Anti-civil rights activist Christopher Rufo has extensive ties to a leading MAGA-aligned think tank led by a Christian nationalist that’s at the heart of several high-profile political battles in Washington, D.C. The think tank, the Center for Renewing America, was founded by Russ Vought, who has called for an “army” of believers with a “biblical worldview” to transform the federal bureaucracy into an ideological weapon to further his hard-right agenda. Vought and Rufo are both conservative media mainstays, and each appears frequently on Fox News and right-wing streaming shows.
Rufo’s ties to CRA are not hidden, but nor are they particularly well-known outside of the cloistered bubble of conservative activism. Although Rufo is primarily known for his rhetorical attacks on critical race theory (which he has admitted he knows nothing about) and LGBTQ people, he shares CRA’s goal of taking over existing institutions and remaking them as supposed paragons of conservatism.
That desire has been most clearly realized in Rufo’s hostile takeover of New College of Florida, facilitated by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to appoint him and several other hard-liners to the school’s board of trustees. Rufo and DeSantis’ scheme bears significant resemblance to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s remaking of Central European University in Budapest, one of many points of overlap between U.S. conservatives and their European counterparts. Rufo is currently spending a month in Hungary, according to his Substack newsletter.
Vought and CRA have been at the forefront of advocating for a policy known as Schedule F, a Trump-era scheme that allowed the administration to sidestep job protections for non-political career staffers. In an appearance on The Charlie Kirk Show, Vought and Kirk promoted the idea of implementing “ideological purity tests” for federal civil servants, and Vought estimated that he would need to fire around 10 percent of the workforce at federal agencies and departments. Vought has also argued the House of Representatives should adopt new rules to allow the chamber to target and possibly remove individual civil servants.
CRA occupies a divided position in the conservative political landscape at the moment, seemingly straddling the line between the Trump and DeSantis camps. Vought, the organization’s leader, is a frequent guest on Steve Bannon’s War Room, which has taken a pro-Trump, anti-DeSantis editorial position. The think tank more broadly is often described as being aligned with Trump as well. But Rufo is closely associated with DeSantis, for now at least, due to his appointment to the board at New College. And CRA senior fellow Ken Cuccinelli recently launched a pro-DeSantis PAC, urging the governor to run for president.
Probably the most important link between Rufo and Vought came during the Trump administration. When Rufo was able to transform critical race theory from a relatively obscure legal discipline into a right-wing bogeyman — thanks in large part to an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight — it was Vought, then the head of the Office of Management and Budget, who was tasked with carrying out Trump’s order to remove any mention of CRT from federal trainings. Since then, their affinity appears to have grown.
Rufo reportedly recently held a private summit at the Santa Monica, California, outpost of The Manhattan Institute, where he is a senior fellow. The gathering’s focus was “planning for the next White House,” a priority Rufo shares with CRA. In a short video summarizing his thoughts on the event, Rufo praised Vought’s behind-the-scenes efforts in Congress’ ongoing battle over the federal budget as an opportunity to inject far-right values into final legislation.
In the video, Rufo argued that earlier generations of conservatives tried to win budgeting arguments using dry facts and figures, but that that’s changing now.
“Some people, most notably Russ Vought, who is President Trump’s former OMB director, have pioneered a new approach to talking about the budget that I think has enormous potential,” Rufo said. “Russ talks about the ‘woke and weaponized bureaucracy.’ He talks about defunding $150 billion that is currently being spent to advance left-wing priorities that are antithetical to the values of the majority of citizens.”
“He’s saying, ‘You know what? We want to defund the woke bureaucrats and DEI commissars who are putting critical race theory in all of the agencies of the government,’” Rufo added. The official CRA Twitter account posted Rufo’s video, and Vought replied, thanking Rufo for the shout-out.
In the YouTube description of the video, Rufo praises Wade Miller, CRA’s executive director, who apparently attended the private summit. Miller, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), describes himself as anti-antiracism in his Twitter bio. He recently posted a racist tweet claiming, without evidence, that Stanford medical school awarded postings to new surgery applicants based on their race and ethnicity, and that those selected probably weren’t the most qualified.
Rufo also has ties to CRA visiting fellow Michael Young, who is prominent on right-wing Twitter under the handle @wokal_distance, primarily for invoking 1990s nostalgia toward reactionary ends. Rufo worked with Young and CRA on his anti-LGBTQ pamphlet “A Parent’s Guide to Radical Gender Theory.” The two interact regularly on Twitter, praising each other’s acumen and execution.
Whether CRA can keep one foot in on either side of the Trump dividing line without drawing the former president’s ire is an open question, as is the impact that DeSantis’ falling poll numbers could have on Rufo’s brand and influence. For now, Rufo and Vought are trying to find ways to find a broader audience for their cruel, anti-civil rights proposals, and they’re willing to burn down anything that stands in their way.