After a long and bittersweet relationship, I think it’s finally time for me to part ways with Dinesh D’Souza. The conservative author, pundit, and director of intellectually dishonest and slimy documentaries has given me so much to unpack over the years. D’Souza reigns unopposed as one of the worst filmmakers, let alone an incompetent propagandist, and has ruled my annual Worst Films of the Year lists (2012, 2014, 2016, 2018). Seriously, if it was an even year, you could expect a D’Souza doc to have a slot already in preparation on my list. Not even Friedberg and Seltzer have that many dishonorable mentions. He rose to fame as the “reasonable critic” of President Obama but if you watched his films, you’d know D’Souza’s assertions were anything but reasonable. As I concluded with 2018’s Death of a Nation: “He is not a man who tells truth to power but a man who willfully distorts the historical record in order to make people feel better about unhinged political takes that have no bearing in reality. It is people like D’Souza that have led the way for the coronation of Donald Trump, and it should be people like D’Souza who are put to blame when that experiment crumbles.” That is why, dear reader, I think it is finally time for me to step away from the trough of righteous outrage and be done with the disingenuous D’Souza as a filmmaker deserving of even one iota of passing thought. I can only hope with the 2020 election on the near horizon, that America will likewise put to bed the man in the Oval Office and, by extension, D’Souza’s relevancy. But let’s dive in, one last time America, into the bad faith arguments, armchair psychology, racist projection, historical revisionism, crippling persecution complex, fear mongering, and endless shots of D’Souza wandering the sights while looking so contemplative with pursed-lipped, faux concern. It’s Trump Card, one of the worst films of 2020, and hopefully the last D’Souza film for me for the remainder of my days.
I think the opening scene is fittingly indicative of D’Souza’s blatantly fraudulent arguments and willful ignorance. It’s a recreation of an interrogation from George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell is an interesting choice here considering he was a journalist (strike one), liberal author (strike two) and anti-fascist (strike three), but the general associations of the novel are so ingrained that it becomes a stand-in for any sort of Big Brother state critique. Orwell’s classic story follows an authoritarian government that tells people what to think, to not trust their eyes and ears but simply the proclamations of the State. Where D’Souza goes amazingly off the rails is when he tries to purport that it’s the Democrats who are the evil Big Brother at work trying to brainwash good, honest, God-loving Trump voters into turning against objective reality and swallowing the lies of Dear Leader. Just contemplate that appraisal. In the face of Donald Trump, a man who LITERALLY told his supporters not to listen to their eyes and ears and only to him, a man who has been documented lying over 20,000 times since coming into office, including such obvious and absurd statements like having the biggest inaugural crowd in 2017 or whether it was raining, a man who constantly distorts reality to his petty whims, and D’Souza says it’s really the Democrats who are the dangerous brainwashers. This staggering misreading of Orwell’s political commentary would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic and facetious. This telling anecdote perfectly sums up the lazy rhetoric of D’Souza.
It’s hard not to wonder what the larger thesis is here. D’Souza has never exactly been a filmmaker of scholarly heft but his prior films at least presented a through line to hold onto. I thought Trump Card was going to be a conservative case against socialism but D’Souza can’t fully commit 90 minutes to that cause, and so the movie becomes yet another slipshod attack on any and all familiar targets of conservative agita. We’re told socialism is bad, capitalism is good, and through selective examples it’s reconfirmed. Never mind the socialism of Scandinavia, let’s focus on the failed state of Venezuela while ignoring its history of colonialism. We’re told Democrats hate all capitalism, but D’Souza once again conflates free market capitalism and crony capitalism, a sociopathic system unchecked by regulation and rampant with corruption and abuse. We’re told that China is bad, though they’ve introduced features of capitalism so now they’re maybe not as bad, but they gave us COVID19, so they’re still bad, I guess. We’re told the protesters of Hong Kong who want transparency, reforms, and democracy are good, but Black Lives Matters is a cesspool of “thugs” and anarchists without a just cause of reform. We’re told “antifa” didn’t oppose Nazis in Germany but the “center-left,” which makes no sense whatsoever. We’re told Democrats can’t get enough of late-term abortion, when that’s not even a thing. We’re told climate change can’t be that big of a deal because Joe Biden has a beach house so, ergo, he must not worry about rising coastlines. We’re told that the early response to COVID19 was a failure of socialism, when it was the federal government’s cowardly and calculated hands-off approach that turned the purchase and distribution of life-saving medical supplies into a feeding frenzy of capitalistic excess, pitting state against state for scraps.
Amazingly, D’Souza praises Donald Trump as a symbol of capitalism, a man born into wealth, who inflated his assets to get out of taxes, who went bankrupt four times, whose own charity was shut down and declared an illegal racket to line his family’s pockets, who regularly stiffed his contractors, who has been hounded by lawsuits, and who slapped his name on any rickety scheme he could profit. Again, D’Souza has stupendously rear-ended into an insight that he intended to disregard. Donald Trump is a neon orange symbol for the farcical excess of crony capitalism.
One of the weirder detours is when D’Souza decries “identity politics” when he’s been steeped in this stuff since his first movie. He lambastes Democrats for, essentially, having an inclusive voting base with diverse interests. Republicans like to still cling to the idea of their party being a “big tent,” but from a demographic standpoint, they are shrinking and only gotten whiter, older, and more male. It’s more the party of one very specific kind of America. Some of D’Souza’s taunts are simply snide and juvenile, like deriding young people for “their pronouns” and the idea of being gay now becoming “an ideology” (you know, like being heterosexual is an “ideology”). In one breath D’Souza doesn’t want “identity to define anyone” but ignores that the Republican Party has become a cult of personality rejecting any contrary thinking. Their 2020 party platform was merely one page and amounted to: “Whatever Trump says.” Choosing not to recognize our natural differences is dishonest. As a white man, my experiences are going to be markedly different than a black woman, and acknowledging this isn’t some sign of weakness or pandering, it’s merely a recognition that our differences are not trivial. It’s similar when people say “I don’t see color” as a misplaced virtuous sign of how liberal-minded they are.
The spurious interview subjects are prone to making wild accusations, aided by D’Souza’s famous leading style where he practically recites the words he wants to hear. A former radical Muslim says he challenges anyone to find a jihadist that would vote for Donald Trump (counterpoint: The Taliban has actually endorsed Trump for 2020). This same man calls Rep. Ilhan Omar as “ISIS in lipstick” without any supporting evidence. The interview subjects are not exactly compelling experts. Why is Isaiah Washington, the man infamously fired from Grey’s Anatomy for using homophobic slurs, an expert on Hollywood oppression? Why is D’Souza’s own daughter and wife, each with a book ready to be peddled, experts on anything? Did D’Souza not have any other relatives he could call on to become instant world affairs experts? Some of these people are well-meaning and with a perspective that merits consideration like a grieving father from the Parkland school shooting, but others are laughable on their face for being included. Larry Sinclair swears he smoked crack and performed oral sex on Obama (“He came back for seconds”), and D’Souza intones that this “allegation” (repeatedly disproven with no evidence) deserves the same level of attention as Stormy Daniels with Trump. Never mind that Trump’s affair wasn’t a scandal because of his moral failing (a thrice-married man known for womanizing) but because of the financial fraud of covering it up before the 2016 election, which sent Trump’s own attorney and personal fixer, Michael Cohen, to jail. Even if the crack-smoking Obama BJ guy is right, and he’s definitely definitely not, who cares if Obama had a gay experience before he was elected president? I guess the association itself is supposed to be unseemly, but it’s D’Souza’s inclusion of such a baseless smear, the unchallenged details of which garners the film its PG-13 rating, as a means to revile this audience and stoke confirmation bias about the mainstream media that’s really unseemly.
D’Souza is all-in on the big kooky Deep State conspiracy to entangle Donald Trump’s presidency, never mind that an impulsive businessman who prefers chaos needs help to falter. I could barely keep up with the barrage of names and dates and accusations, trying to connect the dots with a messy conspiratorial plate of spaghetti. Once they reach the silly Ukraine accusations of impropriety with Joe Biden, the same talking points that the Kremlin parrots, the same groundless stuff that Trump got impeached over in 2019, I started zoning out. D’Souza champions Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos (both pleaded guilty) and Roger Stone (convicted by a jury) as victims of an abusive surveillance state. He lets Papadopoulos and his wife dramatically revise his criminal history, re-imaging himself as a martyr who was forced to speak against Trump by a vindictive FBI. And yet multiple Justice Department and Congressional investigations over the origins of the Russia probe have reaffirmed, repeatedly, conclusively, even when run by Republican Senators, that the FBI investigation was warranted and correct in its conclusions. Donald Trump doesn’t need anyone but himself to get into trouble. No conspiracy is necessary for a prenuptial screw-up.
I’m all but certain that D’Souza had to radically retool Trump Card as the year progressed. This is the latest any of his election-timed documentaries has ever come out; he usually prefers the cushy position of mid-to-late summer releases. My working theory is that he was heavily planning a documentary about the evils of socialism with a Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee for 2020 as its focus on where the Democrats are taking the country. It’s much harder to paint lifelong centrist Joe Biden as a dangerous radical, and it’s equally hard to say the crazy leftwing radicals are taking over the country when they couldn’t even win the party nomination. Then an early trailer for Trump Card over the summer was constituted entirely by footage of rioters, burning buildings, broken windows, and the presumption that D’Souza’s film would focus on the dangers of a growing protest movement that summer. He still gets some hits in but the widespread protests for police reform and racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have not been the source for civilization being upended. I’m genuinely surprised D’Souza didn’t feature more of the ongoing battles with the unmarked private army sent to harass and beat Portland protesters but that might have harmed his message that Biden will lead to civil unrest when the images of civil unrest are happening live in Donald Trump’s America. Trump Card feels overwhelmingly like it’s coasting and that D’Souza is falling back on old arguments, old foes, and old tricks. D’Souza can never get enough of Abraham Lincoln re-enactors, gauzy stock footage of sunsets and wheat fields, and his wife singing renditions of public domain patriotic songs. After five movies, it just all feels so stale, so tired, and so inept and lazy, even for its own select audience. “President Trump reminds me why I first came to America,” says D’Souza early in the film, drawing a deep belly laugh from me. I feel about D’Souza’s oeuvre of terrible, shameless documentaries the same I feel about Trump as a president: exhausted by it all. I’m ready for both to go away for good.
Nate’s Grade: F
Conservative documentary filmmaker, and modern-day snake oil salesman, Dinesh D’Souza is, for all intents and purposes, stuck. His series of “alternative fact” disingenuous documentaries stretching back to 2012 have lambasted a cavalcade of conservative political targets, many of them grossly exaggerated, relying upon a core audience of ticket-buyers who were essentially looking for a vaguely academic cover for their crackpot theories that would otherwise bring them scorn at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Then in November of 2016 Donald Trump miraculously won the presidency and the Republican Party now controlled both houses of Congress. D’Souza no longer had “anti-colonialist with daddy issues” Obama or “Saul Alinsky demonic disciple” Hillary Clinton to kick around any longer. D’Souza’s last documentary, 2016’s Hillary’s America, barely even touched upon Trump, possibly because even D’Souza thought Trump was not destined to see the Oval Office unless part of a public tour.
D’Souza used to represent the loony fringe, but now a member of that conspiracy-minded, anti-intellectual underbelly has ascended all the way to the presidency. D’Souza’s debased theories aren’t just parroted by the trolls of the Internet any longer, the president now repeats them verbatim. In an unexpected manner, D’Souza had catapulted to being mainstream, and now I don’t think he knows what to do with himself, his platform of agitation against the powers that be trying to reshape the “real America,” and his future as a huckster. With Republicans presently in charge of the government, whom will D’Souza complain is thwarting the “real patriots” (I apologize, I’m going to go through a year’s supply of air quotes with this review, I can already sense it) from making American great again? His latest pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-documentary Death of a Nation portends his struggle (a subtle reference? You be the judge, dear reader).
Donald Trump is president of the United States. This is an inescapable fact. But even with all that executive power he seems to be stymied by the threat of radical liberalism, or so argues D’Souza. The Democrats are aligned with none other than Hitler (oh, we’ll be getting to that claim later) and they are poised to lead this country into ruin. “How do nations die?” D’Souza solemnly intones, as is his custom for his voice over narration. “Tell a lie big enough, and tell it frequently enough, and it will be believed.” Astonishingly, he’s using that old Hitler claim NOT to refer to a president who has, as of this review’s writing, lied over 6,500 times since his 2017 inauguration according to the running record by The Washington Post, a.k.a. “fake news.” Over the course of an hour and forty minutes, D’Souza attempts to recycle a flawed thesis from his other alarmist movies about how the Democratic Party is destroying the foundations of the country, conveniently ignoring their minority status and most of objective reality.
Once again, D’Souza falls back to a crooked mirror of historical distortion in an attempt to defend racism, xenophobia, and general incompetence, this time connected to that of President Trump. For D’Souza, it’s not Trump who is racist, but the Democrats are the real racists. It’s not Trump who is sexist, but the Democrats are the real sexists. He trotted out this “nuh uh” line of defense with Hillary’s America where he shoddily sought to recast 150 years of historical policy to declare the Democrats the real racists. With his new film, D’Souza doubles down on the same flimsy claims that he stripped free of supportive context, you know, like the fact that both parties were racist for decades because your average American just so happened to be racist. D’Souza declares that the party of Lincoln is still the one black voters should be supporting, blithely ignoring more pertinent examples of policy for the last fifty years. D’Souza’s rhetorical contortions are strained to the breaking point and amount to him saying African-Americans should support the GOP because Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and Woodrow Wilson was racist. What’s the better track record for civil rights, the last 50 years or the middle of the nineteenth century? D’Souza even denies the existence of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” despite the fact that we have LITERAL audio recordings of Nixon and aides discussing this strategy in detail and by name. Too often the only way to believe much of D’Souza’s flaccid arguments is by performing your own homemade lobotomy.
D’Souza ties himself into knots trying to mitigate the racism of our current Commander in Chief, a man who called Nazis “very fine people,” has re-tweeted anti-Semitic tweets, who frequently refers to Hispanic immigrants and asylum-seekers as an “invasion,” refers to African and Caribbean countries as “shit holes,” and consistently goes after African-American critics in much more personal terms, castigating their intelligence, referring to them as “dogs,” and all the things a not-so racist person probably would refrain from doing. “We knew we weren’t electing a choir boy,” D’Souza intones, his feeble attempt to hand wave away all the personal failings and possible criminal activities of the president. It’s the same broad excuse that the White House press office has exhorted, that in electing Trump as president that the voters (never mind it wasn’t a majority of voters) have declared their general apathy to any number of scandals that arise (“Look, the voters made their voice known when they elected Trump and don’t care how many babies he eats on live television…”). You can’t separate the two; you can’t approve the policies but disapprove of the man. You can’t choose to ignore who he fundamentally is, which is likely why D’Souza ignores as much of Trump’s actual words and deeds as possible.
The epitome of D’Souza’s slimy, bad faith arguments, and a fuller picture at the depths he will lower himself, is when he directly declares that Adolf Hitler was really a liberal. Wow. That’s bold. Ignore Hitler’s antisemitism, anti-communist, anti-homosexual actions, castigation of foreigners as evil and stealing work from “real proud Germans,” rescinding of personal liberties, an independent press, and checks and balances, and his general anti-democratic policies, you still have a man whose ideology was built upon white supremacy and a racist belief in genetic superiority. Does that sound more like Bernie Sanders or like Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Charlottesville rally where, according to our president, “very fine people” chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” and ultimately killed a woman protesting their presence? D’Souza interviews white nationalist/neo-Nazi, Richard Spencer, and D’Souza even tries to somehow label him and the “Unite the Right” marchers of Charlottesville as liberals. They are self-described Nazis!
I would ordinarily chalk up D’Souza’s slimy re-litigation of labels as another sign of his moral repugnance and move along, but this is deserving of additional attention. This isn’t just academic. We have a genuine spike in hate crimes targeting Jewish citizens, most recently a Pittsburgh synagogue where a man murdered a dozen under the belief that Jews, with the thanks of conservative boogeyman George Soros, were funding the migrant caravan (“invasion”). This is but one example of a mentally distraught, angry, and dangerous individual resorting to violence having been fed on a stream of twisted lies and racist rhetoric meant to agitate and divide. It was only a month ago that explosives were sent throughout the mail with the attempt to eliminate Trump’s perceived enemies. D’Souza and his ilk are not simply harmless kooks bilking a willing audience in search of some veneer of prestige for its baser inclinations. This stuff is serious now. When elevated to the platform presented through Trump’s presidency, these words can have serious consequences. I’m not applying a one-to-one system of blame, as every person is responsible for his or her own direct actions. However, D’Souza is knowingly stoking fires and accelerating resentment within his core, secluded audience. When D’Souza plays fast and loose with the history around Hitler, at turns mitigating the man’s actions as well as smearing modern-day political figures with the hackiest guilt-by-association tactics, he is doing the work of the white nationalists for them.
It makes it harder to watch and merely criticize Death of a Nation as a work of film. I could critique its poor production values, insistence on including footage of D’Souza walking around important locations and looking forlorn, as well as its corny insistence on stock footage meant to represent a beer ad’s rendition of what constitutes America. I could rightfully complain that once again D’Souza brings things to a halt so he can showcase his wife singing. I could make fun of the stodgy dramatic recreations. I could write an entire essay on the logical fallacy and open insult of comparing Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, let alone smashing their faces together as the key poster art. I could laugh at D’Souza crediting himself as playing some small part for electing Trump. I could complain of D’Souza’s tortured, leaning style with interview subjects, desperately trying to coax them into saying the hidden phrase he’s in search of. The careful way he handles Spencer is bizarre, as if he didn’t want to upset the white nationalists who might buy tickets. The technical merits of this movie are beyond the point, not that there was much merit to them to begin with. It’s all about his fallacious arguments.
A funny thing happened weeks before the release of this movie in the summer of 2018. President Trump officially pardoned Dinesh D’Souza for his federal campaign finance crimes, sparing him a felonious record (though the rub is to accept a pardon one must accept guilt too). Is it possible that this entire film project was conceived as a means of flattering Trump and working forward the possibility of a pardon for its filmmaker? After three movies of disingenuous gambits, I wouldn’t put anything past D’Souza. He is, after all, the same man whose 1995 book declared the end of racism yet he routinely tweets racist missives (try and find some innocent meaning in his reference to Obama as a “grown up Trayvon”). Death of a Nation is what D’Souza plans to do with his mighty megaphone, and it turns out it’s blame others and fall back on the same old bromides for his reactionary base. I’m sure in two more years he’ll be fired up again to warn us all about the dire threat not re-electing Trump will pose to our nation, but hopefully by that time the nation will have tuned him out for good.
Nate’s Grade: F
Conservative author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza is a man that has been uncharacteristically good to me, personally. He’s made two utterly abysmal political documentaries that are hatchet jobs and were my worst films of 2012 and 2014. However, the man has been a boon for me as far as my own exposure. My reviews for his 2012 and 2014 polemics exploded and became e-mail forwards. They were quoted in message boards, progressive websites, and all over. I still to this day have people that randomly message me to pat me on the back for my rational and methodical take-downs of this charlatan. I wouldn’t say I was looking forward to D’Souza’s next would-be documentary feature but I knew it would likely contend for the worst movie of that year and that I would profit from extra website hits and plaudits. Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party is the underwhelming Return of the Jedi of D’Souza’s trilogy of bad movies. They all exist in a galaxy far, far away from our own reality. Then again D’Souza has been catering to an alternate reality for the majority of his huckster career.
My first problem is that D’Souza tries to rewrite his own history (he has so much experience rewriting others’ history) and pretend that he’s a First Amendment victim instead of a man who knowingly violated federal campaign finance laws. He purposely donated $20,000 under a false name to skirt finance laws and lied about it to the FEC, and as a result was charged with a felony and served eight months in a halfway house. Even D’Souza said, “I knew that causing a campaign contribution to be made in the name of another was wrong and something the law forbids. I deeply regret my conduct.” However, in his own movie, his twists the facts to present himself as a free speech martyr facing a tyrannical president. “If you make a film criticizing the most powerful man in the world, “D’Souza intones with extra ominous relish, “Expect the empire to strike back.” I don’t think Obama needs to worry about a movie that made $30 million total. D’Souza’s deflecting his guilt as an act of imperial censorship and retribution, and not, you know, him committing a crime and pleading guilty. The fictional recreation of his halfway house experiences are resoundingly hilarious for how tone deaf yet ultra serious they are, as if D’Souza had to scrap for survival. What halfway house is also populated with murderers and rapists? I wish we had a scene of D’Souza giving himself a homemade tattoo from an electric toothbrush. His slimy misstatement of his own felonious failings sets the stage for his third cinematic expose that fails to advance a coherent, rhetorically sound case for his crackpot and disingenuous premises.
Let’s tackle the man’s core argument and what gives his movie its subtitle: the secret history of the Democratic Party as one of blanket racism and oppression. D’Souza tries to make the leap that the Democratic Party is the biggest gang around, exploiting the vulnerable and naïve for nefarious, avaricious gain. He says the Democrats are planning to steal nothing less than American itself. His argument is that the Democrats have been conning the American public, and especially their contingent of minority and poor voters. He cites evidence that he feels is damning, though once again selectively removes context because it would undermine, or in many cases obliterate, his supposed point. D’Souza has to reach all the way back to the 1820s for his broadsides. Did you know that Andrew Jackson was responsible for the forced relocation of Native Americans, and, I hope you’re sitting down, that he was one of the first Democrats? Did you know that following the Civil War many Southerners resisted Reconstruction and joined the Ku Klux Klan and were Democrats? Did you know President Woodrow Wilson was such a fan of the 1915 movie Birth of a Nation, a film glamorizing the rise of the KKK, that he screened it at the White House? D’Souza feels like he’s stumbled upon his moral keystroke but he forgets that it wasn’t just the Democratic Party that was filled with racists during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth; the majority of America held racist views. To somehow suggest that those who registered as Republicans were immune from the casual racism of everyday society is preposterous. Case in point: at the time the Supreme Court rendered its verdict on the Loving case (tasteful movie coming soon), striking down miscegenation laws banning interracial marriage, a full three fourths of the American public disapproved. This was 1967, and the clear majority of the American public still held what could be charitably described as racially intolerant views. In the case of Birth of a Nation, an unquestionably repugnant movie, D’Souza is knowingly removing the fact that it was a groundbreaking piece of cinema and a global blockbuster. It wasn’t just President Wilson that enjoyed this newfangled moving picture, it was many, and it just so happened a majority of those people, Republican or Democrat, were racist.
D’Souza tries connecting the dots in a conspiratorial manner that demands painting mustaches on every former living Democrat just so they would have something to sufficiently twirl as they laugh maniacally. Jackson was apparently the progenitor of having slaves on plantations, as if this could be attributed to one person. D’Souza’s indictment of Jackson and abrupt empathy for the downtrodden Native Americans is in sharp contrast with his previous abhorrent documentary. In that movie, he argued that the Native Americans weren’t really doing much with their land anyway, that the pioneers were the ones who made it valuable, and that what happened to them should not be considered genocide. I don’t believe D’Souza’s phony crocodile tears over the Trail of Tears. If he’s going to decry Andrew Jackson for being a slave owner then why not the Founding Fathers as well? Why not George Washington? Because that would confuse his already confused argument. With D’Souza, the KKK wasn’t a grassroots organization of disaffected and angry Southern white men; no, it was a purposeful political arm of the Democratic Party. Wilson wasn’t just a fan of a popular movie; he and his cabinet were directly inspired to harass African-Americans. For him, the Democrats built ghettos, made sure to stuff them with immigrants, and wouldn’t allow them to leave. For him, Margaret Sanger wasn’t fighting for contraception for women’s health and equality but so she could stop black people from reproducing. For the record, Sanger spoke to whoever would listen to her cause, which did include the Klan at one point. For D’Souza, Planned Parenthood exists to wipe out minorities, and he even makes use of those undercover videos by conservative activists that got the activists charged with criminal activity, not Planned Parenthood, which was cleared for all outrageous charges. Everywhere he looks, D’Souza sees widespread conspiracy and the intent to do maximum harm. The shrill partisan attacks are amplified to the point that any points are muted. Not too many are going to defend Andrew Jackson to this day, but what about recent history, eh?
It’s not long before you start to notice a hard cap on all of D’Souza’s historical anecdotes. They all seem to end just about the time of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which is by no means a coincidence. When President Johnson signed the bill into law he said that the Democratic Party had likely lost the South for a generation. Almost sixty years later, I think he undershot that estimate. The party of Lincoln is no longer the party of Lincoln, judging by their policies and candidates. D’Souza has to reach back more than half a century to posit his case that the Democrats are the real party of racists. This line of argument is somewhat tainted with the 2016 Republican presidential nominee refuses to recant his excoriation of the exonerated Central Park Five, tells African-Americans they’re “living in hell,” and far too frequently retweets ugly messages from white supremacist groups. Which political history is more relevant to today, the actions of the last 30 years or over 200 years ago? The Republican Party doesn’t get a free pass because at one time certain members supported abolition and women’s suffrage. D’Souza even says, “As the South became less racist, they became more Republican.” Huh? The parties have held the same names for hundreds of years but their policies and platforms have shifted along with the nation and culture. To pretend that Democrats or Republicans today follow the exact same policies from hundreds of years prior is intellectually dishonest and thoroughly facile, which sums up the host of D’Souza’s feeble arguments.
D’Souza’s grandstanding and myopic personal crusade gets in the way of his larger message. You could easily construct a documentary about Hilary Clinton being unlikable or hard to trust. She is often her worst enemy and her penchant for secrecy can be reasonably unnerving. You can make an anti-Hillary doc without resorting to ad hominem attacks and worse. There are legitimate critiques over the Clinton Foundation and its lack of transparency, but D’Souza can’t help himself. He shouldn’t have to utilize bracingly absurd, offensive propaganda imagery like a young Hillary watching the bombs of the 1960s with unseemly fascination, the slow-motion horrors reflecting onto her youthful glasses, a fascination to her calculated expression. He shouldn’t have to resort to such incendiary charges like, “Now we know why Hillary let all those emergency Benghazi calls go. She couldn’t make a buck off of them.” Excuse me? She let Americans die because she couldn’t pad her wallet? “Hillary’s plan was to take over the institutions of government,” D’Souza intones, as if she was a Manchurian candidate who activated instead of a young political activist in law school. The main argument D’Souza musters against Hillary, well after 75 minutes of movie, is that her husband was a serial philanderer. In what may be the most outlandish accusation of the whole movie, D’Souza says that her husband’s infidelity is her fault and that “in many ways she orchestrated all of this.” Just take in that statement. It might take a while. Let it settle in. She “used his addiction to make him dependent on her.” Bill Clinton’s indiscretions have been well documented and are worth another examination in modern light, but this is new. And then this icky nugget took my breath away: “Bill, after all, is in a long line of Democratic ‘plantation owners’ who took power over women in their control.” We had earlier seen Andrew Jackson in bed with his slave, though again other Founding Fathers are left out of this charge, like Jefferson, because it would dilute the message. The level of projection and armchair psychology is staggering and often without coherent evidence.
The shady tactics and paranoid fear-mongering feel rather played out the third time around. Conservative boogeymen are thrown out there (Sanger, Alinsky, Daley, Chicago in general) but it feels like D’Souza cannot even be bothered to properly lambaste them. It’s like he’s checking the boxes of conservative agita and expecting that he doesn’t need to explain anything because of course Saul Alinsky was connected to Al Capone and ipso facto Hillary Clinton is a criminal. He sets them up and chiefly moves along, propelled by some other point that never fully materializes. He purposely blurs the line between archival footage and interview recordings and slanted fictional recreations. There’s a strange recreation where Obama’s father visits his classroom to present an African perspective on culture, including a spear and tales of killing lions. Why does the documentary even require a scene like this? D’Souza only deigns to say Obama learned how to “pitch” from his father. It’s an odious dog whistle to its core audience to remember that Obama is an “other.” There’s another strange moment when a fantasy Hillary leans into the ear of a dissatisfied man to whisper, “They are rich because they steal from you.” As the star of his trilogy of lunacy, D’Souza is the hysterically nonplussed face of his own madness. His interviews often set up his subjects with leaning questions and confirmation bias. It’s as productive as watching D’Souza interview himself, especially when there are perhaps only four interview subjects total, half of them partisans. D’Souza puts himself as the head of his own story of discovery as he wanders around and looks wide-eyed and forlorn over the symbols of America’s greatness, like a field of wheat he solemnly touches. It feels like D’Souza is going through the paces of what his audience is expecting and serves it up without mental taxation. The movie even ends on three straight musical performances, including one by D’Souza’s new wife, that sum up America’s greatness through stock footage montage of patriotism clichés.
Hillary’s America wants to spare the nation at a critical moment in history, but D’Souza’s agitprop will only appeal to the converted or at least those viewers with an alarmingly low quotient for intellectual curiosity. “They can’t take America from us without our consent,” D’Souza rallies his crowd into mobilization (as a felon, he has lost his right to vote in the meantime). The reason I very much wanted to review this movie specifically today is because it’s Election Day and the country has been given a very stark choice. People talk about the deep divides in this country, and it’s men like D’Souza that are stirring those divisions, placating and agitating their audiences, and knowingly distorting facts and reality in a shameless attempt to milk money from the hapless. Here is a man who said Obama never truly lived the “black experience” because his mother was white. Here is a man who tried to mitigate the horrors of slavery in his previous documentary and termed it “theft of labor.” Here is a man who believes Christianity literally invented compassion. Here is a man who states that no Republicans owned slaves. He is not a man who tells truth to power but a man who willfully distorts the historical record in order to make people feel better about unhinged political takes that have no bearing in reality. It is people like D’Souza that have lead the way for the coronation of Donald Trump, and it should be people like D’Souza who are put to blame when that experiment crumbles. He couldn’t be an effective propagandist if he tried, and it really doesn’t feel like he’s even trying. Maybe at some level D’Souza is admitting defeat or at least sees the writing on the wall. He’s been on the wrong side of history and eventually history will judge him as well. Meanwhile, Hillary’s America is a disaster of a movie and the worst film of 2016.
Nate’s Grade: F
Conservative author and political speaker Dinesh D’Souza struck gold with his last documentary, 2016: Obama’s America. The 2012 film struck a chord with enough moviegoers to earn over $33 million at the box-office, and it earned my own hallowed award for Worst Film of 2012, a puerile character hit-piece that only served as agitprop. My in depth review even got picked up by other outlets and message boards and became something of an e-mail forward itself. So when D’Souza announced his follow-up, America: Imagine a World Without Her, I knew I would have plenty to write about. It’s not as overtly risible as 2016 but its true intent is possibly even more sinister. Let me assure you, dear reader, that I go into every movie to objectively critique what works, what doesn’t and why. I would welcome a conservative counterpart to Michael Moore, but Dinesh D’Souza is not that filmmaker, not by a long shot.
The film begins with an interesting “what if” scenario questioning what might have happened in history if George Washington had fallen on the battlefield and America had lost its revolution for independence. American monuments are turned to dust and ominous music pervades. However, instead of following through on this slice of alternative history, D’Souza switches gears immediately and points toward a new goal. He wants to change what he sees as a “shame America” narrative, fostered by the likes of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and the “blame America first” crowd of liberal and academic nogoodniks. To do so, D’Souza seeks out to reclaim America’s past, which amounts to defending or mitigating the famous sins of America’s past. D’Souza’s demonstrably shaky logic disputing America’s past ills only takes a modicum of critical thinking skills to see it for the intellectually facile, dishonest, disingenuous, morally bankrupt rhetoric of a charlatan. Allow me to examine D’Souza’s rebuttal of the five reported thefts he examines in the film.
1) “Theft of land from Native Americans.” This one seems pretty obvious. They were here first. American settlers, as well as other nations, came, conquered, and Manifest Destinied the continent. D’Souza tries to argue that the Native Americans themselves would engage in war and take over other tribes’ territories; therefore their original claim to the land is nil. Also, the land is only valuable because of what the new owners built on that land. I guess America’s national parks have no inherent value then. It almost ends up transforming into a rhetorical line that the Native Americans didn’t know how best to use their own land, so they didn’t deserve it. The worst part of this segment, besides breezing over the Trail of Tears and countless broken treaties, is that D’Souza has the temerity to dispute the semantics of “genocide.” See, D’Souza opines that with genocide there has to be intent to do harm, and Europeans simply bringing along deadly infections the natives had no immunity for cannot count. Never mind the whole smallpox blankets episode, America’s earliest form of biological warfare, which was intentional. D’Souza then compares the decimation of the Native Americans via disease to the Black Plague. “We don’t call that genocide,” he smugly asserts. Let me provide a more fitting analogy: if Turkey had invaded the European continent, bringing with it the Bubonic Plague, and then purposely spread it to the natives to eliminate them, while claiming the land as Turkey’s own, establishing settlements, and forcing the weakened Europeans into small unobtrusive clusters, well maybe we would accurately call that by all accounts genocide.
2) “Theft of labor of Africans.” First, re-read that sentence and really let D’Souza’s slimy word choice sink in. “Theft of labor” is what we’re calling slavery now? How about theft of life, theft of rights, theft of future, theft of family, theft of dignity, theft of their basic humanity? This rebuttal is curious because at the outset D’Souza admits, “Yes, slavery was theft.” Everything referenced after this point cannot alter this declaration, meaning the rest of this segment is all about mitigating the terror of slavery. D’Souza says the United States didn’t invent slavery, and that even Africans would enslave one another. He literally uses the “everybody else was doing it too” argument children use to get away with misdeeds. He even tries to turn it around as a positive, enthusiastically informing us that America is the only country to fight a war to end slavery and that makes us a special place. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another way would be to celebrate other countries that didn’t require bloody wars to come to a consensus that owning other people as property was morally repugnant. Then D’Souza flouts anomalous examples to try and muddy the disgraceful practice of slavery. There were black slave owners, yes, because these people still exist in a crooked system. What does the existence of black slave owners prove? D’Souza’s unsourced claim that there were as many black slave owners as white slave owners is so obviously dishonest that it takes your breath away. But even if it were true, which it is most assuredly not, what does it prove? Is D’Souza trying to say blacks are just as complicit in slavery? Then he adds that white indentured servants worked alongside many slaves and they had it rough too. Indentured servants were still seen as people with human rights. There is no comparison to slavery. The end.
3) “Theft of land from Mexico.” This one is given even shorter shrift, mostly boiling down to a simplistic analysis of how lousy life is in Mexico. The United States gained much of the western states after annexing them from Mexico. D’Souza reasons that after the war we had all of Mexico and we only took half, so that should be acceptable. “I wonder how many of those in Mexico wish we had kept all of their country,” he intones.
4) “Theft of independence with foreign policy.” I forget the exact wording on this one, but really it just amounts to the American wars and conflicts in the last 50 years. Tackling Vietnam, D’Souza offers a straw man that has never existed in mainstream thought: that we went to war in Vietnam to take over their land as imperialists. The war in Vietnam was a result of the domino theory in thwarting the spread of communism, not to take over Asia. On top of this, let’s ignore the Gulf of Tonkin incident that was manufactured as a rationale to escalate a war in South Vietnam. All D’Souza does is interview one P.O.W. veteran who says he went to war to spread democracy. That’s fine, but one man’s experience is anecdotal and not indicative of the whole, let alone of the military command. D’Souza then says we gave back Iraq to the Iraqis and didn’t ask for anything in return, except, you know, permanent military bases that they objected to. Wars aren’t just fought for territory, they can be fought for profit by powerful interests; just look at the military industrial complex run amok. And yet, weirdly, D’Souza never combats Noam Chomsky’s listing of all the American-assisted coups across the globe, from Iran (1953) to Chile (1973) to Brazil (1964) to Guatemala (1954) and others. In 2011, documents over the Iran coup were declassified and admitted CIA involvement as “an act of U.S. foreign policy conceived and approved by the highest levels of government.”
5) “Theft of wealth by capitalism.” D’Souza actually comes to the defense of Wall Street, lamenting that America’s wealthy are under unfair attack from the unwashed masses. First, D’Souza conflates a critique of unregulated, Laissez-faire capitalism with capitalism itself. There are socialists and communists and others of similar ideology out there, but the mainstream left is not arguing for the wholesale destruction of the economic system of this country. A lack of oversight and unchecked greed and fraternal collusion lead to the financial meltdown of 2008, bringing the world to the brink of economic ruin because of the bad bets of Wall Street. Instead, D’Souza stages a silly example of himself running a fast food restaurant, complete with himself playing all of the workers and with a comical (?) Indian accent. He flatly contends that it costs the consumer more money to make a hamburger at home than to buy one from his restaurant, ipso facto “the American people are not being ripped off.” This is D’Souza’s insufficient summary of capitalism, ignoring the 2008 financial crises, ignoring the robber barons, ignoring strike-busting, ignoring the reasons the unions had to be formed in the first place because of dangerous, unfit working conditions that would still exist without intervention. Thomas Piketty wrote a 700-page book on the history of capitalism that has become an unexpected runaway bestseller. He studied hundreds of years of documents of all sorts and concluded that return on capital is higher than the growth rate of the economy, meaning the rich get a bigger part of the pie as time goes on. Economic inequality is hitting record rates not seen since the Great Depression, but somehow for D’Souza this is Obama’s failings and not those of the enshrined 1%, a.k.a. the “job creators.”
Each of these segments runs less than 10 minutes and D’Souza seems to brush through them with little effort as if the man can’t be bothered to knock down his own poorly reasoned straw men. Every claim that D’Souza makes is lacking in substantive facts. He has little evidence to support his slanted and mischaracterized claims. I only recall him ever once citing a source as he worked through his rebuttal of America’s past transgressions. That’s because D’Souza’s assertions don’t hold up under any trace amount of intellectual scrutiny, which is why he often defers to emotional appeals and anomalous anecdotes (Hey, a black woman became the first female millionaire selling hair products, therefore all ex-slaves could have prospered in this country if they only worked hard, never mind Jim Crow and all that). We watch re-enactments of the P.O.W. being tortured in Vietnam, and obviously our empathy goes out to this man, but that doesn’t erase a million dead Vietnamese and 55,000 fallen Americans. There is an absurd amount of historical re-enactments in America, to pad out its running time given the paucity of its argument, but mostly to fall back upon unfettered emotional appeals. D’Souza relies on the symbols of patriotism and actors portraying great figures from history, notably Abe Lincoln, to persuade his audience about the unimpeachable history of America rather than the integrity of his unsubstantiated and spurious claims.
D’Souza doesn’t even bother to cover his obvious biases with his interview subjects. He asks Michael Eric Dyson why the re-election of Obama doesn’t mean “the end of racism” (forgetting that half of the country did not vote for the man, and no, this does not mean every non-Obama vote was a racist). He props extremist Ward Churchill as the face of modern liberalism, referencing his comparison of 9/11 victims to Eichmann, and prompting him to justify dropping an atomic bomb on American soil as retribution. D’Souza then spends the duration of an interview with a Mexican-American student by asking him what the American Dream means to him. His interview subjects are also rarely identified onscreen, nor does D’Souza disclose such pertinent facts like the talking heads belonging to prominent conservative think tanks, ones that have lined his own pockets. There’s also a noticeable lack of follow-up questions. D’Souza’s interview style is also haltingly slow and modulated, as if speaking slower is the same as being reflective. But my favorite interview by far begins with these magical words: “Senator Ted Cruz, why did the Mexican-American War take place?” Oh my.
America lacks a general workable thesis to hold its claims and counter-claims together, which is something at least 2016 had going for it. This may be because the film’s possible real intent is only revealed in the closing twenty minutes, and it amounts to a plea not elect Hilary Clinton to the White House. D’Souza’s last effort to stop Obama’s re-election didn’t work out, even though he claims his ridiculous assertions have come true (the debt hasn’t doubled since 2012 and Israel has yet to become the “United States of Islam” as well). D’Souza enjoys reasserting conservative bogeymen, which is why we get more references to Bill Ayers, Reverend Wright, and especially Saul Alinsky. Until a few years ago, I doubt anyone even knew who this man was but now D’Souza, and others, have pinned him as the ultimate political bogeyman, contorting America from beyond the grave. That’s because his disciples are living out Alinsky’s anti-capitalist dogma, chief among them Obama and Hilary Clinton. There is a goofy re-enactment where a young Clinton is introduced to Alinsky in a high school cafeteria, and the scene is played with such ominous music and lighting that it’s meant to convey a sit-down with none other than the devil (Alinksy is quoted as taking organizational tips from Lucifer, so you make the connection, audience). Hilary wrote her college thesis on the guy even. However, when she graduated she turned down working for the guy and instead became a lawyer, so… I don’t know what. Hilariously, the Alinsky re-enactments are bursting with overwrought menace including one incomprehensible scene of Alinsky sitting in his car and scoping out school children for likely nefarious purposes. “Alinksy would love Obamacare,” D’Souza notes, which makes little sense considering the ACA is all about providing new clients to private industry. As a socialist, I imagine Alsinky would have preferred the public option found in every other Western nation.
It’s these kind of broad generalizations, armchair psychological projection, and guilt-by-association pleas that typify D’Souza’s documentaries. Last time he said Obama’s “anti-colonialist” views were all because he wanted to appeal to an absent father he saw a couple of times in his life. Now D’Souza is warning us that Hilary Clinton is doing the same but trying to appease the ghost of Alinsky, a man she turned down working for way back when.
The real question is WHY would anyone even pose arguments to mitigate the horrors of slavery and genocide? What morally charitable rationale can even be created to try and argue that these horrors were not as bad as history has thoroughly documented? D’Souza says he wants to take control of the “shame America” narrative, but in doing so he’s whitewashing and mitigating this country’s mistakes just to make, what, his core audience of conservatives feel better about themselves? In this, I must quote my critical colleague Ben Bailey, himself paraphrasing a quote from Al Franken: “Franken once observed that, while liberals and conservatives both love America, they love it in different ways. Liberals love America like an adult loves their parents, seeing them not just as mom and dad but as complex individuals with strengths and flaws. Conservatives love America like a baby loves his mommy, who in the child’s eyes can do no wrong, and anyone who says so is a lying bastard.” Patriotism does not mean turning a blind eye toward your country’s mistakes, past and current, nor does it make the ignorant more patriotic than the educated that accept their country’s past, warts and all, and pledge to ensure that those same mistakes are never repeated. Now, slavery isn’t exactly likely to return any time soon to this country, but the core tenets that enshrined slavery were looking at others as subhuman, as undeserving of equality, rigging a system to deny people fair opportunities, a true lack of empathy for the hardships of others. These traits still exist today and can still be found in modern domestic and foreign legislation.
As a movie, America: Imagine a World Without Her is also a failure. It’s a political polemic that preaches to the faithful, assuaging any feelings of guilt they may have had over the past sins of our country, and yet D’Souza doesn’t even offer a vigorous or even competent attempt to do just that. Unless you are already converted to D’Souza’s worldview, you are unlikely to be persuaded by this crackpot expose. The film lacks corroborating evidence for its outrageous claims and rebuttals, conveniently ignoring a larger context in many cases because it would disprove D’Souza’s disingenuous claims, that is, when D’Souza isn’t inadvertently disproving his own claims. History is written by the winners and Zinn wanted to show history from the point of view of the oppressed, the disadvantaged, and the lower classes that typically get lost amidst the resuscitation of kings, generals, and Great Men of Industry. D’Souza’s view seems to be, yeah history is written by the winners, so stop whining minorities and suck it up. After all, the Native Americans get to open casinos, so how bad off can they be? Here’s the thing: most people, liberals and conservative and everyone else, don’t feel guilt per se about Native American genocide or slavery, mostly because we were not alive and responsible. I feel no more guilt over these issues than I do over the other numerous acts of genocide, slavery, and general horror that populate the far-away past. But civilization is a constant work in progress and the responsibility of every citizen is to try and make this world better than it was before. The past informs our actions and our understanding of the world and us. Nobody except the fringe thinks America is a pit of unrepentant evil that has done the world nothing but harm. It has been a force for good but it’s also made mistakes, but to quote Stannis Baratheon, “The bad does not wash out the good, nor does the good wash out the bad.” We all love our country but just because some recognize certain inconvenient historical facts don’t make them any less patriotic.
With all of this exhaustively analyzed, allow me one more moment of examination, borrowing some of the armchair psychological speculation that D’Souza likes to primarily trade in. It appears that D’Souza has a healthy opinion of himself bordering on obsessive narcissism. He cheerily lets us know his past film ranks as the number two highest-grossing political documentary of all time, omitting who owns the number one spot and by a large margin. His name is listed SIX times in the opening credits, including credits for having written the source book, writing the screenplay, and “creating and narrating” the film. Much of the film involves D’Souza in his turtlenecks strolling along national monuments and looking forlorn. He is the star of the film. But there’s also the problem that D’Souza pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance fraud, posing as third parties to continue making campaign donations in 2012. D’Souza admits, “I made a mistake. No man is above the law,” but he frames his guilt as martyrdom. D’Souza makes himself seem like the “latest victim to be targeted by the White House,” instead of, you know, a man who broke the law and got caught. He argues the White House, using the NSA and the (debunked) IRS scandal, are out to silence dissent, abusing whatever measures they have at their disposal (never mind that Bush began the wiretap surveillance program). I propose that America is nothing more than a cover for D’Souza’s conviction and to save face amidst impending jail time. It’s a 90-minute excuse not for America’s misdeeds but for D’Souza’s.
Nate’s Grade: F
Dinesh D’Souza, noted conservative pundit and author, has risen to mainstream attention thanks to his documentary 2016: Obama’s America, a little movie making some big noise at the box-office. Co-written and directed by John Sullivan (Ben Stein’s Expelled), the film rationalizes that the American people don’t really know the true Barack Obama. D’Souza uses Obama’s own words from his best-selling memoir Dreams From My Father to try and decipher who the president is deep down, and D’Souza theorizes that the most powerful man in the world is really just trying to appeal to an absentee father. D’Souza visits the globe and promises to shed light on the “real” Obama, or, at least, the “real” Obama that fits into the narrative of a narrow political polemic.
After viewing 2016: Obama’s America, I am at a loss for words. This won’t last long, trust me.
This pseudo-documentary is such an intellectually dishonest, disingenuous, feeble-minded character attack, relying on heavy amounts of guilt-by-association, armchair psychology, factual whitewashing, leaps in logic, and ugly race-baited visual associations to remind its public that Obama is an “other.” I tried to be as objective as possible assessing D’Souza’s takedown on America’s first black president. I tried to analyze his rhetoric, his process of laying the case for his outlandish, paranoid claims. I tried to remove all personal politics from my assessment, and I still will attempt to keep them at bay, to simply review this as a “film.” What Obama’s America truly aspires to be is the evidence that your crackpot uncle cites as proof that his dismissive opinion of the president, that he’s not to be trusted, that he’s trying to destroy the country from the inside out, is correct. In this fashion, D’Souza is trying to give cover for the crackpots.
Let’s start with D’Souza’s fundamental thesis that supposes that Obama’s entire motivation is to live out the ideals of his father. He’s trying to impress his absent father. I cannot buy this broad generalization, and D’Souza keeps returning to it like he’s the only one who can see this obvious conclusion. I find it hard to believe that the father Obama saw once in his life is really the guiding force of his worldviews. Therefore, the more information D’Souza spills about Obama’s father the more he’s repeating the same conjecture without making any concrete connection. He interviews friends of Barack Sr. in Kenya and asks for their views of President Obama, a man they’ve never known. There is a litany of interview subjects with tenuous connection to Obama, most are always a step or two or more removed from the man himself. We get his mother’s college professor and Obama’s half-brother living in Kenya. That’s about as close as the movie gets. Often the interview subjects will disintegrate into weak hearsay (“I interviewed a guy who knew his father, so I guess I have some credibility.”). I also found it odd how when his interview subjects refer to his radical father, they keep repeating the name “Barack,” and not specifying senior or father. It happens so often that the intended association is quite transparent. Here’s a clue you’re dealing with a crank: D’Souza tries to make hay out of the fact that Obama’s book is titled “Dreams FROM My Father” and not “Dreams OF My Father.” Rarely has one preposition been given such (half-assed) psychological insight. The fact that the movie purports to get at the “real Obama,” and this is the scraps it offers, robs the movie of any desperately desired insight or credibility.
The movie, especially the first 20 minutes, is also the story of D’Souza and his personal journey of why he feels America is the greatest land of them all. Just because the man was born the same year as Obama, got married the same year, and comes from a foreign country (though Obama is an American citizen who only spent four years abroad, but I digress), doesn’t mean somehow D’Souza has been given such psychic insight into the mind of Obama. Like Michael Moore, D’Souza inserts himself and his life story into his narrative when it’s not essential.
This would also work as an excellent case study in psychological projection. Since we don’t get people close to Obama, we get lots and lots of conjecture and people offering their “esteemed” analysis of the man. These so-called experts do what the man’s worst critics do, which is ignore the reality of Obama and project their radical interpretation of the man. An even-keeled centrist is a boring narrative, so now he becomes a Marxist, a socialist, a leftist radical, an enemy of the American way of life. This just doesn’t jibe with a pesky thing known as the facts. If Obama is really the socialist he’s labeled, then he’s a horrible socialist. No public option? Recycling the Republican health care plan from the 1990s, including the mandate? Relaxing more gun control laws than Bush did in his entire presidency? Stepping up record numbers of drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Does that sound like a guy who’s “weirdly sympathetic to jihadists”?
D’Souza and his interview subjects even take the step of saying that Obama’s even-keeled style is really just a front, that deep down he’s a raging black man just like failed presidential candidates Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The reason we don’t see this font of anger is because, and here’s the ingenious part, Obama knows how to manipulate us all! He’s secretly hiding his surplus of radical anger through emotional pragmatism. Not only that, Obama is manipulating race relations to lull us into complacency, because he knows white America wants to be assuaged of feeling racist, so we’ll appreciate and advance an African-American man of merit. Excuse me? Does that make sense to anyone, that instead of just being, you know, a pragmatist, Obama is secretly exploiting white guilt to advance, because otherwise how would this man become president unless we were all duped? None of that holds together. D’Souza’s 2010 book was called The Roots of Obama’s Rage (he also penned the 1995 book The End of Racism, so I guess he was just a little early on that one). The fact that two years, or less, into his presidency, D’Souza is ready to lambaste the man as “rageful” makes me think that D’Souza just cannot perceive objective reality like the rest of us.
D’Souza and company also take any opportunity to de-legitimize the man’s accomplishments. Obama didn’t win the presidency because he was an eloquent, charismatic, intelligent, and compelling political figure, not to mention that he got ten million more votes than John McCain. Could Obama have achieved the historic because of his accomplishments? According to this movie, Obama won the 2008 presidential election because of one thing: he was black. You see foolish reader, America as a nation wanted to assuage any collective white guilt over the transgressions of our ancestors, so we all (myself included) voted for the man as a declarative statement once and for all that we are not racist. Maybe a handful of people were motivated by such a ludicrous notion, but all 69.5 million Obama voters? This is not the film’s only simplistic generalization. We also have a psychological expert on what an absentee father does to a child. This is not a unique situation in our culture, nor is it one that prescribes a catchall response. Just because one person grows up without a father does not mean they will rigidly follow the same path in life; there are too many variables to prescribe one fate.
The most telling moment occurs when D’Souza visits Kenya to trace Obama’s father’s life. He interviews the president’s half-brother and tries to needle him that his distant, famous relative is callous. “Why hasn’t he helped you out here?” D’Souza presses. “He has a family of his own. I can take care of myself,” the half-brother reasons, adding, “He’s got other issues to take care of.” This is the only member of Obama’s actual extended family that D’Souza manages to snag an interview with, and he shuts down his line of inquiry pretty succinctly. Later, the man gives some rather hostile views of Israel, which is meant to signal that any possible points he made should be invalidated.
Then there’s just the disingenuous and petty digs that omit key clarifying facts. D’Souza keeps railing against Obama as an anti-colonialist. First off, who in this day and age is going to champion colonialism, a system where the strong take from the weak? And why is colonialism even a relevant prism for the twenty-first century? Again, D’Souza offers little evidence to tie his theories to the man he’s critiquing. One of his key pieces of evidence is that Obama returned a bust of Winston Churchill back to England. For D’Souza, this is a sign of his distaste for Churchill as a colonialist. However, the facts are that the bust was on loan and scheduled to return to England anyway, before Obama took office, and there’s another bust of Churchill that remains in the president’s private offices. What an inconvenience the actual facts make. I’d like to share my friend and PSP colleague Ben Bailey’s thoughts on this specific matter:
“Little known fact I just learn from the Obama 2016 documentary: The bust of Winston Churchill that used to be kept in the White House was actually a magical artifact that protected this country from socialism as long as it was in America. Naturally, the Anti-Colonialist Obama’s first action upon taking office was to send that shit back. The other bust of Churchill that still resides in the White House does not have any magical powers, so it was kept.”
D’Souza also hammers home the notion that Obama opposes the British rule of the Falkland Islands, a tiny group of islands off Argentina’s coast. Another casual fact-checking venture proves this is false. The U.S. refused to endorse a declaration of Argentina’s claim of ownership. And these are just the petty examples of D’Souza’s argument approaching snide, dickish territory.
There are also the demonstrably false assertions, like Obama’s desire to destroy America’s superpower standing. D’Souza likes to obfuscate the eight years of Bush, speeding over him quickly in a timeline, lumping the national debt explosion under “Bush and Obama.” Conservative pundits like to lambaste the president for the dour economy, which has improved over the past four years, but they also conveniently forget the mess the man inherited. To ignore eight years of policies that helped lead to near financial ruin, two wars that Bush also left off budgets and Obama did not, among other things, is to remove all context. It’s like setting your house on fire and then blaming the next guy for trying to put it out: “Why haven’t you fixed everything yet, pal?” Record debt and financial ruination did not suddenly appear one day in January 2009 when a Democrat took office, despite what some choose to believe. Forgetting the eight tumultuous years of Bush, and their far-reaching complications, is a disservice to history and an ignorant understanding of how we got where we are now.
Then there’s D’Souza’s dangerous assertion that Obama wants to weaken this country by cutting defense spending and our number of nuclear warheads. Anyone that talks about seriously reducing debt and the deficit and doesn’t offer slashing defense spending, a huge part of the pie, is simply not committed to their goal. Like not one dollar of defense spending is wasteful, and any cuts would endanger the security of American life? We’re drawing down two wars; do we need to keep spending like they’re still active? Also, Obama wants to reduce the world’s nuclear arms, and what’s so wrong with that? How many warheads do you need? Are 1,500 warheads not enough to blow up the world ten times over? The notion that any reduction in arms or spending accompanies “weakness” is fanciful. Obama doesn’t want to weaken this country by reducing America’s nuclear stockpile while the world continues to wield these weapons. He wants to reduce all the world’s nuclear arms to zero, an ambition D’Souza callously dismisses as fantasy. You know who also wanted to reduce nuclear weapons to zero? Ronald Reagan, D’Souza’s hero. As per his 1984 speech: “My dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.” Even Superman was for limiting nuclear arms!
Now, as a piece of pure agitprop, Obama’s America suffers as well. D’Souza is no conservative alternative to Michael Moore, an expert at crafting a cohesive message with needlessly duplicitous measures. There is no subtext here; it’s all text. There are literally slasher movie violin shrieks on the soundtrack when D’Souza and an interview subject discuss the debt under Obama. There’s the image of thorn-covered vines covering the Middle East, threatening Israel to become the “United States of Islam.” There is no connecting of the dots, there’s only wide conjecture and baseless fear mongering. What this movie becomes is one long string of codes and buzzwords and dog whistles, meant to elicit a certain response from its likely audience. How many times does the phrase “Third World” need to be repeated? D’Souza even tries to turn Hawaii as a stalwart of radicalism with ONE interview from a guy who makes unsubstantiated claims. D’Souza also reminds the audience, as a wink to the birthers out there, that Obama’s birth was reported in two Hawaiian newspapers. What other purpose is there to mention this ordinary fact other than to appeal to the birthers in a coded manner? There’s a lot of juxtaposition between foreign cultures, Kenya, Indonesia, but what about the fact that Obama spent a far majority of his life in the United States? The man spent four years in Indonesia, and D’Souza makes it sound like this was the central formation of the man’s worldviews, not as he grew into maturity, went to college, and practiced law. Surely Obama became the man he was when he was seven years old, just like the rest of us.
D’Souza collects a conservative rogue’s gallery of people who must have had tantamount influence on Obama, including old targets like Bill Ayers and Rev. Wright. This is a continuation of guilt by association, a common tactic in 2008. Obama’s half-brother in Kenya talks about the West’s need to “tame Israel,” so D’Souza relies on us to make the connection just like with his father. If Obama’s family thinks this way, surely the son they have seen so rarely must be in lockstep? Because nobody ever differed in political views from his or her family.
2016: Obama’s America, which hilariously predicts the end of the American empire circa 2016 (I guess a Republican president won’t be able to fix things), is a documentary that will convert no one. It’s constructed entirely to reinforce the alarmist notions of the president’s most fringe detractors. D’Souza doesn’t deal with facts because they get in the way of his exaggerated narrative of a fictional Obama, a man who is destroying our country in a quest to prove himself to his absentee ghost of a father. There’s plenty of logical inconsistencies, conjecture, and psychological projection and little evidence besides the expert opinions of people who knew a guy who knew a guy who knew Obama Sr. There’s plenty of unintentional comedy to be had, however, like a ludicrous racism-is-dead visual reenactment where a black man is upset because people at a bar are purposely giving him the cold shoulder (racists!). A minute later, they come out with a birthday cake and everyone in the bar, including the tattooed biker dude, erupts in applause for the heralded black man (see how wrong you were, world?). The basic assertion that Obama’s presidency is his attempt to live out his father’s ideals doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It marginalizes a complex, educated man, saying he’s just a daddy’s boy, just like the film marginalizes the president’s historic election by saying it was simply an outpouring of white guilt (what about non-white people?).
I repeat: this pseudo-documentary is such an intellectually dishonest, disingenuous, feeble-minded character attack. It’s slimy, snide, petty, and wallows in conjecture and fear mongering. When the denizens in my theater applauded by film’s end, I felt a great sadness wash over me. If these people thought this appalling film was effective, was compelling, was informative, and was accurate, then I fear what prism these people choose to view the world through. Because 2016: Obama’s America isn’t just a horrid example of propaganda, it’s also the worst movie of the year, bar none.
Nate’s Grade: F
Ben Stein is best known as the monotone teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but the man has also been a speechwriter for Nixon, a game show host, and popular figure of deadpanned irony. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed follows Stein as he travels across the world interviewing scientists, authors, professors, and others about what he sees as a disservice to science and America. “Big Science,” as he refers, is so heavily entrenched in the theory of evolution and the teachings of Charles Darwin that they are unwilling to even broach alternative approaches. Intelligent Design believes that life is far too complicated to occur randomly, and thus must have been created by some powerful supernatural designer. The teaching of evolution is still seen as a controversial subject and I.D. proponents want their theory to be given equal time.
Stein tries to skew his argument into one about freedom. The Constitution calls for the freedom of speech and our nation is built upon the bedrock of being a marketplace of ideas. Stein compares the resistance in the scientific community to Intelligence Design to the Berlin Wall, and he argues that I.D. proponents just want to open up the dialogue. Detractors warn that I.D. is just Creationism in sheep’s clothing, and indeed the U.S. courts have ruled the same way. The problem with Intelligent Design is that it can’t really apply to science. Science can only test what exists in the natural world, and religion by definition deals with the supernatural and thus can’t be tested. It’s one thing to say, “The sky is blue because God made it so,” but what else do you do with that as a scientist? Where do you go from there as a teacher? Science textbooks would be awfully thin, since you would just need one sentence to sum up all of existence. Evolution begins with the start of life and no one has a strong feel for how life began, but I.D. runs into the same wall if you think about it. Saying, “God created life” leads to the question, “How was God created?” and now we’re back where we started. Personally, I don’t see why evolution and religion have to be seen as forces that cancel each other out.
Ignoring the subject matter, Expelled just doesn’t even work effectively as an expose documentary. The movie continuously jumps to old newsreel footage as a visual resource even for mundane conversations. It happens again and again. Either the filmmakers thought their audience had ADD or was too stupid to sit through an interview without several jump cuts to visual reference points. Some of the clips are fun in a goofy retro way but the whole decision comes across like a narrative crutch and it makes Expelled feel erratic. Stein doesn’t try very hard to disguise his interview style, which includes him leading his interview subjects and lobbing softball questions like, “Intelligent Design is just Creationism, right,” and the audacious, “What was the purpose of the concentration camps?” I think it is telling that the interview subjects are not given lengthy reactions and are not pressed into actually presenting what Intelligent Design proof that exists. In contrast, the evolutionary scientists interviewed are intercut with clips of Nazis and Communists soldiers. I don’t even think Michael Moore would have chosen to go that obvious.
While I’m on the subject of Moore, Stein follows some similar ambush tactics and they are obvious and obnoxious. Stein tries to walk into the Smithsonian Center to get a statement as to why a prominent scientist was released and ends up getting kicked out. Did he expect anything different? Portions of Expelled come across as transparently staged, and upon some research I have learned that some were indeed staged. The film opens and closes with Stein addressing a full crowd of college students. They erupt in rapturous applause by the end of his speech and give the man a standing ovation. That crowd was nothing more than paid extras and Stein has never traveled the college circuit to speak on Intelligent Design. The scientists that were interviewed were also misinformed and told that they were being filmed for a documentary called Crossroads about the “intersection of science and religion.” The evolution scientists interviewed were then barred from free public screenings. That should tell you something.
Scientists being blacklisted by their peers seems rather unfair, but the movie takes their subjects strictly at face value. I am convinced there is more to the story than Expelled lets on. One woman off-handedly mentioned the phrase, and that was all, and was let go. I want to know more, but the film apparently doesn’t. Stein even cuts her interview off and dubs his own voice over as she continues her story. I would have appreciated some interviews with scientists who believe in evolution and God. Given that approximately 99.97 percent of life scientists believe in the theory of evolution, so statistically there must be a healthy slew of scientists who happen to be Christians that believe in the existence of evolution.
The film is heavy-handed propaganda, sure, but man oh man does it just take an ugly turn in its last third. Ben Stein eventually makes the leap from evolution to… wait for it… Nazism and the extermination of those less desirable. Stein and some of his interview subjects are making the case that Hitler was directly influenced by the tenets of evolution and that he used Darwin’s template to snuff out Jews, Gypsies, gays, the handicapped, and all those holding back the human race with their inferior genetics. There are many steps removed from Darwin to Hitler, but Stein is laying the blame of the Holocaust at the feet of Darwin’s ideas. Arguably, exterminating an inferior race could be applied to the idea of natural selection (though forcibly killing millions doesn’t seem very natural to me) but people were killing each other long before Darwin was ever born. Before Darwin, there was still genocide in the name of eliminating those deemed inferior, and mostly it was performed with the justification of religion. Surely historically religion has been the motivator for more death than Darwin (count the Crusades and the Inquisition). Even specifically Jews have been persecuted and put to mass death centuries before Darwin. And what about all the countries in the world that have embraced evolution as science and not gassed millions of people? But Stein persists in trying to attach the Holocaust and Nazism to evolution. To me, this is like blaming The Catcher in the Rye for shooting John Lennon in the head. Darwin posited ideas and cannot be blamed for others perverting those ideas for their own gain. The film also glosses over the fact that it was Herbert Spencer who introduced the phrase “survival of the fittest,”
And yet after spending a good deal of time linking Darwin and the Holocaust, Stein throws out this caveat: “But I know that Darwinism doesn’t automatically lead to Nazism.” Expelled is filled with other such contradictions. It argues that science and, specifically, evolution does not disqualify the existence of God, and to this I agree whole-heartedly. Science provides the “how” in life and religion can provide the “why” for people. Science does not disqualify God and vice versa; however, Expelled then trumps interview after interview of scientists that explain how evolution turned them into atheists. Huh? The film presses the irritating and confusing point that evolution will turn everyone into a bunch of atheists, but this conflicts with one of the film’s central points on the roles of religion and science. Stein never goes into great detail in this area and ignores the fact that a majority of the American public is both religious and believes in evolution.
Expelled starts to become an ideological dartboard by the end of its experience. Stein says evolution is responsible for eugenics, which lead to the idea of population control, which lead to Margaret Sanger founding Planned Parenthood. My reaction is: so? Planned Parenthood promotes safe sex and performs legal abortions, yes, but they have nothing to do with eugenics and religion. Henry Ford and Walt Disney were also believers in eugenics. But the interview subjects all seem to repeat the phrase “euthanasia and abortion” like it was a talking point they were handed. The exact phrasing is so precise for several interview subjects that it seems deceptive. Why does this matter at all in a movie reportedly about Intelligence Design?
I cannot honestly see anyone being converted by Expelled. Skeptics and believers in evolution will fail to be swayed, and for the large Christian community the film is courting, well it will be preaching to the choir. I just discovered that there’s a website called expelledexposed.com intent to hold Stein’s film to review. I’m a firm believer in evolution and that Intelligent Design is religion; yeah they don’t specify “who” but how many I.D. proponents were the same ones pushing Creationism in schools earlier? If they stick to the tenets of Intelligent Design then I’d like them to accept the Raelians in their camp (Raelians believe that aliens seeded our planet). Expelled never makes the case for why Intelligent Design should be taught, merely that it is unfair to exclude it from the classroom. The movie presents contradictions, logic fallacies, and some disconcerting guilt-by-association arguments that border on exploitation. Even though I disagree with its ideology, from a filmmaking standpoint it falls apart. The topic of evolution’s relationship to religion deserves a thoughtful and intelligent movie. This is not it.
Nate’s Grade: F