Originally published at The New York Times.
Nobody wants the summer to end, but especially not Dinesh D’Souza.
In June, he published, America: Imagine A World Without Her, which spent a week as the No. 1 book on Amazon, and is currently No. 2 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.
In July, he released a companion film, which has grossed more than $12 million, already roughly the same as the total of such well-known documentaries as Hoop Dreams and Roger & Me, counting inflation.
But in September, he will stand before a judge in a Manhattan courtroom and face a possible prison term after pleading guilty earlier this year to a violation of campaign-finance laws.
“The whole experience has been undoubtedly traumatic,” Mr. D’Souza said of his prosecution. “But I’m determined not to let it deter me.”
Even with the prospect of jail time looming, Mr. D’Souza has emerged as the right-wing media star of the moment, a seemingly constant presence on talk radio and FOX News. During the run-up to the film’s release, he appeared at screenings across the country, arriving, rock-star style, on a tour bus emblazoned with a giant image of his face.
Animating both the book and film is Mr. D’Souza’s claim that America is under attack from within – and that the enemy is its own government, as well as its progressive collaborators in Hollywood, academia and the mainstream media. In Mr. D’Souza’s telling, their goal is to undermine the country’s self-image and standing by replacing the narrative of American greatness and exceptionalism with one of guilt and shame.
Mr. D’Souza has long been known as a conservative provocateur, but his latest incarnation as a right-wing Michael Moore represents a significant departure for a man who was once seen as the next William F. Buckley Jr. His success as a documentarian has also opened up the possibility of a new medium for conservatives, one that has mostly been dominated by liberals.
“With film, you have a grand platform to alter the national conversation in a profound fashion,” said the radio host Laura Ingraham, who has known Mr. D’Souza since college. “I think that’s more important in many ways than the daily television hits or radio shows.”
Mr. D’Souza’s surging popularity stems in part from his background. Born and raised in India, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth and has been affiliated with some of the country’s most respected conservative think tanks.
Both his book and the film are rife with controversial assertions. “How, for example, did Obama get elected as a complete unknown?” Mr. D’Souza asks in the book. “There is a one-word answer: slavery. America’s national guilt over slavery continues to benefit Obama, who ironically is not himself descended from slaves.”
Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House and co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, says Mr. D’Souza’s roots and scholarly bona fides give him “credibility” in right-wing circles. “A lot of conservatives feel comfortable being told things by Dinesh that they might not exactly feel comfortable being told by someone else,” he said.
After Dartmouth, Mr. D’Souza worked at the Policy Review, a conservative journal in Washington, before joining the Reagan administration in 1988 as an adviser. His first book, Illiberal Education, published in 1991, was at the center of a debate over so-called political correctness on America’s college campuses.
Since then, however, Mr. D’Souza’s career has taken a series of unexpected turns. His views have drawn criticism not only from the left but also from the right. His 2007 book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, ignited outrage among some conservatives, who considered its thesis – captured succinctly in the subtitle – not only deeply flawed but irresponsible. And in 2012, Mr. D’Souza abruptly resigned as president of King’s College, a Christian school in Manhattan, after it surfaced that he was involved with a woman who was not his wife.
Mr. D’Souza, 53, said his foray into filmmaking began after a talk with the billionaire Joe Ricketts, a major donor to right-wing causes. According to Mr. D’Souza, Mr. Ricketts was taken with his 2010 book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, and wanted more Americans to be exposed to its thesis, which argues that Obama is carrying out the anticolonial agenda of his Kenyan father.
“A book can reach 50,000, maybe 100,000, people,” Mr. Ricketts said, as recalled by Mr. D’Souza. “How do you reach a million people?”
“You have to make a movie,” Mr. D’Souza replied.
The result was Mr. D’Souza’s first film, 2016: Obama’s America, which was released during the 2012 campaign and is currently the second-highest-grossing political documentary of all time, behind only Mr. Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Mr. Ricketts invested in 2016: Obama’s America, but not in the most recent film.
In the process of becoming one of the most influential voices on the right, Mr. D’Souza has alienated a number of the conservative intellectuals who once looked up to him. Some accuse him of cynically using his academic credentials to advance false, reductive ideas in order to sell books and movie tickets.
“He was the all-star, the guy every student aspired to be,” said James Panero, who graduated from Dartmouth in 1998 and is now executive editor of The New Criterion, a conservative literary journal. “But I think the rewards of playing to the crowd, of throwing out red meat, have become too great.”
In a sense, Mr. D’Souza’s trajectory is emblematic of a broader shift in the conservative movement. The policy journals and think tanks that once played a key role in shaping conservative thought have been marginalized by the grass-roots populism of talk radio, Fox News, local political movements – and now, perhaps, documentary films.
“The idea that American politics is made by a kind of professional elite was always a bit dubious and is becoming less and less true,” said Mr. D’Souza.
A little controversy has also helped raise Mr. D’Souza’s profile. Costco carried his new book when it was first published, but decided to drop it several weeks later. The move provoked an outcry on the right, which accused the retailer of political censorship; the company’s co-founder, James D. Sinegal, is a major Democratic supporter.
Costco insisted that the decision had nothing to do with the book’s author. “We don’t do things based on political beliefs,” said Richard A. Galanti, the company’s chief financial officer. “The book wasn’t selling well, so we decided to pull it.”
Regardless, Mr. D’Souza exploited the opportunity, taking to Fox News, radio and Twitter to accuse the retailer of trying to silence him. The interest generated by the ensuing furor, coupled with the release of the companion film, drove up sales, prompting Costco to restock the book.
Mr. D’Souza also spied political motives behind his campaign-finance prosecution. Earlier this year, Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, announced criminal charges against Mr. D’Souza, accusing him of skirting contribution limits by arranging to have two people donate $10,000 each to the Senate campaign of a friend, with the understanding that he would reimburse them.
His lawyers accused the Justice Department of singling out Mr. D’Souza because of his condemnation of Mr. Obama – a claim the government vehemently denied. Mr. D’Souza pleaded guilty in May and faces up to two years in prison.
The criminal indictment makes a brief appearance near the end of Mr. D’Souza’s new film. Harvey A. Silverglate, a lawyer and outspoken critic of law enforcement, explains that on a normal day, the average American does three things that could be deemed felonies “by some ambitious Department of Justice prosecutor.” Soon after, Mr. D’Souza tells the story of the Internet folk hero Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide last year after being charged with computer fraud.
Enter Mr. D’Souza, in handcuffs: “the latest victim to be targeted by the Obama White House,” says the voice-over from the Fox News host Sean Hannity.
“Where will they stop?” Mr. D’Souza asks. “At the point where we stop them.”
Read more at The New York Times.
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