Oh, for the days when Dinesh D’Souza was just a self-righteous neoconservative scribe. In recent years, he has re-branded himself as a documentary filmmaker, and in the process he has become something even more outlandish: a right-wing conspiracy wingnut, the kind of “thinker” who takes off from Barack Obama birther theories and just keeps going, spinning out a web of comic-book liberal evil. D’Souza’s new film, “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party,” might be described as propaganda that shades off into paranoia. It asserts that the Democratic Party was single-handedly responsible for slavery, the genocidal killing of Native Americans, the Ku Klux Klan, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And D’Souza is just getting started. By the time he reaches Hillary Clinton, his twisted psychoanalysis — Hillary welcomed Bill’s womanizing because it allowed her to control him! — begins to sound like the ravings of a cult believer. The disquieting thing is that in 2016, “Hillary’s America” could turn out to be just seething and ahistorical enough to be another preaching-to-the-pitchfork-choir D’Souza hit.
The clearest sign that D’Souza has lost his bearings even as a propagandist arrives early on, when he uses his 2014 conviction for making illegal contributions to a U.S. Senate campaign to turn the movie into a limp “incendiary” chapter of “The Dinish D’Souza Story.” We see his trial, his arrival in a halfway house near San Diego (where he was sentenced to spend eight months), and the time that he did there, all staged as a dramatic re-enactment starring D’Souza himself along with a bunch of ham-handed thespians.
According to D’Souza, the indictment against him was cooked up by the Obama administration as payback for his 2014 documentary hit “Obama’s America.” But just as your jaw is dropping at the megalomania that underlies that claim (“If you make a film criticizing the most powerful man in the world, expect the empire to strike back”), you may find yourself giggling at D’Souza’s portrayal of himself as a political prisoner of The Man. He’s confined to what he portrays as the world’s most dangerous halfway house, and it’s there, in “prison,” where he is reborn — sort of like Malcolm X — with a new philosophy that he absorbs from the violent criminals around him.
The world, he learns, is comprised of gangs, and that includes politicians, especially the Democrats, who are the biggest gang of all. D’Souza’s voice is breathless on the soundtrack as he asks, “What if the goal of the Democratic Party is to steal the most valuable thing the world has ever produced? What if their plan is to steal… America?” (One thinks: They would need an awfully big boat.) D’Souza lists all the things that the Democrats intend to steal, and they include: the government, the banks, the media, the investment companies, the energy sector, every industry and small business, and all of our savings accounts and retirement funds. (“The thieves of America want to take it all.”)
The Fox News credo of being “fair and balanced” has always had a subtext of tweaking the liberal media. It’s a tit-for-tat way of saying, “Sure, we’re not really fair and balanced — but admit it, you’re not fair and balanced, either.” In that same up-is-down, the-truth-is-a-lie, reality-is-in-how-you-see-it way, it sometimes seems as if “Hillary’s America” is all an elaborate joke, and that D’Souza doesn’t actually believe the outlandish attack-job theories he’s peddling. Maybe he’s just trying to say: How does it feel when you guys are the villains? You don’t like it very much, do you?
Even here, though, D’Souza makes a mistake by devoting so much of the movie to his Alternative History of America, the one in which slavery somehow becomes a liberal sin, and in which Lyndon Johnson spearheaded all that Civil Rights legislation not to improve the lives of African-Americans but, rather, to keep them down. (D’Souza doesn’t deal with the moon landing, but if he did, it would surely be a conspiracy to control outer space staged by Democrats in collusion with the major banks and probably Stanley Kubrick.) The movie tries to do to the Democrats what D’Souza thinks the Democrats — and the liberal media, and whoever else is to blame — are doing to the Republicans; it turns them into the corrupt ones, the violators of history, the bad guys. But he provides scant evidence for any of his claims, apart from the obvious fact that in the 19th century, no political party in America had a lock on enlightened racial politics. As a filmmaker (he co-directed the movie with Bruce Schooley), D’Souza makes you feel like you’re trapped in some Scotch-tape agitprop version of the History Channel.
Eventually, he does come around to the alleged sins of a certain trail-blazing Democratic presidential candidate. It’s a rickety and predictable smear job, one that mixes in wisps of legitimate criticism — most of which have been made already in mainstream media — of the Clinton Foundation, along with a tiresome connect-the-dots intellectual conspiracy theory about how the sins of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama can all be traced back to the teachings of Saul Alinksy, the liberal-left founder of community organizing who, as a graduate student in Chicago in the 1930s, was friendly with Al Capone. Proof that the Democrats have been gangsters all along! Hillary, says D’Souza, is fueled by greed, deception, and the lust for power, but maybe one reason the movie’s wrathful Hillary-bashing feels weirdly innocuous is that we no longer need a film by Dinesh D’Souza to hear these claims. They’re all over the Internet every day.
If you believe in freedom, you want to see a spectrum of voices, and theoretically, at least, it should be a positive thing that D’Souza has found a home at the megaplex. Yet it should also give any sober citizen pause to see that he’s peddling movies that, at moments, are barely more grounded in historical reality than “X-Men: Apocalypse.” “Hillary’s America” is a slow-motion seizure of ideological rancor, served up in the filmmaker’s trademark style of wide-eyed schoolbook infamy. The only novelty here is that there’s been a subtle shift of emphasis in the D’Souza vision. It’s now really all about him.