After Trump Leaves, Expect The Garbage Ideas To Get Polite
With Donald Trump cast out of the Presidency like a Disney villain who slips into the lava mid-gloat, we're now faced with the unfortunate question of what the GOP's straight-to-VHS sequel ideology will look like. Trump's nonstop jabbering against the system only worked until he became the system, and as obnoxious as the alt-right is there's a limit to the mass appeal of four-hour podcasts calling for the execution of a Marxist Pizza Hut employee who refused to give Jack Posobiec quintuple pepperoni. And so for my money, the future of American conservatism can be found amid the polite, polished lies of PragerU.
PragerU is a media empire whose current YouTube hits include "Green Energy Fuelled by Child Labor?" and "Are the Protests Mostly Peaceful?" because all good arguments start with leading questions. While PragerU creates a variety of content, their big hit is their "5-Minute Videos" series. Among other stances, they've claimed that blue states are all falling apart, that minimum wage laws are bad for workers, that black Americans face no discrimination from the police, and that preferred pronouns are setting us on the path to a regime of totalitarian thought crime. Or, if you need a primer on Hezbollah, Karl Marx, and World War I, PragerU will give you the conservative viewpoint over a coffee break. They have nearly 400 5-Minute Videos, and collectively they cover every big subject from economics to religion. Or at least they cover as much as you can in five minutes, which is usually very little.
PragerU launched in 2009, and some of their videos have racked up millions of views, but they've only recently started receiving serious coverage. Publications like Vanity Fair and Buzzfeed News noted that while their work can serve as a gateway to white supremacist ideology, they've largely flown under the radar because they avoid talk of Trump and any hyper-topical bullshit he produces, a surefire way to avoid attention in a media cycle obsessed over whatever cognitive slurry squirts from the President's oatmeal brain.
PragerU is hardly above inanity -- as of writing, their front page is demanding "the level of explicit bias and misinformation in the 'Meet the Candidates' section of Scholastic's Election 2020 website is neither fair nor factual ... therefore we demand that Scholastic's 'Meet the Candidates' be taken down!" with all the energy of a recent divorcee complaining to a beleaguered Denny's employee that eight blueberries atop their pancakes hardly constitutes "an explosion of fruit flavor." But compared to the Ben Shapiro wannabes of the world screeching "Debate me!" at the Arby's Facebook account after it reminded beef lovers everywhere to wear a mask, PragerU feels like a throwback to a saner age.
Even if you don't like Prager's stances, watching someone calmly talk over simple animations for five minutes makes you feel like you're disagreeing with a fellow adult rather than a child who's waving a gun in your face while demanding all the cookies. PragerU wants to be the polite face of mature conservatism in a world where that face has been twisted with apoplectic rage at the mere existence of other people. But it's all bullshit. Don't take my word for it -- listen to the professional historians who've ripped their videos apart like a kid at Christmas trying to get to what is clearly a PS5 squirreled behind socks from grandma.
Princeton history professor Kevin M. Kruse called a Prager video denying the existence of the Southern Strategy--when the GOP lurched right in the '50s and '60s by exploiting southern racial tensions to appeal to white voters--a "cherry-picked ... exercise in attacking a straw man." The SJW cucks at The American Conservative tore through the effort of Prager and others to argue that fascism emerged from leftist political thought, lamenting "a plague of genuinely ridiculous writings on historical subjects coming from conservative media celebrities." And on the subject of Prager's anti-immigration screed, the radical socialists at the Cato Institute said "The video is poorly framed, rife with errors and half-truths, leaves out a lot of relevant information."
Prager videos work backwards, starting with the conclusion they want and exploiting whatever omissions and lies drag them to their ill-gotten point. They've also lost lawsuits against Google after inventing phony claims of censorship, worked to undermine the credibility of the 2020 election results, and staunchly deny climate change while coincidentally receiving funding from petroleum billionaires. But why does any of this matter? Well, that video denying the Southern Strategy -- denying basic American history -- has 7.9 million views. And, through the potent mixture of polish and speaking in a tone of voice that doesn't sound like they hunt hikers for sport, they're skilled at attracting younger viewers. Their mission, after all, is "changing minds" and " millions of Americans and young people about the values that make America great."
When social and news media looked in their pants on election night and found something incredible (the shriveled remains of their testicles) they began calling the spade that had been bludgeoning their face in for four years a spade and refused to give oxygen to Trump's blatant lies. But what do you do with a video that starts with the reasonable premise of supporting free speech, then ends five minutes later with the denial that LGBT and Muslim Americans face any discrimination? A denial made by the same channel that dubbed immigration responsible for "The Suicide of Europe"?
They're not outright Trump-style lies, but they're still bad faith arguments that lead viewers to nasty places (and sometimes YouTube recommendations for white supremacist videos). For all of PragerU's faux politeness and disdain for Trump, they still reach the same conclusions as him: the mainstream media is conspiring to lie to you, the left is an organized hate group, foreign immigrants will destroy America, poor Americans actually love the freedom to be saddled with lifelong medical debt, anyone who claims there's inequality in America is lying, there's a war on Christmas, "dangerous people are teaching your kids."
And hey, maybe one day we'll get a polite, soothing, five-minute video about how PragerU founder Dennis Prager linked "the acceptance of homosexuality" to the decline of western civilization, argued that legalizing gay marriage would lead to legal incest (there doesn't seem to be any movement on that, but maybe it will be a priority for the Biden administration), and repeatedly claimed that the risk of heterosexuals getting AIDS, like climate change and second-hand smoke, is a leftist lie. Or maybe they could touch on his belief that Muslim Americans are inherently unfit to serve in Congress, that anti-COVID measures have been "the greatest mistake in the history of humanity" (suck it, genocide!), and that voting for Trump was distasteful but necessary "political chemotherapy needed to prevent our demise." Yeah, he really nailed it.
Four years of Trump made it dangerously easy to stereotype his supporters as unintelligent, a stereotype driven by the fact that Trump considers the greatest work of western literature to be the McDonald's dollar menu. But the problem is misinformation -- PragerU will tell you that "mainstream American news is all fake," that liberal protesters are destroying American cities, that college conservatives are constantly blackmailed and harassed... and then make you feel like an intellectual for touring all of human history in five-minute bursts.
Study after study shows that people fall into extreme beliefs by Googling until they find the reality they want to agree with, then start calling themselves independent freethinkers because they've outsmarted a non-existent conspiracy against their minds. PragerU is very, very good at making viewers feel informed, but what happens when most of that information contradicts reality?
No, I'm not saying that all conservative thinking is delusional, but Trump's rise reminded us that conservatism's intellectual side can't compete with the same irrational appeals to emotion that people like Prager love to complain about. Middle-aged professors writing dense books on the history of economics and Catholic theology will never compete with five-minute videos about how it's those lousy racist Democrats who were responsible for slavery, the Civil War, and the KKK (after which absolutely nothing else changed, of course).
We can all build our own realities now, if we want. Trump's whole shtick was building one out of pure rage, but PragerU is the sneakier endgame: the rage is gone, but the empty, facile arguments that enabled it and led it to some horrible conclusions are still there. And, going forward, that reality will be nothing but polite when it argues that some people are subhuman and deserve nothing.
Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.
Top image: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons, PragerU/YouTube