It’s the unfortunate end to a weeks-long, cynical campaign led by a roster of right-wing chaos agents—conservative propagandist Christopher Rufo and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), in particular. They and their allies successfully weaponized multiple issues (academic integrity, freedom of speech, antisemitism) that they couldn’t genuinely care less about.
And they did it in service of their long game—which is bringing about the abolition of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; suppressing progressive campus free speech through government sanctions and intimidation; and destroying higher education writ large.
When Gay, along with the presidents of MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, was grilled in a congressional hearing in December about antisemitism on their campuses, it was Stefanik who led the charge. The self-described “ultra MAGA” congresswoman is a 2020 election denier who has previously pushed the antisemitic Great Replacement Theory, endorsed a candidate who called Hitler “the kind of leader we need today,” and been a steadfast minion for Donald Trump, whose Nazi-style rhetoric has recently included stating non-white immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”
Even if we concede that all of the presidents were woefully unprepared for the political theater that awaited them—speaking stilted legalese that looked terrible in short, out-of-context clips—on what planet should Stefanik be questioning anyone about their responses to antisemitism?
In Rufo’s case, he unashamedly boasts about intentionally conflating concepts, ideas, and language to stoke already simmering right-wing grievances and resentments. Remember the 2021 “critical race theory” panic? Here’s what Rufo was saying at the time: “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”
He’s been an indispensable aid to Gov. Ron DeSantis in his destruction of Florida’s public schools (most notably its public colleges), an opponent of affirmative action for marginalized racial groups but a fan of affirmative action for men, and one of the most recognizable figures helping to cement in the minds of Americans that any gain by black folks must equal theft from white folks.
Not even a week after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Rufo said the quiet part out loud again: “Conservatives need to create a strong association between Hamas, BLM, DSA, and academic ‘decolonization‘ in the public mind. Connect the dots, then attack, delegitimize, and discredit. Make the center-left disavow them. Make them political untouchables.”
Fast forward to Dec. 19, and Rufo once again laid out his game plan: “We launched the Claudine Gay plagiarism story from the Right. The next step is to smuggle it into the media apparatus of the Left, legitimizing the narrative to center-left actors who have the power to topple her. Then squeeze.”
And now that he’s basking in his victory, and congratulating his co-conspirators, he says the “next step” is “abolish the DEI bureaucracy” and “restore colorblind equality.”
Did you notice what words weren’t in there? “Antisemitism” or “plagiarism.” Because it was never about that.
It was all a gamed-out culture war ambush, and everyone played their role—including mainstream media outlets like The New York Times that devoted a ridiculous amount of resources to a story as inconsequential as Gay’s academic history.
The exclusionary policies of our past are used to justify those same exclusions in the present and future. That Harvard hadn’t had a black president, much less a black woman president, before Gay’s appointment should be regarded as blatant evidence of a kind of affirmative action favoring whiteness and (until 2007) maleness above all else. Yet, somehow, the collective tendency is to believe every racist (and sexist) justification for why no black woman held the position in 387 years.
That’s how we always end up here, with right-wingers tacitly suggesting that blackness is its own disqualifier, and our media running with that framing as if it’s a fair consideration. I can only imagine how often Dr. Gay ran up against that sort of thinking in her ascent to the office they’ve now pried her out of.
So here we are again. As they continue their war on higher education and academic freedom, progressive free speech, and DEI, expect to see more of this. This is a triumph for the Rufos and Stefaniks—those leading the white backlash by every predictable, cynical means necessary—and they will surely be energized to keep using it.