Rufo the Reactionary, Part I
Christopher Rufo is a blood-soaked gladiator who's fun to watch. But he can't be trusted with the power he craves.
Christopher Rufo is fun to watch in the arena. Every time I see him bloodsoaked, wiping his sword from what’s left of another social justice fundamentalist, I’m tempted to cheer among the throngs. But one day, a new Emperor will ascend to give the people a thumbs up or down. And Rufo will be plucked from the arena and invited into the Praetorian Guard. I think he would just as soon thrust his sword into my belly as that of the woke because that dude loves power more than wisdom or freedom. In what follows, you will read the words of Rufo the Reactionary. Then, I will react to those words as a warning and to dispel all that power talk. While there is truth in his words, there is danger.
(Note: Rufo’s text is in Roman. Mine is in italics.)
The Right is reorganizing. Most intelligent conservatives, especially younger conservatives, who joined the political fray at a moment of sweeping ideological change, already recognize that familiar orthodoxies are no longer viable, and that ideas without power are useless. The Right doesn’t need a white paper. What it needs is a spirited new activism with the courage and resolve to win back the language, recapture institutions, and reorient the state toward rightful ends.
Into what is “the right” reorganizing? Rufo offers a clue. But he contradictions himself. “Power,” after all, is a familiar orthodoxy. Rufo’s counter-march through the institutions replaces dyed-blue hair with crew cuts. Same Hobbesian logic. Same hierarchies. Different hierarchs. That’s not real reform. It’s another group ready to shove its One True Way down your throat. I’ll pass over that Bitcoin was first a whitepaper; Rufo’s New Right doesn’t need a whitepaper because reactionaries don’t read or need whitepapers. Rufo represents what members of the Dark Renaissance call a “Boy Pharaoh.” All brawn, no brains—power without wisdom. How did a whitepaper factory like the Manhattan Institute find someone whose ideology amounts to “Throw your weight around”? It’s a mystery, but Rufo is no mystery. He is a Boy Pharaoh whose plan is to reorient the violent apparatus of the state towards
right-wing “rightful ends.”
And what are those ends, pray tell?
This essay will introduce the basic principles of this activism: where it begins, how it might work, and what it must do in order to win. It is not “conservative” in the traditional sense.
Activism is a means, not an end, much less a rightful end. If I thought Rufo was talking obliquely about underthrow, subversive innovation, or even satyagraha, I might forgive him the term. Hell, I’m for efforts to tag-team with the likes of Phil Magness to bring down the academy’s plagiarist Pillar Saints, but that’s not mere activism. Yet it still doesn’t tell us what lies beyond any countermarch through the institutions. When I hear activism, all I can think of is something irritating or dangerous: chanting idiots clogging streets, snarking on X, or worse, blood-feuders who will become tomorrow’s bureaucrats. The thing is, Rufo doesn’t even define activism. He just claims we need more of it.
The world of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberalism is gone, and conservatives must grapple with the world as it is — a status quo that requires not conservation, but reform, and even revolt.
I’m unsure whether this proves all God’s children need an editor, but I can’t make heads or tails of that sentence. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we saw Jefferson both write the Declaration and Burke bristle at the Jacobins. Jefferson was a revolutionary liberal who helped start a revolt and a nation. I agree that we don’t need Burkean conservatism if all that’s left of Jefferson’s project is the Deep State, the warring cartels of the Uniparty, and the captured institutions of the critical theory cum DEI class. But what kind of revolt are we talking about, and to what end?
We don’t need to abandon the principles of natural right, limited government, and individual liberty, but we need to make those principles meaningful in the world of today.
“Methinks thou dost protest too much,” I thought before considering why he doesn’t consider those principles meaningful today. Is he suggesting that people have forgotten those principles, so all bets are off? Or is he suggesting that we abandon our principles so they can become meaningful again, like when George W. Bush said, “I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free market…”?
The older conservative establishment, assembling in ballrooms and clubhouses, has marginal influence over public orthodoxy because it lacks the hunger and grit to contest it. The energy is with a new generation, which no longer accepts tired platitudes, and demands a new set of strategies geared toward truly overcoming the regime — the opaque and coercive set of psychological, cultural, and institutional patterns that has largely replaced the old constitutional way of life.
Overcoming the regime in order to do what? I’m 100 percent with him that the regime needs to be overcome, but I am skeptical that we’ve had a “constitutional way of life” in more than 100 years. If I knew what Rufo wants activism to be and what he wants to do after retaking the capitals, I might gird my loins next to Rufo to fight the opaque and coercive set of psychological, cultural, and institutional patterns. But I don’t know. And I don’t want to replace them with a new coercive set of psychological, cultural, and institutional patterns. And I sure don’t want to wake up scratching fleabites because I laid down with a wolf.
This movement…has the ambition of re-establishing a political vision that goes beyond procedural values and points toward higher principles.
What principles? The ones that are no longer meaningful?
The first step is to admit what hasn’t worked. For fifty years, establishment conservatives have been retreating from the great political tradition of the West — republican self-government, shared moral standards, and the pursuit of eudaimonia, or human flourishing — in favor of half-measures and cheap substitutes.
Okay, now we’re talking. Is this serious, or seduction and sophistry? Note these values align with eighteenth-century liberal or “libertarian” conceptions. Alas…
The first of these substitutes is the self-serving myth of neutrality. Following a libertarian line, the conservative establishment has argued that government, state universities, and public schools should be “neutral” in their approach to political ideals.
Says who? While I no longer wish to wear the scarlet L on my tunic and depart from their orthodoxy on many matters, I know libertarians. I still share some of their priors. I am the former editor of The Freeman, the original libertarian magazine started in the 1920s. I know a little something about libertarians and what they think. I can tell you they don’t believe in “neutrality,” much less “self-serving neutrality” in public institutions. Libertarians want to abolish public education from K to grad school because they know they can’t be neutral and will be captured. In the absence of some unlikely political moment where such an abolition would be feasible, libertarians prefer to opt out of such institutions when they can afford it. Where they can’t afford it, acknowledging that their third-grader will have to turn up to Podunk Elementary, for which they are coercively taxed, they want kids’ social studies to be about the founding vision of freedom, federalism, and equality before the law. Otherwise, libertarians know that “public” means curriculum wars.
But no institution can be neutral — and any institutional authority aiming only for neutrality will immediately be captured by a faction more committed to imposing ideology. In reality, public universities, public schools, and other cultural institutions have long been dominated by the Left.
Find a libertarian who disagrees, and you will find a plucked cherry, not an exemplar. Remember, though, that imposed ideologies are practiced for all the wrong reasons.
Conservative ideas and values have been suppressed, conservative thinkers have been persecuted, and the conservative establishment has deluded itself with impotent appeals to neutrality.
Now Rufo paints the picture of a dopey old conservative who, having bought into Frank Meyer fusionism, listened to the Satanic counsel of libertarians whispering “neutrality” so that somehow they trick the conservative into— What exactly? Of course, most libertarians don’t want to be taxed only to have their kids force-fed CRT and DEI, but they also don’t want to be force-fed PTL, that is, somebody else’s religion. And they prefer kids learn WWJD at home or church. But libertarians don’t call for neutrality.
The popular slogan that “facts don’t care about your feelings” betrays similar problems. In reality, feelings almost always overpower facts. Reason is the slave of the passions. Political life moves on narrative, emotion, scandal, anger, hope, and faith — on irrational, or at least subrational, feelings that can be channeled, but never destroyed by reason. As sociologist Max Weber demonstrated more than a century ago, politics does not, and cannot, operate on facts alone. Politics depends on values and requires judgment; political life is not a utilitarian equation — and nor should we want it to be.
Rufo’s not wrong. Although facts don’t care about one’s feelings, feelings can overwhelm facts. But notice also that Christopher Rufo does not mention morality or the good in this essay. What’s dangerous about Rufo lies in what he omits. I dare say that as a Boy Pharaoh, right and wrong for Rufo reduces to the interests of the stronger, despite his nods to ‘merica. I acknowledge that he’s right that we live in a largely amoral world of political power struggles, but I also know that without some fundamental conception of good for which to fight, a Boy Pharaoh could turn on you once he’s taken the beachhead.
Finally, the conservative establishment has appealed to the “free marketplace of ideas,” and the belief that the “invisible hand” will rectify cultural and political problems organically.
Whom is he quoting? The only invisible hand here is the one Rufo uses for legerdemain. The marketplace of ideas is a metaphor rooted in the spirit and letter of free speech—you know, one of those “principles” Rufo appeals to blithely in the interests of CYA. In other words, when speech is free, you can ‘buy’ an idea or not. The invisible hand is a concept reserved for how goods and services markets increase overall wealth and obviate the need for central economic planning or industrial policy. Rufo conflates these for a strawman to thwack. But, reading between the lines, he skirts dangerously close to We must take over the public institutions, get rid of free speech, and inculcate generations with Rufoism, whatever that is. (Notice I didn’t use quotation marks.) While many market liberals like me argue that the consequences of a free speech regime are that the most effective mix of rhetoric, reason, and power will prevail, this, too, is a fact. Like Darwinism. And this fact doesn’t care about anyone’s feelings. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on free speech. It means we must inculcate reason and critical thinking so the next generation can separate rhetoric from reason. Yes, that might take some power politics. But it takes more than that. In any case, Rufo needs to make clear where he stands on free speech.
But the formation of culture does not proceed like the production of cars and cannot be conceived the same way. The chief vectors for the transmission of values — the public school, the public university, and the state — are not marketplaces at all. They are government-run monopolies. In truth, the hand that moves culture is not an “invisible hand” but an iron hand clad in velvet — that is, political force.
No credible person thinks of culture as cars. (For starters, “the medium is the message.”) No credible person denies the speed and power with which illiberal social justice memes coursed through “the public schools, the public university, and the state”—nor do they deny that these institutions are government-run monopolies. Indeed, those pesky libertarians Rufo wants to blame know government-run monopolies are the pathology rather than the symptom. Yet Rufo’s prescription is not exit, innovation of alternatives, or even political abolition of these pathological institutions. Instead, “activism.” You know, another long march to recapture something rotten for Team Red with a velvet glove of its own. Rufo’s passing reference to “principles,” “limited government,” and “rightful ends” rings hollow—like a ploy to coopt the fusionist remnant.
The adoption of these myths has rendered the Right ineffective, to the point of cementing, as opposed to contesting, the status quo of Leftist hegemony. The radical Left ruthlessly advances through the institutions, and the Right meekly ratifies each encroachment under the rubric of “neutrality.” In view of the social and cultural wreckage this dynamic had wrought, it is not merely a matter of preference but a matter of urgency to break it. To do this, a new approach is required.
In our next installment, we’ll see what Rufo’s driving at. But notice that up to this point, he seems to be offering what amounts to a failure of imagination and an admiration for pure power: Tit for tat. Tug-o-war. Fire with fire. Authority for authority. When THEY march through the institutions, WE march through the institutions! This is the logic of the Boy Pharaoh, who craves power over fundamental reform. But we have to do better than “activism.” We must escape perpetual tug-o-war over centralized government institutions, especially when these institutions are the pathology. We need as many entrepreneurs building healthy alternatives as armies of activists.
We need to catalyze the social singularity.
(Read Part II here.)