What Happened to Dinesh D'Souza?

At the peak of his powers, the conservative author's strength was engaging with his critics. Now he's content inside the right-wing bubble.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters/The Atlantic

In the 1980s, Dinesh D’Souza received some advice from his editor. “Write for the critics. The success of your book will depend on book reviews,” D’Souza recalled Adam Bellow of the Free Press telling him. D’Souza was in no position to argue. His previous books had not sold well, and as a young star in the conservative firmament, he wanted to burst into a bigger intellectual universe. So D’Souza took the path of humility: He followed Bellow’s advice, which was strategic as much as it was intellectual. Bellow recalled advising D’Souza and other controversial authors that their works should “hew to a high standard of argumentation and should be written to persuade an intelligent and open-minded adversary. That way, when they indignantly attack you, they only expose their own close-minded prejudice.”

In the spring of 1991, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus was published. It was immediately successful. The Atlantic ran an excerpt. The eminent historian C. Vann Woodward wrote a long, favorable review of the book in The New York Review of Books. “… [O]ne need not be a right winger to be concerned about the problems D’Souza raises, however welcome he may be as an ally,” Woodward wrote. The book stayed on The New York Times’ bestseller list for 15 weeks.

D’Souza’s decision to stay humble and write for the critics helped make Illiberal Education a success, but his background and hard work helped too. Born in Mumbai in 1961, D’Souza was a rare prodigy. He was a young, non-white, Ivy League-educated conservative immigrant arguing within the tradition of liberal education. His criticisms of political correctness and multiculturalism could be not dismissed as the work of a has-been or crypto-racist. “I especially empathize with minority students, who seek to discover principles of equality and justice that go considerably beyond the acquisition of vocational skill,” he wrote in Illiberal Education.

Raised in a Catholic household and educated by Spanish Jesuits, D’Souza was also a Christian public intellectual of erudition and wisdom. He cited Simone Weil and Reinhold Niebuhr in his books as easily as he did Scripture. His main criticism of the Reverend Jerry Falwell was the minister’s tendency to let his conservatism get the best of his Christianity. A passage from his first book, Falwell Before the Millennium: A Critical Biography, illuminates D’Souza’s own recent work:

In Reinhold Niebuhr’s words, “Political controversies are always conflicts between sinners, and not between righteous men and sinners.” Falwell is in the pulpit. The Bible speaks of good and evil, and in the Bible the two do not mix. But in politics, distinctions are often less vivid. Falwell’s rhetoric, however, frequently does not distinguish between liberals, socialists, and Communists. He sometimes regards his enemies as opposing not just his programs, but God Himself. So he demonizes his critics the way they do him.

At 53, D’Souza looks only slightly older than he did a generation ago. His hair is graying at the temples and his face has gotten fuller. His sympathies and work ethic have not changed much either. But he has expanded his range from author and public speaker to filmmaker, serving as a writer and director of both 2016: Obama’s America and America: Imagine a World Without Her.

He has also struck a series of road bumps. In October 2012, D’Souza was forced to step down as president of Kings College in Manhattan after running afoul of the evangelical school’s sexual mores; he divorced his wife of two decades; and he pled guilty to using straw donors to aid the candidacy of Wendy Long, a friend who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012. In the eyes of progressives, those sins and crimes made D’Souza a moral hypocrite and phony. In the eyes of critics, he trots out straw men rather than concrete arguments. But both were symptoms rather than causes of his change intellectually (and perhaps spiritually) from a generation ago. D’Souza has not so much broken bad as fallen victim to pride.

“It was my very first book,” D’Souza said recently of Illiberal Education, smiling nostalgically at the thought of the critical and financial success it received. Except it wasn’t. In addition to the Falwell book, he had written a book on the great works of the Catholic intellectual tradition and co-edited another that boasted an introduction from no less a Republican titan than Richard M. Nixon. The chronological order of the books does not matter, but D’Souza’s belief that Illiberal Education was his first is a window into his mind. He is more than an author. His books have massive appeal to Fox News viewers; he refers to the ones that did not as his “pre-books.” Whatever the view of his critics on the left or right—and in the last five years nearly all have heaped scorn on The Roots of Obama’s Rage and Obama’s America—he plays to the crowd. “The book industry was changing after Illiberal Education, and I found out you could make money by not writing for the critics, that book reviews didn’t matter,” D’Souza said.

D’Souza said those words at a Ralph Reed-organized forum in Washington, D.C., one Saturday morning in late June. D’Souza spoke at the conference twice that day. The first time he appeared on the stage of the Regency ballroom inside the Omni Shoreham Hotel, members of the audience did not simply cheer. They stood up and applauded. Afterwards, he repaired to a narrow, windowless lobby to sign his new book. At 10:27 a.m., 11 copies of America: Imagine a World Without Her were stacked untidily on a makeshift table to his left. Over the next half hour, the number of copies dwindled to three or four. The (white) movement conservatives at the conference gobbled them up—a middle-aged man in blue jeans and T-shirt who asked D’Souza to pose for a selfie; two pretty brunettes wearing broad smiles who looked to be in their twenties and thirties; and several middle-aged women. Movement conservatives’ love for D’Souza is no joke. 2016 made $33.4 million at the box office, the second highest total for a political documentary of all time. America is expected to fall short of that lofty total, but has a realistic shot at grossing $25 million, a sum that would make it the third biggest political documentary of all time.

The movement has provided D’Souza with at least one collaborator too. While he used to seek the help of the historian Gordon Wood, now he works with Bruce Schooley, who hovered near D’Souza in a lobby of the Omni Shoreham wearing an aqua-blue suit. D’Souza met the middle-aged Bay Area resident on a National Review cruise 15 years ago, and they’ve worked together on several projects since; Schooley served as an executive producer and writer on America. D’Souza has said Schooley is “really an entrepreneur of ideas.” Among those ideas is the FlipTree, an artificial Christmas tree Schooley designed and marketed after surviving a bout with cancer. D’Souza showed his appreciation for his friend’s product by endorsing it in a YouTube video last year. “Once you roll the tree to where you want it, you just take off the bag and flip; no more heavy tree parts or complicated electrical cords,” D’Souza tells the camera without irony.

Yet D’Souza, though long close to the movement—he served as a domestic adviser in the Reagan White House—was always careful not to make it an exclusive relationship.

His early books kept conservatives at arm’s length and reached out to critics in the center. Illiberal Education was a work of solid journalism. D’Souza traveled to the campuses of five prestigious universities and interviewed students and faculty at length, and before he submitted his final draft, he sent out chapters for review to dozens of intellectuals and prestigious journalists, including Jonathan Rauch and the late William Raspberry.

D’Souza broke with critics in the center after the publication of his follow-up, 1995’s The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society, a work of even more prodigious scholarship (the book had 46 pages of footnotes). “I wanted to leave no stone unturned: to go where the truth led me,” D’Souza recalled. “I argued that if racism had a beginning, it can have an end … For me, race is like bushy eyebrows. It’s nothing.” But his argument struck black conservatives as a dog whistle to the David Dukes of America. D’Souza used such words as “parasitic” to describe blacks’ relationship with government. He absolved non-blacks of responsibility for helping the black poor.

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.

Sometimes, conservative authors have broken new intellectual ground despite unhinged reactions from critics on the left and the center. Witness “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on the parlous state of the black family, which was considered so incendiary that Ivy League professors and students prevented Moynihan from speaking on their campuses. Today, Moynihan’s report is viewed as prophetic.

Yet failing to take on the best arguments of the other side—“to play Notre Dame” in the words of Charlie Peters, editor emeritus of Washington Monthly—carries risks. D’Souza’s subsequent books and films testify to the intellectual pitfalls of ignoring the critics. His demonization of President Obama is a case in point. In the book Obama’s America, D’Souza wrote that “Obama is not merely the presiding instrument of American decline, he is the architect of American decline. He wants America to be downsized.” This claim is problematic, to put it mildly. The jobless rate has declined from 7.8 percent in January 2009 to 6.1 percent in June; the administration’s bailout of General Motors helped revive the car industry; and the editors of The Economist concluded recently that “reports of the death of American influence in the Middle East are exaggerated.”

In the movie America, D’Souza ridicules Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment in July 2012. “What he’s saying is that [the business] was not earned but stolen,” D’Souza says. However offensive to entrepreneurs Obama’s comment was, the context of the quote was Obama’s argument that the federal government helps individuals and businesses succeed by helping create infrastructure like public schools, the Internet, and roads. “The point is,” Obama said, “is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

At times, America lives up to D’Souza’s old intellectual standards. He meets in person with left-wing critics, including Ward Churchill, a former professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He argues persuasively that Alexis de Tocqueville is a more reliable guide than Howard Zinn to troubling episodes in early American history such as slavery and the treatment of Native Americans. D’Souza admits he improperly helped Senate candidate Wendy Long in 2012.

In fact, America contains a brief scene in which D’Souza is shown wearing handcuffs in a room that looks like a jail or prison cell. But is this real humility or a Uriah Heep act? D’Souza’s pride, his belief he needs neither intellectual nor moral critics, has brought about his fall from the first rank of conservative intellectuals. That's a shame, because if he'd stayed humble D'Souza could have reached an exalted status.