Alex: I should start this with a disclaimer: We did not see a press screening of Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America. We contributed nearly $40 to the $4 million the film made at the box office last weekend by watching it with the people of Times Square, most of whom were over 60. (To be fair, we did see it at 4:30 on a Friday.) Do you feel guilty about that at all?
Jacob: I guess I have to! Or I do vicariously, on behalf of TNR, which bought the ticket. Great shame. $4 million, though, is only a modest haul for a D’Souza joint. 2016: Obama’s America, which, despite its title, came out in 2012, somehow managed to pull down more than $33 million, making it something like the right-wing Fahrenheit 9/11. He’s got an audience now, and it’s not just schlubby journalists indulging in ironic Friday afternoon entertainment. There’s some tranche of conservatives—white baby boomers who remain stubbornly loyal to the GOP, and have a skewed sense of social and cultural tolerance?—that he’s tapped into. I think it also helps that a lot of conservative entertainment, or docutainment or whatever this is, is just bad and unfunny, while D’Souza has refined his shtick into something amiable, conspiratorial, and not too high-brow. (I mean, I was surprised and creeped out at how heartily the audience laughed at jokes like, “What is it with Democratic politicians and vulnerable young women?”—a line that D’Souza delivers as Andrew Jackson forces one of his slave girls into bed with him.)
Alex: I was poking around Barnes & Noble on Monday and came across the book version of Hillary’s America—the novelization—and was struck by the blurb on its front cover, from Exorcist producer William Peter Blatty: “Utterly terrifying and based on a true story.” I thought that was a weirdly accurate description of what D’Souza has done with the historical record, though I wouldn’t exactly say that Hillary’s America was terrifying—the movie was too low-rent to be anything other than amusing.
I suppose a brief summary is in order. D’Souza’s main trick as a documentarian (if you can call him that) is his wide-eyed faux naivete. So the movie begins with him shocked—shocked!—to be going to prison for violating campaign finance laws. Violating campaign finance laws is hard to do in a post-Citizens United world! But this never comes up—instead, D’Souza argues that he is in jail because he made a movie that made President Obama look bad. In the first of many, many reenactments, a judge screams at him and sends him away for eight months. In prison, D’Souza makes a friend. And D’Souza’s friend is a guy who is in jail because he ran an insurance scam in which he sold life insurance to people and then murdered them and took the money. This is presented as being totally believable and realistic, even though it is obviously invented. And this guy’s scam leads Dinesh D’Souza to realize that there’s another, bigger scam out there, and it’s being perpetrated by the Democrats: They want to steal America. (If this sounds vague, that’s because it is.)
Of course his career as a right-wing provocateur is never really brought up. He is but a humble immigrant and truth-teller, locked up for a crime he...well, who cares about his crime?
The film then becomes a history of the Democratic Party. For D’Souza, the fact that the Democrats emphasize the last 50 years of their history means that there is a conspiracy. So he spends roughly 40 percent of the movie going through American history to prove that, actually, Democrats did all the bad stuff in American history. Indian removal and genocide? Check. Slavery? Check. The KKK? Check. Eugenics? Check.
Actually, before we get into our rich historical analysis, let’s just list some of the things that occur in this movie. Hillary’s America is an important document in many ways, but also, crucially, it contains some of the dumbest shit I’ve ever seen in any movie.
- Jonah Goldberg being trotted out to give a tutorial about why progressivism is the same as fascism is the same as communism.
- D’Souza giving a fist bump goodbye to the guard at the halfway house from which he’s been released.
- A ghost KKK guy riding a ghost horse flying out of the White House while Woodrow Wilson is watching Birth of a Nation.
- Teenage Hillary Clinton portrayed as if she were Tracy Flick if Tracy Flick liked to murder small animals.
Jacob: D’Souza is a master of historical elisions and ideological inversions, but his most impressive trick is his idea that the Republican and Democratic parties have not changed at all in 180-plus years. This allows him to say that the Democratic Party has always been rotten, a band of thieves little changed from Andrew Jackson to the Clintons.
Alex: Yes! And even though the basic outline of this “secret history” is very well known, D’Souza doesn’t discover the hidden truth in, say, Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself, or Ta-Nehisi Coates’s articles about the dark side of FDR’s housing policy. No, instead he sneaks into hidden parts of Democratic institutions. Literally. In fact he does this twice: First, he sneaks into the basement of some Democratic museum to discover the Democrats’ spooky, evil hidden history and agenda, and then he sneaks into Hillary Clinton’s “headquarters” to discover that she is a secret evil Democrat. But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. It’s worth taking some time to pick at D’Souza’s take on American history, which is rancid and manipulative, but totally in keeping with D’Souza’s long revisionist career.
Jacob: D’Souza is basically your average Republican responding to a Rachel Maddow post on Facebook. In his view, the Republicans are the true heroes of the civil rights movement, the real social justice warriors. Democrats, once slave owners, are now the party of political correctness, and political correctness is the same thing as owning slaves. He even states, in fact, that “no Republicans owned slaves,” and while this is, of course, totally dumb and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, it’s of a piece with the kind of blind Manichaeism Fox News is so into. You’re either with the Republicans (the good guys) or you’re with the Democrats (the bad guys).
Alex: The Republicans are heroes, yes, but only by default. They’re more or less absent from the film, as is anything remotely relevant that’s happened in the last 50 years. D’Souza can’t make any real claim that Republicans are the party of equal opportunity, because that would be insane, and even D’Souza’s “I can’t believe all this crazy stuff that I, a humble, genteel man, am learning” shtick couldn’t pull it off. In most of D’Souza’s claims, there’s a kernel of truth surround by a mountain of bullshit. For instance, the Democratic Party knows that being the defender of the welfare state and the social safety net helps it win elections. So when he reveals, ominously, that the Democrats’ dark goal is to win elections, he’s right. That’s the kind of thing political parties like to do. For D’Souza, though, the welfare state isn’t just a policy objective with electoral benefits—instead, it’s a massive social engineering policy designed to keep black people and immigrants in poor neighborhoods (which D’Souza, gleefully quoting from a passage in Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father, keeps calling “plantations”). In D’Souza’s film, poverty is a Democrat conspiracy and it’s one on par with eugenics: Democrats are trying to prevent the propagation of non-white races. That this directly contradicts his argument that Democrats use social welfare programs to “enslave” minorities, who they need to vote for them to stay in power, is never really addressed. But it’s a point forcefully made: Speaking of plantations, there are also a lot of scenes of women being whipped in this movie—most of the things in Hillary’s America are so poorly executed that they’re funny, but the segments on slavery are reprehensible.
Jacob: Yes, the Trail of Tears and slavery re-enactments were pretty unsettling. He seemed to have a little too much fun presenting scenes of vicious torture and violence, kind of like how Mad Men beats you over the head with casual racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism as a kind of proof of its historical authenticity.
Policy—and even politics—don’t really matter for D’Souza. He mentions post-Civil War constitutional amendments, but there’s no New Deal, no civil rights legislation, no reference to the fact that the Great Society was composed of actual laws and efforts to ameliorate certain societal ills. Historical evidence only has one function, and that’s to prove that the GODDAMN DEMOCRATS are trying to re-enslave society. If you scratch the surface any deeper than “Yeah go team GOP!!!!!”—much less run his historical summaries by Wikipedia—D’Souza’s arguments implode like a bad soufflé.
Yet at the same time, he presents himself as a “scholar” who is giving you the true version of American political history. In this way, he’s pretty savvy about tapping the conspiratorial, persecuted conservative mindset. His revisionist history appeals to these people precisely because it flatters them and doesn’t demand fact-checking. It tells them what they always wanted to know: that just by supporting the GOP and living their lives, they are actually on the side of the righteous—not just the self-proclaimed party of liberty and free market economics, but one that, according to D’Souza, has been the only bulwark against the malevolent, thieving designs of the evil Democrats for lo these many years. Pretty neat!
Alex: D’Souza’s stand-in is, funnily enough, Ida B. Wells, a radical Republican and pioneering feminist who took on the KKK. The idea of someone of Wells’s ideological makeup endorsing today’s Republican Party is unthinkable, but D’Souza doesn’t dwell on that much. Instead, he presents her as he himself would like to be seen: as someone who tells truth to power and takes incredible risks in doing so.
It’s a movie for people who are tired of being called racists, or being told that they’re on the wrong side of history. The old, white people who vote Republican and see D’Souza’s movies need to be pandered to.
Jacob: While I think you’re right that the movie spends significantly more time focusing on the Democratic Party, one thing that stands out about the film, especially in this election year, is the pride of place given to the Republican Party. There’s no mention of Donald Trump, much less any current GOP politician (that I can recall). D’Souza acts as if it’s the Republicans—not any single politician, not conservatism, but the GOP specifically—that will somehow save America. It’s a strange wagon to hitch your horse to, especially when the two major parties are so widely despised.
Alex: Oh god, Jacob, the movie is called Hillary’s America and we haven’t spoken about Hillary Clinton at all. That’s because she is both incidental and totally instrumental. It wasn’t obvious to me until I was like an hour in, but the whole reason why D’Souza bends over backwards to create his unified theory of the Democratic Party that loves to “steal” from Americans is that the theory is a work of very tenuous retro-fitting. The film’s fundamental claim is that Hillary Clinton steals things. And because Clinton steals, the entire Democratic Party is all about stealing, and it has been from its inception.
Because he is a very dumb man, D’Souza doesn’t even make a credible argument that Bill and Hillary are corrupt, even though in many ways it’s low-hanging fruit. Instead, like every fringe weirdo who comes after the Clintons does, he overreaches and invents an absurd conspiracy. (To D’Souza’s credit, Hillary’s America is so insane you almost forget that he is incredibly dumb.) It’s not enough for, say, the Clinton Foundation to have taken money from, say, Saudi Arabia—instead, Clinton is literally presented as selling America to foreign countries. Why? D’Souza never explains. As a Clintons skeptic, I think the real story is more interesting than this, but the real story is also complicated and doesn’t demand that Hillary Clinton be depicted as the anti-Christ (or even as Saul Alinsky’s daughter, still the most baffling right-wing smear). It’s complicated, and complicated is too much for D’Souza.
Jacob: Yes, and to that I’d add D’Souza’s invocation of Bill Clinton’s record of philandering and sexual assault allegations. Even if you like the Clintons, this is a pretty troubling aspect of their story Bill has a history of predatory behavior and Hillary has been a great defender of him, to the point of questioning and gaslighting victims’ accounts, especially in the early ‘90s. D’Souza plays a more recent clip of Hillary in which she says women, and assault victims in general, should be believed—a clear, and painfully ironic, shift from how she treated people like Juanita Broaddrick years ago. The Clintons, especially Bill, have never really answered for this stuff—the national farce of the impeachment aside—and it’s one of those harsh realities that even die-hard Clintonistas can’t explain away. But once again, we’re faced with D’Souza claiming a moral high ground that certainly doesn’t belong to Republicans, particularly on issues of sexual violence, reproductive rights, and so on.
Maybe his smug re-enactments betray his lack of moral seriousness. Let’s talk about D’Souza’s...cinematic...style. He re-dramatizes events from the past, but rather than using an actor, he plays himself. The effect is fairly weird. D’Souza becomes a participant-observer-bemused-tour-guide through his own life, so when he re-enacts his trial for breaking campaign finance laws, he can depict himself as a hapless victim of an over-charged judicial system. He’s just an anthropologist moving through the criminal semi-underworld, where—rather than learning anything about himself, criminal justice, or race and the law—he learns how to be a better criminal. This is the plot of many jailhouse movies, but D’Souza, in his infinite virtue, isn’t planning on committing more crimes. No, the rehab center becomes a place for him to analyze crime and project whatever he learns onto the REAL criminals, the Democrats.
Alex: I think that the best way to describe Hillary’s America is as a movie made by someone who has never seen a movie before. It certainly approximates a movie in a lot of ways. If someone described what a movie is to me I might make something like Hillary’s America, albeit hopefully less toxic, and with BAND YOU HATE subbed in for the Democrats. (BAND YOU HATE really is responsible for all of America’s crimes.) As a production, it reminded me a bit of the work done by Blumhouse Productions, the ruthlessly cheap studio behind The Purge franchise. There’s something exciting about how cheap it is. Or, I should say, there would be something exciting about it if it wasn’t both evil and dumb.
Jacob: And like Blumhouse Productions, we can assume that D’Souza’s movies will keep coming off the assembly line at a steady clip. The dude seems to know his way around Final Cut Pro, if not American history.