Far-right phony intellectualism: The secret of Dinesh D'Souza's success

Wingnuts obsessed with the culture war will always have a place (and credit card) for hucksters like Dinesh D'Souza

Published January 25, 2014 11:30AM (EST)

Dinesh D'Souza                      (Fox News)
Dinesh D'Souza (Fox News)

Late in the day on Thursday, Dinesh D'Souza, the right-wing author, pundit and filmmaker, was indicted in New York on charges of campaign fraud. According to the feds, D'Souza had knowingly wiggled his way around the $5,000 individual donation limit in order to provide Wendy Long, a college friend who was running for the U.S. Senate in New York as the Republican nominee, some $20,000. His alleged method was extremely simple: He asked other friends to give Long a maximum donation of $5,000 and then reimbursed them later.

D'Souza is innocent until proven guilty, of course, but comments released on Thursday from his lawyer seemed to indicate that he won't be putting up too strenuous of a fight. "Simply put, there was no ... knowledge by the candidate that campaign finance rules may have been violated," said D'Souza's attorney, Benjamin Brafman. "He and the candidate have been friends since their college days," Brafman added, "and at worst, this was an act of misguided friendship ..." As even the influential right-wing blogger and law professor Ann Althouse acknowledged, Brafman's statement "looks pretty much like a confession that D'Souza committed the criminal acts."

D'Souza was charged with two counts — one for making illegal campaign contributions and one for lying to the FEC — and if he's convicted for the maximum sentence for both, he could be looking at seven years in prison. I'm not a lawyer, so I can't speak to the likelihood of such an outcome. I only bring up the potential incarceration time to emphasize the seriousness of D'Souza's alleged transgression. This isn't jaywalking, or talking on a mobile phone while driving on the freeway.

As bad as this latest news is for D'Souza, the unfortunate reality for the former Reagan administration policy analyst is that this entanglement with law enforcement is merely the latest in a long line of recent public failures. After spending much of the 1990s enjoying the financial and social benefits of being embraced by America's right-wing ecosystem — writing in conservative magazines, speaking at conservative events, taking positions within conservative think tanks, and selling lots of books about conservatism (and the evils of liberalism) to conservative audiences — D'Souza's had a rougher go of it in the aughts.

He was never a mainstream figure, even during his '90s heyday, but sometime around the the latter-half of the 21st century's first decade, D'Souza receded further and further toward the far-right fringe. If there was a single tipping point, it was probably the release of his execrable 2007 book, "The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11," whose title tells you pretty much all you need to know. (It did give us this D'Souza interview with Colbert, though, for which we can be grateful.) That was an argument so hostile and unreasonable, so suffused with a neurotic and tribalist hatred, that it more or less negated itself with its own silliness.

D'Souza's trip to rock bottom wasn't a straight line, however. It's true that he went from being a right-wing pundit with a whiff of intellectual seriousness about him to becoming just another run-of-the-mill far-right demagogue, albeit with a larger vocabulary than most. But as Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh could tell you, if you hit your marks and balance seething resentment with a carnival barker's flair, you can make good money on the far-right fringes. A lot of it, in fact.

Thus did D'Souza add another talent to his repertoire, becoming a filmmaker with 2012's extremely successful — and utterly mendacious — "2016: Obama's America," a pseudo-documentary that argued Kenyan anti-colonialism was the key to understanding the 44th president. For a political documentary — for any documentary not made by Michael Moore, really — the film was absolute gangbusters at the box office, raking in somewhere around $33 million. Liberals laughed at it, sure, but conservatives on the whole adored it, and even persuaded themselves that it would make an impact on the 2012 election, as was its clear intent.

Yet this is exactly the moment when D'Souza's life began to truly unravel. The biggest shock was no doubt his ouster as president of King's College, a small evangelical school in Manhattan. D'Souza technically resigned, but it was almost immediately clear that he had been forced out as punishment for an act of sustained infidelity and hypocrisy that, in retrospect, is almost admirable for its unbridled chutzpah. D'Souza, a man who had spent a lifetime claiming the mantle of fundamentalist Christian purity as his own, was revealed to have been carrying on an engagement with one woman while still remaining married to another.

After the King's College affair, and until his recent run-in with the law, D'Souza had been mostly out of the news. There was a brief flash of attention following a tweet comparing President Obama to Trayvon Martin, but that was about it. Beyond allegedly trying to corrupt campaign finance laws — a feat the Center for American Progress' Ian Millhiser rightly mocked for being totally unnecessary in a post-Citizens United America — D'Souza was reportedly working on a follow-up to "2016," a joint release of both a new film and a new book, each sharing the title "America." Producers insist that D'Souza's legal troubles will not hinder the film's release.

Besides providing liberals, leftists and really all manner of reasonable people with varying degrees of schadenfreude, though, what does the rise and fall of Dinesh D'Souza really mean? Two things.

First, D'Souza's story tells us a lot about the farcical nature of intellectualism on the far right. D'Souza's original claim to fame, after all, was his ability to package the most lizard-brained sentiments of the right-wing id as if they were deserving of serious debate. He was masterful at flattering his audience and convincing them that their fear of minorities, homosexuals, feminists and all manner of out-group individuals was not only emotionally understandable but was in fact part of a coherent, noble and principled worldview. For those insecure enough to secretly crave the approval of the very cultural and intellectual elites they claimed to despise, D'Souza's patina of erudition was a godsend.

Second, D'Souza's continued financial success, despite being revealed as a hypocrite to rival Ted Haggard or Larry Craig, is a testament to the inestimable power of tribalism in American politics (mainly, but not solely, on the right). After his rebound from the scandal at King's College, it was clear that D'Souza would never lose hold of a significant audience of American people, just so long as he kept the bile flowing and the fear of outsiders properly piqued. For example: Although some of the more respectable members of the right-wing media (like National Review) have ignored his latest screw-up — as if their earlier celebration of the man was an embarrassing phase they'd rather forget — bellwethers of the base, like the Daily Caller or Matt Drudge, have rallied in his defense, insinuating (or outright claiming) that his arrest is an act of political repression on the part of the Democratic administration.

Ultimately, I fully expect D'Souza to bounce back once again from this personal disaster — just so long as we're defining "bounce back" in financial rather than intellectual or political terms. For those whose whole lives and self-identities are wrapped up in the culture war, D'Souza's value will never really diminish. He'll continue hawking his silly, angry and basically fearful movies and books; and people will continue buying. Once he gets out of this jam, Dinesh D'Souza will have plenty more money to donate to Republican candidates, too. But next time, he'll do it through a super PAC instead.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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