Every two years beginning in 2012, Dinesh D’Souza has released a “documentary” during the summer, with the conscious goal of swaying the results of the forthcoming election. 2016: Obama’s America, America: Imagine The World Without Her and Hillary’s America: The Secret History Of The Democratic Party all operated from an opposition party position. With Donald Trump in office, what’s there still to be mad about? Of course, that’s not how it works. Fresh off his presidential pardon for a campaign-finance violation, D’Souza is angrier than ever. Where his previous films indicted specific targets (postcolonial saboteur Barack Obama, Saul Alinsky-mentored demon Hillary Clinton, the racist Democratic Party, etc.), Death Of A Nation is much broader in diagnosing who the enemy is. “How do we as a nation fight leftist tyranny?” D’Souza asks, not at all rhetorically. The opposition is every last liberal.
Per his usual form, Death alternates historical reenactments with long stretches of D’Souza narration (pasted over endless footage of him walking around cities with a concertedly disturbed look on his face) and interviews. Once again, a strong defense is presumed to be the best offense: In this case, to prove that Trump “is the inheritor of the Reagan mantle,” D’Souza must first prove that Trump is neither racist nor fascist. If that’s true, then all is well and the Republican Party can complete Abraham Lincoln’s agenda of shutting down “the Democratic plantation,” which keeps people of color in welfare bondage. This isn’t a simplification of D’Souza’s “argument”: That’s precisely what he says, only with hundreds of tenuous links of argumentation omitted.
To thoroughly unpack the falsehoods, rhetorical sleights of hand, goalpost shifting, and general bad-faith arguments would require a monograph. One example will suffice: To prove that Hitler wasn’t a “right-winger” but truly belongs to the left, D’Souza notes that the dictator is often deemed right-wing because he’s perceived as homophobic. (Well, yes.) But in fact, that’s incorrect, because Hitler tolerated homosexuals in the brownshirts as long as they were good fighters; ergo, he wasn’t homophobic, and by extension he’s not right-wing. Beyond the ridiculousness of the claim, D’Souza either missed the logical conclusion of his own argument—that to be right-wing is to be homophobic—or hopes the audience doesn’t clock the trap he’s set for himself. That’s typical of D’Souza’s whirlwind barrage of assertions: One minute we’re learning that FDR thought of Mussolini as a kindred spirit, the next that the Nazi party program sounds like it was jointly written by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders because it has a healthcare plank.
The title Death Of A Nation is D’Souza’s riff on D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation, which came up in Hillary’s America via a reenactment of Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet screening it in the White House, complete with a shot of a Klansman literally riding out of the screen and into the office. The KKK, D’Souza says, is the racist evil the Democrats unleashed upon the world, and he revisits that scene in this film. So far, that’s in keeping with D’Souza’s usual practice of rearranging standard right-wing talking points (division of crank conspiracists) into startlingly illogical new configurations. But where previous films convinced various conservative pundits and a few outliers who should know better (Noam Chomsky!) to show up for interviews, Death Of A Nation startlingly ups the ante by segueing into a prolonged conversation with white nationalist Richard Spencer. The reason D’Souza interviews Spencer is to prove that Trump is not a white nationalist; to that end, he asks Spencer questions about whether he loves America and the flag. Spencer spouts exactly the same kind of racist drivel he says in any situation (along with inexplicably citing James Polk as one of his favorite presidents), D’Souza says that he sounds more like a liberal than a conservative, and Spencer, predictably, doesn’t care; if that makes him a liberal, he’s fine with that. Case closed: Donald Trump loves Ronald Reagan and conservatism, unlike Richard Spencer, and therefore he’s not racist. That D’Souza carefully (“respectfully”) talks with Spencer, taking great pains not to overtly attack him, solely to make this inane non-point, is staggering. It certainly plays like he’s trying to avoid angering the actual proud racists in the audience.
There are three elements to D’Souza’s “cinema,” such as it is, that are nearly endearing as the only idiosyncratic recurring tics not tied to a talking point. The first is a fondness for cutting to unexpected clips to illustrate a point: Metropolis and Evita in Hillary’s America, Gangs Of New York here. The second is the return, for the third film running, of the lanky and underwhelming Don Taylor as Abraham Lincoln, making him something like the Bill Murray to D’Souza’s Wes Anderson. The third is D’Souza’s vaudevillian fondness for musical numbers: America closed with Dave Mustaine playing the national anthem on a boat (take that, Jimi Hendrix!), Hillary’s America climaxed with three musical numbers, and this ends with two. One, as in the last film, is a song performed by D’Souza’s second wife, Debbie; she’s really no singer, but D’Souza intercuts Shutterstock footage of amber waves of grain, etc., with loving close-ups of her chanteuse act, as if she were Rebekah Del Rio in Mulholland Drive. It’s a little endearing how D’Souza will stop his film dead to try to jump-start his wife’s non-starter of a musical career.
For the first time in four films, D’Souza makes a valid point, in a montage of various celebrities saying Trump could never become president. There have been (and rightly will continue to be) many conversations about the liberal myopia and condescension that missed exactly what was about to happen; that D’Souza’s roll call of shame (George Clooney, the Young Turks) is precisely identical to a gloating montage uploaded by our 45th president doesn’t undermine the point. But D’Souza fails, as ever, to make an argument that would resonate outside the QAnon echo chamber. He feels comfortable enough to denounce “the drug-smoking hippies” of the ’60s without modifying his archaic vocabulary, all in service of advocating for the rights of “Republicans and conservatives, Christians and patriots,” a group of four demographics that’s presumably all one and the same. Assuming this film makes enough money and even if the Deep State doesn’t destroy Donald, imagine how frothingly furious D’Souza will be in 2020.