The unraveling of Dinesh D'Souza
By: Alexander Burns
January 24, 2014 06:49 PM EST
Dinesh D’Souza burst onto the national scene more than two decades ago, a sharp-tongued former leader of Dartmouth’s undergraduate conservative magazine, willing to push the political envelope and even eager to offend prevailing sensitivities around issues of race and culture.
Now, the longtime polemicist stands accused of pushing entirely the wrong envelope: This week, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York indicted the 52-year-old former Christian college president for allegedly routing illegal donations to an unnamed Senate candidate.
The facts of the case remain hazy: The indictment states that D’Souza reimbursed associates who donated $20,000 to a campaign and also caused the campaign to misreport the source of its contributions. It appears likely that the candidate in question was Wendy Long, an underfunded challenger to New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand – and like D’Souza, a veteran of the Dartmouth conservative scene.
The government’s move to indict D’Souza has rippled across conservative circles in Washington and New York, the media bastions where D’Souza made his reputation and where a dwindling group of friends and admirers still hold some sway on the right.
But the inflammatory pundit’s profile and reputation are not what they used to be. Had D’Souza faced criminal charges in the 1990s, he could most likely have counted on plentiful outrage and enthusiastic support from his ideological allies.
Things are different now. Long a figure who has hovered between the worlds of mainstream political commentary and talk radio-style provocation, D’Souza’s work has veered decidedly in the latter direction in recent years.
In 2007, he published a book assigning cultural liberals with blame for inciting the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; a subsequent book purported to explain “the roots of [Barack] Obama’s rage” in African resentment of European colonialism. And in 2012, D’Souza stepped down from the helm of the small, religious school King’s College amid reports of an extramarital affair.
There’s still significant consternation among D’Souza’s fellow conservative commentators, including some of his generational peers who first attained fame in the 1990s as energetic antagonists of the Clinton administration. Some are questioning the severity of the legal action against D’Souza, based on the known facts of the case; most have reacted with caution to a prosecution that has scarcely begun to unfold.
Throughout his career, D’Souza has tested the limits of acceptable behavior and faced sometimes-powerful criticism: At Dartmouth, he participated the publication of an article outing gay students and in the ’90s he authored a lightning rod of a book describing “black rage” as an urgent cultural problem in America. Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, he declared on comedian Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” show that the hijackers should be understood as “warriors” rather than “cowards.” (Maher’s sympathetic response led to the show’s cancellation.)
But legal shenanigans and campaign finance schemes are an entirely different category of mischief.
“I was a little surprised he was involved in politics,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has praised even D’Souza’s most controversial recent work. “He wants to be a provocateur. I thought he was actually pretty useful. I haven’t talked to him in the last six months and I have no thoughts about his current situation.”
Center-right commentator David Frum — who, along with D’Souza, was featured a 1995 New York Times magazine profile of “The Counter Counterculture” — said he was perplexed by the “highly nonspecific” indictment. If the case is a matter of D’Souza routing donations to Long through members of his family, Frum noted, prosecutors could probably find indictments in any number of other campaign finance reports.
Frum added that, like many of D’Souza’s “old circle,” he is no longer in contact with the author and filmmaker.
“He’s not somebody I’m in touch with anymore,” Frum said. “Like a lot of people, I was disturbed by the movie he made and by the book he wrote.”
The movie — and to many familiar with D’Souza’s work, the term can mean only one thing — is “2016: Obama’s America,” an apocalyptic film released in 2012 that warned President Barack Obama was driven to dismantle the traditional cultural fabric of the United States. The theme is drawn from D’Souza’s 2010 book, “The Roots of Obama’s Rage,” which argued that the basis for the president’s politics is the “anticolonial ideology” of his late father, a Kenyan economist.
“Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s,” D’Souza wrote in Forbes magazine, referring to Obama’s deceased parent. “This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son.”
That book, and the movie that resulted from it, represent to many on the right a point of no return in D’Souza’s career — when a commentator with a proven penchant for shocking his audience, seemed to give himself over entirely to the task of provocation for its own sake.
Still, there would seem to be a big gap between lucrative, mass-media stunts like producing a cartoonishly Obama-bashing film and actually breaking election laws.
To David Brock, the onetime conservative author who now helms the group Media Matters, the most straightforward explanation for D’Souza’s behavior is something like simple arrogance — the disregard for limits that comes from crossing lines so often and getting away with it.
“He had a serious following among conservative intellectuals, neoconservatives, and I think he lost that over time,” Brock said. “This seems to be more like a story of hubris and a certain kind of zealot that doesn’t think the rules apply to him.”
So far, no prominent Republicans have spoken up in D’Souza’s defense, though it’s possible that may change as the facts of the legal case emerge. D’Souza’s only public response, up to this point, has been to post a statement on his website from a business associate, Gerald Molen, calling the indictment a politically motivated response to acts that carried no criminal intent.
“In America, we have a long tradition of not doing what is commonly done in too many other countries — criminalizing dissent through the selective enforcement of the law. But that has seemingly changed in Obama’s America,” Molen said in the statement.
Much as D’Souza’s stature on the right has diminished, he has some fierce defenders. On Friday, the nationally syndicated radio host Laura Ingraham — herself a Dartmouth alum and a longtime friend of both D’Souza and Wendy Long — savaged prosecutors on her show for what she called an act of political “retribution.”
“This indictment is the kind of thing that we’re kind of accustomed to seeing come out of a place like China,” said Ingraham, who said she had known about the developing case for months. “This is a country run by people who act more thuggish than fair when it comes to conservatives.”
Others on the right aren’t so sure — or at least seem to be responding more tentatively to the predicament of a man whose public persona has grown increasingly outlandish.
Ramesh Ponnuru, the National Review and Bloomberg View columnist, said there had been a “mixed” reaction on the right so far to the U.S. attorney’s action against D’Souza.
“There is suspicion of the Obama administration. There is skepticism about the campaign finance laws and how straightforward they are. But there’s also a concern about the rule of law, and if he actually has broken the law, people don’t want to be defending that,” he said.