Razzie-winning, Democrat-baiting, Hillary Clinton-hating documentary film-maker Dinesh D’Souza has spent the majority of his career working within a conservative bubble, creating content clearly targeted for and solely enjoyed by the far right. His history of making problematic comments, on everything from same-sex marriage to campus rape to race, may have granted him a certain notoriety, along with a conviction for violating campaign finance laws, but his name has always remained on the cultural outskirts.
Yet this week, his career received a surprise boost from the most famous man in America.
Despite pleading guilty for his crime, and being sentenced to five years probation and a $30,000 fine, D’Souza has been granted a shock full pardon by Donald Trump. Claiming that the 57-year-old had been “treated very unfairly” by the government, the president has suddenly propelled D’Souza’s name into the mainstream, causing him to trend on Twitter and leading many to ask just what led to this left-field decision?
While Trump had spent a large portion of his pre-presidential career dazzled by Hollywood, making big and small screen cameos and befriending A-listers, since taking office, his outlook on the industry has soured. The doors that he’d barged through were now locked and the stars who might have entertained his company before were now rallying against him.
But a vocal minority has remained on side and eager to maintain affection from those within a community he collectively slams, Trump has spoken out to defend and celebrate them. This year, Roseanne Barr, who transformed from a Democrat to a staunch Trump defender, saw her revived ABC sitcom become a monster ratings hit, and the two paraded their friendship with grating pride. After a racist tweet this week saw her show cancelled, Trump has been caught in a frustrating place.
Barr’s tweet, comparing an ex-Barack Obama aide to an ape, was almost universally reviled, even by some far-right figures, and the pair’s connection has been put under the spotlight. Trump has avoided an open show of support for Barr but instead launched an attack on Disney CEO Bob Iger for not apologizing for comments made about him on ABC. Yesterday, Michael Moore tweeted a tease for a “secret project” accompanied by footage of himself and Trump guesting on Roseanne’s short-lived talk show. Moore claimed the two would “rue the day” they met him. (He is also at work on a feature-length Trump documentary called Fahrenheit 11/9.)
While Trump hasn’t directly responded to the threat, there’s an uncanny coincidence that just hours later, he would announce a full pardon for a film-maker who could easily be called the anti-Moore. There’s previously been tension between the pair. Moore criticized D’Souza in 2013 after he called Obama a “Grown-Up Trayvon” in reference to slain teen Trayvon Martin, and has referred to him as a “conspiracy nut”. D’Souza appeared in the 2004 documentary Michael Moore Hates America and has made numerous attacks on him since.
D’Souza’s career has been propelled by anger directed at left-leaning figures and progressive causes, something that can be traced back to his time editing the Dartmouth Review, a paper not affiliated with Dartmouth College, which he attended in the late 70s. According to AlterNet, D’Souza published a “lighthearted” interview with a former Ku Klux Klan leader, accompanied by a staged photo of a black man hanging from a tree.
One of his proteges at the paper was Laura Ingraham, who has gone on to become a Trump-supporting host at Fox News, and as editor, she sent a reporter undercover to an LGBTQ meeting and proceeded to publish the names of the attendees in the paper. It was a piece that D’Souza was allegedly proud of years later while the New York Times reported that one gay student dropped out of college while another was suicidal. Ingraham called it “a freedom of the press issue”.
In the late 80s, D’Souza worked as a policy adviser for the Reagan administration and in 1997, wrote a book entitled Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader which was heralded by Rush Limbaugh and Tom Wolfe. (Two years earlier he published a book arguing that slavery wasn’t a racist institution.)
He continued to explore his career as an author with a string of increasingly far-right books. In 2007, he released The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 which Michiko Kakutani called “shrill” and “preposterous” in her New York Times review. The book acted as something of a shift for D’Souza, whose rhetoric became more intensely focused and led him directly towards Obama. In 2010, he wrote The Roots of Obama’s Rage, which alleged that the president was an anti-colonialist attempting to reduce America’s global power. Newt Gingrich praised the book and D’Souza’s “stunning insight”.
It was later adapted into a documentary entitled 2016: Obama’s America which became a surprise hit, bringing in over $33m at the US box office despite negative reviews. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman called it “an outrageously unsubstantiated act of character assassination” while the Obama administration dismissed it as “nothing more than an insidious attempt to dishonestly smear the president”.
Its success drove D’Souza to make two more films, America: Imagine the World Without Her and 2016’s Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party, both of which were moderate hits yet critical support remained absent. The latter won D’Souza four Razzies but also attracted the attention of Trump, who called on his supporters to see the film via Twitter.
As D’Souza’s star seemed to rise, off-screen he was dealing with a legal issue that threatened to derail his career. Two years prior to the release of Hillary’s America, D’Souza had pleaded guilty to charges of making illegal campaign contributions to New York Republican senate candidate Wendy Long, who D’Souza initially met at the Dartmouth Review.
His statements were also becoming more inflammatory and he gained over 880,000 followers on Twitter, using the platform to shock, provoke and often disgust.
He defended Hitler as being “not anti-gay” despite his history of sending gay people to concentration camps, called Rosa Parks an “overrated Democrat”, continued to question Obama’s place of birth long after even Trump had dropped the issue, shared a meme calling the Obamas a gay Muslim and a man and speculated that the Charlottesville rally was staged by the left. He was also forced to apologize earlier this year when he mocked the grief of students who survived the Parkland high school shooting, accepting his tweet was “insensitive”.
Trump’s attempt to align himself with D’Souza, by granting him a full pardon and by bringing his name and work into the public eye, is a clear, strident step that, for now, is achieving the desired effect: shock and confusion. It’s also led some to note that the crime D’Souza has been pardoned for is the same as one of the allegations against Michael Cohen.
“Nobody asked me to do it,” Trump said to press earlier today. “I read the papers – I see him on television.”
D’Souza, who has previously appeared on Fox News, used the rush of publicity to promote his new movie, out this summer “in time for the midterm elections” and presumably at a similar point as Moore’s latest project. He was also a guest at the White House to promote his last book The Big Lie, which saw him pose for photo opportunities with leading cabinet members and signing a book for Trump himself.
“[Trump] said I was a great voice for America,” D’Souza said to the Hollywood Reporter after his pardon. “He said these people went after you for a mere technicality, I’m going to set that right and clear your record so that you can be an even more visible voice for the country than you are now.”
The news also arrives amid a renewed attempt by Trump to re-align himself with the stars who abandoned him. Last week, he hosted Sylvester Stallone in the White House for the pardoning of boxer Jack Johnson, while earlier this week Kim Kardashian met with him to discuss prison reform. The pardon of D’Souza has also led Trump to suggest pardoning Martha Stewart, saying she “used to be one of my biggest fans”.
Trump’s obsession with celebrity continues to outweigh his political ambition, despite his current place at the top of the government. (His recent desperate embrace of Kanye West is a clear sign of what such support means to him.) Trump’s wars with everything from Saturday Night Live to Hamilton have dominated almost as much as his wars with political rivals. As the majority of film-makers continue to openly criticize his presidency, D’Souza’s unwavering support of his agenda has a profound importance.
With the rebooted Roseanne cancelled, arguably the only network show that featured a positive representation of a Trump voter, there remains a gap for entertainment that speaks to the president and his supporters. Despite critical bile, D’Souza’s work has succeeded commercially because of this very demand, and with the midterms approaching, he has a new war to take part in, culturally and politically. For now, Trump has a new friend and with dark clouds on the horizon, he’ll need as many of them as he can get.