If you’re a liberal in America, you’ve seen your fair share of conservative spin. But you’ve probably never known the name of arguably the most influential right-wing propagandist of our time: Dinesh D’Souza.
Of the top 10 most lucrative documentaries of all time, three are his, outselling Academy Award-winning films like Bowling for Columbine and An Inconvenient Truth. He’s written over a dozen books and made countless TV and radio appearances, not to mention a Christmas tree commercial and a romantic relationship with Ann Coulter. (Not to mention a felony indictment for campaign finance fraud.)
Most importantly, he generates ideas and talking points that conservative pundits and politicians circulate for years to come.
And his next project, a film based on his best-selling book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left, is ripped straight from the headlines. It’s called The Big Lie, and if you’ve ever heard someone at a rally or on social media fire back that “antifa and the Democrats are the real fascists,” you’ve already encountered the book’s influence, which is sure to grow exponentially when the movie is released.
D’Souza’s central claim in the book is that liberals, Democrats and the left are the true Nazis and fascists in modern America. To exonerate President Donald Trump from any accusation of fascism, D’Souza lifts a handful of out-of-context facts, quotes and dictionary definitions to construct a revisionist history. What is fascism to D’Souza, really? Taxes, government programs, the Affordable Care Act and any attempt to rein in big business.
It is a book of fantastic monsters all conspiring in plain sight over the past half-century, evoked by D’Souza to frighten conservatives into believing that any threat to the free market is a world-historic plot to destroy America.
It’s not a work of history or scholarship so much as an explicit tool in a culture war. D’Souza admits freely that the book was written to equip conservatives with a rhetorical defense.
“[The left] had the race card and now they have the Nazi card, but they have no other cards left,” he writes. “If they lose this one, they lose their moral capital and are exposed for what they are — the bigoted, thuggish, self-aggrandizing thieves of our lives and liberties.”
Perhaps critiquing the book at all is a fool’s errand. D’Souza opens his argument by insisting that any denial of his uncomfortable truth, and any accusation of right-wing fascism, is just the Freudian process of psychological “transference,” projecting blame onto the real victims: conservatives.
“Blaming the victim is a lie, but a lie of a special type,” he writes in his introduction. “Normally lying is a distortion of truth. This applies to transference in the general sense of the term: The qualities of the patient are shifted to the therapist.”
In other words, if you find fault with D’Souza’s stunning revelations, it’s because you’re sick in the mind and stuck in denial. D’Souza is the doctor, and you’re petulantly rejecting his medicine.
Nevertheless, here we go.
To support the idea that fascism is a leftist ideology, D’Souza provides a few key items of evidence, most of which rest on taking early-20th-century fascists at their literal word. Nazis called themselves “national socialists”; therefore Hitler was a socialist. Mussolini railed against landowners and capitalists, therefore, Mussolini was anti-capitalist.
D’Souza flourishes in his characterization of fascism, in part, because fascism is difficult to define. Its greatest historians provide their own definitions, but one of the most highly cited and canonical descriptions comes from Robert Paxton, who wrote The Anatomy of Fascism and first exposed the collaboration of the Nazis with Vichy France, standing on trial against the regime as an expert witness.
Paxton’s single-sentence definition is a doozy, but it’s worth reading, mainly because of its elaborate description of fascism’s characteristics not as a philosophy of the left or right, but as a political behavior that intentionally transcends those boundaries:
A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Paxton told me in his home on Wednesday that fascists like Mussolini and Hitler certainly co-opted leftist rhetoric, but they did so in service to elite interests. Landowners and elites couldn’t remain unchallenged by populism after the first World War, and communism was on the rise. Fascism was a movement that could protect elite interests, but still use the populist energy of the era. (Sound familiar?)
“Fascism is the longed-for antidote to the left, and they’ve created this antidote partly by accepting mass society,” Paxton said.
Fascism was a movement that could protect elite interests, but still use the populist energy of the era.
In other words, populist change was coming to Europe. Fascism was a system that capitalists could embrace in order to put that zeitgeist to use for themselves. Sure, titanic companies like IG Farben had to bring their factories home and produce for the country’s domestic needs. But the alternative at the time was communism.
“Fascism comes along as a way of mobilizing a mass movement, which is anti-socialist or anti-communist,” Paxton said. “Socialism is a label, and they do some things for the workers; fascism was the barrier to communism.”
Paxton doesn’t endorse D’Souza’s simple accusation that fascism is simply an anti-capitalist regime and a “sister ideology” to communism. And so, D’Souza says, Paxton is just another partisan hack, using his “scholarly bona fides” to push the Big Lie along with Hollywood and the rest of academia. (Paxton says D’Souza never contacted him for comment for the book, even though Paxton is perhaps the most cited scholar in The Big Lie.)
Instead, D’Souza prefers the interpretations offered by conservative thinkers like Freidrick Hayek and Jonah Goldberg, who co-opted the charge of fascism to criticize welfare programs. D’Souza throws out authoritarianism, nationalism, and militarism one by one as defining features of fascism. Instead, he arrives at his own definition of fascism resting on three ideas: statism, collectivism and socialism.
This gets to D’Souza’s ultimate goal in The Big Lie, a goal reflected in the meta-narrative across D’Souza’s books, articles and films: that the Democrats are a civilizational threat to capitalism. D’Souza summons every available conservative boogeyman and historical demon — slave masters, the Nazis, the Klu Klux Klan, feminists, Hollywood elites and student radicals — and puts them in close collusion with the Democrats in order to usher in a socialist state.
Central to D’Souza’s grand unifying theory is the racist history of the old Democratic party, a favorite subject of D’Souza’s that he thoroughly explores in his blockbuster documentary Hillary’s America. The majority of this film is dedicated to reminding viewers that prior to the mid-20th century, Democrats were the party of slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan.
D’Souza says that if this doesn’t come up often, it’s not because it’s irrelevant to modern politics, but because of an alleged liberal coverup.
If you didn’t know, for example, that Andrew Jackson founded the Democratic Party — a fact that Google will surface automatically by searching the words “Democratic Party” — it’s because Democrats have tried to hide it from you, he argues.
No matter that the Democrats’ early history on these issues is barely relevant today. The two parties slowly traded places on racial politics throughout the 20th century, a well-documented historical phenomenon D’Souza considers totally bogus. D’Souza tortures the data to claim simply that this switch never happened.
This kind of poorly supported and illogical revisionism is everywhere in D’Souza’s work. He becomes the teller of all truths, giving the impression that he is imparting sacred knowledge upon intrepid thinkers, flattering their egos for not knowing basic facts about American history.
D’Souza’s comparison of modern Democrats to the Third Reich strains credulity even further. To him, the fascism of modern Democrats has less to do with the expansion of our deportation force and more to do with Saturday Night Live, Kathy Griffin, the cast of the broadway show Hamilton and the fact that ABC canceled Tim Allen’s sitcom.
D’Souza ends the book with a vision of apocalypse: a totalitarian left dedicated to “breaking our spirits,” who will soon “begin the familiar fascist process of ‘re-educating’ us.” D’Souza outlines a program of “De-Nazification” that conveniently boils down to the relatively boring, well-worn platform of mainstream Republicanism: repealing Obamacare, lowering the corporate tax rate and stacking the Supreme Court with more Republicans.
And then, in order to fight fascism, D’Souza argues that we need an extensive expansion of the police state and a military crackdown on leftist protest.
He imagines sending the National Guard to escort Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter to their heavily protested campus speeches, comparing them to the Little Rock Nine, and he says that colleges that don’t sufficiently accommodate these provocateurs should have their federal funding stripped.
Hot in the running for D’Souza’s most astounding claim is the idea that “broken windows” policing is key to Republicans winning back the black vote, which will allegedly appeal to African-Americans by making communities safer.
His final thoughts include a fantasy about putting former President Barack Obama in jail and issuing broad federal orders of retaliation against the left. D’Souza says that Republicans should find a “new willingness to use lawful force” and recommends Trump supporters tear up anti-fascist signs and posters. For the protesters rounded up by police on Inauguration Day, along with the journalists arrested while covering the riots, he suggests felony rioting charges with the strictest penalties.
“Once judges and juries start handing out five- and 10-year prison sentences, all this nonsense will quickly subside,” he writes in the final chapter.
These suggestions certainly seem to resemble the pursuit of redemptive violence to achieve internal cleansing. Didn’t that famous Martin Niemöller poem begin with, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, for I was not a socialist”?
But maybe that’s just Paxton’s secret liberal bias inching its way into my head. Maybe I’m part of the Big Lie now, too.
Or maybe I’m just projecting.