Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
“Are your children being brainwashed?”
That’s the question that greets visitors to the Tuttle Twins website, which sells libertarian children’s books. The books, written by Connor Boyack, are meant to protect children from the “socialism and woke-ism” that the website says American educational and cultural institutions are “pushing into the minds of our kids.” A cartoon on the site shows a mother wielding a Tuttle Twins shield while protecting her frightened children, absorbing the arrows of socialism, Marxism, collectivism, and “media lies.”
The Tuttle Twins books, regularly hawked by right-wing radio host Glenn Beck, range from board books to graphic novels to economics curriculum guides. They join a growing array of conservative children’s literature and programming which coincide with the current right-wing attacks on schools and children’s entertainment that conservatives claim are sites of political and sexual indoctrination.
In addition to the Tuttle Twins, there are the “Heroes of Liberty” series (biographies of conservative icons like Rush Limbaugh and Margaret Thatcher aimed at middle school readers), the Brave Books series authored by prominent conservatives (like Dana Loesch’s pro-gun book “Paws Off My Cannon” and Rep. Dan Crenshaw’s cancel-culture book “Fame, Blame, and the Raft of Shame”), and an array of anti-trans books like “Johnny the Walrus” and “Elephants Are Not Birds.”
Throw in the Daily Wire’s vow to spend $100 million on conservative children’s programs to oppose Disney in its conflict with Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – and Glenn Beck’s secretive new Florida Project, launched to counter Disney’s so-called “gay agenda” – and you have the emergence of a full-on right-wing children’s entertainment complex. Its sole mission: to fight what the right sees as liberal indoctrination with some indoctrination of its own.
That idea of indoctrination has been a core part of the conservative project for decades, justified by the argument that mainstream media and educational institutions were already indoctrinating consumers – whether students or readers or audiences – with liberal values. When William F. Buckley Jr., who would later go on to found the conservative magazine National Review, was arguing against liberal orthodoxy at Yale University in his 1951 book “God and Man at Yale,” he did not argue for a politics-free education, but rather insisted that Yale enforce a conservative economic and political orthodoxy.
Likewise Fox News, despite claims to be “fair and balanced,” was created decades later to be the conservative alternative in a news environment its founders insisted was irredeemably liberal. The same could be said for PragerU, developed as a right-wing alternative to the rest of higher education.
It’s surprising, then, that it’s taken so long for the right to go all-in on children’s entertainment and literature. That’s in part because children’s literature has long been packed with moral lessons and social values. In the colonial era in the US, books like the New England Primer instructed children as it taught them the alphabet, warning against idleness and faithlessness. Well into the 20th century, children’s books inculcated conservative values, like the 1945 children’s book “Tootle,” a story about an adventurous train whose ultimate message was a warning against straying from the approved path.
Those were, of course, not the only message contained in children’s books. Dr. Seuss’s books famously taught children the perils of discrimination, the benefits of environmentalism and the dangers of war. And in the 1980s and 1990s, new books like “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Growing Up Gay” introduced children to families and identities that most conservatives rejected.
By the 1990s, a backlash against this more expansive children’s literature and entertainment was mounting, focused on Disney. In addition to owning the publisher behind “Heather Has Two Mommies,” the company extended health care coverage to partners of LGBTQ employees. That led to the Southern Baptist Convention’s unsuccessful Disney boycott in the mid-1990s.
But it also led to a series of conspiracies about Disney: that the company was embedding subliminal messages about sex and sexuality in its films in an effort to brainwash children. Then-radio talk show host Mike Pence gave voice to that view when he argued in a 1999 op-ed that the animated movie “Mulan” was liberal propaganda meant to destroy traditional gender roles: “I suspect that some mischievous liberal at Disney assumes that Mulan’s story will cause a quiet change in the next generation’s attitude about women in combat and they just might be right.”
Such hand-wringing provoked the first wave of overtly right-wing children’s literature, a phenomenon that English professor Michelle Ann Abate traces in her book “Raising Your Kids Right: Children’s Literature and American Political Conservatism.” Abate argues that, while children’s books had long contained moral and political messages, the 1990s saw the rise of a right-wing children’s literature that was more overtly political, closely hewing to the culture wars and policy preferences found in conservative media and politics.
Some of these new books were jokey satires aimed more at parents than children. The 1994 book “Politically Correct Bedtime Stories” was catnip for grown-ups who fretted about political correctness but it would have been bewildering to children looking for a nighttime tale. Likewise, a book like Truax, a pro-logging response to the Lorax sponsored by the Environmental Committee of the National Wood Flooring Manufacturers’ Association, is so densely written and terrifyingly illustrated that it likely never became any child’s most beloved book.
By the 2000s, right-wing pundits were starting to inch into the children’s book space. Bill O’Reilly published two cringey books of advice for teens, “The O’Reilly Factor for Kids” and “Kids Are Americans Too.” A few years later, Rush Limbaugh followed with his Rush Revere series, time-traveling stories about America’s founding era.
Such books were extensions of the pundits’ brands. Right-wing media aimed at children today is something different: an effort to develop a fully separate and comprehensive entertainment industry to supplant everything from Dr. Seuss (with a few exceptions) to the Disney Channel. The goal is to seal conservatives’ children off from a broader culture, to protect them from supposed liberal indoctrination by getting a head start on conservative indoctrination.
In addition to that political project, there’s an economic one as well. Right-wing radio host Dan Bongino regularly exhorts his listeners and supporters to build “a parallel media economy,” and this new right-wing children’s entertainment industry is part of that. Which means we can expect to see more fights over schools and cartoons and board books for toddlers and more invocations of “brainwashing” and “grooming” as well. Because many on the right know that it’s not just good for their politics, but their pocketbooks, too.