How PragerU Is Winning The Right-Wing Culture War Without Donald Trump
Growing up in a pro-Obama household in liberal metro Denver, Matt Knaster held a few truths to be self-evident. Among them: Guns should be harder to obtain, women make less money than men for the same work, and humans have made the planet hotter.
Then, when he was a sophomore in high school, Knaster stumbled upon a video on Facebook titled “Iran and the Bomb.” Made by a nonprofit media company called Prager University, the five-minute clip featured then–Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens arguing that it would be catastrophically dangerous for the Islamic republic to develop nuclear weapons.
Unhappy that the Obama administration was negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, Knaster found himself nodding along to the video, which was slick and succinct. When it ended, the then–15-year-old queued up more PragerU videos about Israel, all of them five minutes, all presented with conscision and sobriety by experts, all in the same muted color palette.
Now Knaster was hooked on these five-minute explainers — no, of course Israel was nothing like apartheid South Africa, an argument that bugged him — and he moved on to videos covering other topics: gun control, which, it turned out was a way for the government to encroach on its citizens’ rights; feminism, which had started out fine but had at some point been overrun by radicals; climate change, which was more complicated than liberals liked to admit; and socialism, which was not, as Knaster had always thought, an “OK thing.”
It took about two months, Knaster, now 19 and a student at the University of Colorado at Denver, told BuzzFeed News, “to clear out my beliefs and reform them.”
It took two months for Prager University, one of the biggest, most influential and yet least understood forces in online media, to mold a conservative.
While it is not an accredited institution of higher learning, Prager University is most definitely an education. Scrolling through its 300-odd videos yields a survey of almost every divisive national issue in the United States today: racism, sexism, income inequality, gun ownership, Islam, immigration, Israel, police brutality, and, of course, speech on college campuses.
Many of the people presenting these topics are establishment, PBS NewsHour–conservative types like Stephens, Charles Krauthammer, and Steve Forbes. But more importantly, PragerU’s faculty includes an all-star lineup of internet and media personalities who have made their bones in the Trump era antagonizing the campus left: Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, James Damore, Steven Crowder, Dinesh D’Souza, Christina Sommers, Adam Carolla, Charlie Kirk, and many more. They are, according to PragerU’s founder and namesake, the conservative talk radio host Dennis Prager, “the best thinkers presenting their best ideas.” Their goal: to “undo [the] damage” inflicted by an education system that teaches US students that their country is “a land of inequality and racism” and a place of which to be “ashamed.”
These ideas — each one expressed in a five-minute video with titles like “Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings,” “Black, Millennial, Female and… Conservative,” “Why I Left the Left” and “Why Isn’t Communism as Hated as Nazism?” — have found an enormous, and growing, audience. According to PragerU’s annual report, in 2017 the organization’s videos received 625 million views between Facebook and YouTube, up from 250 million the year before, and 75 million the year before that. Individual videos frequently garner more than a million views; at least 10 PragerU videos gained more than 5 million views in 2017, and at least six gained more than 10 million.
Even video-heavy pro-Trump outlets, like InfoWars, don’t sniff PragerU’s numbers.
The site is screaming with its own statistics. A massive rolling ticker on the front page shows an ever-increasing view count. (Currently: 1,167,125,834.) Beneath the ticker, demographic information and claims like “86% of viewers reference our videos in political discussions online” cycle through. Stay on the page more than a few seconds and a box pops up asking for your email and phone number.
It all adds up to an audience at a scale that makes PragerU unique among conservative media organizations. In fact, it’s much closer in size to the major digital-first players in news video: Vice, AJ+, BuzzFeed, and Huffington Post. Even video-heavy pro-Trump outlets, like InfoWars, don’t sniff PragerU’s numbers.
And yet PragerU is a whisper in an online conservative din dominated by the Trump-worshipping Breitbart brigade.
PragerU’s low national profile comes partly from the fact that it doesn’t really do the news cycle; you can search the PragerU video landing page for “DACA” or “Kushner” and come back with bupkis. Nor does it do speed: The site only releases one video a week. And its politics, or at least the cumulative politics of its presenters, can be hard to pin down: a grab bag of Federalist-style moralizing, Commentary-approved Zionism, “alt-lite”-issue broadsides against campus outrage culture, defenses of free markets that would be at home in Reason, and, er, George Will explaining why baseball is America’s true national pastime.
The site may also have grown so large so quietly because it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the sexier narratives about the viral right that have obsessed the mainstream left: that it is a stalking horse for white nationalism, a clearinghouse for racist 4chan memes, or a move in a twelve-dimensional chess match played by Grandmaster Putin. Indeed, this is a rapidly advancing homegrown front in the culture war being led by people who wouldn’t dream of saying “cuck.”
But the biggest reason PragerU has escaped national attention is that it mostly doesn’t do Trump. There is not one video on the conservative video site that is about the most significant thing to happen to conservative politics in a half century.
It’s an audience more alienated by a perceived liberal cultural orthodoxy than it is attracted to the president.
PragerU is making a play for a potentially bigger and longer-lasting audience than just Trump supporters. The exact shape of this audience is still coming into focus — as is much of the political landscape after the Big Bang of 2016 — but squint and you can see it: Millions of young people, many of whom didn’t vote for Donald Trump, looking to stretch their conservative intuitions about our new culture war into a coherent worldview. It’s an audience more alienated by a perceived liberal cultural orthodoxy than it is attracted to the president.
And yet the Donald-sized lacuna in PragerU feels weird and denial-ish. How can an enormous conservative media outlet opposing leftist cultural overreach ignore a conservative president who was swept to power partially by that opposition?
PragerU’s critics have argued that the site is a gateway into the darker parts of the Trump internet, that its content is merely the polite tip of a menacing iceberg: the digital world of conspiracy theory, xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism whose rise accompanied Trump’s.
The past year has seen Silicon Valley’s information gatekeepers take definite, if stumbling, steps to keep this kind of content off its platforms. Yet all media ventures need these platforms to grow. And so, if PragerU wants to build an institution capable of swaying a generation of American minds, it needs to keep its distance from the fringes of the Trump internet. Or at least, it needs to appear that way.
To understand PragerU’s ambivalent stance toward the president, it helps to understand a little bit about Dennis Prager.
Sixty-nine, with floppy white hair and a Brooklyn accent worthy of Bernie Sanders, Dennis Prager isn’t exactly out of digital media mogul central casting. His three-decade run as a conservative talk radio host in Los Angeles hardly points to a late-career turn as a millennial content impresario. And his version of moralistic conservatism — Prager attended yeshiva, lectures on Judeo-Christian values, and opposes same-sex marriage — doesn’t seem like a natural fit for a generation raised on porn, video games, and social media.
But then Prager, who has long decried profanity and character assassination in public life, is an unlikely face of conservatism in the Trump era. In 2011, Prager wrote that Trump, at the time bandying about the idea of a presidential run, was “unfit to be a presidential candidate, let alone president,” because of his repeated use of the word “fuck.” Like many conservatives, the Fox News regular changed his mind. In September 2016, Prager wrote in National Review that “Leftism is a terminal cancer in the American bloodstream and soul.” Voting for Trump over Hillary Clinton was “political chemotherapy needed to prevent our demise.”
And now, more than a year into the treatment, millions of young people know Prager’s name. PragerU claims 60% of its viewers are under 35. That means millions of young Americans are familiar with Prager’s worldview, which he calls “Americanism.” It’s a kind of civic nationalism based on a so-called American Trinity of individual liberty, Abrahamic virtue (though Prager calls it “Judeo-Christian”) and the willingness to identify and ability to be identified as American first, before any other national, religious, or other group affiliation.
It’s headier stuff than “Make America Great Again” to be sure, and Prager has been preaching some version of it for years with the help of his longtime producer, Allen Estrin. In addition to his work for Prager, Estrin is a television writer, credited on episodes of Boston Public and Touched by an Angel, among others.
“Give us five minutes and we’ll give you a semester.”
It was Estrin who in 2009 came up with the idea of condensing Prager’s ideas into short, digestible videos, as counterprogramming for young people marooned in liberal US universities.
The original tagline was, “Give us five minutes and we’ll give you a semester.”
“The minute he said it, I knew it was a winner,” Prager told BuzzFeed News. “Most people either do not have a long attention span for serious subjects or just don’t have the time. And I knew I could say complex things concisely. I have worked on doing that my entire life.” (Today the tagline is the even more concise, “Short Videos, Big Ideas.”)
Though one of the tenets of Americanism is a belief in capitalism, Prager and Estrin decided to create PragerU as a nonprofit. Prager told BuzzFeed News that he thought it would be easier to raise money that way (prompts to donate to PragerU are all over the site and embedded into videos themselves) — and, he added, “I never wanted people to be able to say I was doing this for money.”
Much of Prager’s early funding came from the fracking billionaire Wilks brothers, early Ted Cruz donors who sat out of the 2016 general election. In addition to running their own church, the Assembly of Yahweh — where one of the brothers is a pastor who preaches that the Bible is historically and scientifically accurate — the Wilks brothers own the conservative website the Daily Wire and are reported to be considering a bid for Glenn Beck’s the Blaze. Two members of the Wilks family sit on the PragerU board.
The site started slowly, as a handful of videos released at random intervals. But the funding model allowed Prager and Estrin to build out a library and grow gradually without pressure from investors or shareholders. In April 2011, they hired Marissa Streit, an Israeli-American former Jewish day school principal, to run the organization.
Streit, who served in an intelligence unit the Israel Defense Forces, helped build the structure the site still uses today, even as the organization, based in the San Fernando Valley, has grown to more than 20 employees. A production committee consisting of Prager, Estrin, Streit, and head of marketing Craig Strazzeri decides which topics need to be PragerU videos. For a video to get produced, Streit said, the committee has to consider the subject matter evergreen: It has to be worthy of a place in the Americanism curriculum. In 2017, those topics included school choice (it saved the presenter’s life), the Paris Climate Agreement (presented by the famous climate change dissenter Bjorn Lomborg), the Southern Poverty Law Center (“The Anti-Hate Group That Is a Hate Group”), and fascism (according to Dinesh D’Souza, it’s a phenomenon of the left). As well as something very Trumpian: an argument to build the wall.
“I regard Prager University as a university every bit as much as a traditional university,” Dennis Prager told BuzzFeed News. “Unless one needs to study any of the natural sciences, or math, or a foreign language, one would learn more about life and gain far more wisdom attending PragerU than attending almost any Western university.”
The focus on evergreen topics rather than stories has produced some unlikely viral hits. In May 2015, Prager published a video called, “Do You Understand the Electoral College?” featuring a retired lawyer named Tara Ross extolling America’s unique process for electing an executive. It didn’t do much traffic. Shortly after Donald Trump won the 2016 election while losing the popular vote, the video went nuts. As of today, between YouTube and Facebook, the video has been viewed more than 55 million times.
The most obvious reason PragerU has attracted so many young viewers is the quality of its videos. It’s clear after watching just a few seconds of any of the segments that they have a higher level of polish and professionalism than the other popular conservative digital media outlets.
“Conservative organizations have absolutely failed in coming up with a product that is digestible and shareable, which young people want to consume,” Strazzeri told BuzzFeed News. He and Streit see PragerU’s competitors in video not as other conservative media outlets, but BuzzFeed, Vice, and AJ+, whose content they admire.
“Conservative organizations have absolutely failed in coming up with a product that is digestible and shareable.”
PragerU employees have an obsessive focus on brand. Though independent contractors — including at least one funded by the Wilks brothers — handle most of the production, the videos are remarkably consistent. Each video costs between $25,000 and $30,000 to make, and it shows. Each one features the same aesthetic, with the same cartoon characters illustrating each speaker. Each script, which generally starts from a draft by the presenter, is edited to 800 words or fewer by a PragerU staffer. Each video adds to a uniform whole.
“Think what it feels like when you walk into the Mac store,” Streit, the CEO, told BuzzFeed News. “It feels slick and clean and cool. That’s what we want our audience to feel … This is a product I want to be associated with.”
Clean and cool extends to the emotional temperature of the videos. Alex Jones suffering from encephalitis in a panic room they are not. Instead, the scripting, the calm delivery, the anodyne graphics, and an endless procession of numbers call to mind a kind of deeply conservative Vox. Like that site aspires to be, PragerU videos feel authoritative, a one-stop shop for simple answers to big questions, or, if you like, an inexhaustible cache of ammunition for campus debates. Want to know why the $15 minimum wage is actually a bad idea? Let former Trump Labor Secretary nominee Andy Pudzer explain! Why is health insurance so complicated? Let a Hoover Institute fellow tell you. Is gun ownership a right? Of course it is, says Eugene Volokh, the respected libertarian law professor.
And scrolling through the list of videos, there are a lot of questions, many of them extremely loaded. “Are some cultures better than others?” asks Dinesh D’Souza (answer: yes). “Can You Trust the Press?” wonders Judith Miller, as she bemoans failing journalistic standards (answer: no). “Was the Civil War about slavery,” inquires West Point instructor Col. Ty Seidule (Yes! And lest you forget the USA, led by a Republican president, kicked that breakaway republic’s seditious ass).
PragerU spends a lot of time and money figuring out how to push people to its content. It spends more than 40% of its $10 million annual budget on marketing. That includes targeted campaigns on Facebook and Instagram, preroll ads on YouTube, and a 1,250-strong high school and college student volunteer team called PragerFORCE, who flog Prager content on their social feeds. PragerFORCE members aren’t paid, according to Strazzeri, but they are rewarded with shares from the main PragerU Facebook account, which has nearly 3 million subscribers.
But the best marketing for PragerU probably comes from their savvy choice of presenters, many of whom come prepackaged with enormous audiences. (According to PragerU, presenters are each given an honorarium of $1000.) It’s a virtuous cycle: Conservative internet stars bring their fans to Prager, and Prager brings new fans to conservative internet stars.
“It moves the message in a way that would have been inconceivable even in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.”
The formula is working. Streit said she expects PragerU to hit a billion views this year. To put it in slightly different terms: By one estimate, Facebook currently has 214 million US users. According to Streit, Facebook analytics show that their videos have reached nearly a third of those 214 million users.
For conservative thinkers, even those whose writing appears in the pages of the US’s biggest newspapers, PragerU has become an irresistible megaphone.
“It moves the message in a way that would have been inconceivable even in the pages of the Wall Street Journal,” said Bret Stephens, who now writes for the New York Times. Stephens’ video about Iran — the one that hooked Matt Knaster — has been viewed more than 4 million times.
And that new audience has made Stephens into a kind of campus celebrity. Stephens said that students regularly tell him after university speaking engagements that they discovered his work through PragerU.
“The thought that I’ve had an effect on someone who is still forming his or her views is great,” Stephens told BuzzFeed News. “That’s what you want to do as a pundit.”
PragerU doesn’t disguise the fact that it is waging a war for young minds. Though the site’s videos are clinical, their cumulative function is to proselytize, and the language PragerU uses to describe its mission is religious. The 2017 annual report talks about PragerU’s “effort to reawaken Americans.” It wants to produce moments of political and cultural epiphany: “Each of our courses strives to be an ‘Ah-ha!’ experience for our ‘students’ (viewers).”
Following the evangelical logic of the site’s mission, “to explain and spread ‘Americanism,’” PragerU wants above all to get more eyeballs. More viewers means more conversions. According to PragerU’s Google and Facebook analytics, 33% of the site’s viewers do not identify as conservative or liberal. “These,” reads the annual report, “are the politically unaffiliated and possibly most likely to have their minds changed.”
“We want every American to know about PragerU,” said Strazzeri. “Show me another conservative group that has an audience a third of which isn’t conservative. We’re definitely not preaching to the choir.”
Matt Knaster isn’t alone. Fifty-nine percent of respondents to a PragerU Twitter poll from January reported that the site’s videos had changed their mind about something. “Was questioning why the minimum wage shouldn’t go up … my husband … had me watch your videos on it and I totally understand now!” reads one reply. “Love your videos you helped me take the red pill,” reads another. (The PragerU Twitter account liked that one.)
One of the most popular videos in the history of PragerU is a conversion story. “Why I Left the Left,” presented by the internet talk show host Dave Rubin, has been viewed more than 17 million times. The video, released in February of 2017, describes Rubin’s journey from his start on the “progressive Young Turks network” to his current position fighting the “regressive Left” in the endless war over free speech on college campuses.
“When PragerU takes aim at suffocating speech codes on campus, it’s striking a chord with traditional liberals.”
It’s a topic the site returns to again and again, and it seems to be one of the main routes people who wouldn’t describe themselves as conservative take into the PragerU milieu.
“When PragerU takes aim at suffocating speech codes on campus, it’s striking a chord with traditional liberals,” Stephens said. “There are a lot of centrist Democrats who find it difficult to stomach the worldview of hyperwoke outlets like Splinter and Jezebel.”
But what are these PragerU students converting to, exactly? Francesca Tripodi, a sociologist at the Data & Society Research Institute, has spent the past nine months studying the media consumption of middle- and upper-middle-class conservatives, many of whom watch and share PragerU content.
PragerU videos, Tripodi said, are so powerful because “They start with a very basic truth, and then toe this line really well between valid critiques of liberal ideology and propaganda.”
“Why I Left the Left” starts with a commonsense premise that many Americans would agree with: People should be able to tolerate speech they don’t like. But over the course of the video, Rubin moves from this fairly neutral starting point to describing “Racism, bigotry, xenophobia, homophobia, and Islamophobia” as “meaningless buzzwords.” That’s a long way from where he started, a position that is well outside of the US mainstream, and a rhetorical jump a 15-year-old might not catch.
Many PragerU videos follow this pattern.
“Sites like Prager U,” Tripodi argues in a report from Data & Society that will be published in May, “create an opportunity to dabble in content that seems extremely innocuous, yet makes connections to the same kinds of ‘revelations’ pushed out by the alt-right.”
Likewise, though PragerU strives for a frictionless, Apple-like end-to-end experience, it can’t divorce itself from its cultural context. PragerU presenters, Tripodi told BuzzFeed News, are part of “an interconnected network of thinkers that goes from semi-conservative to extreme very quickly based on who they have as guests on their shows.”
Take just Dave Rubin. On his show, Rubin has thoughtful segments featuring mainstream guests like Laura Kipnis and David Sirota. But he has also twice interviewed Milo Yiannopoulos, whose connections to white nationalists and neo-Nazis are well documented; Paul Joseph Watson, a host of the conspiracy site InfoWars; and Stefan Molyneux, a popular YouTuber who is fond of discussing the scientific differences between races. (Rubin declined to be interviewed for this story.)
PragerU employees bristle at the idea that they are introducing their young viewers to the extreme fringes of the internet. As proof, Streit and Strazzeri both pointed to a PragerU video, published last October, called “What Is the Alt-Right?” Presented by the conservative commentator Michael Knowles, the video briskly outlines Richard Spencer’s racist ideology. The video spends most of its runtime, though, stressing the similarities between the alt-right and the American left, comparing Richard Spencer to Karl Marx.
“The alt-Right has nothing in common with conservatism, and is in fact much closer to leftism,” Knowles concludes. “Except of course, the left is much, much larger.”
In July 2016, PragerU staff members realized that YouTube was partially limiting access to several dozen of the site’s videos. Today, at least 39 PragerU videos can’t be viewed by users who have opted into so-called restricted mode, a setting parents and schools sometimes enable to prevent children from watching inappropriate content. The restricted videos include “What’s Wrong with E-Cigarettes,” “The Least Diverse Place in America,” “Israel: The World’s Most Moral Army,” and “Guns Rights are Women’s Rights.”
PragerU sees the restriction as a naked example of an ascendant liberal industry censoring conservative media. On its face, the organization has a point. What’s so inappropriate about conservative positions on Israel, e-cigarettes, and college campuses that they should be kept from young audiences? Last October, PragerU, represented by former California governor Pete Wilson, sued Google, which owns YouTube, for violating its First Amendment rights.
“The broader stakes are the free flow of ideas on the internet,” Dennis Prager told BuzzFeed News. “Nothing more and nothing less. If Google/YouTube wins this lawsuit, the internet will become exactly like the universities.”
The suit is probably not a winner. According to Eric Goldman, director of the Santa Clara University School of Law’s High Tech Law Institute, US courts have generally ruled that web publishers can do whatever they want with content users post to their sites. In addition, according to a declaration made in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California by YouTube Senior Manager for Trust and Safety Alice Wu, the 12% of PragerU videos blocked by restricted mode aren’t abnormal for a media organization — and may actually be low. According to the declaration, 14% of HuffPost videos, 28% of Vox.com videos, and 40% of BuzzFeed videos are blocked by restricted mode.
Still, even if the litigation fails, the suit has generated an enormous amount of good press for PragerU in the conservative press; Fox News has devoted multiple segments to it. PragerU seem to be milking the situation: A playlist of videos “Restricted by YouTube” enjoys pride of place on the homepage.
And the publicity from going up against a tech giant may very well help PragerU in another plan of attack: to make universities more like the internet.
The PragerU website describes its Partnering Educator program as “a community of conservative educators that shows PragerU videos to their students and uses our curriculum as a teaching supplement in the classroom.” According to Craig Strazzeri, over 4,000 educators have already signed up. And there’s no question PragerU videos are making their way onto campuses in at least semiofficial capacities. In August, Rutgers University launched an investigation after students were disturbed by a PragerU video about campus sexual assault shown during resident assistant training. According to a statement by an RA attending the meeting, “the video asserted that there is ‘no evidence that rape is a cultural norm’ and said verbatim that ‘there is no evidence of a national rape epidemic.’”
If PragerU’s long-term goal is to get into classrooms and lecture halls — not to counterprogram a liberal education, but to partially replace it — the time is ripe. The past five years have seen dozens of universities start to stream their courses for free through services like edX. And for the first time in decades, Americans have started to question the wisdom of attending four-year colleges. As trust in mainstream institutions withers, who’s to say PragerU videos won’t make their way into curricula throughout the country for “diversity of thought,” just as they did at Rutgers?
Here, finally, might be the reason PragerU ignores Donald Trump. One source close to the organization told BuzzFeed News that management worries that being seen to endorse Trump could cause the company to lose its status as a tax-exempt nonprofit, which are not allowed to engage in “political campaign activity.” The vast majority of US colleges and universities are 501(c)(3)s. Those that aren’t are typically regarded as useless or worse; losing this designation would likely consign PragerU to the fringe.
And that’s a place it desperately does not want to be. The culture war stoked by President Trump’s rise primed millions of young American minds for Dennis Prager’s gospel of Americanism. It allowed PragerU to present itself as a respectable and authoritative alternative to a national conversation defined by hyperbole and subjectivity. To lose that position, that debater’s calm in the face of screeching on both sides, would endanger the spread of the message itself.
And then what would be the point? After all, according to Prager, the lessons in these five-minute videos are more than just politics. They offer, he has come to believe, a guide to success in life.
“Most people who watch all of PragerU’s 300-plus videos a few times and do all the suggested readings,” Prager told BuzzFeed News, “Will probably do better in life than if they had attended an accredited university.” ●
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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