From cutting rooms to college campuses, one of the sharpest arrows in the quiver of right-wing provocateurs has been the charge that they are trivialized and victimized. But this weapon has lost its edge in the Trump era, as the president, his family members and his allies roll out the red carpet for figures whose propagation of hateful myths once placed them beyond the pale of mainstream American discourse.
On Wednesday, there was a literal red carpet, down which D’Souza walked with Donald Trump Jr., at the Washington premiere of D’Souza’s new documentary. The event was the latest illustration of how the president or his associates have breathed life into far-right theories with little or no basis in reality — theories that now enjoy a following among some members of the Republican Party who see themselves as most closely aligned with the White House.
The president’s eldest son told his 2.93 million Twitter followers that the film — the main argument of which is that President Trump is a modern-day Lincoln, while Democrats are the intellectual heirs of the agents of slavery and genocide — is “going to fire up Republicans for the midterms exploring how fascism so closely links to the platform of the progressive left today.”
D’Souza told Variety that he had invited some White House staff and also expected Cabinet members and lawmakers to show face.
“We’ll get a good crowd,” he promised.
Among the attendees, according to images posted on social media, were Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development who once tried to link Hillary Clinton to Lucifer, and David A. Clarke, Jr., the former sheriff of Milwaukee County who faced allegations that inmates were mistreated in his jails. Lee Stranahan, a reporter for the Kremlin-controlled Sputnik news agency, and Jack Posobiec, an alt-right troll who has been retweeted by the president, were also there.
Earlier in the week, in Los Angeles, a screening drew political aspirants, including Antonio Sabato Jr., a former underwear model and Republican congressional candidate in California who believes Barack Obama, who is Christian, is actually Muslim.
These were among the first viewers of a film that — based on reviews, online clips and D’Souza’s book of the same name — appears to be riddled with historical falsehoods, including the notion that Hitler was a liberal because he was LGBT-friendly, which he was not; the Nazis treated male homosexuality as a crime under paragraph 175 of the German penal code.
Observing that both Hitler and Italian fascist Benito Mussolini ran welfare states, the documentary leaps forward 80 years and asks in reference to today’s politicians, “Who are the real racists? Who are the real fascists?” It aims to link Democrats to slave owners and segregationists, ignoring the fact that the two parties swapped places on race in the mid-20th century, most decisively with the Democrats’ support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The film includes an interview with Richard Spencer, the white nationalist; clips borrowed from Project Veritas, the right-wing undercover sting operation; as well as some musical interludes, including a voice performance by D’Souza’s wife, Debbie.
The suspect history lesson forms the foundation of a call to arms. “Lincoln saved America for the first time,” an ominous voice in the trailer says. “It’s now up to us to save America a second time.”
“Death of a Nation” enjoys a zero percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Hollywood Reporter called it “painfully unendurable.”
“No one expects, of course, that D’Souza would make a thoughtful, balanced or historically accurate documentary,” the L.A.-based magazine noted. “But is it unreasonable to hope that he make one that doesn’t bore the pants off us?”
Variety’s chief film critic wrote that “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.”
The film, whose title recalls the controversial 1915 silent drama “The Birth of a Nation,” is D’Souza’s first to open nationwide. But it resembles his previous screeds against liberals. And the claims it makes are of a piece with D’Souza’s track record of inflammatory and inaccurate statements.
He has mocked teen survivors of gun violence, suggested that Obama may have “staged” the Charlottesville rally that ended in the death of a 32-year-old woman, associated the 44th president with the “ghetto” and labeled him the “grown-up Trayvon” in reference to the unarmed black teen fatally shot by a neighborhood watch captain in 2012.
These comments made D’Souza a pariah in most circles. But what made him a felon, prosecutors said, was promising two people that he would reimburse them if they donated $10,000 each to the Republican candidate challenging Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) in 2012. “I deeply regret my conduct,” D’Souza told the judge in federal District Court in Manhattan, who sentenced him in 2014 to five years of probation and a $30,000 fine.
Trump pardoned D’Souza in May, saying he had been “treated very unfairly by our government.” On Fox News, D’Souza said the president had told him, “Dinesh, you’ve been a great voice for freedom,” adding that the president had offered, “I got to tell you, man-to-man, you’ve been screwed.”
Whether the president will see “Death of a Nation” is unknown. He does, however, seem to desire association with Lincoln. At his rally Tuesday in Tampa, he told supporters he could be “more presidential than any president in history, except for possibly Abe Lincoln with the big hat.”