Tuesday’s House Judiciary hearing on the threat posed by violent white nationalist ideology “managed to produce some important insights into the rise of white nationalism,” as journalist David Neiwert noted, but that was in spite of the Republicans’ effort to “make the affair into a partisan circus.”
Republicans’ lack of seriousness regarding what the FBI calls a “pervasive threat” was evidenced by the GOP’s choice of witnesses. The GOP’s star was Turning Point USA’s Candace Owens, who got her start in right-wing punditry as YouTuber “RedPillBlack” and in the media swamps that included Alex Jones’s conspiracy-mongering Infowars.
Owens displayed contempt for the hearing itself, saying that terms like racism and white nationalism “once held real meaning” but are now nothing more than election-year rhetoric by Democrats. When Rep. Ted Lieu played audio of Owens saying that the problem with Hitler was that he wanted to “globalize,” Owens responded by accusing Lieu of believing that “black people are stupid.”
Owens defended black conservatives for “having the audacity to think for themselves” and “become educated about our history.” As an example, she declared the late president Richard Nixon’s electoral “Southern strategy”—an appeal to white racial resentment after the passage of civil rights legislation—to be a “myth” that “never happened.” During a break in the hearing, Owens said that her claim about the Southern strategy was backed up by “a Prager University video.”
Prager U—essentially a propaganda mill for right-wing ideology that calls itself a “university”—responded by reasserting Owens’ claim that the Southern Strategy is a myth and promoting its 2017 video, “Why Did the Democratic South Become Republican?”
Kevin Kruse, a Princeton historian who is active on social media, called Owens’ comments “utter nonsense.” Kruse published an extensive twitter thread with links to previous threads as well as to historical sources documenting that the Southern strategy was indeed a historical reality. It’s not hard to find audio of Lee Atwater, a Nixon political operative and architect of the Southern strategy, talking about it.
“You can take the Nixon archives, the word of GOP strategists and RNC chairmen, party switches by politicians and region, the GOP platforms, polling data, and all the rest,” Kruse wrote. “Or you can handwave all of it away and call the Southern Strategy a ‘myth’ because of a ‘Prager U’ video.”
The Prager U video features Carol Swain, a now-retired Vanderbilt University professor. Right Wing Watch has written about her path from being a respected, if controversial, scholar to becoming a Religious Right culture-war propagandist hanging out with the likes of David Barton and Dinesh D’Souza. She has also promoted the work of far-right crank author Cleon Skousen, a favorite of Glenn Beck’s.
Historian Kruse responded to the Prager U video in 2018, challenging its “deeply ahistorical” arguments and false “facts.” Among the gems Kruse uncovered was a piece from one of Swain’s earlier, more serious, books— “The New White Nationalism in America”—in which Swain described “the Republican Party’s adoption of a ‘southern strategy’ that eventually enabled it to transform itself into a majority party after decades of minority status.”
Oddly enough, Swain doesn’t quote her own work in that Prager U video, which has more than 6 million views.
The same year Swain did the Prager U video, the right-wing Weekly Standard noticed that she had seemingly lost interest in being a serious scholar. She now writes Sean Hannity-endorsed screeds and appears at right-wing events, denouncing separation of church and state, trashing Black Lives Matter, calling liberal churches “agents of Marxism” and warning that liberals are out to steal children’s hearts and minds. Swain is what the Weekly Standard called “a thorny nationalist” on immigration, and she has urged Congress to “flex its muscles” and close what she calls a “loophole” of birthright citizenship guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.