Like the many rappers who didn’t let a criminal indictment stop their recording careers, Dinesh D’Souza—the right-wing provocateur who had a modest hit with 2016: Obama’s America—will continue to hit the streets with new work.
In his case, it’s a new documentary—titled America—which seeks to debunk the “progressive, leftist” critique of the United States, or at least, his version of it. According to D’Souza, mainstream liberalism is identical to the radical leftism of the 1960s. And its “basic idea,” he says, “is that America is a society that is based on theft. America is a society based on stealing and plunder.” This, D’Souza argues, is the idea that animates progressive politics and its key figures, like President Obama. Here’s the trailer:
Breaking campaign finance laws aside, D’Souza has built his career on making mendacious accusations and crafting tedious arguments in support of pre-ordained conclusions. This project, in other words, is par for the course—it assumes that liberals hate America, and works backwards from there. Since, after all, if liberals don’t hate America, then why would they focus on the fact that the country profited from genocide and chattel slavery? Can’t they just see that everything worked out in the end?
This sounds like an outrageous thing to argue, but if you’re at all familiar with D’Souza’s work—and the broad ecosystem of right-wing media—none of the claims should come as a surprise. There’s a decent tradition of right-wing affront to history that doesn’t provide a triumphalist narrative of America, or isn’t interested in trying to prove the nation’s fundamental goodness. See, for example, the Tennessee lawmakers who wanted to remove slavery references from school textbooks, so that students wouldn’t know that George Washington owned slaves.
Indeed, it should be said that—like so much else in American life—these competing views of history are heavily racialized. One, held by nationalist whites, presents the arrival of Europeans as an unmitigated good for the American continent, while the other—more common among minorities—seeks to highlight the uglier parts of our history, for the sake of truth and context. To praise the Declaration of Independence without discussing slavery, for instance, is to paint a skewed and dishonest portrait of the past.
One last point: That this film is even financially viable illustrates the extent to which there is a huge market for agitprop on the Right. A huge number of people have made livelihoods out of peddling the most insane theories about liberals, from how they’re the modern-day heirs of Hitler, to how Democrats are leading Americans toward tyranny.
It’s easy to dismiss this—and its offshots, like the presidential campaigns cum book tours of Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich–as hilarious examples of right-wing foolishness. But the truth is that they have real and deleterious effects on conservative politics.
Not only do they set up a dynamic where it’s more lucrative to sell books than to appeal to the electorate, but they create the wrong kind of political pressure: If D’Souza’s new film is successful, and the base eats it up, then there’s a strong chance GOP politicians will have to signal—somehow—that they’re on board with its claims. Which is a great way to win the South Carolina Republican primary, and an awful approach to getting elected president.