Most people outside the United States of America are only vaguely aware of how pervasive the ideological divisions gripping the country have become. American politics is no longer just a matter of the traditional two-party system, with Republicans and Democrats competing for control of the White House and Congress, governorships and state legislatures. It has spread beyond those national groupings and filtered all the way down to the lowest electoral levels in individual counties and boroughs, and into society more generally. Fuelling this change has been a tiny but disproportionately influential minority of conservative campaigners, activists and commentators. Many of these individuals emerged from the radicalised fringe of the Tea Party movement in 2011-2013. Unlike the rest of that amorphous group, which was gradually absorbed or co-opted by the mainstream Republican Party (or simply abandoned politics altogether until the rise of Trumpism), the extreme edge retained its coherence, becoming one of the loci for the successor alt-right tendency, either explicitly so or as fellow travellers.
This has led to a low-level and usually quite subtle war to capture the hearts and minds of the American people. At the vanguard of this hardline conservatism, and without the notoriety or public scrutiny that mainstream media entities like Fox News are subject to, is a plethora of small and frequently networked organisations. While some are nickel an’ dime affairs run by local enthusiasts, others are million-dollar creations bankrolled by the reactionary moneyed classes. And it is these groupings which have the resources to appropriate unclaimed or unregulated spaces, such as you find on the internet, and fill them with their “propaganda”.
One such body is the Prager University, which purposefully styles itself as PragerU in the familiar terminology of American campuses. The organisation maintains a modern professional-looking website, publishing highly-engaging five-minute “seminar” videos that can be watched and shared on the likes of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. While this may create the impression of an educational institute, a careful read of the small print on the group’s homepage reveals that “Prager University is not an accredited academic institution and does not offer certifications or diplomas”.
In reality, the California-based foundation is a small but apparently well-funded think tank dedicated to preaching the philosophy of Anglo-American exceptionalism. This wealth has allowed it to attract a host of contributors from across the neoconservative spectrum in the United States and the United Kingdom. This includes several well-known writers and historians such as H. W. Crocker III and Andrew Roberts, lending a carefully managed air of respectability to the whole operation. A typical example of its offerings can be seen in this bizarre but extremely well-crafted video extolling the supposed virtues of the British Empire. While informed watchers will easily dismiss the claims, which are historically disingenuous to say the least, nevertheless it has been viewed nearly 800,000 times and no doubt gained innumerable “shares”. The vast majority of these have likely taken place in the US and UK.
In the grand scheme of things some observers might be tempted to underestimate the effect of such relatively low numbers. However, remember this. Donald Trump won the White House because he gained 79,646 votes in the three swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. That is less than 0.09% of all the ballots cast in the 2016 presidential general election. These “heartland” regions were purposefully targeted with a deluge of right-wing and anti-establishment publicity in the months leading up to the November 8th polling day, some of which has been linked back to the alleged activities of the Russian Federation. Consequently, it is not just “fake news” which is a danger but also “fake history”. Anything which confuses people’s real understanding of the world around them, of how we got here and how we should interpret what we see.
That, after all, was the intent of the now fading revisionist movement in Ireland, where journalists and historians acted as apologists for Britain’s centuries-old occupation of the country. Indeed, where they saw themselves as cultural warriors in a battle against progressive Irish republicanism and nationalism, and proponents of a new type of alt-unionism. The so-called Prager University sits on that same deceitful spectrum.