Tonight, as Mitt Romney prepares to accept the Republican Party’s nomination to be its candidate for president, a movie that broke into the Top 10 last weekend is about to open even wider, on 1,800 screens, this Friday. The right- wing sleeper-hit documentary 2016: Obama’s America is such a success that it has taken the movie world – and, let’s say it out loud, the liberal media – by storm. Sure, documentaries have been huge hits before, and there is one obvious example of a highly partisan documentary – Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 – that set the box office aflame. (It ended up grossing $119 million.) But partisan docs from the right have never really broken through, so the popularity of 2016: Obama’s America is big news. I was intensely curious to see it, and I guess I was expecting a kind of feature-length Fox News editorial, a movie that would package a lot of familiar far-right talking points about Why Obama Must Go.
In other words, I wasn’t prepared for what 2016: Obama’s America really is: no mere rant, no mere liberal-bashing screed. The movie goes beyond making a hash of the facts – it’s an outrageously unsubstantiated act of character assassination.
The film’s director is Dinesh D’Souza, the well-known conservative scholar (I use the term loosely) who has been kicking up trouble ever since the early ’80s, when he was one of the founders of the infamous (and racist) Dartmouth Review. He has now placed himself, Michael Moore-style, at the center of his own movie, pushing his persona as a genially acerbic academic putz to deflect attention from the emotional violence of his message. Drawing on his 2010 book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage (Barack Obama’s rage? Talk about projection!), D’Souza has made a film that attacks the policies of the Obama administration in only the most abstract way. Its real thesis is that Obama has spent his entire life trying to please his late Kenyan father, whom he barely knew, and that he has done so by evolving into an anti-colonial socialist revolutionary. What’s the film’s evidence? D’Souza grabs at anything he can, like the popular talk-radio trope that Obama, after arriving at the White House, returned a bust of Winston Churchill to England because he viewed the legendary statesman as a dreaded “colonialist.” (Actually, the bust was on loan, and it had been scheduled to be returned before Obama even got into office; that’s just one of the countless factual follies that power this movie.)
And yet, astoundingly, D’Souza’s principal piece of evidence turns out to be…Obama’s own autobiography, Dreams From My Father. D’Souza quotes it at length, often with a kind of “Aha!” smugness (he even cites the title as evidence of Obama’s radicalism), as if the unflinchingly honest and searching passages in which Obama talks about trying to come to terms with who his father was somehow added up to a sinister political confession. As anyone who has read Dreams From My Father knows, Obama is a supremely eloquent and revealing writer, and what he was really talking about in that book was the overwhelming difficulty not of “pleasing” his father but of trying to get close to a ghost so that he could liberate himself from that same ghost – that is, from a legacy of abandonment. D’Souza has the gall to turn Obama’s own depth of candor and self-analysis against him. At the same time, the movie puts forth the standard right-wing argument that Obama has always been out to hide what a radical he is. If so, wouldn’t writing an entire book about it be kind of a strange thing to do?
The basic thesis of 2016: Obama’s America makes almost no sense, to the point that a lot of viewers may be tempted to laugh it off. Yet here’s how politics now works: The argument doesn’t have to make sense, because D’Souza’s underlying message is that Obama is a stranger, a man you “don’t know,” a refugee from another land, another culture. Deep down, he’s an angry Third World upstart just like his father. By now, most of us understand that the “birther” theory – the preposterously unfactual notion that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States – is really a code for race. And what’s insidious about 2016: Obama’s America is that the whole movie, in a sense, is code for the birther theory. It never says: Obama wasn’t born here. But it signifies that he might as well not have been.
At key moments, D’Souza flashes a dual image of Obama and his father (message: They’re just alike!), and at one point the filmmaker travels to Kenya to interview the president’s half-brother, George Obama (pictured at right), a community organizer who lives in the slums of Nairobi. D’Souza keeps prodding George to say something bad about his famous relative, and he won’t cooperate. (Asked why Barack has never given him any financial assistance, George says, “He has a family of his own. I am of older age. I can help myself.”) This interview is in no way damning of Barack Obama; if anything, it weakens D’Souza’s “case.” And that’s why I’m driven to say that the only reason it was included in the film was to make the subtextual statement that Barack Obama is “just like” the dark-skinned, fully African half-brother with whom he bears certain striking facial similarities. That’s the level on which this movie is operating. And that’s a message that transcends rationality.
Of course, Republicans talking about race in code is not new. It’s the whole premise of the Southern strategy (which stretches back four decades), and it was the clear message of the 1988 Willie Horton ad campaign (which kicked off the modern era of political-advertising-as-associational-smear). It’s exactly the sort of mud that was thrown at Obama, over and over again, during the 2008 campaign. What’s new, and different, about 2016: Obama’s America is that it serves up racial coding in the language of Internet conspiracy theory. The whole movie offers a kind of rotating secret plot – Obama lifting ideas of a “collectivist” society from a father he barely even met! Then smuggling those ideas into America! Through his bestseller that is also, somehow, a hidden confession! – that operates not on a level of human logic but as a linked series of demagogic advertisements that don’t really have to mesh in the real world, because they all say the same thing in the unreal world: that Obama is the Other.
2016: Obama’s America brings to mind the side of Republican thinking that prompted Bill Maher to quip, “The Republicans aren’t a party anymore – they’re a cult.” The film may, in its way, be the moral equivalent of the old anti-Semitic propaganda hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This, make no mistake, is the lunatic fringe of right-wing thought. Except that the fringe and the center can no longer be separated – not when Mitt Romney is making birth-certificate “jokes” from the stump (as he did earlier this week). The extraordinary crossover success of 2016: Obama’s America indicates that the appetite for racially tinged conspiracy theory, all served up under the “civilized” imprimatur of Dinesh D’Souza’s genteel smirk, has never been more mainstream. Some may say that the movie is just “preaching to the base,” and obviously the film is candy for Obama-bashers, but it’s also designed to prey on the fears of those in the middle who feel that something has gone terribly wrong in this country and are looking for someone to blame. In a political-cultural-electoral war zone increasingly dominated by advertising, 2016: Obama’s America is, in a sense, the ultimate Super PAC attack ad – a 90-minute infomercial that’s selling the idea of Obama the betrayer. And it could work. The battle lines being drawn for this election may not, in the end, be between “left” and “right” so much as they are between “reality” and “unreality.” The success of a movie like this one indicates that a vicious, larger-than-life racist lie may be more seductive to a lot of people than a truth that doesn’t so easily let them off the hook.
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