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Dinesh D'Souza's tireless quest to 'own the libs'

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent
Dinesh D’Souza at the premiere of his film “Death of a Nation” on July 31, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Blair Raughley/Invision for D’Souza Films/AP Images)

LOS ANGELES — “You got screwed.” That is what the conservative author and documentarian Dinesh D’Souza remembers President Trump telling him in a phone call in late May. In D’Souza’s recollection, Trump called him a “great force for liberty and America.” The phone call was followed by a presidential pardon for D’Souza, who in 2014 pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws to help a Republican Senate candidate, his college friend Wendy Long.

“Will be giving a Full Pardon to Dinesh D’Souza today,” Trump announced on Twitter on May 31. “He was treated very unfairly by our government!” D’Souza’s pardon had been championed by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, but it had also become something of a cause célèbre for the right. D’Souza’s illegal contribution had totaled only $20,000, and many conservatives believed that the zealous prosecution by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was evidence of a desire to punish a one-time think-tank scholar who had become one of President Obama’s most outspoken detractors.

Two months after Trump announced D’Souza’s pardon, the 57-year-old who now calls Houston home does not carry himself with the downtrodden demeanor of a man who has been screwed. “The left had relished in hanging the ‘felon’ label around my neck for the better part of two years,” D’Souza told me when we met in Los Angeles in late July, as he prepared to debut his latest documentary film, “Death of a Nation.” Filmmaking is a relatively new occupation for D’Souza and also an immensely profitable one. “2016: Obama’s America” came out in 2012 and has grossed $33 million since then, making it the second most-profitable political documentary in cinematic history, after liberal firebrand Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.” D’Souza’s “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” from 2014, is sixth on that list, while “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party,” which D’Souza released ahead of the 2016 presidential election, is ninth.

“Death of a Nation” is a frontal assault on Democratic principles (as those are imagined, not always accurately, by D’Souza) that doubles as a muscular defense of American exceptionalism.

Posters for the new film show a human face split evenly between that of Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln. In the two-hour documentary, D’Souza depicts Trump as the savior of a United States that Democrats would have gladly given away to international bankers, moral relativists and vacuous celebrities, had they only prevailed. And, as a protracted segment that shows cable news pundits and anchors stunned on election night reminds us, they most definitely did not.

A poster for “Death of a Nation” combines images of the faces of Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump. (Photo: D’Souza Media)

Does anyone in 2018 really need to see footage of Cenk Uygur, of the liberal Young Turks network, losing his stuff as Wisconsin turns red? Very much so, D’Souza says. “I am putting my finger on the anxieties and vulnerabilities of the left — and I am pressing it there,” he told me. Yet he counters the notion that he is an incendiary figure, arguing that he is only “incendiary to the taboos and orthodoxies of the left.” (Like many of his ideological allies, he never quite defines what “the left” is, though his vision of it seems to be much bigger than the progressive wing of the Democratic Party).

There is admittedly nothing threatening about D’Souza when he is sitting across the table from you. Dressed in a sports blazer, head turtled into neck, gesticulating as he chases one idea after another, he seems the embodiment of the public intellectual he was hailed as when he graduated from Dartmouth and joined the Reagan administration. His face retains its youthful roundness, suggesting something of the rumpled professor, the earnest young scholar whose serious tomes, including “Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus” and “The End of Racism,” seemed to position him as a second coming of William F. Buckley Jr., only with a compelling postcolonial personal history. But that was long ago. Now, there is gray hair at D’Souza’s temples — and millions in his bank account. Life has been good, if not predictable.

“American politics was a gentleman’s fight” during the 1980s, D’Souza says, with Reagan famously fostering a friendship with Tip O’Neill, the liberal House speaker from Massachusetts. “But that is not the era we live in now. So to pine for that is to show an unwillingness to face the world as it is.” Eschewing comparisons between Trump and Reagan, D’Souza instead likens the president to Lincoln. Both, in his estimation, are men thrust into leadership at a time when the nation was impossibly, bloodily fractured. Both were loathed by their political opponents. Both were forced to wage war: one at Antietam, the other on Twitter. And, of course, both happened to be Republicans.

The film is based on D’Souza’s latest book, “The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left,” which he brought to the White House in August 2017. (Images of D’Souza meeting with chief political strategist Steve Bannon and Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka spread over social media  —and were subsequently deleted from his accounts, for reasons never made clear). The argument, in essence, is that Democrats have no purchase when it comes to their appeals for inclusiveness, tolerance and diversity because they are the party of racism, fascism and eugenics. D’Souza draws a straight, burning line between American progressivism and Nazism, arguing that Democrats are not, as many believe them to be, “the party of emancipation, equality, and civil rights,” but are instead “the party of slavery and Indian removal, of segregation and Jim Crow, of racial terrorism and the Ku Klux Klan, and of opposition to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.” In D’Souza’s telling, Democrats are still tainted by policies that date back to the era of Andrew Jackson. They are what they accuse Republicans of being.

A scene from “Death of a Nation” depicts Adolf Hitler in his bunker. (Photo: D’Souza Media)

Calling a film “The Death of a Nation” is an intentional provocation. The reference is to D.W. Griffith’s racist, fawning portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan, “The Birth of a Nation.” Griffith screened the film in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson in 1915. “It’s like writing history with lightning,” Wilson said of the film. And in case you don’t know, D’Souza will happily tell you that Wilson was a Democrat, and a progressive one at that.

Will “The Death of a Nation” also make its way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I am not aware of POTUS plans to see it. But the film was screened earlier this week in Washington, D.C., by Donald Trump Jr. Once it becomes the subject of inevitable Fox News segments, a presidential tweet is likely to follow.

A one-time scholar at beacons of conservative thought including the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution, D’Souza, who was born in the Mumbai, India, does not seem as if he would fit easily into Trumpian circles. For a time, he circulated among mainstream intellectuals like Andrew Sullivan of the New Republic and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. His books were taken seriously by commentators in the New York Times. Now, removed from Washington and New York, he dismisses the Eastern intellectuals with whom he once consorted. “They were scratching their head when I met them, and they’re scratching their heads now,” D’Souza said. “They are in a position of perpetual pondering.” It goes unsaid that D’Souza has a lot more Twitter followers than your average Washington think tanker, and surely a lot more money, if not the mainstream credibility he once sought.

In many ways, D’Souza’s intellectual arc tracks closely with that of the Republican Party. Like many in today’s GOP, he was “radicalized” by the election of Barack Obama. D’Souza says he wanted Obama to succeed, only to find himself dismayed to find the nation’s first black president rejecting the notion of American exceptionalism. D’Souza points in particular to a statement Obama made in the spring of 2009, about three months after taking office: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” The notion that exceptionalism was a quality other nations could also credibly embrace was, to D’Souza, tantamount to treason.

The following year, he published a Forbes cover story, “How Obama Thinks,” that turned that suspicion into a full-blown indictment, with D’Souza charging that Obama — who, like himself, was a nonwhite kid with a funny name who’d made it to the Ivy League, then made it big in Washington — had learned from his Kenyan anti-colonialist father “to see America as a force for global domination and destruction.” The article was an excerpt from a 2010 book, “The Roots of Obama’s Rage,” a somewhat strange title to describe a president famous for his aloofness.

D’Souza rejects any notion of race-baiting in his article, or the book that followed, but he does admit that he was struck by how many pages Obama devoted to his African roots in his autobiography “Dreams from My Father” — and how few to his European ancestry. Hence, D’Souza concluded, the American president harbored secret anti-American sympathies. “I felt I had stumbled upon a big idea about Obama that was being missed.” The article was praised by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, even as some conservatives found its intimations revolting: The Weekly Standard titled its review of D’Souza’s book “The Roots of Lunacy.”

Two years later, D’Souza turned “The Roots of Obama’s Rage” into a documentary, “2016: Obama’s America.” Like the three films that have followed, it is melodramatic, contentious and utterly sure of itself. It never misses an opportunity to take a swing at Obama or the Clintons.

But many of the swings failed to land. Despite what D’Souza argued, Obama did not “downsize” the nation’s stature on the global stage. Some might say that Trump has done a better job of that.

It was just as D’Souza was promoting his documentary that Wendy Long announced her candidacy for Kirsten Gillibrand’s Senate seat in New York. Gillibrand had also gone to Dartmouth in the 1980s but had not been a member of the conservative crowd on a college campus that had been the epicenter of the college Republican movement. Once a relatively centrist Democratic U.S. representative from upstate New York, Gillibrand was quickly becoming one of the most liberal members of the Senate, not to mention one of the most well-funded.

D’Souza now says he thought it was foolish for Long to challenge Gillibrand, but because she’d been part of “almost a surrogate family” at Dartmouth, he offered to contribute to her campaign. “She kept asking me to do more,” D’Souza says, but he was busy with his movie and couldn’t get more involved. So, D’Souza says he “thoughtlessly” asked associates to contribute to Long’s campaign, promising to reimburse them. This use of “straw donors,” as the practice is known, allowed D’Souza to contribute $20,000 above his maximum allowed contribution. It did little good, however, and Long lost to Gillibrand by 46 percentage points.

In January 2014, Preet Bharara, who was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, charged D’Souza with violating the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. D’Souza says he was not especially worried, given the relatively small sum of money involved, as well as his lack of a criminal record. He sought representation from Benjamin Brafman, one of the top criminal defense attorneys in Manhattan. Leaving Brafman’s office after their first meeting, D’Souza was confident that the case would result in a deferred prosecution.

D’Souza and his lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, leave federal court in New York on May 20, 2014, after pleading guilty to making illegal campaign contributions. (Photo: Richard Drew/AP)

But the Justice Department decided to proceed with its case, and D’Souza pleaded guilty that May to avoid a possible conviction at trial. He was now a convicted felon, sentenced to live in a halfway house in San Diego. And though he’d apologized at the time of his guilty plea, any contrition over his illegal donations soon appeared to have quickly vanished. In May 2015, he cooperated with Vanity Fair on a lengthy profile that showed him walking on the beach in La Jolla in a scene out of a Banana Republic advertisement. He complained about life in the halfway house, essentially mocking the punishment he’d accepted. “I’ll be on my bed. I’ll hear four guys discussing the tits on the woman at Los Tacos,” D’Souza said. “It will go on and on and on. I’m just powerless to move.”

Thanks to Trump’s pardon, D’Souza is no longer a felon, which means he can own a gun (which he does not) and vote (which he looks forward to doing). And though his animosity toward liberals well predates the conviction, the silence of liberals he thought were his friends sharpened his dislike of the left. “When my case erupted, even my friends on the left went into dead silence. They didn’t attack me, but they refused to defend me.” He says that he was the victim of a “show trial” and that the prosecution was motivated solely by Obama’s desire for revenge. D’Souza says that Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., who saw D’Souza’s FBI file, confirmed that the case was motivated purely by politics. (DeSantis did not respond to questions about the contents of D’Souza’s FBI file or how that file came into his possession.)

His broader charge is that liberals can’t stomach his success. “I was considered a smart but small-time operator when I was writing books and speaking,” he says of his time at AEI and Hoover. “The moment I started making movies, it changed.” D’Souza refuses to believe that criticisms of his work — that it mixes facts and assertions, that it elides nuances, that it feeds into the right’s rage — are motivated by anything but jealousy. “They are dismayed at my greater effectiveness and are pretending that the reason for it is because I have sold out my scholarly bona fides,” D’Souza told me.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher attends the premiere of “Death of a Nation” on July 31, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Blair Raughley/Invision for D’Souza Films/AP Images)

James Panero, who served as the editor of the Dartmouth Review in the late 1990s and was also close with William F. Buckley, says that “among the Dartmouth Review set, Dinesh has been the one to watch. His movement from Ivy League conservative to populist filmmaker has presaged the recent development of the American Right. Like President Trump, Dinesh finds affinity in the many fringes of American culture. He may seem like an unlikely Heartland hero. But perhaps Dinesh’s own outsider-ness, as a brilliant kid from Bombay, has given him special access to lost America. He has burned through much of what we might call the ‘conservative establishment’ in the process, but that means a lot less than it once did.”

Panero, now the executive editor of the New Criterion, a conservative cultural magazine, acknowledges that “many saw [D’Souza’s] pardon by Trump as cynical. But then again, his prosecution by the Obama Justice Department was also cynical, with a public shaming that was in excess of what he would have received as an ordinary citizen.”

As far as detractors are concerned, D’Souza’s true expertise is trolling. “He’s always been a huckster,” Brooklyn College professor and columnist for the liberal Nation magazine Eric Alterman wrote in an email. Alterman says that “Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus,” published in 1991, “gave the mistaken impression that he was to be taken seriously” when, in fact, in his estimation, D’Souza was “coddling ignorant racists with books that are easier to read (and carry around) than Charles Murray’s,” a reference to the controversial “Bell Curve” co-author who has been labeled a white nationalist by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

D’Souza sees such slights as evidence that liberals would rather dismiss him than engage with his ideas, even if trying to engage with the assertion that modern-day Democrats are kin to Hitler is bound to be an exercise in fruitlessness and frustration. He longs for the days when he and Christopher Hitchens could battle it out over Christian ethics, then head for the bar and polish off a couple of bottles of wine (Hitchens, unsurprisingly, would do most of the drinking).

D’Souza at the “Death of a Nation” premiere in L.A. (Photo: Greg Doherty/Getty Images)

D’Souza points to a recent Twitter spat with Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, who spurned D’Souza’s offer to debate the history of the Democratic Party in person. He says that was out of fear. Kruse disagrees. “We’ve already had extended public exchanges on Twitter,” he told me. “I’ve refuted his ahistorical claims with evidence, sources and citations; his responses have involved little more than insults and denials. I don’t see any reason to think an in-person debate would be any better; indeed, I assume it’d be worse.” Kruse came to the debate with facts. D’Souza came with alternative ones. So it goes in the age of Trump.

Auspiciously for D’Souza, being a pariah from establishment circles makes him a perfect member of the Trumpian crowd, which has embraced him as one of its own. D’Souza’s new circle of friends was on full display the day after our interview, when “Death of a Nation” premiered in Los Angeles (it opens in theaters nationwide on Friday). Just as in Hollywood, there was a red carpet, though George Clooney and Tinseltown’s other famous liberals were nowhere in sight.

The left is afraid of this,” said Lynnette Hardaway, one half of the social media duo known as Diamond and Silk, as the theater began to fill with guests. This, presumably, was the sight of two African-American women, as Diamond (Hardaway) and Silk (Rochelle Richardson) are, celebrating an Indian immigrant’s savaging of the Democratic Party, which has long assumed people of color and immigrants as natural constituencies. Hardaway called Democrats “race-baiters” who “try to keep black Americans in line,” suggesting that she would be highly receptive to D’Souza’s message, which was, well, pretty much exactly that.

Tomi Lahren, the omnipresent provocateur, urged conservatives to be “a little louder and a little more vocal,” even if it’s difficult to imagine someone more vocal, or louder, than Trump. Conservatives continue to see themselves as a prosecuted, maligned sect. D’Souza serves as a perfect representative of that mindset, in part because of his ability to “own the libs” — that is, to provoke liberals and thereby achieve great mirth, though perhaps not anything approaching insight. A little lib-owning was what brought prominent conservative journalist and social media personality Mike Cernovich from his home in Orange County to the premiere in downtown Los Angeles. “I’m here just because a lot of people seem triggered by Dinesh’s memes that Democrats are the real racists, Democrats are the real Nazis. Initially I was skeptical of that,” Cernovich admitted. “But I’ve seen how angry it makes the liberals. And I find that amusing.”

Mike Cernovich, right, and Shauna Cernovich arrive at the L.A. premiere of “Death of a Nation.” (Photo: Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

And though this may have been conservative Los Angeles, it was Los Angeles all the same. Andre Soriano, who designed the “Make America Great Again” dress that Trump-supporting performer Joy Villa wore to the 2017 Grammy Awards, stunned with an intricate, nestlike headpiece that towered a foot above his head. Inside the nest, a black bird was couched. This represented the death of the American project, or something. Villa wore a facsimile Revolutionary War-era dress. “The birth of America is the birth of fashion,” Villa said. One imagines that the French would disagree.

It appeared that the only elected politician who attended was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the Orange County conservative. Dressed like one of the Beach Boys, only with a red Make Surfing Great Again hat, Rohrabacher warned about the “horrible politicization of our intelligence system and our criminal justice system that happened under Obama.”

As for the film itself, it opens with a scene depicting Adolf Hitler in his bunker, listening to the boom of Allied bombs falling on Berlin. From there, D’Souza cuts to the protests that followed Trump’s election. That is about as subtle as things get. In one segment, he outlines the admiration of some members of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “brain trust” for the domestic policies of Italian fascist Benito Mussolini. Later, he reads from the platform of the National Socialist — that is, Nazi — party in Germany, which promised programs to benefit workers impoverished during the Weimar Republic. This, D’Souza muses, “reads like something jointly written by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.”

Well, OK. The citations are genuine, but that doesn’t make them meaningful. It is true, for example, that Democrats in the South were the party of segregation. But hasn’t the party evolved just a little since then? Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act, was a Democrat. Barry Goldwater, who voted against it, was a Republican — in fact, a hero to the ideological faction of the party that D’Souza represents. D’Souza does not mention this; nor does he touch on any historical sins he can’t hang around the Democrats’ necks. That strips his film of the nuance his writing once had. “Who are the real fascists?” D’Souza wonders at one point in the film. “Who are the real racists?” I’ll give you one guess.

Italian fascist Benito Mussolini is depicted in a scene from “Death of a Nation.” (Photo: D’Souza Media)

Reviews from the mainstream media have been dismal: “ultimately tedious and repetitive” (Hollywood Reporter); “angry nonsense” (The Guardian); “an ugly polemic” (Arizona Republic). But as far as D’Souza is concerned, they reflect not errors in his own logic but an unwillingness by the mainstream media to acknowledge uncomfortable truths. And it is precisely because mainstream media ignore conservative voices like his that those voices grow louder.

“I am not resembling the left. I am not wearing a black outfit and chasing speakers on the campus,” D’Souza told me, as if anyone could mistake him for a member of Antifa or an earnest protester shouting down the less woke in his midst. “But I am also tougher than I was before. The situation warrants it.”

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