For decades, the late author Howard Zinn distorted history by writing it for one purpose: to inspire new activists to become engaged in today’s political struggles against the Left’s enemies. I and many others, including liberal David Greenberg and left historian Michael Kazin, have written critiques of his work. Now, with Donald Trump as president, it has become the right’s turn to rewrite history for ideological purposes.
Its scribe is Dinesh D’Souza, who gained notoriety decades ago as an editor of The Dartmouth Review, the conservative newspaper at the college. He then went on to have a distinguished career at various conservative institutions, published scores of books and made three political documentaries, two of which played in major cinemas. (I appeared in one of them to talk about Zinn’s misuse of history.)
Now, D’Souza has a new book, Death of a Nation: Plantation Politics and the Making of the Democratic Party, which is accompanied by a political documentary now showing in AMC and Regal theaters. He tells us that his purpose in writing it is to save America and the American dream from the Democrats who are in the process of destroying it.
To do this, D’Souza believes he must discredit a false progressive interpretation of American history he says has been fed to us by historians, taught in schools and widely accepted as the uncontroversial truth. Chief among these falsehoods, supposedly, is that it was the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party, that has championed equality and civil rights and fought against racism. D’Souza argues that it is the Democrats who have been the bad actors throughout American history, a role they continue to play to this day.
Going back to the 1820’s and the founding of the Democratic Party, he argues that Northern Democrats and particularly President Martin Van Buren created an alliance between Northern and Southern Democrats to perpetuate slavery. Just as Southern Democrats supported the plantation system, Northern Democrats supported ethnic and racial ghettos—almost urban plantations—controlled by Democratic Party bosses and their political machines.
After the Civil War, it was the Southern Democrats who were racist, forming groups like the Klan to terrorize African-Americans and bring them back to conditions as bad as slavery, undoing the short reprieve of Reconstruction. The Democrats continued in the 20th century to play the same anti-black and racist strategy. Democrat Woodrow Wilson reintroduced segregation to the federal government, while at the same time creating statist institutions that had broad support from business and labor. During the New Deal era, FDR made Southern Democrats his allies, and ignored all pleas for civil rights measures.
Much of what he says is actually the consensus view of all historians, although D’Souza argues that progressive historians hide the truth. In his eyes, only conservatives say that. But what D’Souza then does—and always does, now—is to take a giant leap to conclusions that do not necessarily follow. For example, he says that the reason Democrats don’t want Latinos to learn English or to assimilate is because they would then follow the path of the Irish and “escape the political captivity of the Democratic Party.” He fails to tell readers that this is the very argument made by Southern Democrats during the post-Civil War period, when they claimed Republicans supported Radical Reconstruction only to get the votes of former slaves who were now freedmen. When immigrants learn English, D’Souza writes, “the Democrats lost them as a group to the GOP.”
Building upon the concept of “liberal fascism” introduced years ago by Jonah Goldberg, D’Souza says that it was the Democrats who introduced fascism into America, which he says is not surprising since, he circularly asserts, the founders and leaders of early fascism were all “men of the left.” Therefore, he concludes, the current Democrats “are today’s neo-Nazis.”
As Ross Douthat pointed out after reading an early version of the book, “D’Souza has become a professional deceiver (and) what he adds are extraordinary elisions, sweeping calumnies and laughable leaps.” Douthat gives the example of D’Souza’s take on Andrew Jackson. D’Souza correctly says Andrew Jackson was an Indian fighter and the Nazis liked his expulsion of Indians from their land; therefore, today’s Democrats, because they claim Jackson, are Nazis. Of course, today Donald Trump says he and the GOP are Jackson’s real descendants, while Democrats are fleeing from any identification with him. By D’Souza’s own warped logic, Trump and the GOP are also Nazis!
This is crackpottery, but it’s not being seen that way in conservative outlets, many of which seem to have infected by a strain of whataboutism we could call Trump Derangement Derangement Syndrome. This leads the completely uneducated to Q, and the more educated but equally deranged to D’Souza.
Each day, the book and the film receive plaudits and reviews on major conservative websites. In PJ Media, Roger L. Simon writes, the film “should be mandatory for all the students in our schools brainwashed by progressive propaganda, cultural relativism, political correctness, critical theory, and the rest of the left-wing tripe.” On Breitbart.com, editor Alex Marlow writes that D’Souza proves “how racial nationalism is a subset of left-wing ideology.” One Tea Party branch informs its members that the film “explains historically that it’s not the right but it’s the left that is fascist, racist, and Marxist, giving us talking points when dealing with progressives. “D’Souza, unlike Howard Zinn, is a smart and knowledgeable man. He has read widely and bases his argument on the books of prominent scholars, citing such legitimate mainstream historians as Gordon Wood, the late historians Herbert Gutman and Eugene D. Genovese, books by Robert Caro, Robert Dallek and Doris Kearns Goodwin on LBJ and FDR, and a major historian of Lincoln and Reconstruction, Eric Foner.
I give him credit for reading and thinking about the scholarship of these historians, but the conclusions he reaches from their research and scholarship are both deceitful and very wrong. His approach can be called presentism, in that he reaches back into history to prove a political point he wants to make today. What D’Souza claims is that Democrats never have acknowledged their role in supporting slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and building the KKK. Is he kidding? Most readers will realize that in fact, few dispute this about the Democrats during and after the Civil War. The Democrats in the 1860s were not the Democratic Party of today, although he expects readers to believe there is no difference between them. He writes that he presents “the evidence, so how can they deny it?” This is a rhetorical trick, since in fact, no one denies it.
He accuses the historian Eric Foner of hiding the fact that both Southern and Northern Democrats voted against the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, writing that Foner “omits the partisan roll-call vote on each of these amendments.” Why? Foner supposedly does so because it interferes with his narrative “that Reconstruction was driven by a series of political conflicts between enlightened Northern progressives and wicked Southern conservatives.” Is there anyone who believes that Foner is trying to protect those 19th Century Democrats, who he well knows were pro-slavery?
And is there anyone who believes that the GOP in the 60s was really the Civil Rights party, as D’Souza argues, rather than one that used a Southern strategy to get the votes of white racists? While today’s Democrats say their party changed, and thus was responsible for the first major civil rights legislation under LBJ’s leadership, D’Souza says they cynically supported the new laws only to win the black votes they needed to keep African-Americans on pseudo-plantations. Therefore, the crackpot or, rather, the intelligent man appealing to crackpots, argues, the truth that Democrats and historians alike have claimed is that the main opposition to the law came from Democrats, and the legislation only passed because Republicans voted for it.
Once Republican Senator Everett Dirksen came out for it, writes D’Souza, “proportionately more Republicans than Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing bill.” In the House, the Democratic vote was 152 for-96 against. The GOP vote was 138 for and 34 against. In the Senate, Democrats voted 46 for and 21 against; Republicans voted 26 for and 6 against. “Had Congress been made up entirely of Democrats,” D’Souza writes, “none of these laws would have secured the votes to defeat the filibuster [by Southern Democrats]and thus none of them had passed.”
This is pure nonsense. One major book D’Souza either does not know of, or chose to ignore, is historian Geoffrey Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin. Kabaservice explains that LBJ “resolved to make passage of the civil rights bill a monument” to JFK, “overriding the Southerners who made up a third or more of the Democrats’ Congressional delegation.” Republicans did indeed play a major role, and contrary to D’Souza, this is a fact historians regularly acknowledge. When the bill went to the Senate, it was filibustered by the Southern Democrats. But a bi-partisan coalition of Northern Democrats and Republicans backed it, and the Democrats negotiated compromises on parts of the bill others in their party found objectionable. And yes, as Kabaservice writes, “a greater proportion of Senate Republicans than Democrats voted for cloture and passage of the bill: more than four-fifths of the Republicans but only some two-thirds of the Democrats.”
So why did Republicans not get the credit or glory they should have enjoyed for their support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? D’Souza does not ask or answer that question. The answer: GOP support “was effectively negated when its presumptive presidential nominee [Barry Goldwater] voted against the measure.” That his reasons were libertarian ones did not matter. Kabaservice explains that Goldwater and the GOP had put their stamp “on the side of the Southern resistance to what now was the law of the land.”
Reading D’Souza, one would never know that the parties of 80 years ago are not the same as the parties now, and that in 1948, the Southern states walked out of the Democratic convention and nominated Strom Thurmond on the Dixiecrat line as their candidate for president. Harry Truman, who instituted civil rights laws and integrated the armed forces, was strenuously opposed by these same Southern Democrats.
Finally, let me take up the most well-known claim, made famous by Donald Trump Jr.’s endorsement of it after seeing D’Souza’s latest movie. It is that the Democratic platform today bears an eerie resemblance to the Nazi platform announced by Hitler in 1920. To D’Souza, this is more proof that the Democrats were really fascists of the left, and that, as he so gingerly puts it, FDR himself “reconstructed the Democratic coalition by taking a page…from the early record of the Nazis.” Then FDR supposedly incorporated “fascist ideology and fascist strong-arm tactics into a new Democratic plantation system.” Like FDR, Hitler, writes D’Souza, “was a man of the left.” Thus the 1920 Nazi platform “reads like a progressive platform jointly drafted by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.”
The Nazi platform did indeed include radical measures such as nationalization of corporations, old-age pensions and land reform. It has long been understood by European historians that the Nazis took elements from different parties; indeed, they were in a fierce battle with the Communists, and to gain working-class support, they too made promises intended to bring them support of those who would otherwise have aligned with socialist groups. But at the heart of Hitler’s agenda was anti-Semitism. The 1920 platform made that plain, that the purpose of the party was that “it fights against the Jewish-materialistic spirit within and around us, and is convinced that a permanent revival of our nation can be achieved only from within.”
The platform also called for a controlled press, banning of newspapers not supportive of their regime, freedom of religion except if any religion opposes the state, which of course, meant Judaism.
To say that because the Democrats favor old-age pensions does not prove that the Democratic Party is or ever was fascist. Nor does the fact that Hitler helped develop the racialist Nuremberg laws by studying the artifice of segregation in Southern states run by Democrats prove that today’s Democrats are Nazi. All these leaps are made by D’Souza.
This is especially deceitful when Trump, who he argues is today’s Lincoln who alone can save America, engages in actions and uses words that put him closer in spirit to what racists believe than any Democrat of consequence.
Nor does D’Souza’s supposed revelations that Italian fascists liked the New Deal and some New Dealers liked Mussolini’s ideology prove the Democrats are fascists. He cites the late historian John P. Diggins as author of a book “virtually unknown today.” He is wrong. Diggins was a major historian whose seminal work is widely known. Diggins’ work shows how many others in America, not just New Dealers, thought fascism was preferable to the American democratic system. Indeed, so did many business leaders and politicians. Admiration for Mussolini was widespread and was not exclusively Democratic.
Nor is D’Souza’s claim that progressives ignored Frederick Douglass true. D’Souza evidently does not know or does not care to acknowledge that in the 30s and 40s, the American Communist Party regularly honored him, created Frederick Douglass clubs, and brought his writings and ideas into the public mainstream. So did liberals in the 40s.
D’Souza’s hero Trump, on the other hand, may not have had any idea who he was even talking about when he proclaimed last year that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”
D’Souza concludes by saying that he has proven that the Democrats “are the real fascists; they are the real racists.” He has not. He compares Trump to Lincoln, saying that Lincoln went to war to save the union and brought the country together after the North’s victory. Now Trump must defeat the Democrats and “together with the GOP save American nationalism and avert the death of the nation.”
I’m afraid D’Souza has picked an imperfect vehicle for such a task. Unlike Lincoln, Trump has proven himself to be if nothing else a great divider.