In “Dinesh D’Souza and the Decline of American Conservatism,” my colleague David Frum notes a mainstay of his subject’s work: portraying racism in the United States as if it is overwhelmingly a sin of the Democratic Party, even as D’Souza, a partisan Republican, stokes the racial prejudices of his readers by playing on pernicious group stereotypes.
D’Souza’s basic formula for distortion is easy to grasp.
Abraham Lincoln and the members of Congress who fought to reconstruct the South in a manner that would guarantee the rights of freed slaves were Republicans. And the Democratic Party’s history is rife with horrific racism. D’Souza’s schtick is to selectively cite those historical truths while eliding other truths, like huge changes in the political parties across the decades, Democrats who’ve fought for civil rights, and a Republican Party history that is also rife with horrific racism, helping to explain why so few African Americans cast ballots for the GOP today.
D’Souza’s approach is especially attractive to the subset of grassroots Republicans who resent being lectured about racism on the ideological right. How psychologically comforting to be told that Democrats are the real racists, rather than grapple with the bigotry that is present in their own coalition. My colleague cited apt examples of the intellectual dishonesty and factual distortions D’Souza deploys while profiting off of his pandering. But Frum’s article happened to be written just before the absurdity of D’Souza’s project reached what may be its apotheosis.
I direct your attention to American Greatness, a populist intellectual journal that began as a dissident group blog back when the Claremont Institute was unwilling to associate itself with Michael Anton’s then-pseudonymous case for Donald Trump. Last weekend, it published D’Souza’s article “Richard Spencer, Wilsonian Progressive,” the latest of his pandering contributions to the Democrats are the real racists genre.
“I’ve never interviewed a white supremacist before, so I didn’t know what to expect when Richard Spencer showed up to talk to me,” D’Souza began, but he quickly noted his purpose in seeking the interview: “My real interest was to find out what Spencer really believed, with a view to figuring out where he really belongs on the political spectrum.”
Of course, there is no doubt about Spencer’s allegiances in current electoral politics: The white-nationalist bigot is an open, explicit supporter of President Trump. He voted for the Republican candidate in the 2016 presidential election. He said, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” as cheering supporters rendered Nazi salutes. And the rally of white supremacists that he participated in last year in Charlottesville was named “Unite the Right,” not “Unite the Left.”
But D’Souza’s project is predicated on always reaching the conclusion that Democrats are the real racists, and in his telling even Spencer fits the theory.
First, D’Souza highlights this excerpt from their conversation:
Finally I asked Spencer about the movie, Birth of a Nation.
Me: Have you seen it?
Spencer: Yes, I have.
Me: What did you think of it?
Spencer: It’s an amazing film, one of the most important films ever made.
Me: Leaving aside its technical merits, the notion that the sex-crazed blacks are taking over the country and the Ku Klux Klan was a redemptive movement of white identity to clean the place up—you agree with that?
Spencer: It was a romanticization of the first Klan in response to Republican Reconstruction. It’s an idealized vision that paints in really broad strokes.
Me: But it’s your music.
Spencer: Sure. It appealed to many Americans, including presidents.
It is, indeed, a historical fact that Woodrow Wilson watched The Birth of a Nation at the White House—and that he did tremendous harm to African Americans by resegregating the federal government (among other transgressions that make him one of the worst presidents).
As I interviewed Spencer, I kept saying to myself, obviously this guy is not a conservative, but what is he? He’s not a progressive in the contemporary sense, either. And yet his ideas are so familiar. Only toward the end of the interview did it hit me. Spencer’s views are virtually identical to those of the progressive racists of the Woodrow Wilson era. In a purely logical sense, Spencer should be a progressive Democrat … Even today the Democratic Party is the party of ethnic identity politics.
Actually, in “a purely logical sense,” it’s incoherent to choose one’s political party by focusing on the figures and labels of 100 years ago. But in D’Souza’s telling, “Spencer’s problem … is that the Democrats mobilize black, Latino and Asian identity politics against that of whites. Since whites are now the all-round bad guy, Spencer’s brand of progressivism is no longer welcome at the multicultural picnic.” Notice that to make his argument work, D’Souza must unashamedly conflate the “identity politics” of Wilson, who valorized the Ku Klux Klan, lamented black suffrage, and resegregated the federal government, with the “identity politics” of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.
It is shameful for the journal of a political movement to allow a writer to conflate such things as if they’re substantively or morally alike.
D’Souza then attempts to distance Spencer from the Republican president both men support:
Now, there is very little on which Spencer and Trump actually agree. Trump is a flag-waving patriot who cherishes the American Founders; Spencer isn’t and doesn’t. Trump believes our rights come from God; Spencer is an atheist. Trump wants to keep illegals out so legal immigrants and other American citizens—whether white, black or brown—can thrive. Spencer wants more white immigrants, fewer if any black and brown ones. In sum, Trump is generally “conservative” in his ideology and Spencer is clearly not.
That is a dubious assessment of Trump, who has praised murderous foreign dictators more lavishly than America’s Founders, shows no sign of earnest religious faith, and has attacked even people who came to the United States legally as if they are foreign others who have a lesser claim to this country. D’Souza continues:
Why, then, did Spencer vote for Trump?
Why does he consider himself on the right? The simple answer is that Spencer has no place else to go, so he is trying to carve out a niche for himself in the only party where he can find some measure of agreement, however small. Trump isn’t embracing Spencer’s agenda; rather, Spencer is embracing Trump’s agenda because his own is politically irrelevant.
How’s that for a double standard? For D’Souza, progressives like Barack Obama are tarnished by their affiliation with racists who lived more than a century ago, because they, too, were “progressive Democrats,” despite the ways in which their party has subsequently changed. But he also says it is totally baseless to connect the Trump wing of the Republican Party to white supremacists like Richard Spencer and David Duke, men who presently declare themselves Trump supporters and argue that Trump is taking Republicans in a direction that they see as desirable.
D’Souza may yet outdo himself in the future. But for now, the apotheosis of his discreditable project’s absurdity is trotting out Spencer, who loudly proclaimed “Hail Trump!,” as proof that Democrats are the real racists.
That American Greatness and Fox News are assisting him in this enterprise is both an indictment of those outlets and a reminder of how badly the American right wants to shield itself from the truth: that Spencer, Duke, and others like them support Trump and Trump-adjacent populists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller because racists derive benefits from Trump’s approach to politics and his agenda.
White supremacists benefit when Trump stokes racial anxieties and resentments. White supremacists benefit from the Republican Party’s turn toward white-identity politics and away from aspirational color blindness.
White supremacists thrilled in elevating a man who once took out a newspaper ad calling for the execution of black and Hispanic youths, asserted that Obama was a foreign-born usurper, campaigned for the presidency by calling Mexicans rapists, suggested that a U.S.-born judge of Mexican ancestry was unfit to hear his trial, pardoned one of the most vicious violators of Hispanic civil rights in the country, and implemented a ban encompassing many Muslims with legal resident visas.
As David French writes at National Review:
[Trump] retweeted alt-right accounts and alt-right memes and claimed (after an alt-right terror attack) that there were “very fine people” marching with the alt-right at Charlottesville. The Virginia GOP nominated Corey Stewart for the United States Senate, and Stewart has a history of disturbing ties to alt-right figures—including calling the vile alt-right anti-Semite Paul Nehlen one of his “personal heroes.”
In some ways the influence of the alt-right has been more subtle. It has created room for more race-baiting on the right, including even in personal conversations and personal relationships. Since 2015, I’ve read and heard more racist comments (including directed at my youngest daughter) than I’d read or heard in my entire life. I’ve heard with my own ears a substantial uptick in casual racism in personal conversations, including when talking to people who know my family is multiracial. Our public and private conversations have been measurably degraded.
That record doesn’t make all Trump supporters racists any more than Wilson’s behavior made all of the people who voted for him racist. But 100 years from now, if a polemicist is trying to tar his political opponent as a bigot by reaching back into the previous century, it isn’t Bill Clinton or George W. Bush or Barack Obama that he’ll invoke. “You’re acting like a Trump-style Republican” will do just fine.