On Wednesday Christopher Rufo dropped his campaign for city council, citing "nonstop" online harassment and threats to his wife and kids. Friday afternoon we got a little more information about the nature of those attacks. Rufo provided "several dozen posts" to The Stranger's Katie Herzog, which I have not seen. (Rufo did not respond to my request for the posts.) But Katie said people online called him a "fascist," a "sad excuse for a human being," and someone told his wife to "Get f*cking bent"—asterisk theirs. One man reportedly left "threatening posts" about Rufo on his kid's school's Facebook page, posts which have apparently been deleted by the page's moderator.
People who harass others on the Internet are boring idiots who need to get another hobby. (Incidentally, we're now taking applications at The Stranger. [Lol no we're not.]) And no one should be leaving "threatening posts" on a school Facebook page, if that, in fact, actually happened. But in his withdrawal announcement, Rufo broadly blames "the activists in this city" for the attacks—not particular people or groups advocating for a certain cause—claiming that they have no interest in his "campaign of ideas." And it's here where we have problems.
As many noted in various comment threads, without providing any evidence to back up his claims for two days, and by painting with such broad strokes, Rufo sounded like he was just disingenuously insulting his critics in general, blaming leftist "activists" for the rise of incivility on the internet while willfully ignoring whole classes of right-wing "activists" who have hurled sexist and xenophobic invective at sitting city council members.
He also seemed to be making a categorical error by equating activists—people who orient their entire lives around fighting for more affordable housing and more progressive taxation—with internet trolls. (Not saying those two worlds don't ever overlap, just saying it's hard to determine if they do in this case without actual receipts.) After all, activists on the left fought for and won a living wage. Activists on the left fought for and won gay marriage. Activists on the left fought for and won more police accountability on the ballot this November. Activists are the lifeblood of this city, and dismissing them as people who don't want to hear "new ideas"—when "new ideas" often arise as a product of their struggle—doesn't seem to be a very smart thing to say!
In an e-mail, I asked Rufo to get a little more specific about the scope and content of the internet harassment he was facing. Rufo estimates that somewhere between "10-20 people" yelled at him online. When he was referring to "activists" in his post, he claims he wasn't referring to activists writ large, but rather "a group of activists in the housing and bicycle communities that have harassed my family" on the internet. (Go tell that to the Spokane County Republican Party and Safe Seattle, who have run with Rufo's idea and used it to smear "the liberal left in Seattle" as uncivil actors who are "the real fascists".) And when I pointed out that women on the current council have been called "cunts" for not supporting a street vacation for Chris Hansen and his precious arena, that Mike O’Brien was physically thrown out of the Pacific Fishermen Shipyard during the Nordic Museum grand opening for supporting a 1.4 mile extension of the Burke Gilman trail, and that Kshama Sawant has been told to "go back to India bitch," he offered the following statement:
I condemn all personal attacks against elected officials. My heart goes out to anyone who has endured threats and harassment, especially members of the Seattle City Council. It's not a left-right problem; it's a human problem. We need to return to a civil debate of ideas.
But Rufo's "new ideas" don't seem particularly new, nor does he present them in a way that might contribute to the culture of "civil debate" he's calling for. In his 17-page plan "to get people off the streets," Rufo employs pretty aggressive war metaphors to describe elected officials and homelessness advocates. Get a load of this battle-cry of a paragraph. Emphasis mine:
The real battle isn’t being waged in the tents, under the bridges, or in the corridors of City Hall. Rather, there’s a deeper, ideological war that’s currently being won by a loose alliance of four major power centers: the socialist revolutionaries, the compassion brigades, the homeless-industrial complex, and the addiction evangelists. Together, these four groups have framed the political debate, diverted hundreds of millions of dollars towards favored projects, and recruited a large phalanx of well-intentioned voters who have bought into the 'politics of unlimited compassion.'
In Rufo's worldview, according to his 17-page plan, Councilmember Sawant is both a "scorched-earth warrior" and "a cartoon subcomandante" whose "real passion is not to build houses for the poor, but to tear down the houses of the rich."
He describes Sawant's views as not deeply felt nor part of a consistent and defensible ideology, but as the bad faith ramblings of a tyrant who will "simply find a new scapegoat—corporations, real estate developers, tech workers, police officers [Eds note: Oh my!]—and repeat the process all over again" once her plan to make corporations pay their fair share of taxes fails.
If I were trying to promote "civil debate,"—which, to be clear, as a decorated colonel in the Compassion Brigade, I am absolutely not—casting my ideological opponents as enemies and beating the war drum as loudly as I possibly can isn't exactly the tone I would want to strike in my 17-page pamphlet on how to solve the homelessness crisis! The level of conspiratorial alarmism he's drumming up here nearly approaches parody, and it would almost be funny if it didn't sound like it was ripped straight from the pages of Steve Bannon's notebook.
Or even George W. Bush's notebook. Check out this line of family values bullshit: "As a society, our deepest responsibility to prevent homelessness isn’t to build new apartment complexes or pass new tax levies, but to rebuild the family, community, and social bonds that once held America together." He wants the city government to do what? Make me go to church? Get me back together with an abusive partner? Make me stay in a home with an abusive parent? Eat my mother's cooking? I. Will. Be. God. Damned. Sir. (No offense, mom. Love you.)
His other great ideas include having city council "petition the private sector for $10 million in donations" to build emergency shelters and "lobby for a policy of 'reinstitutionalization' for the dangerously mentally ill." So he wants the city to ask corporations for handouts (rather than just making them pay their fair share of taxes) and he wants to put mentally ill people in hospital beds that we don't have due to a lack of adequate state funding—which is partially due, of course, to the lack of a statewide income tax.
I'm not glad that people cussed at this guy on the internet, but I'm sure glad we don't have to spend months addressing this guy's "new ideas" anymore.