PragerU's Confederate classroom propaganda: Co-opting history to prop up modern insurrectionists

Abraham Lincoln is portrayed making arguments that sound like modern Proud Boys begging a judge for forgiveness

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published September 13, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

American Flag Hanging in Classroom (Getty Images/Glasshouse Images)
American Flag Hanging in Classroom (Getty Images/Glasshouse Images)

It's ironic that the team at PragerU hates communism so much since they produce dishonest agitprop that rivals anything the Soviet Union's most shameless propagandists produced. The "curriculum" — a word that really overrates what's now being used as educational materials in public schools in Florida and Oklahoma — is so overloaded with right-wing lies that debunking them all is nearly impossible. So many hats off to the team at Media Matters for combing through the extensive video library of the non-accredited right-wing disinformation mill run by Rush Limbaugh wannabe Dennis Prager. The cartoon videos aimed at children, which are also being considered for classrooms in Texas and New Hampshire, promote a wide-ranging amount of B.S. meant to poison children against reality: Videos that lie about climate change, glamorize genocide, fear-monger about urban life, and deny human rights abuses around the globe. There's even a video in which an American bigot compares being criticized online to the plight of Soviet dissidents thrown in a gulag. 

It's all terrible, but I want to pull on one thread that especially illustrates why it is that conservatives are so obsessed with rewriting the past. It's not just that their snowflake-delicate egos can't stand the idea that their white ancestors may have done bad things. It's because lies about history are so useful for justifying ongoing lies about our present day. In this case, there's an important connection between the "Lost Cause" mythology embedded in PragerU videos and the attempts to whitewash Donald Trump's attempted coup that led to the insurrection of January 6. 

The "Lost Cause" refers to a now multi-century effort of Confederate apologists to erase and distort the history of American slavery and the Civil War. The lies that fuel it have changed over time and place, but the basic false narratives have stayed the same: Slavery wasn't so bad. The Civil War was no big deal. And Southern racism was exaggerated. 

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PragerU creators are smart enough to know that they can't get away with some of the dumber lies pushed by Confederate apologists — such as claiming that the North started the war — but the basic false premise of the Lost Cause is all over their videos. They portray the Civil War, which killed 1 out of every 40 Americans, like a minor political disagreement between good buddies. 

The videos also embrace the "slavery was no biggie" attitude of Confederate apologists. They even show Frederick Douglass, a famous abolitionist, making excuses for slavery by claiming it was "a compromise to achieve something great." In reality, Douglass gave a speech in 1852 in which he declared, "your shouts of liberty and equality" are a "hollow mockery" and "a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."

There's a direct line, built on white supremacy, between the Confederates then and Trump's insurrectionist army now. 

There are many more appalling examples. Indeed, you get the impression they would teach "Gone with the Wind" as if it were a history textbook, except PragerU isn't super keen on asking kids to read. An especially insidious video portrays President Abraham Lincoln taking a forgive-and-forget approach to the South

No doubt PragerU would claim it was just a coincidence, but this video came out in February 2023. Trump had announced he was running for president again, even though he really should be ineligible under post-Civil War anti-insurrection constitutional law. The Oath Keepers had been convicted and the Proud Boys were beginning trial on charges of seditious conspiracy for their role in the Capitol riot. The country's debate over how to deal with our current crop of racist insurrectionists had really started heating up. At this precise moment in time, PragerU put out a video misleadingly portraying Lincoln as an anti-accountability figure. The fake "Lincoln" in this video, frankly, sounded quite a bit like the Proud Boys begging for forgiveness at their sentencing hearings.

The favorite slogan of the Lost Cause is, unsurprisingly, a sinister one: "The South will rise again." Trump, with his usual narcissism, has remade the slogan in his own image, declaring, "I am your retribution."

Conservatives are usually the first to say that you shouldn't commit the crime if you can't do the time. But apparently, they make a big exception for efforts to topple American democracy for the cause of white supremacy. It's no coincidence that a number of insurrectionists waved Confederate flags on January 6.

As political scientist Anthony DiMaggio explained at Salon, "white supremacist politics were a significant factor in the Jan. 6 insurrection," just as preserving white supremacy was the reason for the Civil War. There's a direct line, built on white supremacy, between the Confederates then and Trump's insurrectionist army now. 

Another important tie between the Confederates and the current MAGA movement is the fear and loathing of Black voters. Trump's entire Big Lie tapped into racist assumptions about who is and isn't a "legitimate" citizen. He repeatedly labeled voters in cities with large Black populations as "frauds," unsubtly tapping into white resentment over having to share power with Black people. Notably, John Wilkes Booth decided to assassinate Lincoln after hearing the wartime president give a speech affirming support for Black suffrage. PragerU put this unsubtle "let's just forget this ever happened" message into the mouth of a man literally murdered by the same forces they're making excuses for. 

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We're not just debating history when we talk about whether to portray the Confederates as well-meaning people who made a minor mistake versus the reality, which is that they were white supremacists who killed hundreds of thousands of people in a treacherous war to defend a violently racist institution. We're also debating our current reality and how we should understand the current movement of white nationalists who are eager to commit domestic terrorism on behalf of Trump. 

The favorite slogan of the Lost Cause is, unsurprisingly, a sinister one: "The South will rise again." Trump, with his usual narcissism, has remade the slogan in his own image, declaring, "I am your retribution" at campaign rallies. t's one of the many reasons why Confederate propaganda of the sort PragerU creates is so dangerous. The argument they ascribe, unfairly, to Lincoln is that absolution will heal divisions. In reality, white supremacists are openly plotting their next assault on multi-racial democracy. They want to be forgiven, even as they vow to keep committing the same crimes. What kind of lesson is that to teach children?

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Abraham Lincoln Commentary Confederate History January 6 Prager Prageru Robert E. Lee U.s. Civil War