We Sat Down With the Conservative Mastermind Behind Claudine Gay’s Ouster

We Sat Down With the Conservative Mastermind Behind Claudine Gay’s Ouster

Christopher Rufo has done it again.

On Tuesday, the conservative activist — best known for launching the crusade against “critical race theory” — was in a celebratory mood after Claudine Gay announced her resignation as president of Harvard University.

In recent weeks, Rufo has been at the forefront of a sprawling campaign to force Gay to resign, which began after she delivered controversial testimony before Congress in early December about Harvard’s handling of alleged instances of antisemitism stemming from the war in Gaza. On Dec. 10, Rufo and the conservative journalist Christopher Brunet publicized accusations that Gay — the first Black woman to serve as Harvard’s president and a political scientist held in high regard by her peers — had plagiarized other scholars’ work. Together with pressure from donors about Gay’s response to the war in Gaza, those accusations ultimately led to Gay losing her job this week.

None of that happened by accident. As Rufo acknowledged to me, Gay’s resignation was the result of a coordinated and highly organized conservative campaign. “It shows a successful strategy for the political right,” he told me. “How we have to work the media, how we have to exert pressure and how we have to sequence our campaigns in order to be successful.”

While the extent of Gay’s alleged plagiarism is being disputed in the academic community, Rufo’s campaign worked because instances in which Gay apparently borrowed language from other scholars were frequent and credible enough that the allegations stuck.

For an operative who works mostly behind the scenes of Republican politics, Rufo isn’t shy about revealing the true motives behind his influence operations. Last month, he told me that his efforts to rehabilitate Richard Nixon’s legacy are part of broader ploy to exonerate former President Donald Trump. When I spoke to him on Tuesday afternoon, he was equally frank about what motivated his efforts to get Gay fired.

The following has been edited for clarity and concision. 

How much credit do you think you deserve for Gay’s resignation?

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. 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.

When you put those three elements together — narrative, financial and political pressure — and you squeeze hard enough, you see the results that we got today, which was the resignation of America’s most powerful academic leader. I think that this result speaks for itself.

How closely have you been coordinating with the other people in those three camps?

I know all the players, I have varying degrees of coordination and communication, but —

What does that mean, “various degrees of communication and coordination?” Have you been actively working together?

Some people I speak to a little more frequently, some people a little less frequently. But my job as a journalist and even more so as an activist is to know the political conditions, to understand and develop relationships with all of the political actors, and then to work as hard as I can so that they’re successful in achieving their individual goals — but also to accomplish the shared goal, which was to topple the president of Harvard University.

On December 19, you tweeted that it was your plan to “smuggle [the plagiarism story] into the media apparatus from the left, which legitimizes the narrative to center-left actors who have the power to topple [Gay].” Can you explain that strategy in more detail?

It’s really a textbook example of successful conservative activism, and the strategy is quite simple. Christopher Brunet and I broke the story of Claudine’s plagiarism on December 10. It drove more than 100 million impressions on Twitter, and then it was the top story for a number of weeks in conservative media and right-wing media. But I knew that in order to achieve my objective, we had to get the narrative into the left-wing media. But the left-wing uniformly ignored the story for 10 days and tried to bury it, so I engaged in a kind of a thoughtful and substantive campaign of shaming and bullying my colleagues on the left to take seriously the story of the most significant academic corruption scandal in Harvard’s history.

Finally, the narrative broke through within 24 hours of my announcement about smuggling the narrative into the left-wing media. You see this domino effect: CNN, BBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications started to do the actual work of exposing Gay’s plagiarism, and then you see this beautiful kind of flowering of op-eds from all of those publications calling on Gay to resign. Once my position — which began on the right — became the dominant position across the center-left, I knew that it was just a matter of time before we were going to be successful.

Why is it so important to get the story into the center-left media?

It gives permission for center-left political figures and intellectual figures to comment on the story and then to editorialize on it. Once we crossed that threshold, we saw this cascade of publications calling on her to resign.

Do you think that playbook works on any issue, or do you think that the Israel-Palestine issue is unique, insofar as it’s already dividing elite liberal organizations?

I’ve run the same playbook on critical race theory, on gender ideology, on DEI bureaucracy. For the time being, given the structure of our institutions, this is a universal strategy that can be applied by the right to most issues. I think that we’ve demonstrated that it can be successful.

Why do you think you can be so open about your strategy and still have it work? Why don’t you feel like you need to be covert about it?

First, and most simply, because I’m telling the truth — and the truth has an inherent and innate power. I believe that if it’s propagated correctly, it has the power to defeat lies.

The reason that I announced my strategy in advance is both to demoralize my opponents — and it certainly does a good job at that — but also to teach my potential friends and allies how the game works. Machiavelli wrote The Prince not to teach people who already knew the principles of how power works, but to teach people who need to know — and in reality, the people who need to know about how politics works are American conservatives. So I tried to publicly narrate what I’m doing in order to teach my friends how to do it themselves. I think that this is a big service — with the added benefit that it demoralizes and deranges my enemies.

Do you think you understand how the left-wing influence ecosystem works better than the people inside it do?

Well, I spent 10 years directing documentaries for PBS, lived in large, left-wing American cities, and I’ve studied how the media, NGOs and universities circulate and legitimize information regimes. I’ve just applied that knowledge — and in some senses, I’ve stolen some of the earlier tactics from previous generations of the American left and weaponize them against the current regime.

What I’m doing is teaching conservatives how to hack that system and to use our asymmetrical disadvantages to our strategic advantage. We need to be very lightweight and very aggressive, and we need to be faster and smarter and rhetorically more sophisticated than our opponents — who, unfortunately for them, have grown complacent, lazy, entitled and ripe for disruption.

What is your broader objective here, beyond forcing the president of Harvard to resign?

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.

In her letter of resignation, Gay said that she was troubled by “threats fueled by racial animus.” How do you respond to that?

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.

How significant of a victory do you consider this campaign for the conservative movement?

I worked on critical race theory for a very long time before it yielded fruit, but this Claudine Gay story has shown that we can drive major, paradigm-shifting victories over a compressed timeframe. I’d like to engage in more experimentation on how we can cycle up some of these campaigns very quickly.

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