Dinesh D’Souza’s first words in his new movie, Death of a Nation: Can We Save America A Second Time?, have the unmistakable ring of accidental truth. “When I was a boy,” he says in voiceover, “I was curious about the world.” That time is long since past. What’s in place of that feeling now is a nullity, a sucking sound, and it’s taking a small part of our world with it.
Perhaps you know D’Souza as the right-wing provocateur recently pardoned by President Donald Trump. But to many Republicans, he’s one of the conservative movement’s most influential public intellectuals. Ted Cruz, who helped convince Trump to pardon D’Souza, recently called him “a powerful voice for freedom, systematically dismantling the lies of the left.”
D’Souza has helped further this impression. When Trump called to explain the pardon, D’Souza told the media, “He said he just wanted me to be out there, to be a bigger voice than ever, defending the principles that I believe in.” Just as the Kaiser sent Lenin to Finland Station, so Trump has returned Master D’Souza to respectability, ready to troll the libs with renewed vigor.
D’Souza’s first film, 2016: Obama’s America, released in 2012, was a smash hit among conservatives, grossing $33.4 million on a $2.4 million budget. America: Imagine the World Without Her (2014) and Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party (2016) followed. All of D’Souza’s movies are effectively film versions of discount bin Regnery books, down to the colon-enabled subtitles. Still, it’s hard to overstate how influential these movies have been in conservative circles. In 2015, Texas state Representative Pat Fallon authored a bill that would have mandated D’Souza’s second movie be screened mandatorily for all Texas eighth graders and then, if it didn’t sink through the middle-schoolers’ thick skulls, in 11th grade too.
One reason D’Souza’s movies make money is that fellow travelers rent out theaters and invite their friends and allies. In the good old days, under Barry, tea party groups raised money off such screenings. On Monday, it was the Travis County Republican Party that screened Death of a Nation at a North Austin megaplex. The GOP group will raise more money off D’Souza later in August, when he keynotes a fundraiser for the party at an exotic game ranch outside of town.
Death of a Nation opens, auspiciously, in Hitler’s bunker, where the famous baddie from Bavaria callously induces Eva Braun to commit suicide, then holds a pistol to his temple. He looks directly at the camera, holds the gaze, and then — pop. Soldiers burn his body, and the title card appears. No explanation is ever given for this sequence of events.
The movie is a mishmash of historical re-enactments like this and interviews by D’Souza with contemporary figures, sprinkled with a bit of D’Souza’s narcissism. Of the 2016 election result, he says, “My exposé played a part,” as if he were the first person to make a movie that said that Hillary Clinton was bad. It’s all threaded together by bad history, delivered by D’Souza’s portentous voiceover. Extremely, extremely bad history.
In D’Souza’s telling, racism, fascism and authoritarianism have always been left-wing ideas. Preposterously, he cuts directly from footage of people maligning Trump to a re-enactment of Abraham Lincoln walking in a field of wavy grain.
“None of this is new,” he intones. “In 1860, America elected its first Republican president.” Soon after, over footage of a Confederate infantry charge, “to stop Lincoln, Democrats revolted.” After the Civil War, Democrats built up the federal government to replace the system of social control they had exercised over blacks in the South, in which “the [new] plantation master is the president.” The stuff you’ve heard about Republican racism in the last 60 years is all a lie. Trump is Lincoln’s inheritor. The subtitle of the movie, about saving America a second time, refers to the “new” civil war — Trump against his critics.
Every fascist ever was a left-winger, or inspired by the American Democratic party. FDR was “infatuated” by Mussolini, who was himself “a man of the left.” Hitler was initially OK with gay people, before he killed many of them, so “Hitler was no social conservative.” And concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele believed that his work was leading to human progress — in other words, “Mengele saw himself as a progressive.” After the war, scared progressives concocted a “big lie” that fascism was a right-wing phenomenon.
It seems a little bit silly to say that Lincoln, if brought back to life today, would be a member of the party that honors the Confederacy he tried to so hard to crush. Some of the people in the theater with me seemed to agree: When the film talked about Lincoln’s nobility, and the many wonderful things in world history that came from the Union victory, a man behind me loudly interjected, “Oh, come on!”
It is equally odd to suggest that Roosevelt, who assiduously maneuvered the United States into joining the war, loved fascism. If he did, he had a very funny way of showing it — friends do not typically drown each others’ cities in fire and hang their ministers and general staff by the neck.
The lies are one thing. But there are two stretches near the end of the movie that contain some of the most grotesque and revolting material I’ve ever seen. The first regards George Soros. First, some context: Soros’ father, Tivadar, used his wealth and smarts to keep friends and family alive during the Holocaust in Hungary. Tivadar placed his young son George in the care of a Hungarian functionary who claimed him as his godson. On one occasion, the functionary took George along with him to the empty mansion of a Jewish family who had already fled the country, to inventory his property. Soros, by his own telling, hung out around the mansion and then went back to the city.
D’Souza tells this story with the use of re-enactments. Soros wears a smart uniform, signaling that he’s part of the fascist state. Young Soros carries a clipboard, and he seems to order soldiers around as they pile up furniture. D’Souza leaves the impression that this happened a lot. None of it’s true. The scene implicates one of the most hated Jews in his own persecution, which is to say that it’s viciously anti-Semitic. D’Souza is calling the young boy a kapo. He explicitly compares him to Mengele.
But the icing is the segment about Sophie Scholl, the young woman who passed out anti-Nazi pamphlets in Germany during the war and was executed along with her resistance cell, the White Rose. The re-enactments here are incredible both because they’re awfully done — the Scholl in the movie is an idiot who gets caught because she flings pamphlets over a railing in a Nazi party headquarters, and she speaks English with a comically grotesque German accent — but also because the point is that you in the audience, a Republican in America in 2018, are Scholl.
You face evil like she did, and you must resist like she did. The re-enactment drags on and on until Scholl’s neck is in the guillotine. The blade slides down in a close-up as she exhorts the audience — do what is right, fellow conservatives. It’s rancid.
D’Souza is lying to his audiences on a vast scale, making them more immune to a shared reality. There’s ultimately little that separates him from Alex Jones, who also posits the existence of a vast conspiracy responsible for all the worst crimes of the 20th century. What is there to do about this? The only thing I can think is to encourage people who know better to stop promoting him. Why is the Travis County GOP, like countless Republican party organizations across the country, using this movie to make money, and relying on D’Souza’s brand to burnish its own?
The party’s head is Matt Mackowiak. I don’t think that Mackowiak believes this stuff. So I asked him: Don’t people who know that D’Souza is force-feeding his audience dung have a responsibility to not promote him? “Haven’t seen it,” Mackowiak said, referring to the movie. “I would need to see it.” Regarding the Soros bits: “I reject anti-Semitism in all its forms and actively support the Jewish State of Israel.”
But D’Souza’s shtick is well-established — he’s been saying the same things forever. I asked: Do you have a responsibility to ensure that the people you give voice to and promote tell the truth? “That’s not my role,” Mackowiak said. Speakers at party events were responsible for their own statements. “My role is to run the organization and do three things: Elect more Republicans, grow the party and advance conservatism.”
Mackowiak pointed out that the Travis County GOP has recently raised record amounts of money. “I can tell you that among our organization,” he said, “Dinesh [is] a popular figure and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.”