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Power

Dinesh D’Souza is the perfect propagandist for Trump’s America

The conservative commentator is a liar and openly racist. No wonder Republicans love him.

Dinesh D’Souza is, as they say, back on his bullshit. The career of the author, documentarian, and longtime fixture of the ugliest corners of conservative media hit a roadblock in 2014 when a Manhattan court sentenced him to eight months in a halfway house for making illegal campaign contributions to Wendy Long, a perennially unsuccessful GOP Senate candidate. The conviction came two years after D’Souza’s career peaked with the release of his unhinged documentary 2016: Obama’s America, and he interpreted the criminal proceedings as an act of government censorship. But if the government’s intent truly was to silence him, as D'Souza believes, their efforts were in vain. D’Souza’s eight months of hard time transformed him into a being of pure resentment, no longer concerned with maintaining conservative orthodoxy, internal consistency or any lingering ties to reality. Instead, he appears determined to mobilize the dumbest people alive in the dumbest ways possible against the subjects of his soul-destroying grudges. In other words, D’Souza became the perfect propagandist for Trump’s America.

Rare Gratitude

First, some backstory: D’Souza was born to upper-class parents in Mumbai and moved to the U.S. to attend Dartmouth College. There, he became editor-in-chief of a new conservative newspaper, the Dartmouth Review, which was unaffiliated with the college and functioned as an outlet for the rank bigotry of right-wing students. Under D’Souza, the paper came under fire for using stolen documents from the Gay Student Alliance to out people, as well as for publishing some of the most racist op-eds this side of Der Sturmer. In one 1982 article titled “Dis sho’ ain’t no jive, bro,” a white student named Keeney Jones assumed a mock-black accent in order to attack affirmative-action policies. “Dem white mo-fo be sayin’ ‘firmative action ain’t no good fo’ us, cause it be puttin’ down ac-demic standards,” he wrote. Such editorial indiscretion endeared D’Souza to the Heritage Foundation, which in 1985 hired him to edit their flagship journal, the Policy Review.

In the early 1990s, D’Souza capitalized on the newly militarized “PC” debate by attacking academia with his book Illiberal Education. Aiming higher and perhaps becoming more deluded, in 1995 he declared racism dead with The End of Racism, in which he did all he could to downplay the evils of slavery without explicitly defending it. “The American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well,” he wrote. He also implied that black people actually owe white people reparations for abolishing slavery. “Africans were not uniquely unfortunate to be taken as slaves; their descendants were uniquely fortunate to be born in the only civilization in the world to abolish slavery on its own initiative,” one passage reads.

Twenty years and one felony conviction later, D’Souza has changed his tune on America’s racist past. This isn’t because he realized the ahistorical nature of his old writings, but because he discovered that a more pessimistic view of history could be used to smear the modern Democrats, like Hillary Clinton and Obama, who he believes conspired to send him to jail. In his recent works, the 2016 documentary (and accompanying book) Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party and the 2017 book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left, D’Souza attempts to connect Obama and the Clintons to nearly every racist act in modern Western history. This argument rests on two dubious assertions — that Democrats were the inventors and sole perpetrators of all past American racism, and that there is no ideological difference between the Democrats of Obama’s generation and the Democrats of 1830.

Naturally, D’Souza’s attempts to square this circle are disjointed and confusing. In an op-ed last week for Fox News, he opportunistically brought Colin Kaepernick into his historical headcanon. The bulk of the article consists of a bullet-point list of Democratic misdeeds, all of which took place decades before Kaepernick was born. The Democrats are “using suckers like Kaepernick to pin the racist tail on the Republican elephant instead of where it truly belongs, on the Democratic donkey,” he wrote, forgetting that Kaepernick’s protest began under Obama, was never directed specifically at any political party, and was a response to ongoing police brutality. Since the thesis itself makes no sense, D’Souza has to compensate by cranking up the pathos. In his recent works, he reenacts the worst crimes of white America in excruciating detail, a 180-degree shift from the rose-colored historiography displayed in his past works, like 2002’s What's So Great About America? His desperate need for revenge against the tyrants who put him in a halfway house led him to turn his back on the most fundamental credo of conservatism — that America was ever great.

D’Souza has a particular bone to pick with Andrew Jackson, who in 1828 became the first president elected from the Democratic Party. For him, Jackson is entirely to blame for the genocide of American Indians, which D’Souza seems to think began and ended with the Trail of Tears in 1835. He writes in The Big Lie that “Neither ‘the West’ nor ‘America’ is guilty of genocide; rather, Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party are.” It is true that Jacksonian Democrats were more enthusiastic about Manifest Destiny and Indian removal than their opponents in the Whig, Know Nothing, and Republican parties, but this doesn’t mean they were its sole perpetrators. How could they be, when the Democratic Party was founded in 1828? Needless to say, massacres and forced relocations of Native peoples began long before the two-party system, and what about the actual fulfillment of Manifest Destiny after the Civil War? Custer’s Last Stand (1876), the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890), and the creation of nearly every major Indian reservation occurred under postwar Republican presidents.

This same slapdash treatment is given to slavery, the tradition of which long predates the Democratic Party and was just as common among Jackson’s Whig opponents. When D’Souza includes a gratuitous reenactment of Jackson raping a slave in Hillary’s America, he conveniently fails to mention that non-Democrats Thomas Jefferson and William Henry Harrison were accused of doing the same. Even when trying to smear 19th-century Democrats — the easiest possible targets for this sort of polemic — D’Souza can’t help but overplay his hand.

When in Hillary’s America D’Souza attempts to address the fact that the vast majority of black people began voting Democrat at the same time Southern whites turned to the GOP, he uses the classic racist argument that the Democratic Party functions as a “modern slave plantation.” Black people didn’t begin voting Democrat because northern Democrats like J.F.K. embraced civil rights, but because Democrats offered them free stuff. “Progressives supply the basic needs of poor blacks, creating for them a new plantation called the inner city. There blacks are provided with food, subsidized housing, medical care, and so on,” he writes, channeling a talking point from 1992. This is the Achilles’ heel of any “liberals are the real racists” argument — in order to make it, you also have to make the blatantly racist argument that 90 percent of black people are gormless rubes.

The associations D’Souza attempts to draw between Democrats and Nazis in The Big Lie, which he promoted at the White House in August, are even more shoddily constructed. He takes a bit of truth — that Hitler looked to America’s policy of Manifest Destiny (which, remember, was completed in the Republican-dominated postbellum era) when planning his own lebensraum — and surrounds it with hoax stories, cherry-picked quotes and strategic omissions. He earnestly cites the debunked Planned Parenthood “baby-selling” video from 2015 in order to compare it to Josef Mengele. He quotes Franklin D. Roosevelt complimenting Mussolini (he called him an “admirable Italian gentleman” in the early 1930s) in order to make the case that the New Deal was identical to fascism, and then discounts Roosevelt’s leadership in World War II by arguing that Stalin deserves sole credit for defeating the Nazis — a left-wing argument that might offend D’Souza’s Cold War-reared audience if they had more than six months of working memory. This is one of many paradoxes inherent to D’Souza’s current crusade. Throughout his tortured arguments, he endorses sentiments — admitting the Civil War was fought over slavery, backing anti-discrimination laws, and downplaying the US role in the World Wars, to name a few — that would infuriate his readers if they were attributed to a liberal.

D’Souza’s attempts to lionize Trump and the Republican Party through pseudo-historical pageantry have made him a far-right celebrity, but Hillary’s America and The Big Lie are at odds with the Republican view of American history. In his post-conviction work, he excoriates America (or, euphemistically, “the Democrats”) for its unforgivable sins like an imagined Marxist professor in a conservative email forward. Meanwhile, the rest of the far-right is moving in the opposite direction. Nostalgia is in vogue, and the hallmarks of 19th century Democratic politics — the Confederacy, outright white nationalism, attempted nullification of federal laws — are seeing a critical reevaluation. It’s difficult to reconcile “Make America Great Again” with D’Souza’s timeline of American history, which draws a straight line from slavery to eugenics to the inequities of L.B.J.’s Great Society. If the Democrat-led era of postwar prosperity is off the table, what past “greatness” remains? The George W. Bush years?

When Trump hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, visited his tomb and defended Jackson on Twitter apropos of nothing, D’Souza responded with a cop-out: “I suspect Trump's take on Democrat Andrew Jackson is a roguish ploy to screw with the media,” he posted on his Facebook page. What about when Newt Gingrich, Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani all compared Trump to Jackson without a hint of irony? Is Trump’s brutal mass deportation of immigrants, the closest modern analogue to Jackson’s Trail of Tears, also a “roguish ploy”? Interestingly, Trump only began praising Andrew Jackson after he tweeted an endorsement of, and presumably watched, Hillary’s America. If anything, D’Souza seems to have turned Trump into an Andrew Jackson devotee. Nice work!

Paradoxically, the people most likely to read and watch D’Souza’s output — far-right “populists” like Trump — are the least likely to be repulsed by his depictions of America’s racist past. This is the central flaw in D’Souza’s hyper-partisan mythmaking. No matter how hard he tries to pin everything from slavery to the Holocaust on the modern Democratic Party, the true inheritors of past racist ideologies will always incriminate themselves. Democrats may have been the subjects of Confederate statues, but Democrats aren't holding torchlit Klan rallies to defend them.

Alex Nichols is a contributing writer at The Outline.