His documentary America Lost opens with sentimental home movie footage—Rufo’s young parents holding hands and walking, his father cuddling infant Chris. Rufo narrates how he was “born into the American Dream,” where his penniless immigrant father gained a life of prosperity. Then his tone becomes ominous, and family archival images are replaced with what he calls “the lost American interior”—night scenes of police cars, ambulances, and homeless people. “We are coming apart economically to be sure,” he says, “but we are coming apart as a culture.” As the film progresses, he describes these places as suffering on a “deeply personal, human, even spiritual” level, one hastened by the erosion of religious community and the two-parent family. He hoped the movie—which received funding from right-wing foundations that support the Manhattan Institute, where Rufo now leads an anti-CRT initiative—would “reshape the way we think about American poverty.”
“I started the film as a libertarian,” Rufo saidduring a 2020 online screening, “and I finished the film as a conservative.” Along with his political evolution, Rufo was contemplating a career change. In his telling, the left-leaning documentary space had become inhospitable for a newfound conservative. He had relocated to blue Seattle, where his Thai-born wife, Suphatra, had a job with Microsoft, and he found an intellectual home within a right-wing network always ready to bring a professed convert into the fold. He secured a 2017 Claremont Institute fellowship (same class as Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe) and a role with the Discovery Institute, a think tank based in his new hometown and known for promoting the anti-evolution concept of “intelligent design,” becoming director of its Center on Wealth & Poverty. Rufo also started writing for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and later landed a fellowship with the Heritage Foundation, whose president, Kevin Roberts, would go on to describe him as a “master storyteller” of the conservative movement.
“My whole world opened up,” he toldpsychologist and conservative guru Jordan Peterson. “I felt like I had the freedom to think for the first time as an adult.” While making a movie took years, channeling his storytelling skills toward commentary on social justice and political issues offered more instant results.
For Rufo, progressive Seattle became a convenient punching bag. His work for the Discovery Institute and City Journal focused on the city’s homelessness crisis, criticizing the “ruinous compassion” of “socialist intellectuals” who pushed for more housing as a salve. “We must look at homelessness not as a problem to be solved, but a problem to be contained,” Rufo wrote in October 2018. “The backlash is coming,” he predicted.