Dinesh D’Souza and the Decline of Conservatism

Under President Trump, the most outrageous and aggrieved polemicists are thriving.

Dinesh D'Souza
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Few have enjoyed quite so spectacular a comeback under President Donald Trump as the conservative polemicist and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza. In 2012, D’Souza resigned as president of a Christian college amid charges of adultery and deception. In 2014, D’Souza pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign-finance laws. He was sentenced to eight months of confinement followed by 52 months probation.

Now, as the saying goes, D’Souza is back—and bigger than ever. He has reinvented himself as something like the court intellectual of the age of Trump. Trump pardoned D’Souza on May 31, 2018. At the beginning of August, Donald Trump Jr. co-hosted the premiere of D’Souza’s latest movie, Death of a Nation. The movie compares Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, and his Democratic opponents to Nazis. Afterward, Trump Jr. delivered a memorable summation of what he had learned from the film. “You see the Nazi platform in the early 1930s and what was actually put out there … and you look at it compared to, like, the DNC platform of today, and you’re saying, man, those things are awfully similar, to a point where it’s actually scary.”

If you need a historian’s point-by-point refutation of D’Souza’s grotesque and absurd abuse of history, Princeton’s Kevin Kruse has posted a useful recapitulation.

I find myself pondering a different question as I watch so many people I have known and admired subordinate their talents and their integrity to Trumpism: How has my political generation of conservatives and Republicans laid itself so intellectually and morally low?

Dinesh D’Souza and I have moved in the same circles for close to three decades. He has been a guest at my dinner table; the back cover of my first book, published in 1994, carries a blurb from him. I’ve been disturbed by his evolution over the past decade and have sometimes said so publicly. Yet there is no denying his influence and success. It was D’Souza whom Newt Gingrich was citing when he mused in 2010: “What if [President Barack Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together” his actions? In 2012, D’Souza would release a movie on the Obama-Kenya-anti-colonial theme. Conservatives across America have, to date, paid $33 million to watch it.

In the early part of his career, D’Souza followed a conventional path. While always enjoying the part of the polemicist and the provocateur, he settled down at age 30 to grind out two serious books under the auspices of prestigious conservative institutions like the American Enterprise Institute. The first of the books, a 1991 critique of American universities, earned both commercial success and respectful reviews. The second and more ambitious of those books, 1995’s The End of Racism, encountered a much more hostile reception. A 2014 profile of D’Souza by Mark Stricherz in The Atlantic described what happened next:

In October 1995, writer Glenn Loury and community builder Robert L. Woodson Sr. announced they were resigning their posts at the American Enterprise Institute because D’Souza was a fellow there. D’Souza took the episode as proof that critics outside the conservative orbit were committed more to a political agenda than the truth with a capital “T.” Already a recent convert to the idea that book sales were not wedded to critics’ judgments, D’Souza decided to stop writing with one eye on the reaction of critics.

D’Souza quickly discovered much more spectacular new material rewards in the conservative mass market. But even as he prospered, his anger at his 1995 rejection by the scholarly and intellectual world burned hotter and hotter. In 2006, he published a book that opened with this startling claim:

The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11 … Some leading figures in this group are Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, George Soros, Michael Moore, Bill Moyers, and Noam Chomsky. Moreover the cultural left includes organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization for Women, People for the American Way, Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Watch, and moveon.org.

In faulting the cultural left, I am not making the absurd accusation that this group blew up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I am saying that the cultural left and its allies in Congress, the media, Hollywood, the nonprofit sector, and the universities are the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world … Without the cultural left, 9/11 would not have happened.

D’Souza then urged American conservatives to make common cause with Muslims worldwide against gay rights, feminism, and secularism generally.

The book incensed many conservatives. In a 6,500-word reply to his conservative critics in National Review, D’Souza complained they had “blindsided” him. “What I say may be flawed or wrongheaded, and I am happy to learn from my mistakes, but why the savagery of the attacks? What heresy have I committed that the angry men of the Right have drawn their daggers against me?”

D’Souza’s self-isolation from the conservative world did not last long. But his feelings of persecution did. A new note enters his writing after 2006, and it intensified after his forced resignation in 2012 and his guilty plea in 2014—a quest for self-vindication.

D’Souza got into legal trouble by donating $20,000 to the campaign of an old friend from his Dartmouth days. He evaded federal finance limits by giving $5,000 in his own name, $5,000 in the name of his assistant, $5,000 in the name of his estranged wife, and $5,000 in the name of his then-girlfriend. This contrivance somehow came to the attention of federal investigators. D’Souza has complained—accurately—that much bigger donors direct much larger sums to their preferred candidates. He became convinced that he had been singled out for retribution by the Obama White House. He writes in the preface of Death of a Nation:

I had been reckless in giving the Obama administration a pretext to go after me. Didn’t I know there was a target on my back? I had just made a movie—the second highest-grossing political documentary of all time—exposing the leader of the United States as a hypocrite and a fraud. I knew, better than most, what a thin-skinned narcissist he was. Shouldn’t I have expected him to use his full power to retaliate?

D’Souza remarried in 2016. The wedding was officiated by Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz. The Hollywood Reporter interviewed D’Souza at that time about his then-new movie, Hillary’s America, which previewed the themes of his Trump-era work. D’Souza told the magazine: “This movie goes to the heart of the Democratic claim of moral superiority.”

Resentment against people who enjoyed undeserved admiration and acclaim from here onward became the central theme of D’Souza’s work. Back in 2011, D’Souza had expressed a deep feeling of identification with President Obama. In The Roots of Obama’s Rage, he wrote:

I’m a native of Mumbai, India, so I grew up in a different part of the world, as Obama did. I’m nonwhite, as he is. He had a white mom and grew up in an interracial family; I have a white wife, and we have a mixed-race daughter. Like Obama, I see America both from the inside and from the outside. We were born in the same year, 1961, so we’re the same age. Obama and I attended Ivy League colleges, graduating in the same year, 1983; we also got married in the same year, 1992. He went into elective politics, while I have spent my life writing about politics and once served in the White House as a policy adviser. In sum, both of us have cosmopolitan backgrounds, grew up in the same era, and have made our careers in American politics.

And yet one served in the Oval Office, while the other would serve time in prison.

The desire to wipe the smirk off the condescending face of some resented critics—to expose them, diminish them, hurt them—is that not the mainspring for so much of the pro-Trump political movement? Shortly before the 2016 election, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal seethed at those who believe that “not only is Donald Trump coarse and boorish, anyone who supports the man is as revolting as he is.” The conservative columnist David Limbaugh lamented in the summer of 2017 the “snobbish condemnation” he suffered on social media from Never Trump conservatives. Tucker Carlson Tonight is a nightly eruption of rage against elite “preening.” “Don’t for a second let them take the moral high ground,” Carlson warned in June of this year. Certainly in D’Souza’s case, Obama’s success came to seem more and more of an affront to the proper order of things.

There is obviously much for a conservative to criticize in the Obama record at home and abroad. Unlike Bill Clinton, who in many ways ratified the legacy of Ronald Reagan, Obama repudiated it. Yet an annoying thing for those who disliked Obama’s politics: He is at the same time a genuinely high-quality personality—intelligent, considerate, dignified, and self-disciplined. Those who hated him were deprived of any rational basis to despise him. Lacking a rational basis, they reverted to irrationality instead.

Which is how the Dinesh D’Souza who in 1995 proclaimed “the end of racism” in America could react to a humorous 2015 photograph of Obama playing with a selfie stick: “YOU CAN TAKE THE BOY OUT OF THE GHETTO … Watch this vulgar man show his stuff, while America cowers in embarrassment.”

Even as D’Souza published books attributing all American racism to “the Democrats,” his own writing seemed gripped by an ever less controlled and concealed racial animus.

Midway through his 2017 book, The Big Lie, D’Souza approvingly cites Stanley Elkins’s “startling insight” that hostile racial stereotypes—such as “the whimsical, happy go lucky, semi-idiotic Sambo”—are “not racial fictions.”

The animus shines even more brightly through the pages of Death of a Nation. Here’s D’Souza’s narrative of how the Great Society followed consistently and directly from slavery: “No longer would Democrats directly rip off the blacks by stealing their labor. Now blacks would become partners with Democrats in a scheme to extract resources from other Americans.”

Here’s his description of the origin of the scheme in the racist imagination of Lyndon B. Johnson:

We Democrats are going to create a new plantation for you, this time in the towns and cities. On these new plantations, unlike on the old ones, you don’t have to work. In fact, we would prefer if you didn’t work. We are going to support you through an array of so-called poverty programs and race-based programs. Essentially we will provide you with lifetime support, just as in the days of slavery. Your job is simply to keep voting us in power so that we can continue to be your caretakers and providers.

Here’s D’Souza’s description of what happened once blacks were assured the right to vote: “On this plantation they [blacks] had a different casting role, not as exploited workers who did not vote but rather as exploited voters who did not work.”

Here’s his appraisal of the working lives of contemporary black Americans: “The slaves all worked while many modern urban plantation dwellers don’t, nor do they aspire to do so in the normal, productive economy. To the extent they have jobs, those jobs are criminal assignments.”

At one point, D’Souza acknowledges that he is straying into controversial ground in his harsh assessment of the mentality of black Americans. “I have to tread carefully,” he says, and offers an analogy from Indian society to clarify his meaning while minimizing offense. The pathetic dependency of African Americans on Johnson’s welfare state, D’Souza writes, reminds him of untouchables in his native India. “The untouchables too fell into a kind of collective stupor in which they could hardly imagine an escape from their degraded lot.”

Whites, by contrast, are described by D’Souza in admiring, almost heroic terms. “There is one group that the Democrats have not managed to enslave: working-class whites … They were part of FDR’s labor coalition. But now they have broken loose … I call this group ‘holdouts.’ Trump is their hero, and this white working class is attracted to his populist American nationalism, both on economic and cultural grounds.”

“The white working class remains as ornery, rebellious, and independent-minded as it always was. It hasn’t given in; it hasn’t thrown in the towel.”

Working-class whites “are down, but they are not yet out. They may not have jobs, but they still have a work ethic. Their families and communities may be hurting, but they still want to pull them together.”

“Only whites—even whites undergoing economic hardship and plagued by cultural dysfunction—have so far resisted succumbing to the lure of the Democratic plantation.”

Perhaps the most striking reveal of D’Souza’s present attitudes is found in The Big Lie, in his references to the Tulsa riot of 1921: “In that incident, supposedly in retaliation for an atrocious rape of a white woman by a black man, thousands of racist Democrats rampaged through black neighborhoods, burning homes, looting businesses, killing dozens of people, detaining hundreds, and leaving thousands of blacks homeless.”

It’s beyond strange that D’Souza would claim to know that all those anonymous rioters were Democrats, each and every one. Oklahoma in 1921 was, politically, a closely divided state. The state had a Democratic governor in 1921, but the mayor of Tulsa was a Republican, as was one of Oklahoma’s two U.S. senators and five of its nine U.S. representatives. The newspaper whose inflammatory coverage incited the riot had endorsed Warren Harding for president in 1920 and espoused a consistently pro-Republican editorial line.

Even stranger, though, is D’Souza’s account of the pretext for the riot: “Supposedly in retaliation for an atrocious rape of a white woman by a black man.” Historians concur that there was no such rape. The accused man—Dick Rowland was his name—and the purported victim, Sarah Page, were alone together in a busy office elevator for only a few minutes. Witnesses heard a woman’s scream, and then saw the young man run away. Tulsa police questioned both Rowland and Page the next day. Page declined to press charges. Rowland, who would survive the riot, was never prosecuted for any crime.

D’Souza likely knew all of this; he took the trouble to insert the adverb supposedly before “in retaliation for an atrocious rape.” Yet he still insinuated a false impression of criminality into the minds of less-informed readers. If not ignorance, then carelessness? Bias? Or what?

At the beginning of Death of a Nation, D’Souza has words about those who misrepresent the historical record.

“What are the lies for? By this I do not mean, what is the psychological disposition of the people who tell such lies, but rather, what do they gain by telling them? What is the ultimate game plan of the liars? What ugly truths are they trying to camouflage through the lies that they tell?”

Those are powerful questions, but they redound most powerfully upon the man who wrote them. The psychology of aggrievement joined to racial resentment: Perhaps that is the recipe from which Trumpism has been brewed. It’s a dismaying thing to see so many in one’s political generation succumb to it.

Many of the disputes of the 1980s that excited me as a young conservative have subsided into forgetfulness. Who recalls now that it was once controversial that telephone services should be competitive rather than a regulated monopoly?

Meanwhile, what was once universally accepted—American presidents should not try to incarcerate their political opponents—has now become the most hotly contested battleground. Try to imagine Ronald Reagan leading a chant of “Lock her up!” Try to imagine Walter Mondale doing it. Inconceivable. But it’s our present reality. We live in a new world, on unfamiliar terrain, amid awkward new political alliances and allegiances.

It’s stunning to those of us who came of age during the last phase of the Cold War to watch fellow members of our political generation enthuse over the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Yet in 2015, D’Souza retweeted a beefcake image of a bare-chested Putin over the caption, “REAL MAN CONTEST: Putin rides bareback, while Obama fishes with gloves.” A year later, D’Souza added: “What @realDonaldTrump admires about Putin is the way Putin—unlike someone else we know—LOVES his country & FIGHTS for its interests.”

In this crisis, old arguments fade before new, old ideological categories look obsolete, and old comrades look like avowed enemies of one’s most dearly cherished institutions and values. And one is left to wonder: Did they really change so much? Or did I?