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Perspective: Did social conservatives go too far in celebrating the fall of Claudine Gay?

After Harvard’s president resigned, Christopher Rufo listed three ways to wage a successful campaign. But humility matters, too

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A passer-by walks through a gate to the Harvard University campus on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, in Cambridge, Mass.

A passer-by walks through a gate to the Harvard University campus on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024, in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned Tuesday amid plagiarism accusations and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say unequivocally that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy.

Steven Senne, Associated Press

Manhattan Institute scholar Christopher Rufo this week enumerated three ways for activist campaigns to succeed and introduced a manifesto to enable the “New Right” to finally win the culture war.

Unfortunately, in his assessment, Rufo left out a fourth component that is vitally important in a civil society — humility. And its conspicuous absence has cost conservatives some sorely needed good will this week.

Rufo, who became a hero among social conservatives for his reporting on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, critical race theory and the “woke” agenda at Disney, was among the pressure points that led to the resignation of Harvard University President Claudine Gay on Tuesday. The next day, in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Rufo examined the forces that led to Gay’s ouster.

“The key, I learned, is that any activist campaign has three points of leverage: reputational, financial and political. For some institutions, one point of leverage is enough, but, for a powerful one such as Harvard, the ‘squeeze’ must work across multiple angles,” Rufo wrote.

He went on to credit other people whose combined efforts made Gay’s resignation all but inevitable even after Harvard’s governing board said she would stay, including Harvard graduate and donor Bill Ackman, the hedge-fund manager whose recent commentary on the controversy has more than 31 million views on X.

Rufo helped to organize the campaign against Gay, much in the way he led efforts to “cancel” Disney. As he explained in The Wall Street Journal, “Throughout the campaign, I adopted the unorthodox approach of narrating the strategy in real time, explaining how conservatives could shape the media narrative and apply pressure to Harvard.”

For this strategy, Rufo was criticized by some on both the left and the right. But he justified his tactics, saying, “Conservatives face enormous disadvantages in public discourse — most significant, the progressive left’s near-monopoly on prestige media. By raising these dynamics to the surface, we can begin to challenge and subvert them.”

That’s a reasonable argument to make, and as the old adage says, there’s no arguing with success. By the time Gay resigned, people across the political spectrum had said she could no longer effectively lead Harvard — not just because of her much criticized response at the November congressional hearing on higher ed’s response to anti-Israel protests, but because of plagiarism that had been uncovered by her critics.

Social conservatives have been losing the culture war for so long that the urge to celebrate is understandably strong when cultural forces seem to turn their way, if for only a moment in time.

But that doesn’t justify gloating. And that’s what happened in some corners this week, most notably in Rufo’s “Scalped” post on X when Gay’s resignation letter came out. It’s one thing for conservatives to be happy about a win; it’s another to taunt in the manner of excessive celebrations once banned by the NFL. As Utah Gov. Spencer Cox stresses, we live in a country that desperately needs to learn to “disagree better.”

Rod Dreher, who said in years past that conservatives have already lost the culture war, wasn’t taunting the left when he wrote Thursday that he hasn’t “felt so hopeful as a Rightist in ages.” He called Rufo “the most important conservative in America.”

While there’s no question that Rufo is, in large part, responsible for the surge of optimism among social conservatives as the new year begins, it’s important to remember that progressive college students also thought they had the upper hand in the culture until very recently. Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel sent out shock waves around the world that we are still only beginning to process.

The tide does seem to be turning against DEI and other excesses of progressive ideology. Rufo and his fellow activists can rightly take credit for that, and they are doing so, in some cases, cheekily.

But you can agree with Rufo on the fundamental issues and still wish he had shown less swagger this week. Claudine Gay was the first Black president of Harvard, and to many people, and not just African Americans, her swift downfall is an American tragedy, regardless of the reasons for it. The triumphant chest-beating on social media may feel good to some, but it does nothing to win friends and influence people, as is necessary to grow conservatism’s ranks.

Rufo himself seems to acknowledge the need for at least outward-facing civility when he writes in his manifesto, “The activist must not forget that he is doing politics, not literature, and balance his desire for intellectual purity with institutional reality. He must work to legitimize his language in an environment that is often hostile to his wishes and resistant to any change. At times, he must conceal his radicalism in the mask of respectability.”

Is Rufo, as Dreher said, really the most important person in conservatism? That’s a provocative assertion that will make for interesting debate, and certainly the GOP presidential contenders would like to prove otherwise.

Rufo told Politico that his 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 addition to leading the “New Right” in the culture wars and rehabilitating the image of Richard Nixon in order to defend Donald Trump.

Those are ambitious plans, and conservatism does need young, bold and visionary leaders — minus the victory lap trolling, please.