articles ran in a two-page spread in The New York Post.

His framing of homelessness in Seattle echoed the politics of the 1990s, when conservatives used stories of poverty and crime in cities to build a narrative of liberal dysfunction and moral decay, academics who study conservative media said.

Rufo “has been very good at rekindling those fears,” Bauer said. “He's basically riffing on a very old narrative here.”

The political right resurfaced that narrative during the Trump years, once again focusing on social problems in cities like Seattle and blaming them on the left, arguing that progressive policies or general attitude of permissiveness were sowing chaos.

While Seattle grappled with homelessness, Rufo studied the progressive politics surrounding it, acting as a sociologist of the left for a conservative audience.

“Liberal intellectual condescension is like the central master codex of the entire conservative media industry.”

Reece Peck, associate professor at the City University of New York

When Seattle urbanists sought to end single-family zoning and adopt land-use policies to reduce carbon pollution, Rufo was watching. He translated it for a conservative audience, framing it as an effort to use housing to “dictate how people live.”

When Seattle progressives argued for “harm reduction” for people who use drugs, Rufo was watching. He called it a “pessimistic philosophy” that leaves “almost no room for agency, hope, or grace, and maintains that science can lead us out of the darkness of addiction and human despair."

He honed his public persona — part philosopher-quoting intellectual, part Twitter troll conversant in online brawling — and learned to use the language of muckraking journalism — “SCOOP” — to command attention on social media.

And, in the competitive world of local conservative influencers vying for national attention and influence, Rufo amassed more power than any of them.

‘We hate you’

Rufo took a step onto the national stage in early 2019, when he made an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. At the time, Carlson was the most-watched cable news host in the U.S., regularly drawing more than three million viewers.

An ingredient in Carlson’s success was that he was plugged into the universe of up-and-coming conservative influencers in a way that other Fox hosts weren’t, said academics who study conservative media. He seemed to take political cues from the online right to keep his show current. In turn, he acted as kingmaker, lending them legitimacy and giving them national exposure.

Rufo was there to talk to a national audience about homelessness in Seattle — specifically to tell them about “survival crime,” the progressive idea that some thefts and other crimes are committed by poor people out of desperation.

As video of tents and people using drugs flashed on the screen, Rufo told Carlson that lax law enforcement in cities like Seattle — “social justice policing” and “government by ideology” — was causing chaos for ”normal, everyday, tax paying citizens.”

Rufo said the local government was “totally blind” to the impacts its policies were having on “real citizens.”

Carlson took Rufo’s claim a step further, saying the government was not guilty of blindness but “acts of aggression.”

“When people treat you this way, what they’re saying is, ‘We hate you,’” Carlson said. “‘We hate you.’”

Carlson, in that moment, was adding a potent ingredient to Rufo's appearance, rolling it into a broader conservative story.

Among the most powerful narratives on the right is not just that progressive policies are misguided but that the people behind those policies have contempt for average Americans, according to academics who study conservative media. It’s a powerful vein of emotion that Carlson was particularly focused on tapping into.

“Liberal intellectual condescension is like the central master codex of the entire conservative media industry,” said Peck, the City University of New York professor. “They're constantly saying, ‘Educated elites think they're better than you.’”

In this March 2, 2017 file photo, Tucker Carlson, host of "Tucker Carlson Tonight," poses for photos in a Fox News Channel studio, in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
Richard Drew
In this March 2, 2017 file photo, Tucker Carlson, host of "Tucker Carlson Tonight," poses for photos in a Fox News Channel studio, in New York.

‘Up the chain’

Rufo demonstrated his skill at working the media in late 2019, after he learned that a King County homelessness official had used taxpayer money to hire a transgender dancer named Beyonce Black St. James to perform topless at a conference with the theme of “Decolonizing Our Collective Work.”

Rufo wrote an article about it: “Progressives Gone Wild.” Then, on Facebook, he laid bare his strategy for propelling the story through the media.

The first step was appealing to the sensibilities of Seattle’s local TV news stations.

“To shape the narrative from the outset, I framed the story with a ‘taxpayer outrage’ angle on Facebook and Twitter, then immediately pitched the local news, which scrambled to break the story on broadcast television,” Rufo wrote.

From there, Rufo wrote, he pitched the story to national media.

“When a story is covered by local media, it's legitimized in the public mind and gives copy editors at national publications easy material to adapt and publish,” he wrote. “So I quickly ‘worked my way up the chain,’ distributing the story to the conservative media, where it was picked up by dozens of websites, magazines, and radio stations, and was widely shared on social media. Within 48 hours, it hit Shannon Bream's show on national Fox News, which is the top of the chain.”

Rufo worked his way “up the chain” again a few months later, with a story about another local government diversity training. It would prove one of the most consequential maneuvers of his career.

It was at the height of racial justice protests in Seattle, after the murder of George Floyd, that an anonymous tip landed in Rufo’s inbox. “I was really stunned once I acquired these documents,” he said in a 2022 podcast interview. “It all started with this story.”

Rufo wrote a series of posts on Twitter describing a training program for City of Seattle employees prompting them to examine their own complicity in racism. Rufo called it “cult programming” and a “new cultural revolution is being fought via corporate HR, city diversity training, and public school curriculums.” The Twitter posts were shared more than 12,000 times.

That story led to others. He said he got a tip about similar diversity trainings at the federal level and wrote another article, using the term “critical race theory” to describe what he viewed as the ideological basis of the trainings. His Twitter posts about the story were shared more than 10,000 times.

“My goal is simple: we must pass legislation to ‘abolish critical race theory’ in the federal government,” Rufo wrote on Twitter. “Let's push as far as we can.”

Rufo almost never mentioned Trump in his writings or on social media. But when Rufo appeared on Carlson’s show again to talk about the diversity trainings, he made a direct appeal to the president, who was known to spend long hours watching Fox News.

“I’d like to make it explicit,” Rufo said on TV, an image of the Space Needle behind him. “The president and the White House, it’s within their authority and power to immediately issue an executive order abolishing critical race theory trainings from the federal government.”

Within three weeks, Trump cited Rufo’s reporting in an executive order barring federal agencies and contractors from holding trainings that “inculcate” in employees “any form of race or sex stereotyping or any form of race or sex scapegoating.”

In a speech that month, the president echoed many of Rufo’s talking points about “critical race theory.” Rufo wrote an article praising the speech and, for the first time, embracing Trump. Rufo said a strong message opposing “critical race theory” could refocus the president’s reelection campaign. Rufo went on to vote for Trump in 2020, he has said.

From then on, a majority of Rufo’s articles were no longer about homelessness but about “critical race theory.”

For much of its history, the term referred to a niche academic discipline exploring racism as a force that is threaded through society and its institutions. But, at Rufo’s urging, it was warped into something else: a catch-all term for everything the right disliked about the left’s racial politics in the post-George Floyd world. In 2021, he famously tweeted about his aim to turn the phrase “toxic.”

In less than two years, Rufo had gone from a brief Seattle City Council candidate to someone influencing the president.

“I’m an activist by accident,” Rufo told IM-1776 last year, saying that his commentary on homelessness and “critical race theory” taught him that “the missing link to so many political problems was not knowledge, but action.” He said he realized he wanted his writing “to move people, reshape narratives, and transform into law” and figured out how to do this “through a process of trial and error.”

But, academics who study conservative media said, Rufo did not rise on his own.

He was plugged into a nationwide infrastructure that funds, elevates, and empowers conservative figures like him. A media pipeline elevated his work from City Journal and gave it a national audience on Carlson’s show. A conservative think tank infrastructure provided Rufo networking and prestige.

While Rufo is "very talented at messaging," he "isn't an independent actor," said Bauer, the University of Alabama professor.

"This is a part of a decades-long project on the right to build movement infrastructure, to build media infrastructure, to cultivate a culture of political entrepreneurship," Bauer said.

When, five years after the project began, “America Lost” finally came out on WORLD, a public television channel associated with PBS, it was a relic of a past Rufo — a Rufo who still seemed to modulate the volume of his conservatism for a liberal audience.

The film's politics are subtle, even though Rufo had financed the documentary by tapping an array of conservative think tanks and foundations and credited the conservative professor John Marini of the University of Nevada, Reno, as a consultant. They're embedded in Rufo’s narration when he derides government programs as ineffectual, focuses on social problems while brushing over economic ones, mourns the breakdown of Black families, and holds up faith-based institutions as a salve.

“We’ve tried to solve our problems through top-down public policies,” he narrates. “But real change doesn’t happen top-down, it happens from the inside out.”

Rufo and his onetime filmmaking partner, Ochwat, had not pitched “America Lost” as a political project when they talked to interview subjects in Youngstown, according to Maharidge and Grilli. But, five years later, Rufo was clear about the film’s politics.

“It's a tremendous challenge to get a conservative film on public television and we had to fight off multiple attempts to cancel it — but it's broadcasting nationally tonight, which is a big win,” he wrote on Facebook in 2020.

Upon the film’s release, Rufoannounced he was retiring from the documentary world, saying it was “hyper-ideological” and he needed to get out. Instead, he would devote his time to a more promising career: politics.

“The documentary world closed its doors; the political world swung them wide open,” he wrote.

Precipice of power

Christopher Rufo just spent a month in Hungary.

He was on a fellowship in the Eastern European country, where the right-wing, autocratic prime minister Viktor Orbán has used government power to wage a culture war.

Orbán, who is popular among U.S. conservatives, has tightened control over Hungary’s media, judiciary, and universities, and has talked openly about his desire to create an “illiberal” “Christian democracy.” Rufo wrote to his Substack subscribers that, in Hungary, he hoped to study “the strengths and weaknesses of state-driven cultural policy.”

It was another chapter in a busy 2023 for Rufo. He dined with the conservative celebrity Jordan Peterson in Seattle, debating the Canadian psychologist over whether it’s wise to use state power to eradicate “diversity, equity, and inclusion” programs from institutions. Peterson, skeptical of state overreach, urged caution. Rufo tried to convince him that a more muscular approach was needed.

While he once considered himself a libertarian, today Rufo is one of the loudest purveyors of the idea that conservatives should use government power to take back institutions. He’s helped inspire an investigation by the Texas attorney general into the nation’s largest children's hospital for providing gender-affirming care. He's an architect of legislation attacking “diversity, equity, and inclusion” programs at public universities in Republican-led states.

No top-tier politician has embraced Rufo more than DeSantis, whose presidential run will test the appeal of Rufo’s “anti-woke” movement with the U.S. electorate in 2024. DeSantis has built his brand applying Rufo’s philosophy in Florida, using levers of government to attack targets he’s deemed “woke,” including Disney. In announcing his candidacy for president, he said he’d use the federal government in similar ways.

DeSantis appointed Rufo to the board of the New College of Florida early this year — part of the governor’s project to remake higher education in a conservative image. It’s Rufo’s first experience of official power. “We are now over the walls and ready to transform higher education from within,” Rufo tweeted about the announcement.

New College of Florida's board of trustees, including conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who is seen on screen, lower right, attending remotely, meet to vote on proposed changes to the school on Feb. 28, 2023, in Sarasota, Fla. Trustees picked by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to oversee Florida's public college voted Tuesday to abolish its small office that handles diversity, equity and inclusion programs, targeted by conservatives throughout the state university system. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Rebecca Blackwell
New College of Florida's board of trustees, including conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who is seen on screen, lower right, meet to vote on proposed changes to the school on Feb. 28, 2023, in Sarasota, Fla. Trustees picked by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to oversee Florida's public college voted to abolish the small office that handles diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

Though Trump helped give Rufo his breakout moment, Rufo has said Trump’s presidency was a disappointment. The former president railed against wokeness but, in Rufo's view, couldn’t navigate the bureaucracy well enough to do anything about it. DeSantis, Rufo says, knows how to wield power.

Rufo, who has endorsed DeSantis, has written that he’s spending this year crafting a ready-made “anti-woke” agenda for the next White House that would “fundamentally reshape the bureaucracy” and “centralize ideological control over the federal agencies in the White House,” should a Republican win the presidency in 2024.

Rufo made his career portraying Seattle as another institution captured by the left. But, Rankin, the Seattle University professor, said he wouldn’t have had seen so much success if there wasn't also something fundamentally conservative about the city. It’s a city where more than two-thirds of the land is taken up by suburban-style houses, a city that birthed Amazon and Microsoft, a city that tech money has made one of the wealthiest in the U.S.

Five years after Rufo’s aborted City Council run, Seattle has bent in his direction. Voters elected the first Republican city attorney in decades, Ann Davison, who promisedto restore order. In the same election, they chose a centrist Democrat mayor, Bruce Harrell, who campaigned on a more punitive approach to homelessness. And, this year, Seattle’s most left-wing city councilmember, socialist Kshama Sawant decided not to run for re-election. Among the candidates, there’s no clear successor on the hard left.

But Rufo isn’t there to see it.

He left Seattle behind about three years ago, moving his family to a five-bedroom house in Gig Harbor, an upscale hamlet more than a half hour’s drive away, known for its waterfront restaurants and a horizon pricked by sailboat masts. He’s launched a new nonprofit, American Studio, hired a small staff, and built a space where he films videos for his followers, including thousands of paid Substack subscribers. He’s promoting a new book.

After a lifetime in liberal bastions, Rufo has said he now feels unburdened living around more “like-minded” people, including neighbors who stop to thank him for his work, in a place where he says “local cancel culture” doesn’t exist. In a recent YouTube video, he said neighbors offered to “mobilize a dozen heavily armed people in five or six minutes” if protesters came to his house.

“It frees your mind of all of those things that you’re preparing in your head to confront” in a city like Seattle, Rufo told podcast host Jack Murphy in a 2021 interview. He recommended that other “affluent, educated, ambitious, conservative people living in the big cities, feeling alienated” also “just hit the eject button” and move away.

Reflecting on his move from Seattle, Rufo said he spent a year and a half earnestly trying to change the trajectory of a liberal city by writing about homelessness — and failed. Supporters of his work, he said, offered “big checks” for him to continue, but he started turning them down. He said he felt it was futile to try to change liberal places, but there was an opportunity to change conservative ones. After he switched his focus to “critical race theory,” he started changing policy within months.

The lesson, he said, is the importance of knowing when to pivot from a “dead end” to a wide open opportunity.

Vivian McCall contributed reporting.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.