clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Dinesh D'Souza, America's greatest conservative troll, explained

Here's how he went from being a respected conservative intellectual to a conspiracy-minded felon.

Dinesh D'Souza, speaking at the "United We Stand" rally in Phoenix.
Dinesh D'Souza, speaking at the "United We Stand" rally in Phoenix.
Gage Skidmore
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

On May 31, President Donald Trump, one of America’s premiere conservative trolls, decided to pardon Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative writer and documentarian whose penchant for trolling and needling liberals, and embracing conspiracy theories in the process, rivals that of Trump himself.

If that comparison seems unfair, just watch the trailer for D’Souza’s 2016 film, Hillary’s America:

It references D'Souza's past conviction for violating campaign finance law (for which Trump is pardoning him), portraying his prosecution as a politically motivated witch hunt, and seeks to tie the current Democratic party to the Ku Klux Klan and slaveowners (Democrats were historically the pro-segregation, pro-slavery party until the parties flipped on race around 1964).

It features a cameo from Jonah Goldberg, the National Review writer best known for his universally discredited attempt to equate New Deal liberalism with European fascism. It's peppered with over-the-top voiceovers by D'Souza — "What are these Democrats hiding?"; "What if the goal of the Democratic party is to steal the most valuable thing the world has ever produced? What if their plan is to steal America?" — over an ominous, melodramatic score.

This kind of silliness and purposeful provocation on race is D'Souza's bread and butter. See this tweet from 2015:

After people on Twitter pointed out that this is extremely racist, D'Souza replied with the most tepid of quasi-apologies:

Someone with only a light exposure to D'Souza's oeuvre might be tempted to dismiss this and Hillary's America as ludicrous attention grabs from a fringe criminal, and perhaps they'd be right to do so.

But D'Souza was for decades a member in good standing of American conservative intellectual life, who served in the Reagan administration; was affiliated with serious, respected conservative think tanks; and was a big player in the campus right's 1980s rise to prominence. In 2007, that suddenly started to change, and his work took on a more conspiratorial, hyperbolic tone, culminating in stuff like the Obama selfie stick tweet.

At the same time, D'Souza's work has become more popular, and arguably even more influential. And throughout, he's expressed same attitude toward race displayed in that tweet. And now, with Trump as president, D’Souza is finally being welcomed back into the conservative mainstream, as a pioneer of the kind of politics our president has brought to the national stage.

Here's a basic primer on who D'Souza is, and how he got to this point.

1) Who is Dinesh D'Souza?

dinesh d'souza
Dinesh D’Souza speaking at the “United We Stand” rally in Phoenix, Arizona.
Gage Skidmore

Dinesh D'Souza is an American conservative writer and commentator. He briefly worked in the Reagan White House on domestic policy issues from 1987 to 1988; has served as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Hoover Institution; and was president of The King's College, a small evangelical school in Manhattan, from 2010 to 2012.

But D'Souza is probably best known for his writing. He's written 16 books, many of them best-sellers, most of which either critique liberal attitudes on race and gender (Illiberal Education, The End of Racism), defend the concept of America against perceived enemies (What's So Great About America, America: Imagine a World Without Her), or defend orthodox Christian theology (What's So Great About Christianity, Life After Death: The Evidence).

He's also taken a turn into documentary filmmaking in recent years. His 2012 film 2016: Obama's America is the fourth-best-performing documentary at the box office ever, and the second-best-performing political documentary after Fahrenheit 9/11. He followed it up with America: Imagine the World Without Her, based on the book of the same name, which was released in 2014.

2) How did D'Souza's career start?

D'Souza first came to prominence as a student at Dartmouth (he graduated in 1983), where he was one of the first editors of the Dartmouth Review, a still-extant conservative campus publication. During his time there, the Review:

The last of those incidents prompted then-classmate and future Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to go up to D'Souza at a coffee shop and ask him "how it felt to be such a dick," an event Geithner recounted in his memoir Stress Test and in an interview with Vox:

After graduating from Dartmouth, D'Souza moved to Princeton, New Jersey, to edit a small magazine called Prospect, which targeted Princeton students and was overseen by a conservative alumni group, Concerned Alumni for Princeton, that counted future Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito among its members. D'Souza's most infamous article at Prospect concerned a freshman whose mother had stopped paying tuition upon discovering her daughter was having sex with a fellow student. D'Souza was outraged that Princeton offered the student financial aid after her mother stopped supporting her. Students reacted poorly to the violation of their classmate's privacy, organizing a petition condemning D'Souza.

From Prospect, D'Souza moved to the magazine Policy Review, then affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, and from there to the Reagan administration. He opted to go to AEI rather than join the George H. W. Bush administration, and started writing his most successful books there before leaving for the Hoover Institution in 2001, where he remained until 2007.

3) What does D'Souza believe?

Probably the best way to interrogate D'Souza's beliefs is by going through what his major books argued.

Illiberal Education (1991) is a fairly standard-issue critique of what D'Souza deems "political correctness" on college campuses, focusing in particular on affirmative action policies in both student admissions and faculty hiring, and on what D'Souza saw as an abandonment of the traditional Western canon through the inclusion of more modern female, non-white, and non-heterosexual writers. The book got a largely respectful reception, with Tom Wolfe, Robert Bork, and most strikingly Morton Halperin (then the ACLU's DC director and a fairly down-the-line liberal) providing blurbs. Nancy Dye, then an English professor at Vassar, was less positive, writing in the New York Times, "Mr. D'Souza has constructed his argument by cobbling together anecdotal accounts of campus incidents."

The End of Racism (1995) was considerably more incendiary. Here are a few lines from the book:

  • "Was slavery a racist institution? No. Slavery was practiced for thousands of years in virtually all societies … Thus slavery is neither distinctively Western nor racist."
  • "In summary, the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well."
  • "Am I calling for a repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Actually, yes. The law should be changed so that its nondiscrimination provisions apply only to the government."
  • "Segregation … represented a compromise on the part of the Southern ruling elite seeking, in part, to protect blacks." [Emphasis D'Souza's.]
  • "If racism is not the main problem for blacks, what is? Liberal antiracism."
  • "Racism originated not in ignorance and fear but as part of an enlightened enterprise of intellectual discovery."
  • "The civil rights establishment has a vested interest in the persistence of the underclass."
  • "The main contemporary obstacle facing African Americans is neither white racism, as many liberals claim, nor black genetic deficiency, as Charles Murray and others imply. Rather it involves destructive and pathological cultural patterns of behavior: excessive reliance on government, conspiratorial paranoia about racism, a resistance to academic achievement as 'acting white,' a celebration of the criminal and outlaw as authentically black, and the normalization of illegitimacy and dependency."
  • "Evidence for the old discrimination has declined, but there are many indications that black cultural pathology has contributed to a new form of discrimination: rational discrimination. High crime rates of young black males, for example, make taxi drivers more reluctant to pick them up, storekeepers more likely to follow them in stores, and employers less willing to hire them. Rational discrimination is based on accurate group generalizations that may nevertheless be unfair to particular members of a group."

The book got a respectful hearing in some corners; historian George Frederickson called it the "most thorough, intelligent, and well-informed presentation of the case against liberal race policies that has yet appeared" in the New York Review of Books. By contrast, philosopher Richard Rorty wrote a takedown for the New York Times, consisting largely of direct quotations from the book, and concluding, "Conceivably somebody could make a case for the claim that white Americans are now entitled to relax, go color-blind, and let the African-Americans rebuild their culture on their own. Mr. D'Souza has not even begun to make it." Economist Glenn Loury and community activist/Paul Ryan mentor Robert Woodson, who are both black, resigned their posts at AEI in protest of the book.

The Virtue of Prosperity (2000), released in the midst of the dot-com boom, is a celebration of the new wave of capitalism, and in particular the fact that going into business and making money is "seen as cool." He is even enthusiastic about biological enhancements to human life, musing that perhaps "the history of our species can be written with the epitaph that we tried out humanity, found it wanting, and opted for something better." The book, understandably, caused much less of a stir than The End of Racism had, but as Slate's Tim Noah noted at the time, it's notable for containing a critique of the very idea of equality of opportunity. It's unfair, D'Souza argues, for the state to deny his daughter the edge he's attempted to give her through sending her to great schools, offering her ballet and chess lessons, and so on:

Now, to enforce equal opportunity, the government could do one of two things: it could try to pull my daughter down, or it could work to raise other people's children up. The first is clearly destructive and immoral, but the second is also unfair. The government is obliged to treat all citizens equally. Why should it work to undo the benefits that my wife and I have labored so hard to provide? Why should it offer more to children whose parents have not taken the trouble?

What's So Great About America and Letters to a Young Conservative followed, but D'Souza's next major book was 2007's The Enemy at Home.

4) What was The Enemy at Home and why was it so controversial?

The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 argues exactly what its name implies. "In faulting the cultural left, I am not making the absurd accusation that this group blew up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," he writes. "I am saying that the cultural left and its allies in Congress, the media, Hollywood, the nonprofit sector, and the universities are the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world. The Muslims who carried out the 9/11 attacks were the product of this visceral rage."

He provides an actual list of the people he's blaming at the end of the book, breaking them up into the Congressional Left (Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Mikulski); the Intellectual Left (Eric Hobsbawm, Cornel West, Tony Judt); the Hollywood Left (Barbra Streisand, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda); the Activist Left (Michael Moore, George Soros, Mumia Abu-Jamal); the Foreign Policy Left (Gore Vidal, Seymour Hersh, Jimmy Carter); and the Cultural Left (Al Franken, Salman Rushdie, Ellen Willis). What's the Matter with Kansas? author Thomas Frank has the distinction of appearing twice, as a member of both the Intellectual and Cultural Left.

The Enemy at Home was rejected by much of the conservative movement, not least because of the implication that D'Souza agrees with some Islamist critiques of Western culture. For instance, D'Souza writes, "the political right and the Islamic fundamentalists are on the same wavelength on social issues," and, "Yes I would rather go to a baseball game or have a drink with Michael Moore than with the grand mufti of Egypt. But when it comes to core beliefs, I'd have to confess that I'm closer to the dignified fellow in the long robe and prayer beads than to the slovenly fellow with the baseball cap."

National Review hosted a symposium on the book that was overwhelmingly negative. Roger Kimball, who had issued a glowing review of Illiberal Education, wrote, "The problem with The Enemy at Home is … well, everything." Military historian Victor Davis Hanson wrote, "It is the singular achievement of D’Souza that his bizarre writ has for a moment earned universal condemnation from those who can agree on little else." Liberals, of course, joined in the critique. "Ordinarily … I would never equate hard-right views on [social issues] … with the rantings of an Islamist terrorist," Noah wrote. "I do so now only because D'Souza has written an entire book encouraging me to do just that."

By the end of the year, D'Souza had left the Hoover Institution, a development that Newsweek's David Sessions, in a profile of D'Souza, suggests was hardly accidental.

BONUS QUESTION - Can I get a music break?

Sort of? There's no obvious musical accompaniment to D'Souza's career, but this is better, I promise. D'Souza appeared in an infomercial for his friend Bruce Schooley's invention, the Fliptree: a pre-lit, multi-component artificial Christmas tree designed to be easy to move and store. It's delightful:

Thanks to Elon Green for the pointer.

5) What is D'Souza's view of Barack Obama?

Not positive! D'Souza has a distinctive grand unifying theory of Obama, expressed in a 2010 Forbes feature; his books The Roots of Obama's Rage, America: Imagine a World Without Her, and Obama's America: Unmaking the American Dream; and his two documentaries. He rejects the frequent conservative attack that Obama is a European-style (or perhaps Alinskyan) socialist at heart, arguing instead that Obama is best understood through the lens of anticolonialism, in particular Kenya's struggle against British imperialism.

Obama was taught by his father, D'Souza argues, to view the US as an imperialist actor trampling upon states both through outright war (as in Vietnam or Iraq) and through economic exploitation, a natural successor to the more formal role that the British Empire played in much of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. "From a very young age and through his formative years, Obama learned to see America as a force for global domination and destruction," D'Souza writes. "He came to view America’s military as an instrument of neocolonial occupation. He adopted his father’s position that capitalism and free markets are code words for economic plunder."

Everything Obama does can be understood in light of these fundamental commitments, D'Souza believes: "Why support oil drilling off the coast of Brazil but not in America? Obama believes that the West uses a disproportionate share of the world’s energy resources, so he wants neocolonial America to have less and the former colonized countries to have more … Obama supports the Ground Zero mosque because to him 9/11 is the event that unleashed the American bogey and pushed us into Iraq and Afghanistan. He views some of the Muslims who are fighting against America abroad as resisters of U.S. imperialism."

As was the case with The Enemy at Home, many conservatives rejected D'Souza's theory as preposterous, noting that there are plenty of other, much more plausible explanations for why the Democratic president has pursued policies roughly in line with the Democratic platform, and that Obama's memoir made it very clear that he, far from wanting to emulate his father's politics, was deeply disappointed in him.

In a particularly pointed piece, The Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson identified "misstatements of fact, leaps in logic, and pointlessly elaborate argumentation" throughout the book. "There is, indeed, a name for the beliefs that motivate President Obama, but it’s not anticolonialism; it’s not even socialism. It’s liberalism!" he writes. "Nearly everything that Obama has done as president, including the policies that D’Souza cites as proof of his inherited anticolonial ideology, would have been as eagerly pursued by President John Edwards or President John Kerry."

For liberals, meanwhile, "Kenyan anticolonialist" became something of a punchline. Matt Steinglass at the Economist decided to turn the tables on D'Souza and concocted a byzantine explanation for D'Souza's conservatism, based upon his family's caste, Catholicism, and position within the Portuguese Indian territory of Goa, that is just as unnecessary as D'Souza's explanation for Obama's liberalism. James Mann at the New Republic added, for good measure, "anti-colonialism is itself not exactly alien to American traditions; our country was founded on it."

But some important conservatives took D'Souza seriously. In 2010, Newt Gingrich called his argument "the most profound insight I have read in the past six years about Barack Obama," adding, "Only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior can you piece together [Obama’s actions]. That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior."

6) What are these D'Souza scandals from a few years back?

There are two D'Souza scandals, more or less. The first came and went in 2012, when World Magazine — a prominent evangelical publication — reported that D'Souza had been spotted at a conference with a woman who wasn't his wife. He repeatedly introduced her as his fiancée, despite the fact that he was still married, and checked into a nearby hotel with her. Court records show that he only even filed for divorce the day that World called him for comment. D'Souza wound up resigning his role as president of King's College. The scandal was complicated by the fact that World's editor-in-chief, Marvin Olasky, had left his role as King's provost upon D'Souza's appointment as president, and the reporter writing the story, Warren Cole Smith, had been a consultant to the school before being let go by D'Souza.

The second, much more significant scandal involves payments he made to his mistress (who he has since broken up with) and her husband, as well as another couple, to reimburse them for donations made to Wendy Long, the longshot Republican nominee running against Kristen Gillibrand for US Senate in New York in 2012. Long was a Dartmouth classmate of D'Souza's and also wrote for the Review. It's illegal to reimburse for donations, since it effectively allows you to give in excess of contribution limits. In this case, D'Souza funneled $20,000 in money through four friends to Long, far above the $5,000 individual contribution limit (and that's not even counting the $5,000 he gave her himself). D'Souza was caught, and indicted.

D'Souza pled guilty to one count of making illegal contributions in the names of others, but has claimed throughout that he is being selectively prosecuted by the Obama administration for his political beliefs. Prosecutors, led by prominent US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, pushed for D'Souza to be sentenced to 10-16 months in federal prison. Judge Richard Berman spared him jail time, sentencing him to eight months in a community confinement center, five years probation, and a $30,000 fine. But Berman categorically rejected the idea that D'Souza was a victim of selective prosecution: "That’s nonsense. Spin is what that is."

D'Souza served his sentence at a community confinement center in San Diego. He told Fox News' Megyn Kelly during that time that he would check into the center between 7 and 9 pm every night and sleep there, but was otherwise free to do what he likes with his days in general. He was required to stay in the San Diego area for the duration of the sentence, and his media interviews were subject to review by his probation officer.

His was released from community confinement on May 31, 2015:

7) How is D'Souza still so popular, if even many conservatives reject him now?

If D'Souza is no longer accepted by most conservative intellectuals, then he's more than made up for it by making inroads into more conspiracy-oriented conservative circles. His theory of Obama has been embraced by Glenn Beck; InfoWars' Alex Jones brought D'Souza on his show to lament his political persecution by the Obama administration. "Viewed through the lens of the intelligentsia and the media elite, D'Souza has suffered a tragicomic fall from grace, undone by some combination of conspiratorial thinking, pseudo-academic posturing, and hubris," Simon van Zuylen-Wood wrote in a 2013 profile for National Journal. "But in a separate, larger universe, the onetime rising star is ascendant once again."

That’s even truer now, with Trump leading the conservative movement.

Zuylen-Wood notes that this new era in D'Souza's career has been rather profitable, with both of his documentaries earning tens of millions of dollars, and he's been able to generate sales by targeting enemies perceived to be trying to sabotage him. "D'Souza has mastered the art of turning perceived slights into commercial gain," Zuylen-Wood writes. "When Costco pulled America the book a few months ago, citing poor sales, D'Souza claimed that he was being targeted for political reasons. (Costco's CEO is an Obama fundraiser.) An AM radio scandal was born. Costco backed down, restocked the title, and D'Souza's books were suddenly more popular than ever."

Some of D'Souza's bigger provocations, like the selfie tweet or this one:

… play directly to this new audience. So did his sympathetic position on Donald Trump in the primaries:

For his part, D'Souza told Zuylen-Wood that he didn't think his approach changed any from when he was an AEI or Hoover fellow: "What you should do, Simon, is go back and read Illiberal Education and its tone, and then read the America book and its tone. I don't think there's a fundamental difference in my approach then and now … Illiberal Education has been baptized into a sort of pathbreaking, sort of sober, responsible book. It was a bomb when I dropped it in 1991!"

D'Souza has a point. He's been provoking people for provocation's sake since he published an interview with a Klan member accompanied by a doctored photo of a black classmate being lynched. Sometimes he'll even admit that's what he's doing:

Correction: This post originally referred to World Magazine's editor-in-chief as "Martin Olasky." His first name is Marvin.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.