Dinesh D'Souza is a high-profile conservative writer whose books and films have gained notoriety for their diatribes about the "culture wars" and fear-mongering narratives about liberals. A former fellow at several rightist policy groups, including the Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, D'Souza is perhaps best known for his controversial 1991 bestseller Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, as well his 2012 documentary, 2016: Obama's America, which sought to raise fears that President Barack Obama's re-election would spell doom for the United States. D'Souza's resume also includes working briefly as a policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan and as an editor of Policy Review, a journal originally published by the Heritage Foundation.
D'Souza served as president of the evangelical King's College from August 2010 to October 2012, when he resigned in the wake of a scandal over purported marital infidelities, as well as after months of increasing pressure from the college's board of directors. According to one report, "It was not immediately clear whether the board's decision was driven by the allegations of the affair, or by dissatisfaction with D'Souza's leadership that had been building at the college for months. … According to several sources at the college, members of the King's faculty and board alike had grown unhappy with D'Souza's presidency over what they saw as a failure to earn his salary. D'Souza has spent much of the past few months promoting his documentary, 2016: Obama's America, and his high profile in the media was seen as rarely benefitting the college."
D'Souza faced new problems in early 2014, when he was arrested and indicted by federal prosecutors for allegedly running a "straw donor" scheme to raise money for a 2012 Republican Senate candidate. Prosecutors did not identify the candidate, but reporters noted that D'Souza's lone political contribution in that cycle had been a $5,000 donation to Wendy Long, a college friend of D'souza who lost a 2012 race against New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand in a landslide. D'Souza had reportedly attempted to raise up to $20,000 for Long by encouraging associates to donate to her campaign and then reimbursing them himself, in violation of limits on contributions an individual can make to a federal campaign.
The indictment "may be the low point of D'Souza's life and career," wrote D'Souza critic andSalon editor Elias Isquith, citing a litany of other woes faced by the writer. "D'Souza's departure from the King's College," he wrote, "was the symbolic end of his career in the institutional conservative movement, which had grown increasingly exasperated with his string of conspiratorial books that failed to live up to his reputation as a star of conservative scholarship. (One advanced the notion that America's moral decadence led to 9/11; another launched the meme, which has long since become a political punch line, that Obama was a 'Kenyan anti-colonialist.') D'Souza's tenure at the King's College was fraught with conflict, as some faculty members viewed him as a name-brand hire who lacked appropriate academic credentials and who was more interested in his own money-making projects than in fundraising for the college."
But D'Souza had some defenders, some of whom even suggested that the case was part of a conspiracy by the Obama administration against its critics. "We've seen multiple filmmakers prosecuted and the government's gone after them," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), a Tea Party favorite. "Whether it's the poor fellow that did the film that the president blamed Benghazi and the terrorist attacks on—turns out that wasn't the reason for the attack but the administration went and put that poor fellow in jail on unrelated charges. Just this week it was broken that Dinesh D'Souza, who did a very big movie criticizing the president, is now being prosecuted by this administration. Can you image the reaction if the Bush administration had went, gone and prosecuted Michael Moore and Alec Baldwin and Sean Penn?" Reporting on the conspiracy theories—which he called a "conspiracy of dunces"—Slate reporter David Weigel noted that actual election reporters who reviewed the contested donations "say they match up neatly" with the allegations made by federal prosecutors.
Pushing Obama Conspiracies
Through his writings and films, D'Souza has propagated a number of conspiratorial right-wing talking points about the Obama administration.
Although it was widely panned by mainstream observers, D'Souza's polemical 2012 documentary, 2016: Obama's America,became a major hit on the right-wing circuit. According to press reports, the film "trails only Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 as the highest-grossing U.S. political documentary."
The documentary is based largely on D'Souza's book The Roots of Obama's Rage, which argued that Obama has been shaped by the anti-colonial "Third World collectivism" purportedly espoused by his father. Attempting to reconcile this claim with the fact that Obama's father abandoned him shortly after birth, noted Washington Post film critic Michael O'Sullivan in August 2012, the film "trots out a professional psychologist to speculate on how the senior Obama's absence reinforced his influence, rather than weakened it. D'Souza makes it all sound almost plausible, but only if you're predisposed to believe that Obama hates America." Added O'Sullivan, "D'Souza's one-sided argument ultimately stoops to fear-mongering of the worst kind, stating in no uncertain terms that, if the president is reelected, the world four years from now will be darkened by the clouds of economic collapse, World War III (thanks to the wholesale renunciation of our nuclear superiority) and a terrifyingly ascendant new 'United States of Islam' in the Middle East. These assertions are accompanied by footage of actual dark clouds and horror-movie music."
In The Roots of Obama's Rage, D'Souza claims that his theory about the impact of Obama's absent father accounts for the president's choices better than any "rival theory can even begin to do." However, according to a review of the book by the liberal Media Matters for America, D'Souza's entire argument is "premised upon a series of false and misleading claims." Among the falsehoods and inappropriate characterizations Media Matters identified are the claim that Obama's push for a "nuclear-free world" is evidence of his "anti-colonialism" (if true, than Ronald Reagan was also an anti-colonialist); that Obama initiated the auto and financial industry bailouts (both efforts were begun by President George W. Bush); and, inter alia, that Obama supported the release of the Lockerbie bomber (the Obama administration publicly opposed it).
Despite the book's bizarre claims and theories, it nevertheless received lots of press coverage and was endorsed by several conservative heavyweights, like Newt Gingrich, who called the book "brilliant" and possessed of the "most interesting insight." Commenting on both D'Souza's book and the attention it received, David Weigel wrote, "D'Souza's book, The Roots of Obama's Rage, is a mess. His most memorable previous books were messes, too. Every time he publishes a new mess, it gets the full Pastor Jones treatment in the respectable press. That's had basically no effect on his ability to get published or his ability to get onto the stage at conservative conferences. But it is good for liberals. D'Souza was the first modern conservative author to discover—the hard way—that if you want to be a pundit, there is no downside to making a reprehensible argument. The downside comes for the people who may agree with your politics but not your argument."
After the film's release, D'Souza became embroiled in a lawsuit over assets from the production of film, with a partner accusing D'Souza of using assets for personal reasons, which D'Souza denied.
Over the years, D'Souza's writings have offered right-wing viewpoints on a range of cultural and political issues.
D'Souza's first major work was 1991's Illiberal Education, published in 1991, which helped inaugurate a backlash against so-called "political correctness" at U.S. universities. D'Souza argued that academic efforts to accommodate students of color and members of other marginalized groups, as well as efforts to diversify curriculum so that non-Western cultures received more attention, ultimately resulted in a dumbing down of higher education. Although credited with shedding light on instances of academic censorship, Illiberal Education was criticized by many observers for being tendentious, facile, and disingenuous. In a review published by the New York Review of Books, Louis Menand wrote that the tone adopted by D'Souza in the book is "of a man who is curious about the reports he has been hearing of campus strife over issues involving race and sex, and who, as a friend to liberal learning, is sympathetic to all the parties involved (or nearly all, for he cannot find a good word to say about homosexuality)." However, Menand pointed out, the truth is that D'Souza has never been a friend of liberalism, having been associated with a number of rightist projects since has undergraduate days at Dartmouth College.
In 2007, D'Souza published one of his most controversial works, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. As its title suggests, the book is a harangue about how the "appeasement" policies of liberal leaders—beginning with the Carter administration in the late 1970s and continuing through what D'Souza called the left's "aggressive global campaign to undermine the traditional patriarchal family"—helped set the stage for the radical Islamic antipathy toward America that ultimately led to 9/11.
Many commentators and public figures pointed out the irony of D'Souza's sympathetic treatment of Osama bin Laden in a book dedicated to blaming his work on the left. Bin Laden, one reviewer noted, is described in the book as "a quiet, well-mannered, thoughtful, eloquent and deeply religious person" who had "not launched a single attack against Israel." According to Publishers Weekly, D'Souza accuses liberals of "team[ing] up with Hollywood and the U.N. to foist an irreligious, sexually licentious, antifamily liberal culture—epitomized by Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues and gay marriage initiatives—on a Muslim world that rightly reviles it. By deliberately attacking Islamic values, the left tacitly allies itself with al-Qaeda in its effort to defeat Bush's war on terror and thus discredit conservatism at home." The book apparently gave little treatment to the role of U.S. foreign policy itself.
Wrote Alan Wolfe in the New York Times, "I never thought a book by D'Souza, the aging enfant terrible of American conservatism, would, like the Stalinist apologetics of the popular front period, contain such a soft spot for radical evil. But in The Enemy at Home, D'Souza's cultural relativism hardly stops with bin Laden. He finds Ayatollah Khomeini still to be 'highly regarded for his modest demeanor, frugal lifestyle and soft-spoken manner.' Islamic punishment tends to be harsh—flogging adulterers and that sort of thing—but this, D'Souza says 'with only a hint of irony,' simply puts Muslims 'in the Old Testament tradition.' Polygamy exists under Islamic law, but the sexual freedom produced by feminism in this country is, at least for men, 'even better than polygamy.' And the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statement that the West has a taboo against questioning the existence of the Holocaust, while 'pooh-poohed by Western commentators,' was 'undoubtedly accurate.'"
Pointing to D'Souza's plea for "decent liberals" to join with him in a crusade against the American left, Wolfe's quips at the end of his review: "So let this 'decent' liberal make perfectly clear how thoroughly indecent Dinesh D'Souza is. Like his hero Joe McCarthy, he has no sense of shame. He is a childish thinker and writer tackling subjects about which he knows little to make arguments that reek of political extremism. His book is a national disgrace, a sorry example of a publishing culture more concerned with the sensational than the sensible. … I look forward to the reaction from decent conservatives and Republicans who will, if they have any sense of honor, distance themselves, quickly and cleanly, from the Rishwain research scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University."
D'Souza is the author of a number of other books, including The End of Racism, a 1995 national best-seller that criticizes the "civil rights industry" and argues that racism is largely a Western creation and that achievement gaps between races are due mainly to cultural differences. Other titles include Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader (Free Press, 1997), What's So Great About America (Regnery, 2002), Letters to a Young Conservative (Basic Books, 2003), and What's So Great About Christianity (Regnery, 2007).
Discussing the series of books D'Souza wrote between 1995 and 2010, Slate's Dave Weigel wrote: "The start of the D'Souza phenomenon came in 1995, when he published The End of Racism. Written to ride the wave of books and articles that called for white America to get over its racial guilt, it included lines like the 'American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well.' It was so sloppy and unconvincing that it killed the genre for a few years; it's a 700-page doorstop by a one-time AEI scholar that no one cites today. The next D'Souza implosion came in 2007, with the publication of another book that killed its genre. The Enemy at Home consisted of an argument that the 'left' was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. That was an irresistible hook for a publisher, especially after the public had turned on the Bush administration and the war on terror. But D'Souza made such a hash out of it that the people who had danced around the left-and-9/11 idea realized how deeply stupid it was. Victor Davis Hanson joined the mob and pointed out, as politely as he could, that D'Souza's enemies list was 'nonsensical.' So The Roots of Obama's Rage is D'Souza's third pseudo-academic swing for the fences. In the book … he strikes out."