A few months ago, Christopher Rufo gave a speech at Hillsdale College that he called “Laying Siege to the Institutions.” I listened and was appalled by his claim that society was in desperate trouble because of the ascendance of 1960’s radicals, that public schools were the root of all evil, that such public schools needed to be replaced by unfettered school choice, and that what we need is to return to the good old days of 1776.

Peter Greene listened to Rufo’s immortal words, and he gave them a close reading. He concluded that Rufo wants to eliminate public schools, oust the radicals who took over all the important institutions, and take charge of them himself with his allies.

Greene ends his piece as follows:

The short form of all this is that radicals from 1968 gave up the violent overthrow of the US and–somehow–a couple dozen of them managed to take over every single institution in the country as well as transforming from scruffy radicals into elites. Rather than chase them out, we should trash the institutions they poisoned and start over, with freedom-loving ordinary people. 

So, several thoughts.

First, why settle on 1968 for your big year, as if you weren’t repeating themes from 1950s McCarthyism or 1930s Red Scares or anarchism freakouts from earlier still. Is your audience conservative Boomers who always hated those long-haired hippy commie weirdos? 

There’s a lot of internal inconsistency here. Some serves a narrative purpose; those shadowy elite ideologues who took over the country need to be both super-powerful (because we need to be justified in Getting Them and also, that beautiful victim card) and a tiny group (there’s more of us Real Americans than them). 

Other inconsistencies aren’t really inconsistencies, but tells. Your side is ideologues; my side has values. When you use the “levers of power” you are oppressive and evil, but when we get our hands on them, we will use them to enforce our will. That is only inconsistent if you think some sort of principle should be involved here, but the only principle involved is “People like me should be empowered to enforce our will on others, because our will is righteous true and serves us.” Break corporations and make them support your view. Fund only the institutions that say what you agree with.  The answer to the oft asked question, “Why is that wrong when I do it but right when you do it” will always be “Because we are right and you are wrong.” 

Or, as Frank Wilhoit puts it:

Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

Rufo doesn’t represent any sort of conservatism I recognize, but that’s the mask they’re wearing these days. 

The other thing striking about Rufo is how overtly and deliberately political he is (Politics is “the business of getting power and privilege without possessing merit” –P. J. O’Rourke). All of this is about using words and forming phrases to leverage and accumulate power, taking positions and maneuvering around your opponent. The people on the other side are not actual human beings; they have no good intentions, no legitimate concerns. In fact, none of this has to do with people with actual honest concerns or differences. Rufo doesn’t invoke ordinary people with some sense of who they are and what they want and need, but because invoking them gives an argument some extra weight and helps build a winning frame. 

Certainly there’s no thought about a institution-free society. Rufo talks as if we just cut all the supports and let everyone be free, as if that wouldn’t result in a society in which people were only as free as their bank accounts allowed them to be. Rufo and his crowd would be plenty free.

There’s certainly no concern about the larger effects of these tactics. What happens, for instance, in a society where trust has been systematically crushed and undermined? Nothing good, I’m betting, but Rufo’s perfectly happy to go there, and increasingly others are willing to go there with him (here’s Laura Ingraham calling for an end to public education).

I’ve sparred and chatted with plenty of folks on the other sides of these issues over the years. Over the last decade they have become even less likely to demonize opponents, more likely to see nuance and issues on all sides, even when they disagree. They have been mostly conservatives, with a conservative’s natural tendency to want to preserve things. Maybe I’ve been naive to think that some of them were never going to go this far, even as I’ve understood that much of them have been pointing in this direction, and many of the folks financing the movement wanted exactly this. But I wonder what they think privately of this new slash and burn addition to the crew.

Rufo represents an extreme version of ideas that have long been around, like the idea that public education is just a scam so that the teachers union can get teachers jobs thereby resulting in dues that fill the coffers of the unions which are just fronts for the Democratic party. Or the idea that if government went away (and stopped making me pay taxes to support Those People) then we would all live in a happy paradise of freedom. Or that a bunch of stuff (under the umbrella of anything from evolution to segregation to CRT) is being taught to undermine my view of the world and make my kids think stuff I disagree with. 

Like his buddy DeSantis, Rufo is not so much about conservatism as he is about authoritarianism, about christianist-fueled control or replacement of all institutions (and do notice–Rufo does not distinguish between public institutions and private corporations–he wants to run them all). This is aggressive, smart authoritarianism that only really has one question to ask before it either lifts you up or smashed you– are you on their side? Trumpsim was just some throat-clearing for these folks; soon I’m afraid they’ll be in fuvoice. 

I recommend that you read Greene’s piece in full.