Fuck U, PragerU.
The Internet’s Fake Toxic University.
Summary: For years, the propagandists with the greatest visibility in the United States were on television; the ones who contributed most to the “manufacture of consent.” Think Fox News. And we’ve covered many of the dark, hidden figures looming in the background churning out the ideas that make it into the mainstream and out of Tucker Carlson’s mouth. Uncle Milton, James Buchanan, Lewis Powell, The Koch Brothers, Robert Mercer, Peter Thiel and the myriad think tanks like Mercatus, Cato and Heritage. Today, we cover another contributor to the perverted right wing ecosystem: Prager University and its folksy, baritone, asshole patriarch, Dennis Prager.
Inflation is stealing the last dollars from our pockets. More than a million of our fellow citizens died from a poorly managed pandemic. Key alliances in the world have evaporated, allowing for other world powers to step into our place. Hard fought welfare reforms once deemed fundamental have been chipped away. The wall between church and state is disappearing in schools. Abortion is now illegal in several states, with many more to come. Billionaires have stolen generational prosperity from millions of Americans and are in complete control of the political system now that money enjoys the freedom of speech in our elections.
The conservative majority of the Supreme Court has been filled by two presidents who lost the popular vote. Prescription drugs are higher here than any other industrialized nation. Infant mortality rates are up. Education rates are down. Millions of students are drowning in high interest rate debt.
Need I go on?
But Unf*ckers no longer question how this all happened. That’s been the nature of our journey thus far. To explain how we arrived at this place in history and how we squandered our preeminent place in the world.
Today, we’re adding yet another brick in the wall and covering the rise of an insidious organization whose power and influence might surprise you, even if you’ve heard of them. And that’s half of the message; we should have an understanding of the evil that surrounds us. But it’s not the sole reason to do this episode, as you’ll learn. Because this organization has a different and even more dangerous purpose than ones we’ve covered in the past.
The sort of Jews but not actual Jews behind the hateful, spiteful, very awful no good university that isn’t a real university.
Here are a few pearls of wisdom on how to keep a marriage happy from Voy Wilks, founder of the Torah-observant Messianic Israelite Assembly of Yahweh in Rising Star Texas:
“You wives be submissive to your husbands. Likewise, you husbands live considerately with your wives.
“The mating act may not be the most important part of marriage, but it is important. Once again, courtesy is the key to success in marriage.
“The desire for mating varies greatly, so this calls for consideration. The mate who is less interested must be understanding toward the partner’s need, and the more active one must restrain himself or herself out of consideration for the partner.”
The Assembly, which formally adopted its name in 1982, has roots dating back to the 1940s. The group is unremarkable in a part of the country known for its megachurches. Its small, but tidy and meticulous grounds have ample parking for recreational vehicles. It has a ball field and a basketball court, recreation center and outdoor pavilion. Its members live in strict observance of the Torah and reject all newer Christian traditions.
Here are some of their beliefs, in their own words:
“Yahweh is One, the Father alone, He is Creator and Almighty by Himself, Alone. We reject the doctrine of the Trinity.”
“That the true religion is Jewish, not a Gentile religion.”
“Once a person dies, he sleeps in the grave waiting for the resurrection to come. There is no afterlife, in heaven, outside the body.”
“According to Torah, Homosexuality is a grievous sin. There are only two genders, male and female. Practicing any form of transgenderism or crossdressing is an abomination.”
“That men have the obligation to conduct and lead worship.”
“That willful abortion is a serious crime. It is murder. This includes pregnancies resulting from rape and incest.”
You get the picture. It’s radical evangelism without the babbling, speaking-in-tongues nonsense.
Now, here’s the connection. This particular assembly is a dime a dozen across this great nation of ours. And this one is especially small. But don’t let size fool you. The influence of this hateful little place extends well beyond its campground and commissary. Voy’s son Farris and grandson Kyle are still two of the three elders of the bizarro church. They are all devout followers of the faith and keep the flame lit in honor of their founder.
Oh, and they’re billionaires.
The Wilks made their money the good old fashioned American way: Fracking! According to a Bloomberg piece on the family, Farris and his brother Dan make, “unlikely billionaires.” It goes on to describe how they came about their wealth saying:
“They followed in their father’s footsteps to become masons in a rural swath of North Texas and used insights about manipulating stone in 2002 to create Frac Tech Holdings, which combines high-pressure jets of water, sand and chemicals to smash oil-and gas-soaked rocks miles underground. Shale impresario Aubrey McClendon’s Chesapeake Energy Corp. bought a 25.8% stake in Frac Tech at the height of the shale gas frenzy in 2006, helping turn it into the world’s fourth-largest fracking firm. Five years later, the Wilkses sold their remaining 74.2% holding of Frac Tech to a consortium led by Singapore’s Temasek Holdings for $3.5 billion.”
Instantly, the brothers were fucking players.
Of course, the Brothers Grimm did what any new money Texans would do with such a windfall. They invested heavily into Ted Cruz. In fact, their $15m investment into a super PAC called Keeping the Promise made them the single largest supporters of Cruz’s presidential bid in 2016.
At least they didn’t get anything after running into the buzzsaw that was Donald Trump. Right?
Actually, the Wilks boys did okay with their little investment into Ted.
Remember the pandemic? Sure you do. Well, originally, the federal government was going to exclude oil and gas firms from receiving the paycheck protection loans, or the PPP. Then, creepy old Ted sent a letter to Fed Chair Jerome Powell and then Treasury Secretary Steve Mah-douche-in and… voila! Magically, senator creepy got his way, and three weeks later ProFrac, the company owned by the Wilks brothers, received a $35 million fully forgivable loan.
Now, in fairness. The boys haven’t always hit it out of the park with their investments. Sure, they were at one time the largest landowners in Montana and Idaho, and their bank account balances still start with a “B,” but they’ve had flops along the way. Continuing to double down on natural gas, the precipitous decline hit the boys in the wallet and purportedly cost them more than a hundred million in lost wealth. But it looks as though the boys have rebounded, as it was announced in May of this year that their new company, ProFrac Holding Corp, was valued at $2.47 billion in its Nasdaq debut.
And this is where our story turns to Prager.
According to Sludge, an online journal devoted to uncovering corruption, Farris and his wife JoAnn are the primary funders of PragerU through their Thirteen Foundation:
“The exact amount is unclear because Sludge was unable to obtain the foundation’s most recent tax return (2017) and the grant details from 2014. But the Thirteen Foundation donated $250,000 to PUF in 2013 and committed $6.25 million ‘for future payment’ that year. The tax return did not specify how many years it would take to deliver that total to PUF. In 2015, the foundation reported giving $1 million to PUF, and it gave $500,000 the next year.”
Not to be outdone, brother Dan Wilks contributed more than $1 million to PragerU from 2014 to 2017 through his Heavenly Father’s Foundation. Dan’s mission, for what it’s worth, is to “bring the Bible back into the school.”
It’s also worth mentioning that this wasn’t the only investment into new media the Wilks brothers made. They are also the founders and co-owners of another enterprise you might have heard of: The Daily Wire.
Yup. The funding for Ben Shapiro’s wildly successful Daily Wire venture was provided by the Wilks brothers. And just how influential is the Daily Wire network? We used one of our podcast audience tracking resources to estimate the reach of the shows on the network, which include Ben’s show, Morning Wire, Candace, The Michael Knowles Show, The Matt Walsh Show and The Andrew Klavan Show. As of this writing, the average monthly listenership is between 7–10 million downloads. That’s just the average. In the aggregate, the number is around 50 million. And that’s just their podcasting figures.
That doesn’t include the reach of their other outlets. The Daily Wire YouTube channel, for example, has 2.7 million subscribers, and Shapiro’s channel alone has 4.7 million. Both Shapiro and Knowles are syndicated on terrestrial radio throughout the country via Westwood One.
The Wilks brothers are the doctor Frankensteins of new media, and these are just some of their monsters. So you should know their names. So, with that, let’s grab our backpacks and trapper keepers and head off to University.
Dennis the menace to society.
The airwaves are filled with so much culture war nonsense that we’re starting to lose track of who’s doing what in the conservative media ecosystem, which includes the likes of NewsMax, Fox News and OAN, among others. And, since the Trump years, every right-leaning media organization has started to sound the same, making them indistinguishable from one another.
While much of the media has been focused almost exclusively on the big names in cable news, they’ve mostly ignored a less-heralded, but perhaps more influential and potentially dangerous content shop out of California: Prager University, or PragerU.
To get started, here’s the first important thing you need to know about PragerU: On the surface, it appears to ignore the larger culture war battles. But don’t be fooled. Culture war hysteria is woven into a larger narrative about what they perceive to be illegitimate liberalism. It bleeds into mostly everything that appears on its media platforms, from climate change and policing to guns and, yes, culture war issues like toxic masculinity. (This video, “Make Men Masculine Again,” which calls for more masculinity and tries to debunk the notion of toxic masculinity, has more than 10 million views.)
The second important thing you need to know about PragerU: It has grown exponentially over the last few years without producing content focused exclusively on Trump.
And here’s where you’ll start noticing a trend. While its public-facing material isn’t outwardly MAGA—as in the case with the culture wars—PragerU and its hosts—a who’s who of modern right-wing stars, from Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens to former progressive and Young Turks commentator Dave Rubin and Dennis Prager himself—are vehemently pro-Trump. That’s right, because of the Wilks connection, there is a robust coordination between the Daily Wire platform and PragerU.
PragerU is 100% aligned with the modern Republican party, but impressionable youths or anyone in the midst of formulating a personal political ideology would hardly know it.
So, if no one outside of the conservative sphere of influence is remotely aware of PragerU, then why should progressives care? I get it. We have so much more to worry about: The economy, the climate crisis, poverty, workers’ rights, women’s rights, war, and a hell of a lot more. The truth is that the left doesn’t have a clear answer to PragerU. This is an entirely different beast. And, by its own admission, its viewers are getting younger and are spreading its content far and wide.
In 2018, BuzzFeed published a comprehensive piece about PragerU’s meteoric rise. The story began with an anecdote about a then-sophomore in high school who came across a PragerU video online called “Iran and the Bomb,” featuring now New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. He then started loading up more and more of PragerU’s videos. He was hooked. As the kid told BuzzFeed: PragerU was instrumental in reshaping his “beliefs”—beliefs he didn’t know he had a few weeks earlier. After watching a few hours of content, his brain was literally rewired.
The most memorable line in the entire story was so poignant, in fact, that PragerU reportedly leveraged it in its marketing material despite the mostly negative tone of the article itself.
Here it is:
“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.”
That’s what we’re up against.
PragerU is the brainchild of Dennis Prager, a longtime conservative writer and radio personality who grew up in New York. Now living in California, where PragerU—a nonprofit—is based, Prager reportedly has his hands in everything that his namesake organization produces. He even has the time to host his own show, “Fireside Chats,” which has over 250 episodes to date. If you tune into these chats, you can hear old Dennis muse over pearls like this from a video titled, “How to defeat the ‘America Is Racist’ lie:
“Why are we talking about slavery so much? Think about that. It ended… let’s see… it ended 155 years ago. Slavery in the United States ended 155 years ago. Why are we constantly talking about slavery? If things are so bad today, just talk about today.”
Dennis the menace racks up literally millions of views on his musings, but his voice extends beyond just his online shows. Like Shapiro and Knowles, Dennis Prager can be heard on nearly 400 radio stations across the country as well. During COVID, Prager came out early and often against vaccines. He also got COVID twice and kept doing his show, so his listeners could hear him boldly snot and wheeze through his segments. And he made arguments like this to his adoring fans and legions of unvaxxed listeners:
“There were 4,000 ‘F-You Dennis Pragers’ just on one tweet last week, because I had the chutzpah to say that the unvaccinated are pariahs the way gays were during the AIDS crisis. But you see, they have a monopoly on victimhood. There are no non-left wing victims. That’s what they believe. However, I would argue that the unvaccinated are bigger pariahs. Were gays or people with AIDS banned from travel? Were they banned from restaurants? Were they fired from their jobs? Were they deprived of a way of feeding their family? The unvaccinated are the most hated group, I would say, since slavery.”
There’s your university dean for you!
Not content infecting American minds, Prager even started an international channel offering videos in various languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, and Spanish. It already has more than half a million views. It also runs PragerFORCE, a student ambassador program for university students in America and around the world who represent PragerU on campuses. This part is pretty fucked up. While these are unpaid ambassadors who distribute Prager content on their social feeds, Prager claims this student force has more than 20,000 high school and college students sharing their materials desperately seeking retweets and shares from Prager’s popular social accounts.
One of Dennis Prager’s biggest bogeymen is Islam. This is actually where I first came across Prager’s videos several years ago. Just a cursory search of the world “Muslim” on the Prager site returns blockbuster titles like “The Dangers of Islamism,” “Are Some Cultures Better Than Others?”, “Where are moderate Muslims?”, “Radical Islam: The Most Dangerous Ideology,” and the ever popular “How is Muslim immigration to Sweden working out?”
In a Buzzfeed article that examines the growing influence of PragerU, Joseph Bernstein writes that the goal of their videos is to:
“Undo the damage inflicted by an education system that teaches American students that their country is a land of inequality and racism and a place of which to be ashamed.”
In addition to personally adding content like his hot takes on the war on Christmas, a personal bugaboo, Prager is said to have a hand in approving every single script and item that makes it into the Prager catalog. And he frequently courts renowned “faculty” members like convicted felon—not that there’s anything wrong with that—Dinesh D’Souza, former Congressperson and meathead Steve Forbes and former White House press secretary Dana Perino to appear on the channel.
Now, dig this. According to BuzzFeed,
“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.”
Up to 30 grand a video. The author is right. It shows. That’s not for the fireside chats or roundtable discussions, by the way. That budget is for the explainer videos like top rated selections “Was the Civil War about slavery?”, “War on boys,” “Is Islam a religion of peace?” and “How socialism ruined my country.” With millions of viewers, hundreds of videos, contracts with marquee conservative names, it’s a wonder how Prager affords all of it.
So much fucking money.
I have to say. This next bit is pretty fucking genius. Up top, we spoke about how the Wilks brothers invested in PragerU, and we just went through how expensive it is to do what they do. Here’s the crazy part. Prager is a nonprofit. It’s an actual 501(c)3 organization with tax exempt status. So all the money they raise from outsiders, all the donations from the Wilks family and others… all tax deductible.
The full name of PragerU is actually “Prager University Foundation.” Brilliant for them. Lucky for us. Brilliant, because it has enabled them to amass a literal fortune in donations to spread their hateful gospel. Lucky, because it means they have to file publicly available 990s for everyone to see.
According to the nonprofit’s 2021 filings, its total revenue was over $56 million, the near majority of which came in the form of contributions and grants. Nearly $9 million that year went to salaries, including $669,500 for its CEO Marissa Streit. In the filing, PragerU bills itself as “the world’s leading conservative nonprofit that is focused on changing minds.” According to Marissa Streit’s interview in Mother Jones, 40% of PragerU’s revenue comes from small donors.
What’s scary is that their revenue grew to $56 million from $34 million in the prior year. This thing is just getting bigger and bigger. So much so, they barely know what to do with the excess capital. So, as we said, of the $56 million, only $9 million went to compensation, leaving $24 million toward program expenses, essentially their curriculum. Propaganda. Direct mail. Social campaigns. Videos. Brochures. Lectures. $24 million in pure fucking hate propaganda. And while Dennis Prager himself isn’t listed as an employee of the organization, buried deep in the 990 it shows that his production company Kansas and Brooklyn, Inc. took in $462,000 last year in fees.
The Prager balance sheet reveals just how much of a fucking bonanza it’s been for them since Trump left office. As of this year, the foundation is sitting on $18 million in cash, $15 million in savings and $28 million in investments. All told, it has $61 million in liquid assets, of which $57 million is deemed “unrestricted,” which means they can spend it any way they please.
“We promote American values,” continues the 990, “through the creative use of digital media, as our mission. Taking full advantage of today’s technology and social media, we educate millions of Americans and young people about the values that…” Okay, wait for it… “make America great. Our vision is a world committed to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In its 2021 annual report, Dennis Prager says PragerU “had another incredible year with exponential growth on all fronts. Viewers and subscribers have exploded. Content is now available for all ages, including children as young as three years old. America needs PragerU now more than ever.”
In the same report, its executive director, Allen Estrin, says “Our flagship 5-Minute Videos are reaching more high school and college kids than ever.”
CEO Marissa Streit is explicit in the media network’s desires:
“Young people are online 10 hours a day, every day. They have an insatiable appetite for content that engages their sensibilities in different ways. PragerU must now counter the left wherever it is dominating—from universities and K-12 to Cartoon Network, YouTube, and PBS Kids.”
Yes, they’re coming after Elmo. She goes as far as referring to PragerU as an “antidote” to PBS Kids.
Even as PragerU and other conservative outlets condemn the mainstream press, they so desperately love the validation that comes with being mentioned by elite journalistic institutions. Among the highlights from 2020 was being featured on A1 of the NYT. Hilariously, six days after the Times story dropped, PragerU published its own video with the ominous title: “Can you trust The NY Times?”
Speaking of hypocrisy, according to its 2021 tax filings, PragerU paid Facebook $6.9 million for media and marketing, even as it claimed the company is suppressing the “outlet” and feigns outrage over Facebook’s fact-checking in its own videos. The organization also paid Google $4.5 million for similar services, despite a failed lawsuit against YouTube (a Google company) for allegedly violating its First Amendment rights following the removal of what the tech firm dubbed “inappropriate” content.
The very public battle against YouTube had one clear goal: to serve as catnip for a right-wing base that thrives on victimhood and sees a conspiracy around every corner. YouTube is a huge audience generator for PragerU. A Mother Jones article from 2018 noted that more than 60% of the right-wing group’s viewers on YouTube were younger than 35.
Besides YouTube and its website, PragerU also relies heavily on Facebook to attract new viewers. At one point, the organization said its videos had reached one-third of Facebook’s entire U.S. users—an astronomical figure. Its own polling, obviously biased, found that “70 percent of people who have seen a Prager video changed their minds on an issue,” Mother Jones reported.
And you can’t talk about PragerU and the wider right-wing media sphere without mentioning the religious and Christian right. And, thanks to the sociologist and media scholar Dr. Francesca Tripodi, we know quite a bit about why conservatives have an insatiable appetite for PragerU’s content. In an interview with the anti-hate group Southern Poverty Law Center, Tripodi noted that PragerU is “very blatantly algorithmically connected” to the type of extreme right content found on platforms like YouTube.
She then drilled deeper into PragerU for a massive research project about the religious right, which helps explain a shit ton about how the evangelicals and other religious supporters of Trump and his acolytes so passionately embrace policies and political figures that are seemingly at odds with religious teachings.
First, she dispels with the narrative that PragerU isn’t full-on MAGA:
“Even though PragerU content and videos do not directly feature Donald Trump or current controversies, they consistently amplify two central arguments that conservatives associate with Trump’s public statements: that the mainstream media are dishonest and driven by emotion rather than intellect, and that ‘the Left’ has become increasingly ‘radical’ and is akin to hate groups like the ‘alt-Right.’”
Second, and perhaps most important for our purposes, is how the extreme right interprets the news—which actually means dismissing it altogether. In observing a select group of people on the religious right, Tripodi determined that media literacy—the practice of objectively interpreting and understanding the news, something we all learn in grade school—exists, to a degree, but everything is filtered through core religious beliefs.
“I argue that practices learned in Bible study are applied to media interpretation,” Tripodi says. “The conservatives I observed all hold the belief that certain fundamental truths exist, and they critically interrogate media messages in the same way they approach the Bible, focusing on specific passages and comparing what they read, see and hear to their lived experiences. I term this media interrogation process, scriptural inference, whereby audiences apply the technique of closely reading ‘the Word’ to other documents.”
And that scriptural inference, according to Tripodi, fits neatly into PragerU’s core strategy. As she explains: Its content is “specifically designed to satisfy and exploit the processes of scriptural inference.” Or, as she put it another way, PragerU and likeminded media organizations “are preying on the practice of scriptural inference to legitimize their messaging.”
So, no, conservatives weren’t hoodwinked into supporting Trump. Their resounding support for the twice-divorced, foul-mouthed charlatan actually made complete sense.
As Tripodi says: “I watched as conservatives carefully and meticulously constructed a political reality to support Trump’s presidency by relying on media literacy practices taught to them in church.” PragerU’s most dedicated viewers—especially the religious right—can see the bigger picture: Saving children.
Bring it home, Max.
Prager pretends not to care about the culture war. They don’t profess to be part of the MAGA cult. They don’t feature screaming talking heads. The channel is mostly filled with partially animated explainer videos with folksy presenters who are all like, “Can you believe people think America is racist?”
PragerU’s annual report is unabashedly culture-war theater, claiming it is “battling woke education” while also rapidly creating content for “ever-younger ages.” And this is the biggest problem. PragerU is locked and loaded with $60 million in cash aimed directly at the minds of young people in this, and now other, countries.
It’s producing content directed at teens with a series called “TBH”—a “Gen-Z acronym,” it says proudly, to counteract the teachings of historians like Howard Zinn. Total viewership of all PragerU Kids content is 6 million and counting. They’ll accept nothing less than a complete rewiring of our children’s brains.
According to its most recent figures, PragerU has now produced 500+ five-minute videos with more than 5.5 billion lifetime views. 5.5 billion. This is a stunning output. Dennis Prager’s fireside chats are for old people and the equivalent of Hugo Chavez’s weekly television show. The 400 radio stations that carry his stupid show reach the old and dying audience that make up the rural Republican base across the nation. To the youth, Dennis Prager is just a lumbering old grandfatherly figure. Non threatening. Earnest in his presentation. But his organization’s propaganda is anything but.
By styling itself as a university, or really as an alternative to anti-speech and intolerant liberal colleges, PragerU has emerged as a leading educational outfit—one that early on honed in on fears of Muslims and immigration to the West, but is now wholly committed to shaping the minds of an increasingly younger audience.
Its flagship five-minute videos are rather benign, actually—which is probably the scariest part of all this. Most people, especially highly impressionable young people, wouldn’t even know that they’re staring down the barrel of a right-wing media machine whose core mission is to indoctrinate as many people as fast as possible. It’s dressed up, sanitized alt-right content that appears… rather wholesome.
Prager claims that 40% of their haul comes from small dollar donations. That translates to more than $20 million in donations from people who “attend” PragerU. Selecting the lowest recurring monthly charge of $25 means that about 75,000 people donate monthly to Prager. That’s disturbing. More disturbing to me, however, is the 30+ million that comes from big dollar donors. Donors like the founding Wilks brothers who believe being gay is an abomination, women should be subservient, and abortion in the case of rape and incest is murder. PragerU is their curriculum, and because it’s considered a nonprofit, the biggest joke of all of this, they get to write off their donations.
Events of the recent weeks should demonstrate just how completely we’ve been beaten. They own the courts for a generation now, and it’s only just beginning. With inflation and gas prices where they are, they’ll probably trounce Democrats in the fall and be able to further codify their bullshit into law. But they won’t be happy until they’ve infected the minds of the next generation as well, and here again we’re behind the 8-ball. They’re beating us to the punch yet again.
Dennis Prager is Joseph Goebbels.
They’re coming for our children.
Resistance must turn to rebellion.
Here endeth the lesson.
Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).