In “Death of a Nation,” the latest smirky documentary screed from the fake-historical-news factory of Dinesh D’Souza, there’s an astonishing section in which the filmmaker displays the legal statutes of Nazi Germany, all to demonstrate his thesis: that American liberalism was, and is, the Third Reich’s ideological sibling. (Yes, he’s really saying that. And no, you can’t make this s—t up.)
“Check out the official Nazi platform!” says D’Souza, whose recitation of the official Nazi platform is just about the only set of facts “Death of a Nation” gets right. Here are a few of the regulations he quotes: “Money lenders and profiteers punished by death…State control of media and the press…Seizure of land without compensation…State control of religious expression.” Then D’Souza, in his sing-song hey kids, let me tell you a story about history! way, makes the following statement: “This reads like something jointly written by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders!” And all you can think is: It does? In “Death of a Nation,” Dinesh D’Souza is no longer preaching to the choir; he’s preaching to the mentally unsound. That’s how detached from reality his “philosophy,” his armchair rage, and his passionate and consuming desire to be a radical-right shill have become.
It’s tempting to call “Death of a Nation” an outrage, but, of course, that’s just what D’Souza wants. Scandalous untruth isn’t simply his métier — it’s his PR machine. The more that mainstream journalists go into high dudgeon over his lies and his mud-slinging, the more that he can feed the bonfire of the culture war. It’s the formula that was put in place 30 years ago by right-wing talk radio, and that Fox News honed to a crude edge of firebrand theatrics: If your agenda is to stoke resentment and create cartoon enemies, then you don’t need to be accurate. Just reduce every conflict to the status of a mythological action movie (Freedom fighters vs. socialists! Kick-ass leaders vs. wimp diplomats! “Real” Americans vs. immigrants!), and you’ve turned politics into a perpetual celebrity death match. The facts don’t matter; only the showbiz addiction of the fight matters. That and the chance to let viewers get their rage-fueled rocks off.
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That’s how brainwashing works in a nation that has begun to distort reality from the top down. And it’s the way that Dinesh D’Souza has always worked, going back to his campus days as a red-meat-dweeb conservative at Dartmouth. But in “Death of a Nation,” you can feel D’Souza standing on the shoulders of Donald Trump’s ascendance to shoot the works in a way that’s even more shameless than anything he has done before. He recaps bits of liberal-bashing dogma from his three previous documentaries, “2016: Obama’s America” (2012), “America: Imagine the World Without Her” (2014), and “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party” (2016), but “Death of a Nation” breaks through to a whole new slime-o-sphere of over-the-top ideological libel.
The film’s demented thesis is that postwar American liberalism is nothing more than Nazism in drag. “American progressives cheered Hitler’s rise to power,” says D’Souza in his gee-whiz faux-professorial tones, as if he were stating a fact. The movie then goes on to make the following assertions: that Hitler was a left-wing zealot whose violent dictatorship expressed his immersion in “bohemianism,” as indicated by the fact that “Hitler and Lenin both frequented the same pub”; that Josef Mengele, the monster of Auschwitz, was a “progressive” because he performed abortions in South America after the war; that FDR and Hitler were a mutual admiration society, because they “recognized each other as fellow progressives”; that Hitler stole the idea of exterminating the Jews from the genocide of Native Americans, which D’Souza blames — entirely — on the Democratic Party; and that, leaping ahead several decades, the dog-whistle racism known as the Southern strategy, started by Republicans of the Nixon era to win the votes of Southern Democrats (a tactic that several of Nixon’s henchmen are on the record, via the White House tapes, as having acknowledged), never happened.
It may be irrelevant to ask whether D’Souza believes this garbage. Maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t, but either way, like his idol Trump, he’s a huckster playing truth games. He’s saying, in essence, “Look what I can get away with! In the post-reality society, I can say anything I want to make liberals squirm!” He’s also saying, of course, that his fans are the sort of vitriolic dittoheads who will follow him off any cliff. “Death of a Nation” is a conspiracy tome made in a tabloid frenzy, but that’s why it will probably be another of D’Souza’s megaplex success stories. These days, scandalous “news” like “FDR: Secret Nazi Sympathizer!” sells more easily than real history.
D’Souza, working for the second time with co-director Bruce Schooley, may be a primitive documentarian, but he’s a canny self-promoter who isn’t above recapping Trump’s election victory, complete with endless nose-thumbing montages of liberal pundits in speechless agony, and adding the thought, “I was happy he won. My film ‘Hillary’s America,’ an expose of Hillary and the Democratic Party, played a role!” A lot of the film is D’Souza reading thoughts from his books “The Big Lie” and “Death of a Nation,” as we see images of him wandering around New York in a long winter coat, looking pensive. He’s the right-wing academic troll who cares!
D’Souza still trots out the half-baked baloney that he’s been selling, like an oily lawyer, for years. His favorite gambit is to acknowledge the sins of America that get liberals most incensed (like institutional racism), only to “turn the tables” and blame those same sins on the left, equalizing every action of the Democratic Party from the days of Reconstruction through the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, and doing it with a connect-the-dots fairy-tale logic as smug as it is simplistic. The fact that Abraham Lincoln, America’s greatest president, was a Republican is used as proof of the eternal honor of D’Souza’s side. In “Death of a Nation,” he photographs an actor playing Lincoln in sweeping-his-hand-through-the-wheat-field shots, hailing Lincoln as a noble “disruptor,” who is therefore just like that other disruptor, Donald Trump.
The sin of slavery, according to D’Souza, is that it was “socialism”: all part of the great Democratic plot to separate people from their earnings. Therefore, according to the film, the real crime of American slavery had nothing to do with race; it was all about stealing labor. That’s an obscene argument — and in its ugly way, a preposterous one. Yet it allows D’Souza to make a racist case against liberal “racism” while winking at his own racism. That’s quite a feat of hater jiu-jitsu.
After slavery and Nazi genocide, is there anything left for D’Souza to blame on the Democrats? (His next documentary should be about how serial killers are secret socialists.) Of course, the key strategy of “Death of a Nation” is that it’s all an elaborate diversionary tactic. D’Souza’s bogus conflation of liberalism and Nazism is really his way of denying the white-supremacist appeal that runs right down the middle of the Trump presidency. At one point, amid all the fringe academics he interviews, D’Souza sits down with Richard Spencer, the white supremacist and alt-right crusader who came to mainstream prominence when he led the May 13, 2017, riots in Charlottesville.
Spencer is not your father’s ironically presentable racist demagogue (i.e., David Duke). He’s strikingly urbane — he looks and sounds like a Soho art-gallery assistant from the early ’90s. And since there’s a clear overlap between the racism he led in Charlottesville and the die-hard fervor for Donald Trump, D’Souza does his most tortured ideological backflip to prove that Spencer, in fact, has nothing at all to do with Trump. According to D’Souza, Spencer is another of those dreaded “progressives” whose dream of a white America is all about state control. Spencer = Hitler = Bernie Sanders = The Easter Bunny. In “Death of a Nation,” Dinesh D’Souza stretches the truth in a way that makes your head hurt (and your stomach turn), though his most outlandish feat is to roundly condemn a white supremacist, yet entirely for the wrong reasons. He can’t even a hate a hater without doing it hatefully.