How Rightwing Hysteria Goes Viral

From Satanic panic to critical race theory, one psychological phenomenon helps explain why the right gets so riled up so fast.

Justin Ward

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Christopher Rufo appears on Tucker Carlson Tonight in September 2020 (Screenshot / YouTube)

A year ago, almost nobody knew what critical race theory was. This arcane academic niche was the dominion of a tiny group of left-leaning legal scholars until very recently. Today, it’s practically all conservatives talk about. Pundits rail against it from their bully pulpits on cable news. Right-wingers shout about CRT at school board meetings and roadside demonstrations.

This is the doing of a single slick reactionary named Chris Rufo, who manufactured the panic out of whole cloth.

In a New Yorker article, Rufo explained how he conjured the right’s new favorite bogeyman. It all started when he was looking at the materials for an antiracism training put on by the city of Seattle.

Rufo checked out the antiracist authors referenced in the training documents then looked at who they were citing. He traced their intellectual lineage back to critical race theorists like Derrick Bell and Kimberle Crenshaw.

After researching critical race theory for a bit, he suddenly started seeing it everywhere. In an appearance on Tucker Carlson last fall, Rufo issued a dire warning that “critical race theory has pervaded every aspect of the federal government.”

This is an example of what psychologists call the frequency illusion. When you first learn about something new, you start to notice it more often, creating a false sense that it is suddenly omnipresent.

The effect is even greater if this new thing is billed as an “existential threat to the United States,” which is how Rufo described critical race theory on Tucker.

Frequency illusion explains how these things metastasize so quickly. In dozens of subsequent appearances and articles, Rufo clued conservatives in on a whole range of terminology that he claimed was associated with critical race theory.

He produced a primer for the Heritage Foundation titled “How to Identify Critical Race Theory: Knowing Critical Race Theory When You See It and Fighting It When You Can.”

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Justin Ward

Journalist and activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN, USA Today. Follow on Twitter: @justwardoctrine, @DivestSPD